LBJ might be an over-the-top, deal-cutting, crotch-grabbing politician who quite freely soliloquizes his motives to his audience, but Frank Underwood he is not. Whereas the beloved villain of House of Cards only wants to accrue more and more power, LBJ, at least as All the Way presents him, has much loftier and personal ambitions. Behind his frequent cursing, his vulgar stories, and his deft power play, there is quite a vulnerable man whose clear vision of racism and inequality in his country drives him to make change.
But being president, especially one who wasn’t elected, means juggling nine million people’s worth of interests and beliefs, not the least among them a group of black activists, led by Martin Luther King Jr., who feel the urgency of change as they witness their friends and family hurt or killed in violent or systemic racism. These men and women are impatient for a fully-protective Civil Rights Bill and U.S. government is certainly not known for swiftness.
Here’s how All the Way manages to truthfully (and sometimes uncomfortably) depict the fight for civil rights in the White House:
1) There are more people involved in change than the white folks in power…and often they don’t have the same priorities.
We need to give credit where credit is due and though Johnson’s name is the one on the bill, there so many other leaders and factions of the movement who sacrificed for the cause of civil rights. This isn’t some Freedom Writers story where a benevolent white person goes into a community of struggling black folk and solves their problems. All the Way makes sure to present various pieces of the civil rights machine, including the militant Freedom Summer in Mississippi.
2) Change is a series of slow compromises, including some steps backwards.
LBJ’s presidency ran through an incredibly divisive period of American politics, much like our current moment. And it’s hard enough to juggle the interests of extremist groups while worrying about whether you’ll be elected next term. There are several times in the play where the civil rights leaders must back down on what they know to be right in order to buy time (and votes) for a next term. The Voting Rights section of the bill, probably the most important part, is stripped so that the other sections can be passed. Black delegates cannot be seated at the DNC so that voters don’t think LBJ is taking orders from the black Freedom Party. Just a reminder, this is taking place a hundred years after the Civil War. But this is our system. Would we trade it for any other? …Maybe?
3) We as audience have a real, tangible responsibility in the future of the country.
This is a play about real events in our real country that happened. Really. And All the Way’s direction asserts our responsibility in several break-the-fourth-wall scenes. LBJ addresses us both as insiders to his thinking, as well as listeners at his inaugural address and other speeches. In a far more blatantly direct address, members of the Freedom Summer movement come out into the audience during a funeral scene for one of the killed activists. One man says (paraphrasing), “Do not go home and tell your family what a nice funeral service you attended. Instead, look to what must be done to prevent crimes like these from happening again.” It’s a powerful scene because it mimics the play’s demands of us too. Don’t go home and talk about what a nice play it was or what a boss Bryan Cranston is. Be uncomfortable with what you see here. Remember that our political climate ain’t so different now.
So, last night happened. Unless it didn’t happen for you. In which case, WHY ARE YOU READING THIS BECAUSE EITHER A) YOU ARE A BREAKING BAD FAN AND AREN’T CAUGHT UP ON THIS CLUSTERF*CK AND WILL GET SPOILED OR B) YOU AREN’T WATCHING BREAKING BAD AND NEED TO START SOON AND NOT GET SPOILED.
While I wouldn’t necessarily say that this is the best episode of the series (although Vince Gilligan says so), it was definitely the loudest– loud enough to even drown own any blast residue from Gus’s playdate with Hector Salamanca. So much happened in such a quick timespan that we didn’t even have to wait until next week to see the aftermath! As any Twitter feed, Tumblr feed, or well-rounded recap will tell you (The ones over at Flavorwire and Vulture are always top-notch), the show started out with a flashback to more innocent times, Walt and Jesse’s first cook and a phone home to a pregnant Skyler with a made-up excuse for his lateness. Then, we pick up where we left off at the gun fight. Gomie’s dead, Hank’s surrounded, and Jesse’s hiding for his life under a car. Hank has a valiant finish, in spite of Walt’s pleas. Since Walt is as Walt does, he refuses to place the blame on himself (I mean, I probably would too, given that I’d go insane with guilt otherwise). Instead, he rationalizes his anger onto Jesse and makes sure that Todd’s gang fishes him out from under the car. As Jesse’s about to get a bullet in his head, Todd calls a halt to the shooting. Walt gets pissy and decides to get his revenge the non-murderous way by telling Jesse that he watched Jane die. Also, Todd’s gang drives away with most of Walt’s money, leaving him with one barrel containing $11 million, which he rolls through the desert on his way home.
And that was just the first 20 minutes of the episode.
Marie, under the belief that Hank is currently booking Walt in happy prison land, tells Skyler of Walt’s capture and makes her tell Walt Jr. that his pop is a criminal. Walt comes home *surprise!* and tells them to pack up and go. Skyler puts the pieces of the puzzle together, surmises that Walt has killed Hank, and decides that she must be the one to protect her family. She pulls out a knife, there’s a showdown (OMG I swore Walt Jr. was about to fall on the knife) and Walt backs down as his own son calls the police on him. So Walt does the logical thing and kidnaps Baby Holly. Later, Walt calls home, has a very misogynistic and psychopathic conversation with Skyler (and the police listening in). He drops off Holly at a local fire station and heads out to get his identity erased by Saul’s contact. Then there’s a blackout and Vince Gilligan’s name appears on screen so you know who to sue for your panic attacks.
