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.

Photo: Getty
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Social media tome #Republic questions the wisdom of crowds

Cass R Sunstein explores how insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Cass Sunstein, one of the leading public intellectuals in the United States and a former Obama administration official, has worried and written for more than 15 years about the effects of the internet and digital communications on democracy. This book, his third on the subject, tackles social media.

The heart of his argument lies in the cumulative, collective effect of what individuals do online. Networking, shopping, dating and activism are all transformed by the engine of opportunity that is the internet. But those new links and choices produce a malign side effect: “filter bubbles”, inside which like-minded people shut themselves off from opinions that might challenge their assumptions. Insulation pushes groups towards more extreme opinions.

Sunstein’s organising principle is the ­difference between consumer and political sovereignty. The former promotes individual choice despite its possible consequences; the latter takes into account the needs of society as a whole. His inspiration is Jane Jacobs, the historian of US cities who celebrated, in poetic language, the benign and enriching effect on democracy of random encounters between citizens on pavements and in parks. How do we now reverse or dilute the polarisation driven by Facebook and Twitter?

The solutions Sunstein proposes for this very difficult problem are oddly tentative: websites stocked with challenging ideas and deliberative debates, voluntary self-regulation and “serendipity buttons”. He rightly stresses transparency: we know far too little about the algorithms that sift news for our attention on the networks. Facebook has talked about trying to show news that is “engaging” and “interesting”, without ever engaging in detailed public discussion of what these words mean. The disclosure requirements for social networks “require consideration”, Sunstein writes, without saying whether Facebook might have to be required legally to explain precisely how it routes news to almost two billion users.

Sunstein’s most interesting arguments are myth-busters. He questions the “wisdom of crowds”, while refraining from pointing out directly that the single strongest argument against this idea is the inequality of opinions. Not all opinions are equally valuable. He warily suggests what only a very few American voices have so far dared to say: that the First Amendment to the constitution, which guarantees a free press, should not be treated – as the courts have recently tended to do – as an equally strong protection for the freedom of all speech.

Sunstein is nostalgic for the media system and regulation of the past. I spent years working for a daily “general-interest” newspaper (the Times) and regret the decline of those outlets as much as he does, yet there is no reversing the technological and economic changes that have undermined them. It might have been a mistake to deregulate television in the United States, and killing the “fairness doctrine” might have had unforeseen effects, but that does not deal with the dilemmas thrown up by WhatsApp or Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter.

Users of these platforms face the problem of managing abundance. Writers such as Sunstein imply that people who lock themselves in filter bubbles are deplorably unable to break out of their informational isolation. But we all now live in bubbles that we design to make sense of the torrent of information flowing through our phones. Better-designed, heterogeneous bubbles include the unexpected and the challenging.

Yet the problem lies deeper than the quality of your bubble. Polarised societies can no longer agree on how to recognise the truth. Filter bubbles play a part, but so do a preference for emotion over reason, attacks on scientific fact from religion, decades of public emphasis on self-fulfilment, and a belief that political elites are stagnant and corrupt. Like many journalists, Sunstein treats the problem of a malfunctioning communications system as a supply-side matter: the information being generated and distributed ought to be better.

In the case of fake news, that is indisputable. But there is also a demand-side problem, one that hinges on the motives of those consuming information. If, inside their bubbles, people are not curious about alternative opinions, are indifferent to critical thinking and prefer stoking their dislike – of, say, Hillary Clinton – will they have even the slightest interest in venturing outside their comfort zone? Do we have a right to ignore the views of others, or an obligation to square up to them? Millions of Americans believe that one of the most important guarantees in their constitution is the right to be left alone – and that includes being left alone by the New York Times.

Sunstein does not venture far into this territory. He only hints that if we worry about what people know, we must also worry about what kinds of societies we build. Globalisation has reshaped communities, dismantling some and building others online, but the net effect has been to reduce deliberation and increase a tendency to press the “Like” button, or loathe opponents you can’t see or hear. The ability to debate civilly and well may depend on complex social chemistry and many ingredients – elite expertise, education, critical thinking, culture, law – but we need to be thinking about the best recipes. 

George Brock is the author of “Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age” (Kogan Page)

#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media
Cass R Sunstein
Princeton University Press, 328pp, £24.95​

George Brock is a former managing editor of The Times who is now head of journalism at City University in London.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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