As we approach the halfway point of Breaking Bad‘s fourth season, we finally hit upon a serious snag. Yes, it’s true that the season’s pacing has been measured to an almost perverse degree, but that’s hardly an issue when the payoff is as satisfying as the mostly-stellar second half of the show’s third season. With “Shotgun,” however, there’s finally some serious evidence of strain when it comes to the show’s plausibility in the context of the criminal universe it’s worked so hard to create.
Plotwise, there are two major advancements in “Shotgun.” One of them is logically based on character traits and comes loaded with a satisfying dose of dramatic irony. The other? Not so much. Let’s start with the good one. Walt’s late-episode, semi-drunk rebuttal of Hank’s calling Gale a “genius” would seem remarkably convenient coming from anyone else, but it’s a perfectly dunderheaded move coming from Walt, whose arrogance knows no equal. It’s especially pointed in the context of the episode since he spends most of it concerned for Jesse and his family’s well-being; after getting a solid dose of Walt’s ever-elusive good side, we get a sharp reminder of the bitter, self-defeating man we’ve come to know him precisely as. That he would be foolish enough to deliberately, at least in an oblique way, endanger the livelihood of his family in the name of pride is perfectly, wonderfully in character. It’s a genuinely earned moment, though it’s easy to imagine it provoking some grumbling.
Unfortunately, there’s a highly problematic idea at the center of “Shotgun,” one that threatens to undermine the narrative credibility of the entire season, and that’s the episode’s other major development. Last week left off with Mike and Jesse driving off to the middle of nowhere, with Jesse (quite logically) assuming that meant “lights out.” Not so, and he wasn’t taking him to rehab either, as others have speculated. “Shotgun” (a title with a slightly groanworthy double meaning, a trend this season) delays revealing the reasoning for Mike and Jesse’s extended road trip for as long as possible, with Mike himself pleading ignorance as to why Gus would order Mike to chauffeur Jesse through the day’s illicit money pickups. Then, a pair of toughs come up behind Jesse at one of the stops, with one of them toting a, yes, shotgun. Jesse foils the would-be robbery, seeming to earn a measure of Mike’s admiration in the process. So far, so…OK.
Then comes the really strange revelation. Turns out the “ripoff” was just an elaborate hoax staged by Mike, Gus, and some of Gus’s employees to… boost Jesse’s confidence? Gradually wean him off of drugs? Prep him for the life of a masked superhero? It’s not entirely clear as of yet, but what is clear is that only a few weeks ago at most (going by the show’s own chronology), Gus’s idea of fixing a wayward employee was slitting his throat and showing off the wound. This week, it’s (insanely complicated) compassion? And towards the “junkie” he was so eager to demean at every previous opportunity? Not buying it, Gilligan, You’re on notice!
Still, series vet, Michelle MacLaren does a great job of throwing in as many of the show’s trademark visual and aural wonders to try and make up for the massive narrative leap. In-Hazmat POV shots, a great time-lapse montage, and a heavier than usual dose of sprightly Latin pop all help to enliven the proceedings. Despite the awkwardness of the storyline, the Mike and Jess pairing is an intriguing one – since Walt’s been more involved with his real family, Mike may inadvertently step in – perhaps begrudgingly – as Jesse’s new father figure. And, to be fair, it’s not like he couldn’t use one.
A deal was only recently announced that makes clear Breaking Bad‘s endgame: a final season of 16 episodes (possibly split into two parts). That means 23 hours of the show remain (or, roughly, the length of a single season of almost any broadcast drama), and it’s going to be up to Gilligan and his crew to make sure that countdown doesn’t just wind up as a series of rote box-ticking moments – IE, the moment Walt and Gus come to a head, or when Hank (or Walt Jr.) discovers the truth, or when Walt’s cancer returns. Let’s hope he’s got a long game good enough to steamroll whatever missteps arise.