S04E10: It’s difficult to write an appropriate recap of a television episode like “Salud.” Taken independently, it was quite a strong hour of TV. But taken in context of the series—working in accordance with the character foundations that have been built for Walt, Jesse and, surprisingly, Gus—it is phenomenal. “Salud” is almost unquestionably my favorite episode of Breaking Bad yet this season, and this is entirely because of two specific scenes (if you watched the episode, it is not at all difficult to predict which two scenes these might be).
“I’m the guy your boss brought here to show you how it’s done… I suggest you stop whining like a little bitch and do what I say." - Jesse
The episode opens with Jesse reluctantly boarding a small airplane with Gus and Mike. He is being brought down to Mexico to teach the cartel how to create Walt’s blue meth. You’ll recall that the last episode ended on a fight between Jesse and Walt, and the two are currently on terrifically bad terms. Jesse is petrified that he will not be able to produce the blue meth to the desired quality, and will thus be killed. Once in the Mexican lab, he is scorned by the standing head scientist, who is unimpressed by Jesse’s appearance. Instead of letting this break him, Jesse pulls a façade of bravado. Thinking on his feet, he demands the lab be cleaned up to his standards and that the method for cooking be his own. You can see some pride in Gus’ face when Jesse is performing. He impresses the workers, and further satisfies them by producing the meth to a desired purity. However, there is a slight backfire. Due to his success, the cartel demands that Jesse stay and work for them.
Early on in the episode, Skyler phones Walt to tell him that she wants him to be present for the giving of Walt Jr.’s birthday gift, a new car. Walt does not answer, however—he is unconscious and hopped up on painkillers after the fight between he and Jesse. Walt Jr. is concerned by his absence, so he drives over to his father’s apartment and rings incessantly. This is when Walt Jr. first sees his father in a light of decrepitude. Walt is black-eyed, half-naked, grumbling and doped up. He weeps openly in front of his son and admits (without going into detail) that he has “made a mistake” (he is referring to his feud with Jesse) and that “it’s all his fault.” Walt Jr. puts his father to bed—we should note that the camera lingers on Walt Jr.’s abandoned crutch as he carries his dad to bed. He grows stronger in the presence of his dad’s open weakness. As Walt putters off to sleep, he thanks his son and calls him “Jesse,” which is, obviously, confusing to Walt Jr., and sad (but sort of bittersweet) to us.
"The bad way to remember you would be the way you've been this whole last year. At least last night, you were, you were real, you know?" - Walter Jr.
The next morning, Walt wakes up to find his glasses mended and his son asleep on his couch. This is where the power comes into the episode. Walt explains to his son that he never wanted Walt Jr. to see him in that light. We get a better understanding of Walt’s pathological need to maintain an image of strength, pride and heroism when he relays a story about his never-before-mentioned father, who died when Walt was six: Walt tells that people would glorify Walt’s dad with stories of him as a great man, but that Walt’s only memory of his father was of a broken, hollow body rotting in a hospital bed. Walt’s backstory is terrific in that it does not short-change itself. The scene takes its time to really paint a picture of what the young Walt witnessed, and how it has survived in his psyche. Walt Jr. combats this with the idea that he’d rather remember his father as he was the previous night than as he has been over the year. Walt Jr. explains that at least the previous night, Walt was being real and honest. The scene cuts off there, which was a bit more of a disappointment, as there was opportunity for the idea of Walt Jr.’s diminished opinion of his father (in direct contrast to all the actions Walt had taken to actually build an image of himself, both for himself and for Walt Jr.) fester inside Walt. The scene immediately cut to Walt seeing his son off, and then being beckoned to work by Gus’ henchman Tyrus. It is fitting, however, that this is the last we see of Walt all episode.
Let’s get through the Skyler plotline quickly—although she is up to interesting stuff lately (what with Beneke’s illicit business dealings and her own practice of deception, she’s still naturally the least engrossing part of an episode). Skyler enlists Saul to trick Ted Beneke into believing he is inheriting a large sum of money from a great aunt he did not know (the money actually comes from Skyler). She hopes that he will use this money to pay the IRS,. as was the deal cemented last episode courtesy of her, which would mean that the Beneke company would not be investigated and thus Skyler would be clear of police investigation herself. Instead, Ted buys a car. Skyler visits him, urges him to pay back the IRS, but he’s a giant jackass about the whole thing. So, she is forced to come clean: she gave him the money. And that’s the last we see of her this week. Now, back to the really good stuff.
“Either we’re all going home, or none of us are.” – Mike
We’re back at Don Eladio’s mansion. Gus stands morosely over the pool where he saw his best friend murdered. Jesse is concerned that he will be forced to stay with the cartel, but Mike assures him otherwise. Gus graces Don Eladio with a precious bottle of liquor that he invites everyone to enjoy with a toast. Gus does warn that Jesse, as an addict, will not be participating in the toast—so it is merely Gus and the entire cartel who drink. Gus even takes the first drink, as he sees a degree of suspicion on Don Eladio’s face. Once Gus does so, everyone else enjoys a drink.
Don Eladio takes Gus aside and makes a brief speech about separating business from emotions—he even hints at the demise of Max, Gus’ old friend, as evidence that this is a good mentality. This is when Gus excuses himself to use the bathroom…where he forces himself to throw up. That’s when everyone at home gets excited, because we are now POSITIVE that the liquor was poisoned (as if there was any doubt). Yeah, it wasn’t one of those out-of-the-blue shockers, but that’s why there was so much tension. We were all but sure—and then proven right. It was exciting. Naysayers be damned. Gus returns from the bathroom to see the cartel dying violently. Don Eladio, in a fit of poetic justice, dies in the same pool that Gus’ friend died in. Mike and Jesse gather guns, and an also sick Gus, and rush to the cars—however, they are followed and shot at by a remaining cartel worker, who manages to shoot Mike (non-fatally). Jesse drives the injured Mike and ailing Gus out of the area to close the episode.
It’s difficult to really embody what this episode did in a simple retelling of events. In writing, the poison plot seems predictable and bland. And of course, there’s not much to be “felt” from a summary of Walt’s story to Jr. But this episode was SO full of palpable emotion—tension, dread, fear, sorrow. It was the most engrossing episode in weeks, perhaps all season. When Walt recounted the tale of his dad, we felt like we finally understood our mysterious antihero a little more…but, not in a sympathetic way. In a tragic, dark, almost haunting way. We don’t feel, “Poor Walt, now I get you. Now you’re excused.” What we feel is more along the lines of, “Walt…if only you could understand about yourself what we understand about you now.” It’s pretty sad, and pretty scary. And Walt Jr. jabbing his dad by completely contradicting the idea that he’s been cementing an image of respect in him all year…that was magic. I hope they play more with that next week.
And Gus…it’s amazing that the man who we understood as the main villain just earlier this season is now nearly more sympathetic than our actual hero. Gus avenged his best friend today, and protected Jesse from the hands of the cartel. He’s still a vicious man…a cold-blooded killer and a dangerous drug dealer…but damnit, he’s a terrific character.
And Gus shouting in Spanish? Is there anything more chilling?