After a self-imposed month-long break, Ecks Factor returns for a new season. In the coming weeks, I'll be taking a look at the new fall programs, reviewing three NBC sitcoms (Go On; The New Normal; Animal Practice), and taking a look back at twenty-five seasons of Survivor. But to kick off my Season Two, I'm continuing my series of Breaking Bad with a look back at the third season of the hit AMC series.
As always, SPOILERS AHEAD. SPOILERS AHEAD. SPOILERS AHEAD.
When we last left our anti-hero, Walter White's (Bryan Cranston) life had hit a self-destruct button: his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), left him after uncovering his string of lies; Jesse Pinkman's (Aaron Paul) girlfriend died, which forced him to rehab; Walt's cancer was shrinking; and two airplanes collided over his home. Most would call it a day. Not Walter White.
In the premiere, "No Mas", Walter tries to piece his life back together. His family is gone while he packs his belongings. Skyler wants a divorce, but not before finding out once and for all where Walter is getting his money. Forced into a corner, Walt comes clean. She understandably is not happy. Honestly, neither is he. In his mind, he should be dead, or dying. Once he's gone, who cares where the money came from? His family can live comfortably. But now that inevitability is only a possibility.
When Walt moves back in with his family, Skyler wants nothing to do with him. But when she calls the cops, he's not breaking any laws. They are not divorced, he is not causing a disturbance, he's not threatening or hostile. He's a man who wants to live with his wife and their kids. Understandably, Skyler needs to take out her frustrations. After numerous flirtatious scenes involving her boss, Ted Beneke, she has sex with him and barely gets home before revealing this tidbit to Walter: "I f***ed Ted.", or "I.F.T." as the episode is called. He understandably is not happy. Honestly, neither is she. In her mind, this should be a fulfilling experience, but the joy of sex with her boss to screw over her husband isn't there. It's a sexual release, but not a spiritual release.
Jesse is struggling. He's completed rehab and attending meetings with other recovering addicts. Jane was the love of his life. And because of him, she's dead, or so he thinks. If the greatest thing could be taken from him, why bother trying to be a good person? He realizes now that he's bad and always will be.
In the middle of all this is Hank (Dean Norris), Walter's DEA agent brother-in-law in desperate need to find and punish the pushers of this blue meth. Prime suspect number one is Jesse Pinkman, but he can't link Jesse or his RV to the meth. Doesn't mean he can't try, including trapping Jesse (and, unbeknownst to Hank, Walter) in the RV until he can get the warrant to search. When Walter figures out a way to get Hank far away from the RV, Hank retaliates in "One Minute" by beating down Jesse, forcing his bosses to suspend Hank indefinitely.
To make all these matters worse, two mute, well-dressed men have crossed over from Mexico to ABQ to find Walter White. These men are the Salamanca brothers, cousins to Tuco, the famously hot-headed kingpin from last season. They're here to avenge Tuco's death. When they arrive at Walter's home to kill him, Gus (Giancarlo Esposito) calls them off before he loses his best bet at making millions in the meth business.
Gus is a meek, calculating drug distributor who stops at nothing to get Walter to start cooking again, including offering Walter a state-of-the-art superlab, in "Mas". Walter ultimately accepts and starts cooking with a new assistant named Gale, with a master's in chemistry. He's smart, he's easy to talk to and he makes excellent coffee. He's the anti-Jesse, which ends up being Walter's biggest complaint. He convinces Gus that he needs Jesse to be his partner.
Gus convinces the Salamancas that their target, Walter, is off-limits. But the DEA agent that put a bullet in Tuco's head is fair game. Which leads the brothers to their ultimate goal in "One Minute". In a parking lot, without his gun or his badge, Hank is vulnerable to their attack. But he's been given a one minute warning by someone unknown to him or to us. This provides him the head start he needs. He backs the car up, driving one brother between his car and the car behind Hank's, leaving him literally hanging by a thread. The other brother is not so easy to eliminate. He has Hank where he wants him, after shooting Hank in the chest and stomach. When all seems lost, the brother decides this fate is too easy for Hank. He goes to find his chrome-plated ax.
