Let’s talk about antiheroes. We all know that when HBO unleashed The Sopranos, the idea that an entire series could be oriented around an inherently despicable figure was not necessarily an accepted one. Now, it’s almost a requirement that our protagonists carry a deep, dark secret or two around with them – at the very least. Breaking Bad used to have an antihero – Walter White, a meek chemist turned criminal mastermind. But then something happened. Walt was quickly revealed to have no charisma, instead simply possessing a strong survival instinct in hand with the ability to debase himself in new and exciting ways. He inspired either too much disgust or too much pity (or both) to qualify for the “hero” part.
But as Gus Fring has shows us, the allure of the antihero is strong enough to seriously distort the way we process character. Over the last couple of episodes, we’ve grown to appreciate the way in which Gus rose up from obscurity and insult, only to wipe out his old foes in one well-calibrated move. Through it all, he remained cunning, mysterious, and, yes, cool. And yet there is his last scene in “Crawl Space,” the show’s second stellar episode in as many weeks, in which he reminds us how he got where he is: “I will kill your wife. I will kill your son. I will kill your infant daughter.” It’s not that Gus has changed; it’s that the show remains remarkably good at tweaking our perception of its characters on a dime. (See also Walt’s deeply pitiable breakdown last week.) Whether that perceptual shift means it’s now open season on Gus – and hey, Mike is in recovery – remains to be seen.
Vince Gilligan has worked diligently to make sure his show has a visual flair, soundtrack, and sensibility that is relatively unique (not to mention unified), but “Crawl Space” features a couple of strong moments that feel indebted to fairly clear influences. As predicted, Ted Beneke meets…well, a well-earned fate of some kind (his hands are still twitching the last time we see him, but all things considered, the prognosis isn’t looking good), but the way in which it happens – with Ted being bested by his rug whilst ineffectually fleeing from Saul’s “a-team” – felt like a nod to The Sopranos in its macabre humor, of a sort we’ve not seen on this show in some time. Meanwhile, the incredible closing sequence, and especially the sight of a demented Walt cackling at the sight of his missing money – felt lifted in spirit from a Coens neo-noir.
Where on Earth is all this headed? Walt is now utterly isolated, possibly even from Skyler thanks to the Ted reveal. Gus has no use for him. Jesse made sure to protect him, but only out of stubborn loyalty. Even Saul, quite understandably, is fed up with him. He has no access to Jesse or the lab, and apparently not enough funds to pay the “disappearer.” In Season 3, the show got extremely good at painting Walt and Jesse into corners, only to contrive inventive ways out. Season 4 has seen Gilligan and his writers repeat the trick, only on a much larger scale – and so we find Walt at his literal lowest, the point from which there’s nowhere to go but up. But one suspects that route isn’t a pretty one, even if it does restore him to the status of a “genuine” antihero.