Another astonishing hour from a season that's regularly pushing the limits of what a television drama can achieve. I love how this season's overarching plot has steadily escalated, in contrast to how season 3 had irregular crescendos and relative calm in-between. "Salud" was terrific from start to finish, capped by another of Breaking Bad's extraordinary climaxes that leave you breathless and quivering with a mixture of shock, awe and giddy excitement.
After last week's violent brawl between Walt (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse (Aaron Paul), this episode gave us distance as both characters were separated from each other. Walt has retired to his condo, a broken man in body and spirit, primarily because he knows his position as Gus's (Giancarlo Esposito) indispensable meth-cook is on shaky ground now Jesse's been approved to teach the Mexican drug cartel how to formulate his blue-meth. For an episode that kept Walt on the sidelines for the most part, there was nevertheless some fantastic moments for Cranston to tackle.
Skyler's (Anna Gunn) storyline was also fun, I thought. It was an interesting idea to have her pay Ted Beneke's (Christopher Cousins) debts to the IRS, by having Saul (Bob Odenkirk) falsify a story about Ted being the sole beneficiary of a fictional aunt's estate. It was then very amusing when Ted immediately rushed out with his $621k to lease a Mercedes and restart his failing business, rather than deal with his financial problems to avoid jail. This put Skyler in a tough position as she watched him fritter away her money, and the fact she's decided to tell him the money came from her is a bold step. I have a feeling Skyler's going to make Ted an accomplice in her money laundering, as she needs a business as big as the one he owns to process the millions Walt is making. The car wash isn't big enough, as she's mentioned before, so was buying the car wash a total waste of time? Did the writers plan all this, or did they suddenly realize a car wash can't launder so much money? I'm also wondering how Ted can be kept sweet if he's told an approximation of "the truth" about Skyler's money.
Of course, the dominant storyline belonged to Gus, Mike (Jonathan Banks) and Jesse, who travelled to Mexico on a business trip to make peace with the drug cartel. A story that delivered many brilliant moments, such as Jesse managing to talk his way out of trouble when the cartel's supercilious chemist (24's Carlo Rota) began questioning his abilities. Jesse may not know how to synthesize phenylacetic acid from scratch, but by getting up in the chemist's face and acting like an enfant terrible who wants everything just so, he managed to dominate the room. (Jesse found his "Mr White", basically.) It was especially fun to see the micro-expressions of pride and amusement from Gus and Mike, as Jesse handled a situation threatening to ruin their trip. And, while Jesse's no gifted chemist, he has a good memory and managed to replicate Walt's process almost perfectly in a foreign environment: his blue-meth achieving an impressive 96.2 purity on the cartel superlab's gas chromatograph.
But the big talking point of "Salud" will be the wonderful post-cook celebration at Don Eladio's (Steven Bauer) hacienda; a fearsome character and familiar location from the "Hermanos" flashback a few weeks ago. Once the scene of Gus's humiliation when Don Eladio laughed at his business proposal to move from cocaine to crystal meth, how times have changed. And while Gus has clearly become a villain we should fear, Don Eladio's a bigger and more irrational bully, so suddenly we found ourselves firmly on Gus's side. It was actually quite touching seeing Gus standing on the edge of the pool where his best-friend (lover?) Max died from a gunshot to the head, and where he was essentially reborn into the detached businessman we know today.
So, finally, after twenty years, the once-ridiculed "chicken man" got his revenge for Max, as Don Eladio's dead body stumbled into his pool and his hacienda's staff fled in terror. But it's come at a cost, with Mike shot during the escape and Gus still suffering stomach pains from the poison. It was also notable that Jesse again saved the day by shooting one of Don Eladio's assailants during the escape—the first person he's killed since poor Gale, perhaps signifying he's taken a bolder step into the darkness that was once troubling him. Jesse doesn't want to be a killer, and it's not in his nature, but murder is perhaps no longer such a taboo because he's become a big part of this do or die world. And most likely a genuinely trusted part, having proven himself on more than one occasion now. Going forward, the tables have been turned regarding Walt and Jesse from how things were in previous seasons. Walt's the defeated loser essentially enslaved underground and counting the days to his death (be it from cancer or a bullet once he's expendable), while Jesse's risen to a place of prominence and respect.
Overall, "Salud" was unutterably fantastic for so many reasons. I'm absolutely riveted by the way Walt and Jesse are diverging, and we still have the situation with Hank to resolve. Gus has again proven he's a high-risk strategist when it comes to the cartel, but is Hank going to be so easy to neuter? And what happens now with the cartel? Will Don Eladio be replaced by someone with even more of a grudge against Gus, or has Gus's show of audacious strength made him the top dog on both sides of the border?
- Isn't it funny how this show's become a definite ensemble? It was intended to focus on Walt, then the writers adapted the story to bring Jesse in as a regular accomplice, Hank quickly became a big part of the show, and now large swathes of many episodes are focused on Gus and Mike. I really like that, although I can't wait for Walt to take centre-stage again soon, by hopefully dealing with Gus and taking over the drug empire.
- Is it in any way significant that Walt Jr was underwhelmed by the car his parents bought him for his birthday? After getting his hands on the sporty Challenger a short while ago, have his expectations increased beyond all reason? The White's can afford such things, so will they start to make a few crazy purchases with their millions just to earn Jr's love and approval?
- Gus swallowed some pills at the hacienda before drinking the poison? Was that to aide in his vomiting later, or to assuage the poison's effects? Or was it a little hint at a way Gus might be poisoned by Jesse's ricin soon?
- Why did Mike take Don Eladio's necklace off his corpse? A trophy? A way to prove Don Eladio was killed? Or have I forgotten its significance?