Rewinding to earlier in the episode, the cousins deal with a chatty arms salesman, who offers the ammunition they need, including a sample round that the brother puts in his jacket pocket. Amidst the attack on Hank, this sample round falls from the brother's pocket, right next to the bullet-riddled Hank, who struggles to place the round into the gun the brother left behind. As the brother returns with his ax, Hank manages to load the gun, fires the round directly into the brother's skull and lies on the ground, waiting for help or death, whatever comes first.
This episode stands out as the series' best thus far. It promises and delivers on an action-packed climax. Hank Schrader, when introduced in the pilot, is literally marked for death as Walter's brother-in-law. How can he co-exist in Walter's world if Walter is a criminal? He can't. But the enigma the series creates (namely showrunner Vince Gilligan) is that Hank is not a loathsome copper type. He's not morally corrupt. The writers don't justify killing off Hank. If he dies, it's not for past sins. In fact, Hank may be the one true hero this series has, in a cast of bad people doing bad things. He's the only one doing the right thing, and struggling with his job every day. How could they kill off the one person who is wholly good? They can't, at least not yet. He does survive, but badly (and perhaps irrevocably) damaged.
As things settle down (as much as the meth business can settle down), Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), Walter and Jesse's sleazy, late night TV lawyer, sets up Walter with a laser tag business to begin laundering his money. But during this period, Skyler is starting to come around to the idea of Walter's drug business, if only to pay for Hank's growing hospital bills. When she hears about the laser tag business, she correctly predicts it won't hold up as a front, considering Walter White, the man, couldn't have cared less about laser tag in his fifty or so years. She proposes the car wash, his secondary job before he discovered his lung cancer diagnosis. Saul balks, claiming to have a man on the inside willing to launder the money, but Skyler is willing to do it herself. She's open to the idea of being a criminal.
Jesse starts a relationship with Andrea, a cute girl he meets in rehab. But as their relationship heats up, the pattern becomes evident: she's being led down the same path as Jane, almost exactly. But there's a twist: Andrea reveals that her 11-year-old brother, Tomas, was involved with the murder of Combo from last season. Jesse goes on the war path against the two drug dealers behind the murder, even when he finds out the dealers work for Gus. Walt intervenes, orchestrating a meeting between Gus and Jesse, going through with a "full measure" resolution hinted at by Mike (Jonathan Banks), the relatively quiet-until-now P.I./Saul's cleanup man. Mike recounts a story of when he was a cop, explaining he took a "half measure" to resolve a problem rather than taking a "full measure". Hence the episode titles to the season's last episodes. Jonathan Banks' monologue in "Half Measures" is a highlight for the season.
Unhappy with the resolution (Gus promises to stop using children in his drug business), Jesse decides enough is enough. Tomas is shot and killed in "Half Measures", leaving Jesse no other choice but to retaliate. For Combo and for Tomas. He brings his gun to have a good old-fashioned shootout with the two drug dealers, but he might as well be bringing a knife to a gun fight. His chance of survival is minimal at best, but he knows this. He knows he's sacrificing himself for what he knows is right. He's showing small signs of a soul, no matter how foolish it is.
Then, when it seems all is lost for Jesse, the Aztec speeds onto the sign, plowing through the two drug dealers. Walt gets out, certain one of the dealers is dead after the Aztec drives over him. The second dealer is crawling towards his gun, but Walt grabs it from him before unloading one bullet into his head. Jesse, shocked at the events, is told by Walt to "Run." This sets up the season finale, "Full Measure".
Gus understandably is upset with Walt's actions. We see a different side to Gus. The Gus we know is calm. The Gus we see in the season's final episode is volatile. He's angry. He wants Jesse's head. But he knows Walter is his best and only option. Until he re-hires Gale in the season finale to assist Walt. But there are is a deadly scheme Gus is working on: he wants Gale to absorb as much from Walter as he can, so that Gus can take Walter out sooner rather than later. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure this out. In fact, it takes a crystal meth cook to figure it out. Once Walt realizes what the idea is, he gives Gale as little as possible in terms of information.