Here are some questions that next week’s show hinges upon:
1) What Is Actually Going On Between Jesse and Todd?
Todd’s reasoning behind saving Jesse is that he might have information on the DEA investigation that they could torture out of him to find out what they know. Did this feel like bullshit to anybody else but me? I haven’t read a single recap that addresses this. Something’s up here. Somehow, Jesse is part of Todd’s quiet master plan. We get a hint of this when Todd sentimentally recalls their ‘history’ together (and by sentimentally, I mean whatever fake emotions Todd is capable of emoting). We also start to suspect an alternative plan when Todd chains Jesse up like a dog in the meth lab, probably so that Todd can learn to cook purer and more bankable meth for his real-life boss, imaginary girl toy Lydia.
However, Todd does all of this silently sans back-up, support, or any other appearances from the Aryan gang. He also doesn’t seem to care much about the DEA information he just tortured Jesse for. So what is Todd’s real motivation for keeping Jesse? Is he operating separately from the rest of the gang? And now that Jesse has lived far longer than I expected him to (many thought he’d go out in the shootout, I thought he’d die sometime in the first half of the season), what role will he (and Todd) have in Walt’s endless downward spiral?
2) Is Skyler ‘Just As Bad’ As Walt?
In their car ride home, Walt Jr. states that Skyler is just as bad as his father for knowing the meth business but failing to stop him. My gut reaction was “Ugh, I hate kids.” But then, as Skyler realizes that Hank has been killed and her husband’s a monster, I too realized: Wait a minute? Didn’t Skyler just give Walt the okay to ‘take care of’ Jesse two weeks ago? What would have happened had Jesse been the one killed in the gunfight? Wasn’t Hank a much more looming threat to them than gasoline-toting Jesse who really wouldn’t hurt any members of the White family beside Walt… if we’re being honest here, he’d only blow up the house if no one was in it.
Surely Skyler must have realized that there would come a time where Walt would have to decide to lose his life or get rid of Hank’s, just like she did with Jesse. In all the recaps I’ve read, everyone lauds Skyler’s decision to put actions behind words (“Enough” is enough) and put that Cutco set to good use. But, she too sorely needed that redemption. It wasn’t just a choice, it was an absolutely necessity for Skyler to grab that knife and stab away. Because maybe, under slightly different circumstances, she’d be the one on the other side of it.
3) Baby Holly Gets Some Limelight
Why did the show’s creators deliberately begin the show with a baby on the way for the White family? The answer already provided by the show has been that it’s a looming expense among Walter’s long list of angry disappointments that lead him to crack under the pressure. Also, a new child is someone that Walt can provide for, even impress, on a completely new slate. Baby Holly won’t come to know her father as some loser Chemistry teacher or a petty victim of his circumstances. Walt can live up to his full potential for Holly in a different way than the rest of his family because she won’t have his past to judge him on.
But, I’m starting to feel that Holly is about to play an even more important role in Walt’s future than we suspect. How exactly? I’m not yet sure. But to drive home my point, her presence on the show has been a driving factor on the show since before she was born, and the question of who now is responsible for her (Skyler vs. Marie, Skyler vs. Walt) has loomed larger this season. I hope that last night’s drop-off at the fire station isn’t the last the time Holly’s survival is a factor on the show.
4) What is Walt’s Phone Call Really About?
Obviously, the police would be listening in on Walt’s call to Skyler. Even given Walt’s rash emotional reactions lately, he’d know that Skyler would do everything in her power to track Holly down. So, is Walt’s tyrannical rant partly a ploy to secure Skyler’s innocence in the justice system’s records? Is his blatant misogyny purposely painting a portrait of Skyler as a battered housewife with no other recourse?
Yup, probably. My mom figured out Walt’s motivations way early into the phone call and she’s a pro at figuring these things out (and she hasn’t even been watching the past season @()*&(#&*@&^*)
Does that mean that Walt doesn’t actually mean anything he’s saying?
We know that Walt has got an extra special tendency to blame others for his mistakes when sh*t hits the fan. Why, he just put Jesse on the chopping block for Hank’s death! Meanwhile, Skyler has been the subject of many a rant before. Her psyche must be a warzone.
But for what it’s worth, I love that the writers have driven home the point that Walt’s criminality and his abuse of Skyler go hand-in-hand. His justifications for his ’empire business’ all connect to his ultra-masculine role as provider, husband, and father. Without his dominance in the family realm, he loses his dominance in the rest of the world. Whether the rant functions to redeem Skyler or to persecute her, it remains clear that it comes out of a realization that Walt’s control over his family is falling apart. For him to persevere, Walt needs to establish his control once more, even when there’s little power behind his threatening words. (Perhaps why he calls from the location where he’s about to leave Holly is that he doesn’t have any real power over either Skyler or Holly in the first place).