"... are you tough?" That's the question Walt (Bryan Cranston) is asked by his old boss Bogdan, as he's given a handover of the car wash that's half-intended to lecture and enfeeble him. Walt's spent the majority of his adult life as an unremarkable chemistry teacher nobody paid much attention to, but despite the fact his current lifestyle's so dangerous he can't shake the feeling of power and importance it gives him. Walt bites his tongue in front of Bogdan (a man who knows nothing of his current situation), yet can't resist a petty power play by spending Bogdan's first earned dollar that was framed for its symbolism...
Another example of Walt's desire to be seen differently by people came when he put his son (RJ Mitte) straight about the level of his (fake) gambling addiction, so he doesn't have to keep playing such a feeble role. Gambling addiction may be the agreed cover story for how they've amassed so much money so quickly, but Walt makes it clear he's no addict and simply made bad choices. And to further sweeten the relationship and be seen as a hero for once, Walt bought his son a flashy and expensive car for his sixteenth birthday. An expense that quite rightly infuriates Skyler, who's more aware of the attention such purchases will bring, and doesn't want their secret to be unraveled by inquisitive neighbours and family. It seems Walt can't even enjoy the financial perks of his job, such is the curse of the choices he's made. As Skyler puts it: "someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family."
Skyler may have proven her insight by shrewdly connecting the dots about Walt's dinner speech, his voicemail, and his mysterious black eye, but it's a skill she shares with her husband. Unexpectedly, Walt suddenly twigged why Jesse (Aaron Paul) was sent on a road trip with Mike (Jonathan Banks): the intention being to stage a robbery that Jesse could foil so it would drive a wedge between them by boosting Jesse's confidence and eroding his dependence on Walt. But Jesse refuses to accept his presumption, partly because Walt's again positioning himself as person all events revolve around. For a recovering meth-head like Jesse, who wants a sense of purpose and direction from life, it's understandably hard to keep being told you're an after-thought or, at best, a pawn people push around the chess board to ensure their king's protected. Interestingly, Walt used to share Jesse's feelings of inadequacy, too, so Jesse is essentially going through the same transformation he went through... even if it's less a journey of self-discovery and more an illusory trick by Gus (Giancarlo Esposito). Or is it both?
Maybe Gus will come to realize that Jesse is a valuable asset after all? In this episode, Jesse proves himself in a real situation while staking out tweakers selling a stolen container of blue-meth with Mike. Mike's plan, based on years of experience, is to sit in his car eating sandwiches until the junkies step outside. Jesse's plan, based on years mixing with meth-heads, is to divide and conquer using the tweakers' distracted mental state to gain access to the house. For the most part, Jesse's ad hoc plan works brilliantly, ending hours of idly sitting around for Mike. And after Mike debriefs Gus at a restaurant about the day's events, is it possible Gus is being honest when he tells Jesse he spotted talent in him? Or if that's not strictly true, is Gus perhaps genuinely intrigued that Jesse may not be the irresponsible liability he thought?
It was also fun to see more of the antagonism between Walt and Gus, which is being played out without any face-to-face contact. After being ditched by Jesse during the Superlab's clean-up, a frustrated Walt managed to bribe three Mexican workers from the laundry room floor above to help him clean the lab. Ironically becoming the definition of a "lazy" boss that Bogdan warned him about, with his feet up on a worktop drinking coffee. But Walt's little victory was again short-lived, as Gus simply had the three immigrants shipped back to Honduras because they've seen too much, with Walt to blame for their deportation.
Overall, "Cornered" was really great because it started to show us how Walt's changed and is less willing to hide behind his mask. In some ways the lines of his "Heisenberg" persona are beginning to blur, and he's only just able to keep a lid on things. Walt was far more brash and egotistical than we've seen, especially in front of Skyler and Jesse, and more willing to test the limits of what he can get away with at the Superlab while Gus is watching via his surveillance camera. He's still at a disadvantage because Gus is good at keeping his distance and manipulating events from afar, so maybe Walt will come to realize he needs Jesse's help if he's going to escape this stalemate. It also seems that this episode was laying the groundwork for Walt becoming "boss"—of the car wash, maybe of the Superlab, and of his destiny...
But is Walt tough enough, or is he all talk?
- Loved the idea of opening the episode with an alternative version of episode 4's cold open, when Mike was a refrigerated truck attacked by cartel gunmen. The cartel have evidently learned a thing or two from that incident, so this time got their hands on Gus's blue-meth by pumping the truck full of exhaust fumes and killing the two guards inside. Very clever. Interesting to hear that Gus is embroiled in a Cold War with these people, and so far looks hesitant to step things up, and instead wants to arrange a meeting with these rivals. I would imagine this simmering drug war will kick into gear before the season's over.
- Intriguing scene with Skyler driving to the Four Corners Monument (where the states of Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico meet) and tossing a coin to help her decide if she should simply run away from her situation (without Walt?) But when both coin tosses landed in Colorado she dragged the second back to New Mexico with her foot. She knows she's not going anywhere, for the time being.
- Does anyone think Jesse's going to be learning a lot about how Gus's meth is distributed while working with Mike? This should come in handy if Walt ever replaces Gus, and make Jesse a genuine 50/50 partner because he knows how the drug business works beyond simply cooking the stuff.