Gus and Co. believe Jesse is long gone, but he's still in Albuquerque. He meets with Walt and they both come to the conclusion that Gale has to be killed to ensure Walt's safety. But as Walt prepares to do the dirty job himself after Jesse monitors Gale's home, Victor (one of Gus's lackeys) picks up Walt at his home to fix a "leak" in the lab. When Walt arrives, he finds Mike waiting for him. The writing is on the wall, and soon, so will Walt's blood. He knows he's taking his last steps, and begs for his life to Mike. It's the first time since Walt and Jesse were kidnapped by Tuco that he feels this could all end right here and now.
Suddenly, he seems to give up Jesse's location in exchange for his own life. Mike gives Walt a chance to call Jesse to set up a meeting, but Walt instead tells Jesse he can't do the job himself and it's up to Jesse before time runs out. When Mike asks Walt what he's done, Walt rhymes off Gale's home address. We go to Gale's home, where he's certainly not prepared to die. But alas, a knock on the door and when he opens, Jesse is waiting for him with a gun in his hand. The season ends as Jesse, crying and fighting his own body every step of the way, raises the gun to Gale and fires. The screen goes black.
In its first season, Breaking Bad introduced us to Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. Season One was a prequel to the story. Season two took our two anti-heroes on a wild and dangerous journey with an insane drug kingpin, as well as a severe loss of love for both: Walt's wife, Skyler, left him, while Jane overdosed while sleeping next to Jesse. As the series progressed, their unusual chemistry, so to speak, grew to an unspoken love and respect for one another as they cooked together. Walter put everything on the line in "Half Measure" for Jesse, and he knew the consequences. He pulled Jesse into this game. But Jesse is not without blame. In fact, if Walt hadn't come along, Jesse might be dead by now, toiling away with other junkies, making barely enough money to get by. No matter the circumstances that have brought them both to this point, they're here now. This is it.
Breaking Bad resembles one long, intense movie. The story continues with each episode. Rarely does the show take a break from the main focus. Even in episodes like "Fly" (or last year's "Four Days Out"), there's a reason why we're spending the entire show with our two main characters, fending off a seemingly harmless foe, like a fly. The most sympathetic characters of the season, Hank Schrader and Gale, have their lives at stake. But Hank doesn't deserve for his life to end. Gale is an innocent young man with an impressive background, doing the dirty work for Gus and Walt. Gale doesn't deserve to take a bullet at the end of the season. But so goes Breaking Bad. The bad people get away with it.
RIP Michael Clarke Duncan
This week, Hollywood lost "Big Mike", as friends called him. Michael Clarke Duncan received acclaim for his 1999 role in the Stephen King adaptation, The Green Mile, alongside Tom Hanks. It netted Duncan an Academy Award nomination. The gentle giant went on to appear in Daredevil, The Whole Nine Yards and The Scorpion King. Earlier this year, he co-starred on the Bones spin-off, The Finder. Upon review of the pilot, I found the series to have its flaws, but I really enjoyed the cast, especially Duncan. It was fun to see him in a regular televison role. Unfortunately, the series was canceled by FOX in May, and I never got a chance to catch up on what I felt could be a great show.
Michael Clarke Duncan's unfortunate passing leaves behind a great, albeit short career, as Duncan entered the business at a later age. As a huge fan of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, I always felt he would have been the perfect choice to play Clarence "Big Man" Clemons in a biopic of his life. As it is, his career can stand tall, as he was able to work with some of Hollywood's best, including Tom Hanks, Bruce Willis and Ben Affleck.
RIP Michael, you will be missed.
I'll be back later this week with my own take on the pilot episodes of new NBC sitcoms Go On, The New Normal and Animal Practice. One is great, one has potential to be great and one is getting canned before Christmas. Can you guess which?
Until then, stay tuned.