Is there any moment in this week’s Breaking Bad that better exemplifies the current physical and moral state of Walter White than when, right in the middle of strong-arming his attorney Saul Goodman into compliance, he breaks down from a debilitating coughing fit? Like the great king Ozymandius before him, he still calls for all to look upon his mighty accomplishments, and despair. He does so even as he sits in a dank cell, carrying nothing but a white undershirt and a barrel full of useless money, waiting for his Hoover vacuum filter salesman – played by Robert Forster! – as he arranges to bring him to his new home. All that remains for him is to fester over the damage he has wrought, conceiving of insensible revenge fantasies against the man who killed his brother-in-law and stole his money. He is still convinced he is capable of recourse, even as his physical health fails him. Waiting a few beats for Walt’s hacking to subside, Saul gives his client one last bit of legal advice: “It’s over,” and he leaves for a new life in Nebraska.
Walt is not too far behind him in reaching his new home. The vacuum salesman cum disappearer, who goes simply by Ed, drives Walt literally from one corner of the country to the other, from Southwest to Northeast. Unlike Saul, whose only-modest fame means he still gets a place to hide in civilized society, the myth and notoriety of the international meth kingpin Heisenberg has since tickled the fancy of the national media circuit. Walter White is now a celebrity, and no celebrity in America can be hidden so easily. “You are the hottest client I’ve ever had by far,” Ed tells Walt, just after planting him inside a tiny cabin in the desolate New Hampshire woodlands, eight miles from the nearest town. No television, no Internet, no visits to that small town. All Walter White has is himself, his barrel of money, and two copies of Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. Which, somehow, is preferred over jail time.
Meanwhile, as Walt hides and regroups, his wife and family are left to deal with the consequences. Later scenes reveal just how hard the feds are prepared to come down on her for complicity in her husband’s crimes, unless she reveals that husband’s location. With no evidence to give and a legal defense team in the form of a public defender, Skyler understands how royally screwed she is. To make matters worse, later that night she receives an unexpected visit from Todd and his neo-nazi goons, who threaten (albeit politely) the safety of her children should she reveal anything that implicates them in the Heisenberg mess. Most revealingly, Todd compels Skyler not to say a single word about Lydia’s incriminating visit to the Car Wash all the way back in ‘Blood Money’ (how’s that for milking old scenes for all the information they’re worth?), thereby covering the hide of his recently-identified object of
stalkerish infatuation puppy love.
And boy, does Todd’s affection for Lydia make him do all sorts of other crazy things this week. Truth be told, Todd has but one simple objective: to keep the imprisoned Jesse Pinkman alive and cooking a 93% pure product. It’s the lengths he will happily go to in order to fulfill that objective that are crazy. After ransacking Hank and Marie’s home to recover any incriminating evidence – including Jesse’s lengthy, weepy confessional – Jack is dead set on capping Pinkman for naming Todd in the murder of Drew Sharp. Todd stops him, arguing how much wealthier Jesse can make them ($69 million in stolen cash isn’t enough, you see). Jack sees through his nephew’s facade, calling him out on his crush on Lydia, and strangely placates him. This is the second time Jack has heeded Todd’s request not to kill somebody (the first being Walt last week). Of the two, I’m not sure precisely whose is wrapped around the other’s finger.
In the episode’s most viscerally awful sequence, the imprisoned Jesse manages an escape in the middle of the night by taking the paper clip attached to last week’s threatening photograph of Andrea and Brock, and picking the lock to his cell. I have read some reviews complaining about Jesse’s staggering short-sightedness in his escape plot, mostly because he seems to have forgotten quite easily how his escape might summon consequences against his ex and her son. A fair point, perhaps, but I have a more charitable reading of Jesse’s logic in this situation, given how chronically poor and irrational his logic has been throughout this series. Remember, this is the kid who actually thought he could get away with siphoning off meth from Gus Fring’s supply in Season 3 for personal profit. The only reason Jesse is alive in the first place is because of Walt’s acute decision-making. Jesse’s decision this week to escape is more than character stupidity. It’s character consistency.
Anyway, Jesse does escape, and those consequences do come. He gets out of his cell rather easily – I’d argue far too easily, as if Todd and company were actively prompting Jesse for a reason to break his spirits further. But just as easily he is caught, and is forced to watch in horror as Todd knocks on Andrea’s door, exploits her affection for Jesse so that she lets down her guard, and shoots her in the back of the head. I thought Hank’s death cut deep week, but that deeply uncomfortable close-up of Jesse as he sobbed uncontrollably through his gag positively churned my stomach. All Jesse needs after that is a simple reminder. “There’s still the kid,” Jack tells him.
Some time later, we return to a sickly, grizzled, still-hiding Walt, stewing up a plot to find ways to make worth of his now-useless legacy. His only other human contact is Ed, who retains his high-profile (and still exceedingly wealthy) client to provide him a monthly supply of food, toiletries, news from Albuquerque and rounds of chemotherapy. Ed reveals that Skyler is forced to take on a part-time job as a taxi dispatcher, and that their old house has been vacated – since ransacked and vandalized by local teens. With a surprising lack of ceremony, the first mystery of this final batch of episodes gets answered.
