(Apologies for the lateness of our review of the season's second episode. Connection trouble hindered our author)
rating:4It's a tribute to Breaking Bad that an episode with minimal narrative progression can also be nail-biting television. On the surface, anyway, "Thirty-Eight Snub", the fourth season's second episode, seems at a stand still, yet it's never been that simple when it comes to this show. It's all about the lesser moments: what people say and what they really mean. Here, we have an episode laying the agendas of our main characters on the line for the series to come, and it doubles nicely as a showcase for their mental positions. How are they feeling after everything that's happened so far? Where are they headed next? How have they changed? Walter White (Bryan Cranston) has definitely changed. "Thirty-Eight Snub" opens with this once timid chemistry teacher in a motel room with a gun salesman. He's organised a meeting (through Saul) to purchase a weapon illegally, so that it can't be traced back should he choose to use it. Walter isn't much of the man he used to be. Now, he seems void of emotion - cold, frightening, and lacking the humanity that made us feel sorry for him when he begin this journey. Back then, it seemed as if he were out of options, and we understood his decision to go above and beyond. This opening sequence is deceiving simple, but the dialogue is telling: it gives us more of an insight into Walter's psyche than ever. He is ready and willing to kill, now with forward planning, and we don't even know why. Is it pride? Is it because he's come so far and can't stand to lose? It doesn't seem to be about money anymore, that's for sure. But Walter decides that he must do away with his boss, Gus (Giancarlo Esposito). He can't live in fear, knowing that the end could come at any time. It brings him into a confrontation with Mike (Jonathan Banks), the cleaner, who offers some sound advice: "You won - you got the job; do yourself a favour and learn to take yes for an answer." What of Walt's conflicted partner? There were unsubtle hints that Jesse (Aaron Paul) was feeling truly broken after he made the life-changing decision to shoot Gale in last week's episode - he sat, dazed and muted, barely saying a word as the action took place around him. Unlike his partner, who has lost his sense of right and wrong, Jesse is affected by his choices and remains morally conscious. The two characters have switched places: Jesse is now the person we can relate with, and Walter is the obstacle in his way. Jesse chooses to immerse himself in other situations, desperate to get a taste of real life. He wants to put his job an its associated troubles to the very back of his mind. He has purchased a massive stereo system and never turns it off. A robot hoover as a constant companion. He invites Badger and Skinny Pete over and convinces them to take drugs. This culminates in an all-out party, one that Jesse can't bear to let end. Anything to avoid being left alone with his thoughts. Skyler (Anna Gunn), meanwhile, has also gone through some drastic changes. She seems nothing like the once ideal wife, and appears drawn into her new role as Walt's business partner with a whiff of satisfaction. Maybe monotony, as in her husband's case, wasn't her true calling after all. Her goal is to buy the car wash, a story point that seemed dead and buried by the end of season 3. But Skyler is thriving and confident in her attempts to do so, and proves she, too, has brains and guts. Hank (Dean Norris) is still doomed to the confines of his bed, but is positive (phew!) during his recovery sessions, though remains uneasy with Marie (Betsy Brandt), who can't understand his nasty attitude towards her. It's always been coming, but it's here, in "Thirty-Eight Snub", that Walter White confirms his place as one of the most interesting characters ever put on television. His character development has been anything but uncomplicated, and his flaws are fascinating. He remains constantly out of his depth. Through all his actions, the writers have never given this man a chance to be on top. He lingers in a constant limbo, narrowly avoiding a fatal comeuppance. We've seen him acting selfish, as a coward, and a liar. He rarely gets the chance to appear "cool" - he thinks he knows best, that he can handle any situation, that he's the smartest man in the room at any time. It's interesting to consider how our choices define us and dull potential. For Walter, who is slowly becoming a villain of epic proportions, the dark streak in his make-up has laid dormant. He's gone through life as a runner-up, too meek to make it count - but the potential for wrongdoing has been there all this time, hidden away, and only now has it found a pathway. Who knows how many people are capable of such acts given the chance, living seemingly normal, boring lives? If Walter had walked this path, given an opportunity, twenty years previously, who would he be now? It's a terrifying thought. Still, he may be a genius when it comes to the chemistry, but Walter is yet to adapt fully to this new way of life. His attempts to foil the smarter characters - those that live and breath this dangerous profession - are often embarrassing to watch. He has deluded ideas of his own worth and importance, and doesn't seem to realise that he has only ever escaped death by the skin of his teeth. But what if he does learn to adapt? What if he reaches the top of the pile? If he batters down the competition? These questions point at several exciting possibilities for the show's future. This is a beautifully shot episode. Some episodes are often more stylised than others, depending on the director (Season 3's "Fly", for example), and this is a Breaking Bad highlight on a purely aesthetic level. It's also a fantastic episode, and and improvement on the previous entry. We can never be sure what's going to happen. There are no rules. The tension never goes away, because the show thrives on its decision to be different, to break the rules, to defy conventional procedure. You can never be sure if something is being foreshadowed, or if it's going to happen right at that very moment. Prime examples are to be found here. But "Thirty-Eight Snub" isn't all lingering and foreshadows. It's television designed to build tension to unbearable levels, and help us to understand the plights of our characters. Unlike last week's episode, however, it doesn't simply put cliffhangers to bed and highlight future dangers, it actually launches a fleet of new situations: this is how everybody is feeling, and this is what they're going to do about it. That it won't bode well for anybody involved well, that's a certainty. For a show so unpredictable, that's saying something.
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