Breaking Bad – Half Measures
After finally catching up with Breaking Bad, I watched last night’s episode live and ended with my hands clapped over my jaw, which continued to hang agape for at least two minutes after the episode’s end. “Half Measures” built slowly with the realization that Jesse wanted to kill the guys who killed Combo, the meeting with Gus, various side stories with Skyler and Hank, and the final confrontation that ended with Walt taking out a guy with his car and then without a moment’s hesitation, getting out of the car and shooting another guy in the head. The whole thing happened with stunning speed, which is a testament to the care with which Breaking Bad deals with pacing. I’ve mentioned in the past that the show pays special attention to incredibly long scenes and long takes – “Half Measure” certainly took advantage of that, perhaps most obviously in the scene where Mike tells Walt about his career as a beat cop. That long, contemplative monologue form has become a signature for the show. But on occasion, Breaking Bad takes the opposite tack and knocks you over with something you didn’t even see coming. Tortuga and the exploding turtle would be one memorable example of this, but Walt and the Aztek is right up there on a list of Breaking Bad scenes that shock you at lightning speed.
What made that scene all the more shocking, though, was one of Walt’s lines earlier in the episode, something he says as he tries to talk Jesse out of revenging Combo’s death. Walt tells Jesse he can’t kill those men because Jesse’s not a murderer. “I am not, and you are not,” Walt says. That statement is astonishing from a character who killed two men within the show’s earliest episodes and then stood by while Jesse’s girlfriend choked to death on her own vomit. But in each case, those deaths were accompanied by visibly strained consideration from Walt. Emilio’s death is particularly fraught as Walt sits on the floor and chats with him about his father’s furniture company, but our perspective on Jane’s more spontaneous death was similarly marked by long shots of Walt’s face as he contemplates his own actions. There can be no doubt that Walt is a murderer, but it’s much easier to justify it as something else when we watch him struggle with each event.
The deaths at the end of “Half Measures” are very, very different. For the first time, we watch Walt kill someone with no images of his reaction and almost no visual narration of his thought process. The last images we have are of Walt sitting at the dinner table after hearing the story of Tomas’ death on the news, and coming to some strong but completely inscrutable resolution. We then watch a long build up of Jesse falling off the wagon, loading his gun, trying to gather himself for the task at hand, and then walking toward his intended victims, nearly in tears. It is a Wild West showdown sequence, ripped from the moment in every western when the hero faces down the villain in the main thoroughfare, remixed into a scene from a drug war where there is no hero. All of our expectations are focused on this experience for Jesse and his image of himself as the bad guy, and then all of those expectations collapse as Walt swoops in like an angel of death. There are no shots of his face while he’s driving, just the silhouette of the car mowing down the meth dealers, and barely a second’s glimpse as he stops the car and runs to take out the surviving victim. Jesse’s horrified reaction is our reaction, and Walt shows no trace of regret. If there was any doubt before, there is no way an audience could ever look at that man now and see anything less than a murderer.
It seems trivial – you begin with a man declaring that he’s not a murderer, and you end with incontrovertible evidence to the contrary. But when that man is the protagonist, when the scene of the murder is so efficiently brutal, and when all of the props the show has so consistently maintained to justify that man’s actions are swiftly removed, it leaves you with your mouth agape. Mine still is, nearly a day later.