Clearly desperate for company, Walt bribes Ed for as much as $5000 to play a simple card game. During a round of seven card stud, Walt asks, knowing it’s likely he will die in New Hampshire, for one final request: “What if I ask you to give [my remaining money] to my family? Would you do it?” Ed simply answers the question with another: “If I said yes, would you believe me?” And with that, Walt is left to mull over some sneakier options.
Finally, in the middle of the night, Walt comes up with a plan. He nabs an emptied box that Ed has left, stuffs it with $100,000 in cash, and musters enough strength to walk the eight miles to that small town to make a phone call in the local bar’s payphone. Somewhat ingeniously, he convinces a female patron to call Walter Jr’s school as Marie, allowing Walt to make contact with his son. He reveals that he will be sending the $100,000 to Flynn’s buddy Louis. But Flynn will have none of it: “You killed Uncle Hank, you asshole… Why don’t you just die?!” Those with a good memory might remember Flynn saying something very similar to his dad, albeit for very different purposes, all the way back in Season 1’s ‘Cancer Man.’ Flynn hangs up on Walt, and the dejected father gives up. He calls the DEA, reveals himself, and sits at the bar to await the inevitable.
Yet miraculously, and a little too conveniently, the television Walt is watching in that bar gets flipped to a Charlie Rose interview with his two former colleagues Elliot and Gretchen Schwartz (whom I believe we’ve not seen since Season 2’s ‘Peekaboo’). In a transparent effort to distance both themselves and Grey Matter from their now-infamous co-founder, the Schwartzes confide in Rose that Walt’s only meaningful contribution to their multi-billion dollar enterprise was literally in name only. Gretchen goes on to tell Rose:
No, [Walter White] is not [out there]… I can’t speak to this Heisenberg that people refer to, but whatever he became… the sweet, kind, brilliant man that we once knew long ago, he’s gone.
This was admittedly the clumsiest moment in the otherwise terrific penultimate chapter of Breaking Bad, especially considering the writers clearly intend it as the bridge linking the horrific events of ‘Ozymandius,’ and whatever the hell is going to happen in next week’s ‘Felina.’ What Gretchen tells Rose, is transparently a speech to the audience, an elucidation on the Walter White/Heisenberg binary that, frankly, the audience figured out a while ago.
However… In the interest of being charitable to Breaking Bad, a show that has given me dozens of hours of unbridled joy, was the point of us hearing this to reveal an obvious truth that – up until now – Walter White was entirely oblivious to? Heisenberg is gone, his legacy is worthless. Walter White is gone as well, his memory being distorted by those who now have the power to change it to their advantage. His grieving family wishes death upon him, rejecting the only meager opportunity he has to pass along his tarnished, $11 million legacy. He has far less to his name now than he did when he first took that RV into To’Hajiilee for his first cook nearly two years prior.
So even if Gretchen’s revelation of the show’s most obvious theme feels clumsy, it nonetheless tussles the ever-living hubris of Walter White once again, and it is sort of thrilling. With David Porter’s extended melody now playing to the visual of law enforcement surrounding that same bar, the camera settles on an empty seat. An empty seat with a half-finished shot of Dimple Pinch on the bar next to it, abandoned by its drinker for a far sweeter nectar in Albuquerque.
Walter White is driven, now, to make his legacy endure. How will he? How can he?
- Marie gets all of one scene in this episode, and all she gets to do is sit in a car, look sad, and then look bewildered as she sees her home has been broken into. I really hope we get some time next week to see Marie mourn. After Betsy Brandt’s incredible progression with the character this year, she deserves a true send-off.
Todd treats Jesse to some ice cream for his quality work. Hell, even sociopaths have their moments.
I love RJ Mitte’s delivery of his phone greeting: “Hey Aunt Marie, what’s up?” It’s amazing how much information Mitte’s delivery conveys. Spoken with a feeling of post-traumatic melancholy, there is nonchalance as well, as if Marie calling Flynn is no big deal. What this tells me is possibly that Marie has made good on her promise to stand by Skyler, Flynn and Holly during the hellish months they were all experiencing. In a single line-delivery we believe that Skyler and Marie, that Holly and Flynn, are still family above all else.
As famous as Walter White allegedly is, I am quite happy that this episode did not fixate on the media frenzy surrounding Heisenberg (save for the single Charlie Rose interview excerpt). We will have to see if Sunday’s episode indulges a CNN news report or two, but I thoroughly appreciate the writers’ discipline in keeping the scale of Breaking Bad as pared down as it has been these last six years. A lot has happened on the show, of course, but the narrative scope could always have been a lot bigger, and a lot more unwieldy. Thank God it never got bigger.
One thing to remember going in to Sunday’s final episode, “Felina,” is this: even if it proves to be the most disappointing TV finale of all time – even if it is worse than the Lost and Seinfeld finales combined – that does not change the fact that Breaking Bad is already one of the truly singular achievements this medium has ever seen. I beg you… don’t bank your appraisal of the previous 61 hours of consistent brilliance on your frustration with the final one.
This is the last stretch before the ending of Breaking Bad. That means this is the last time we will ever have the joy of wondering what will happen on the next episode. Like, the last time ever. Enjoy that feeling while it lasts.