Brow Beat

Breaking Bad, Season 4, Episode 6: “Cornered’

[Caution: There are spoilers ahead! So if you haven’t yet watched “Cornered,” come back when you have and share your thoughts and theories.]

Photograph of Skyler White (Anna Gunn) and Walter White (Bryan Cranston) courtesy of Ben Leuner/AMC

Wow! Now that was an outstanding hour of television—the kind of episode that makes me worry for my keyboard’s “1” key as I pound on the exclamation point! Finally, after five episodes of excruciating buildup, we got the payoff.

I guess I should begin my round of applause with the cold open. (If we ranked TV shows by the quality of their opening segments, I have no doubt that Breaking Bad would rule the list.) As Mike acknowledged later in the episode, Gus’ rivals have discipline. In Episode 4, Mike waited out an assault on a Los Pollos Hermanos truck and then killed the attackers as they opened up the door. Gus’ gang was prepared to fight that same battle one more time, but the enemy adapted and outwitted Team Fring. In fact, they ate its lunch. If the drug war is a chess game, the opponent is outplaying Gus, cannily anticipating his moves.

You know who’s surely a terrible chess player? Who has no discipline whatsoever? Walter White. His lack of impulse control means that he’s forever stepping into traps or simply failing to think things through. What’s worse, he’s the kind of guy who crows about how smart he is—until he finally realizes he’s made a stupid mistake. I’m thinking, of course, of the incident in the lab. Jesse is called away by Mike, so Walt—his ego bruised when he realizes he’s been left to clean up alone, work he considers far beneath his exalted status—bribes some reluctant laundry employees to do the job. Ugh, that smug expression on his face when he tipped his coffee cup to the camera while the women mopped and wiped! But as anyone whose brain cells weren’t marinating in a bath of exaggerated self-regard could foresee, he’d sentenced the women to a swift ride to Honduras. (And that’s the best outcome we can hope for. I just hope that Tyrus’ explanation to Walt wasn’t the equivalent of a parent telling their child that the aging family dog has been sent to a farm upstate.)

The highlight of the episode was the great rolling face-off between Walt and Skyler. She’s smart and strategic, and even though she puts 2 and 2 together (Walt’s contemptuous dismissal of Gale to Hank, and his sentimental phone message) and makes 3.75, she’s not as wrong as Walt thinks—or says—she is. Still, when she suggests he’s in over his head, his precious pride is wounded. “I am not in danger. I am the danger,” he tells her, coldly. It’s a great line, but it’s just another example of Walt’s cluelessness. Skyler, Bogdan, and Mike all know he doesn’t have what it takes to be the boss.

If Walt is a smart guy with no emotional intelligence, Jesse is a genius-level empath, at least when it comes to manipulating meth heads. (Writer Gennifer Hutchison deserves an Emmy for this excellent episode on the strength of the scene at the tweakers’ palace alone.) Jesse received praise from two extraordinarily hard-to-please men: Mike and Gus. The only person withholding his approval is Walt. Skyler humiliated Walt, so Walt lashes out at Jesse, a man who always makes him feel better about himself. But Jesse’s confidence is growing—he sees through Walt’s bluster and declares him, quite correctly, to be an “asshole.”

Readers, I’m curious what you think: When Skyler told Walt she was worried that the man who offed Gale might do the same to him, is it just my imagination, or did Bryan Cranston somehow manage to convey that Walt wondered for a moment if Jesse might indeed do the same to him some day? Also, what did you make of Skyler’s coin toss? The trip to the Four Corners felt like a bit of an overreach—a too-knowing nod to the episode’s title and to Walt’s mood—especially when Skyler wouldn’t even follow fate’s counsel. That quarter wanted her in Colorado, but she pushed it back into New Mexico. Why? Is it because she knows that she’s the only person who can, in the words of her great final line, “protect this family from the man who protects this family”?

[Jessica Grose is on vacation. She’ll be back next week—no doubt cursing her bad luck at having missed the best episode of the season.]