Breaking Bad series 5, episode 10: Send him on a trip to Belize

Old grievances bubble up to the surface as the main players fall into line. But where does Jesse Pinkman's loyalty lie?

WARNING: This blog is for people currently watching Breaking Bad series 5, part 2. It contains spoilers.

Fittingly for an episode entitled “Buried”, yesterday’s Breaking Bad contained a number of descents. Walt, a man undergoing chemotherapy for terminal lung cancer, took up a shovel and an axe to bury his millions. When he returned from the desert, he stripped down to his underpants (the scene and the action recalling the series' prologue), then fell and cracked his head on the bathroom floor. He was nursed there by his wife, who had recently learned that his illness had returned. Back out in the desert, Walt’s former colleague Lydia climbs down into the filthy meth lab in which her new cook is failing to live up to Heisenbergian standards of purity, while at the top of the hour we saw a catatonic Jesse Pinkman spinning on a kids’ roundabout: a symbol his depleted innocence, and of the show's ever-shifting fortunes. Lydia and Walt are heading down - but what about Jesse?

Picking up after last week's showdown, Walt emerges from the garage and tries to call Skyler, only to find that Hank has beaten him to it. She meets with her brother-in-law in a roadside diner - where would American fiction be without the transience of those anonymous pit stops? - but seems unable, or unwilling, to talk. Hank tells her that catching Walt before he dies is his number one priority, at the same time revealing that he still lacks the necessary evidence to do it. He tries to paint her as a victim of abuse, to which Skyler responds with a fractious ambivalence, then flees. The narrative thread nurtured by this episode pits the Schraders against the Whites. Throughout the series they have been gracefully opposed: Hank’s law enforcement machismo against Walt’s high school impotence, Skyler White’s swollen motherliness against Marie’s sharp impulse to steal - taken to extremes in a difficult-to-watch tug of war over baby Holly. Now they are rivals. Marie’s slap mirrors Hank’s at the end of the previous episode. Like Hank, her husband, she had quickly moved from disbelief to yearning for rough justice. “You have to get him,” she says as the pair sit grimacing in the car.

Down, down, down and ... out? Walter digs a grave-shaped safe for his money. Image: Ursula Coyote/AMC.

Amid the nausea room is made for a little comedy. Upon seeing the solid block of cash Skyler was unable to launder through the car wash, Saul’s bodyguard Huell announces “I gotta do it,” then lays - more comfortably than Jesse - on his back, cozying up to the cash. He turns to Kuby, the skinnier half of the double-act: “Mexico - all’s I’m sayin.” But the fear of Heisenberg runs deep. “Guy hit ten guys in jail within a two minute window - alls I’m sayin,” Kuby replies. Saul tells Walt things could be worse, but acknowledges the problem with Hank: “Can’t exactly see him turning the other cheek.” His suggestion that they “send him on a trip to Belize” - an addition to the gangster vernacular so thoroughly Saul Goodman it takes Walt time to figure out what it means means - provokes a fierce protectiveness of Hank, who remains “family” despite his personal mission to destroy Walt.

Lying on his bathroom floor after collapsing from either exhaustion or from his illness, Walt tells his wife that he will give himself up, if only she promises not to hand over the money. “Don’t let me have done this for nothing,” he says. Before the final eight episodes of Breaking Bad began last week, I felt one plot prediction could be made with certainty - that everything Walt’s compassionate side cherished would be ruined, and that he would know it before he died. I’m no less sure now. In episode ten we begin to root for the Whites - not least because the Schraders’ ugly vendetta seems to have little to do with Walter's victims, and a lot to do with their own grievances. The chance for some kind of bloodless resolution temporarily appears in Hank’s reluctance to talk to the DEA, but as the episode comes to a close and a tight-lipped Assistant Special Agent Schrader returns to work, a familiar face appears, turned to one side, in the interrogation room.

Skyler (Anna Gunn) and Walter White (Bryan Cranston) guard their treasure. Photograph: AMC.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Back to the future – mankind’s new ideas that aren’t new at all

Rethink: the Surprising History of New Ideas by Steven Poole reviewed.

