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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The Print Room’s “Yellowface” scandal reveals deeper problems with British theatre

Howard Barker’s play In the Depths of Dead Love was picketed on press night. But is it racist, or simply lacking in imagination?

From the legends of Ancient China flow simple truths and mystic sagacity. So suggests the advance publicity for Howard Barker’s new play at the Notting Hill Print Room, inspired allegedly by a Chinese fable. A December casting announcement for In The Depths of Dead Love revealed that a list of characters with names like “Lord Ghang” and “Lady Hasi” would be played by an exclusively white cast. Only the most naïve of producers could have failed to anticipate the storm of protest that would follow.  Last night’s press opening was picketed by a passionate demonstration spilling over the pavements of Notting Hill – a largely dignified affair that grew disappointingly ugly as patrons left the building.

It’s not as if theatreland is a stranger to “yellowface” scandals. As far back as 1990, the mother of all cross-cultural standoffs emerged when American Equity attempted to block Cameron Mackintosh from bringing his latest London hit, Miss Saigon, to Broadway unless he recast the role of the character of the Engineer, played in London by Jonathan Pryce. Pryce’s defenders pointed out that the character was mixed-race, rather than strictly East Asian; his critics noted that he had still opened the London run wearing prosthetic eyelids and bronzing cream.

The protests marked a watershed, making visible the obstacles faced by East Asian actors. (Often blocked from “white” roles, often beaten to “East Asian” roles by white stars.) Yet controversies have continued to hit the headlines: the Edinburgh Fringe is a frequent flashpoint. In late 2015, a production of The Mikado was cancelled in New York after being deluged with protests; the producers denounced it as censorship. In 2014, the National Theatre in London staged Yellowface, a witty, self-deprecating piece by David Henry Hwang, inspired by the protests Hwang himself had led against Miss Saigon. After such a high-profile production, few theatre makers in London could claim ignorance of the issues at stake when white actors take Chinese names.

Against this background, The Print Room screwed up badly. A statement issued in December only entrenched the public image of Barker’s play as an Orientalist fantasy: “In the Depths of Dead Love is not a Chinese play and the characters are not Chinese. The production references a setting in Ancient China and the characters’ names are Chinese…  The allusions are intended to signify “not here, not now, not in any actual real ‘where’ ” and the production, set, costumes and dialogue follow this cue of ‘no place.’”

In effect, this gives us white actors playing universal types, rendered distant by their exotic names. It’s perfectly reasonable to set mythic tales in a universal landscape; what’s bizarre is to see any cast charged with representing the universal when all of them are white. As Yo Zushi argued in a New Statesman piece in 2015, critics of “cultural appropriation” too often “insist that culture, by its nature a communally forged and ever-changing project, should belong to specific peoples and not to all”. It would be absurd to argue that no British playwright should draw inspiration from Chinese literature. But watch an all-white cast stand in for universal experience on stage, and it start to look like British theatre belongs to one specific people: white people.

The irony is that In The Depths of Dead Love turns out otherwise to be a sensitive meditation on the limits of empathy. A poet is exiled from the city for sedition – or is it decadence? – and living in a wasteland, he purchases a bottomless well, charging suicides for entrance. The prevaricating Lady Hasi, played by the perennially impressive Stella Gonet, is a daily visitor. Her frustrated husband (William Chubb) commands the poet to break the cycle and “shove” her in. So begins a gentle mediation on mortality, language and intent.

The play does indeed evoke a universal landcape. Justin Nardella’s design is a simple series of ellipses: a well, a moon, a vast mirror. It’s effective, if imperfectly executed – this ‘bottomless well’ is quite clearly not bottomless. As the poet “Chin”, James Clyde injects potentially baggy monologues with wit and verve; fresh from playing opposite Glenda Jackson’s King LearChubb brings his usual mix of menace and linguistic precision. The mediations on poetic exile owe as much to Ovid’s Tristia and Ex Ponto as they do to Chinese source material. If only Barker’s characters didn’t keep emphasising each other’s oriental names as some kind of cheaply Brechtian, exoticising effect.

The righteousness of thesps on the war path is often blinkered: perhaps the protestors outside the Print Room last night would do well to see the play in order to engage with it fully. Keep attacking white writers when they acknowledge their Asian influences, and we’ll see real appropriation – Barker would have faced less protest had he ripped off the storyline wholesale and used it to inspire an ‘original’ work set in a Dignitas clinic.

I might even describe this slight work as the best thing I’ve ever seen at the Print Room, which is part of the larger problem. A personal project run by the director wife of a wealthy banker, the Print Room is well insulated against both commercial and critical failure. There’s no more bizarre sense of artistic stagnation like watching a expensive lighting rig, as in Genet’s Deathwatch, illuminate a few punters sprinkled in an empty auditorium. Last month's atrocious The Tempest starred Kristin Winters, the daughter of founder-director Anda Winters, a talented actress who deserves to be employed somewhere her mother isn't the impresario. 

Private philanthropy is essential to the future of theatre. It requires clear separation between patrons and artistic decisions, with a diversity of funding sources. But when theatres are run as vanity projects, they often lose touch with the energy and concerns of the arts world as a whole. 

The Print Room could do with making better friends in theatreland. An updated statement this week, while apologising profoundly for previous insensitivies, nonetheless hit out at Equity UK for “misrepresenting and misquoting” it. A series of departures has marked the Print Room’s tenure: among them Winter’s original co-founder, the respected director Lucy Bailey and the Print Room’s previous PR team amongst them, who left abruptly during the press run for A Lovely Sunday At Creve Coeur.

If there’s hope for the venue, it’s that In The Depths of Dead Love, which Winters developed closely with Howard Barker, shows the first glimpses of a real artistic mission. Unfortunately, it's a lily-white one.