Tuesday, 2 August 2011

BREAKING BAD, 4.3 - "Open House"

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

This third episode revolved around territory, at home and at work. Walt (Bryan Cranston) was seething that Gus has installed a surveillance camera in the Superlab, so he can keep an eye on his cooks without interacting with them; Marie (Betsy Brandt) escaped from her life caring for disabled Hank (Dean Norris) by attending open houses, posing as various imaginary characters, while feeding her latent kleptomania; Jesse's (Aaron Paul) allowed his family's once-respectable home to become a chaotic round-the-clock meth party for reprobates to fight, have sex, take drugs, and play music; and Skyler (Anna Gunn) managed to get Walt focused on buying the car wash to launder their money, before hatching a plan to get their hands on the business for a knockdown price...

I really enjoyed "Open House", despite the fact it was something of a piece-moving exercise and lacked any big thrills. The show's so rich and involving that episodes like this can be oddly enthralling, and I'm intrigued by how season 4's been emphasizing the roles of Skyler and Marie. One criticism of Breaking Bad it's always been hard to argue against is that it's focused on the male demographic, but this year's been redressing the gender balance. There was an extended period of time when Walt didn't even appear in the episode, and Jesse's role was also very minor. In the past, the prospect of an episode that featured more Skyler and Marie wouldn't have been very appealing, but both actresses are being allowed to do great work this year. Our sympathies are primarily with Marie, given her insensitive treatment by bedridden Hank, who picks fault at the smallest mistakes she makes while looking after him, and her storyline was an interesting way to return to Marie's kleptomania—which never sat right in season 1, as it felt like unnecessary filler, but here it was a plausible way to show Marie's breakdown and desire to escape.

Skyler's also becoming a genuine asset to Walt's nascent "empire", although he's only just beginning to realize this. Incensed over Bogdan refusing to sell her the car wash for $897,000, affronting Walt's manhood in the process, it's Skyler who comes up with a fantastic plan to get her hands on the business, with a little help from Saul (Bob Odenkirk). A fake environmental inspector was sent to the car wash, alerting Bogdan of various erroneous problems with his water treatment system, meaning Bogdan's suddenly keener to sell Skyler his business—believing he's offloading an expensive liability—for a greatly reduced $800,000.

If "breaking bad" has given underachieving Walt a way to channel his chemistry skills and find a lucrative ruthlessness within himself, it seems that Skyler's beginning to discover hat her intelligence can be used for more than accounting in dead-end jobs. She's getting what she wants through non-violent means, and is clever enough to realize Walt can't go buying $320 bottles of wine because it will arouse suspicion, given he's an unemployed school teacher. "The devil's in the detail" as she puts it. But there will be a cost for Skyler somewhere down the line, as there's been for Walt, I'm sure. The lovely shot of milk suds slipping down a sink symbolizing Skyler's morals going down the drain.

I've been concerned that Hank's role is in danger of becoming tedious, or that keeping him unable to walk for a whole season might be problematic for storytelling possibilities. Here we got our first sign that Hank's going to have his occupational passions rekindled, as his colleague Tim (Nigel Gibbs) visited and gave him the "Lab Notes" book they found at Gale's murder scene. Hank will assumedly find connections between Gale's scribblings and the work of nemesis "Heisenberg", and become Breaking Bad's own Perry Mason. Now with a purpose beyond cataloguing minerals, and watching soft porn or bowling on TV, the atmosphere between Hank and Marie will hopefully lift and get back to something approaching normality.

I know there's been some concern that season 4's started on a less exciting and propulsive note than previous year. Season 1 had the core idea of a teacher becoming a criminal (and we were dissolving a corpse by episode 2), season 2 had Walt and Jesse's kidnapping by a drug kingpin, season 3 had the portentous presence of the Mexican twins, but season 4 doesn't have anything as comparatively gripping. But I'm not too concerned yet, because it feels like the writers are just confident its audience have patience, and the story is simply building its foundations ready for a spurt of energy. If there's one thing that dragged season 3 down, for me, it was how the pacing would rise and fall in such extremes, but season 4 is hopefully going to just keep building and building on an upward trajectory.

Overall, I really enjoyed this episode for many reasons. There were plenty of interesting and memorable sequences, particularly with Jesse's continuing private meltdown. The moment when he went go-karting alone, literally screaming around the track, again showed how desperate he is to be distracted and regain some sense of control. This was then topped by the moment Jesse got his lethargic house guests active by throwing money into the air, watching them scramble for it like maggots at his feet. As usual, lots to ponder. Will Skyler and Walt's car wash business go well? Can Walt get Mike on his side? Is Gus going to remain hands-off with the business now? How far will Jesse descend before he gets help, or snaps out of it? Just how exactly is Hank going to figure into Gale's murder case, and will he perhaps blow Gus's entire operation sky high? And if so, can Walt and Jesse escape the fallout?


  • In related news, you may have heard that Breaking Bad has been shopped around to three rival cable channels, owing to the fact AMC want to reduce the fifth season to between 5 and 8 episodes. This could just be posturing, to convince AMC to stump up for a full 12 episodes, by sending a sign that they're prepared to jump ship. Of course, if AMC really did let Breaking Bad go, I can't see its new broadcaster agreeing to finance just the one season. So maybe we'd end up with six seasons instead of the five creator Vince Gilligan wants to do? More than likely, AMC will back down and we'll get a normal-sized fifth and final season in 2012. But it's worrying how AMC seem to be having problems justifying the costs of their top three shows: Mad Men was only renewed after a tense standoff with creator Matthew Weiner, and Frank Darabont allegedly left The Walking Dead partly because of budget cuts that will be imposed.
  • Breaking Bad is a show that seems to attract notable guest directors. British director David Slade (Hard Candy, 30 Days Of Night, Twilight Eclipse) was behind the camera for this episode, in a less attention-grabbing capacity than Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom) last season, but it was still another example of fantastic TV direction. For the purposes of these reviews I screengrab the show, and Breaking Bad's one of the few TV productions that delivers visually interesting shots at almost every instance.
written by Sam Catlin / directed by David Slade / 31 July 2011 / AMC