If Sergio Leone had grown up in a meth den, he would’ve loved this week’s episode of Breaking Bad. Those extreme close-ups of Walt’s face mimicked the opening shots of The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. Those tense silences before Walt drew his gun were straight out of Fistful of Dollars. So much of it felt like a Western, right down to the High Noon standoff, with our hero casting a long shadow, and pulling down the brim of his hat as he approached his archenemy. Best of all, there was Jim Beaver, the actor from Deadwood, handing a gun to Walter, along with a few words of advice: “This is the West.” And don’t you forget it, hoss.
Watching the first scene of this episode—which is called “Thirty Eight Snub,” after the gun that may some day snuff out Gus—you can almost pinpoint the exact moment when Walter White turns into Clint Eastwood. He’s talking to Beaver's character, whose name is a pretty good joke: he’s an outlaw named Lawson. And Lawson tells Walt that if he strictly needs the gun to defend himself, he could buy it legally and escape two potential felony charges. So, says Lawson, “We strictly talkin’ defense here?"
There, in the brief silence that follows, is Walt’s answer. Once, breaking the law was about taking care of his family. Then, it was about protecting himself. But as soon as he buys that gun—the same type of .38 caliber revolver that, you might remember, Gus's henchman Mike used to kill a few guys in "Full Measure"—he’s going on the offensive. So he does what any other professional would do. He lies. “It’s for defense," Walt says. "Defense.”
Yes, Walt’s a full-blown vigilante now. But if Breaking Bad is exploiting the conventions of a traditional Western, it’s poking fun at them too, because this isn’t the Wild West. The only unforgiving desert wasteland that Walt’s facing is the suburbs. When he practices his quick draw, he does it while sitting in an upholstered dining room chair, beneath a landscape portrait of the desert. (If they’d had a Crate and Barrel sale on tumbleweeds, we’ll bet he would’ve bought some.) Before he loads his gun, he lines up the bullets on the same kitchen counter where he packs his lunch in a brown paper bag. Even when Walt’s preparing for his big standoff, he tracks down his enemy in a residential neighborhood that’s lousy with manicured lawns.
Maybe the whole thing’s supposed to be funny: How dangerous can any gunslinger be if he’s packing his lunch like an elementary school student? But there’s a serious message behind these domestic scenes too. Clearly, Walt’s work is hitting a little too close to home. Just ask his wife, who’s quickly settling into her role as Lady Heisenberg, Queen of the Car Wash. Or ask his brother-in-law. If Hank knows enough to identify a mineral as “blue corundum, to be precise, encrusted with igneous biotite,” how long will it be before he can identify those other blue rocks—the ones that Walt’s selling?
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