When Steven Poole writes a book review, he likes to lie to himself. His only conscious decision is to jot down a few notes as the deadline approaches. There is no pressure to think deep thoughts, he tells himself, or to reach the required word count. Then invariably, in a few hours, he has written the entire review. This happens time and again. No matter how many times he convinces himself he is merely jotting and thinking, the result is a finished article.

Human beings are extraordinarily good at deceiving themselves and possibly never more so than when they think that they have had a new idea, as Poole makes clear in this fascinating compendium of new ideas that aren’t new at all. He digs deep into subjects as various as cosmology, economics, health care and bioethics to show that, as the writer of Ecclesiastes put it (long before Poole), “There is nothing new under the sun.” This is demonstrated in the re-emergence of ideas such as therapeutic psychedelic drugs, inherited traits that aren’t programmed into the genome, cognitive behavioural therapy, getting our protein from insects, and the multiverse.

Poole explores these propositions deftly enough, but they are not what interest him here. Rather, his subject is the way that we have seen them all before. He ties together what he concedes is a “highly selective snapshot of the looping evolution of ideas” with the observation that: “Any culture that thinks the past is irrelevant is one in which future invention threatens to stall.” Originality, he argues, is overrated.

The book might be something of a downer for those who like to gaze at “progress” with wide-eyed admiration. The starkest takeaway is that we are clearly hopeless at putting good ideas to work. In his discussion of artificial intelligence, for instance, Poole mentions the emerging idea of a universal basic income, which is likely to become a necessary innovation as robots take over many of the least demanding tasks of the human workforce. Yet he traces it back to 1796, when Thomas Paine first published his pamphlet Agrarian Justice.

Maybe this tells us something about the limits of the brain. It has always innovated, thought through its situations and created solutions. But those solutions can only be drawn from a limited pool of possibilities. Hence we get the same ideas occurring ­inside human skulls for millennia and they are not always presented any better for the passing of time. Richard Dawkins and his ilk provide a salient example, as Poole points out: “Virtually none of the debating points in the great new atheism struggles of the 21st century . . . would have been unfamiliar to medieval monks, who by and large conducted the argument on a more sophisticated and humane level.”

So, perhaps we should start to ask ourselves why so many proposed solutions remain unimplemented after what seem to be thousand-year development programmes. It is only through such reflection on our own thinking that we will overcome our barriers to progress.

Sometimes the barriers are mere prejudice or self-interest. After the Second World War, Grace Hopper, a computer scientist in the US navy, created a language that allowed a computer to be programmed in English, French or German. “Her managers were aghast,” Poole writes. It was “an American computer built in blue-belt Pennsylvania” – so it simply had to be programmed in English. “Hopper had to promise management that from then on the program would only accept English input.”

It is worth noting that Hopper was also a victim of postwar sexism. In 1960 she and several other women participated in a project to create COBOL, the computing language. Critics said there was no way that such a “female-dominated process” could end in anything worthwhile. Those critics were
wrong. By the turn of the century, 80 per cent of computer coding was written in COBOL. But this is another unlearned lesson. A survey in 2013 showed that women make up just 11 per cent of software developers. A swath of the population is missing from one of our most creative endeavours. And we are missing out on quality. Industry experiments show that women generally write better code. Unfortunately, the gatekeepers only accept it as better when they don’t know it was written by a woman.

Solving the technology industry’s gender problems will be a complex undertaking. Yet it is easy to resolve some long-standing difficulties. Take that old idea of providing a universal basic income. It appears to be a complex economic issue but experimental projects show that the answer can be as simple as giving money to the poor.

We know this because the non-profit organisation GiveDirectly has done it. It distributed a basic income to an entire community and the “innovation” has proved remarkably effective in providing the means for people to lift themselves out of poverty. Projects in Kenya, Brazil and Uganda have made the same discovery. As Poole notes, even the Economist, that “bastion of free-market economics”, was surprised and impressed. It said of the scheme: “Giving money directly to poor people works surprisingly well.” You can almost hear the exclamation “Who knew?” – and the slapping sound of history’s facepalm.

Michael Brooks’s books include “At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise” (Profile)

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt