S5E8 Gliding Over All
In Season Four’s “End Times”, I looked at Walter’s efforts to divorce himself from his emotions—that “0.111985%” of unaccountable substance that completes the chartable elements of the human body. The cold open of this episode has Walt sitting in front of the hideout’s office desk (notably, not sitting behind it), staring at a fly. It has been a while since we have seen Walter share any screen-time with our metaphorical insect reminder that he isn’t actually a sociopath. And this season has been sorely missing any such reminders that Walter’s actions are more akin to a pragmatist’s separation of emotion from business. Not that his actions are necessarily any less despicable for this distinction, but it helps with understanding his character’s development, not to mention what it is going to mean for Skyler’s role as family and co-conspirator as Hank begins to unravel the business side of the White family’s prior year.
After last season’s rollercoaster for power, culminating in Walter’s once removed “face-off” with Gus Fring, consider some of Walter’s more charming moments since his victory thus far: “I won” he smugly tells a mortified Skyler in a scene replayed at the start of this season. Walter’s nonchalant response is something of a prelude to the coming psychological abuse he inflicts on her throughout the Fifth Season; he is partially responsible for the death of the boy at the end of “Dead Freight,” and nearly kills Jesse in the process of reaching the one thousand gallon mark as the train pulls away; after his prideful refusal to partake in the sale of the methylamine (at least, not under the pre-arranged terms), he kills Mike—the aftermath of which is where we begin this episode.
The fly here, as it was in Season Three episode, “Fly”, is the stand-in metaphor for Walt’s guilt. For Walter, Mike was his only remaining source of resistance. In terms of opposition, he has “won” (again), and should be sitting behind the desk. But instead, we open on him sitting in front of the desk, staring at this guilt. We see it briefly at the end of “Say My Name” when Walter absurdly attempts to apologize to a dying Mike—logically, of course, saying, “I just realized that Lydia has the names, I can get them from her.” Mike interrupts Walter, using his last words to express how little Walter’s reasoning means to anyone but Walter: “Shut the fuck up, and let me die in peace.”
I doubt that this is the last time Walter and the fly meet face to face. But it is the last time they meet this episode. Note, on Walter’s departure from the office to help dispose of Mike’s body, the camera lingers for a second on a poster with various species of flies, not unlike that of the periodic table. It’s a nice touch, and a final glimpse of his humanity before he goes into full Heisenberg cleanup mode, contracting out the murders of Mike’s nine associates (plus Mike’s lawyer) that need to be killed inside a two minute window (more on this later).
The title of the episode, “Gliding Over All”, is a reference to another poem by Walt Whitman. Since Gale doesn’t get the chance to recite it for us in its entirety, here it is for reference sake:
Gliding o’er all, through all,
Through Nature, Time, and Space,
As a ship on the waters advancing,
The voyage of the soul—not life alone,
Death, many deaths I’ll sing.
Every conceivable obstacle and source of resistance has been removed from Walter’s path. Maybe it’s the removal of all these obstacles that allows Walter’s soul to finally and unequivocally embody the Heisenberg persona, “gliding o’er all.” I have a feeling Whitman had something more insightfully modern and celebratory in mind than a highly coordinated jail-house murder spree when he wrote this poem, but that might just be how a self-centered person like Walter would interpret it (Like Mike says to Walter in “Full Measures”, “Yeah, it’s funny how words can be so open to interpretation”).
And what do you expect from a man who keeps an incriminating copy of Leaves of Grass as bathroom reading? Walter identifies this copy of Leaves of Grass as a kind of victory token—an impulse of hubris—rather than appreciation of nostalgia, or as a celebration of modernity as Gale would have. It is the same hubris that has him enjoying the wristwatch that Jesse bought him, gloating to Skyler earlier in the season that the man who bought it for him had previously held a gun to his head (note also that he uses it to time the murder spree).
As an aside, I’d like to point out that Walter’s decision to leave Gale’s copy of Leaves of Grass in the White family bathroom isn’t the first time that toilets have appeared in the show as metaphors for soul wandering. Jesse’s Season Two plummet into a porta-potty (staining his skin blue) comes to mind, though the most horrifying occurrence is probably during the opening of the Season One episode, “And the Bag is in the River”, in which we are given a scene of a young Walter—laughing off Gretchen’s comment about how the the missing calculable part of the human might be the soul—intercut with the cleanup of Emilio’s slurried remains (literally flushing him down the toilet).
Let’s return to the hotel room that acts as the staging ground for the “spate of jail deaths” (this is the phrase used by the reporter in the background as an unconcerned Walter bounces Holly on his knee at Hank and Marie’s house). Todd’s “connections” are planning out the extremely complicated execution while a disinterested Walter sits off to the side staring at a painting. There are a few things to pick up on in this scene and they are easy to miss. The whole scene appears to play inexplicably out of character for Walter. Walter’s aside about the painting is particularly puzzling if you don’t remember the painting’s role in Season Two’s “Bit By a Dead Bee” (the painting of a family on a shore waving to a man as he rows away from them in a boat).
Walter’s seemingly left-field comment about the painting—“Where do you suppose these come from? I’ve seen this one before. I wonder, are they all in some giant warehouse someplace?”—has an immense bearing on the state of Walter’s soul. It’s also likely that the writers here are referencing another famous “Walter”—Walter Benjamin and his famous essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. It’s a fairly canonical piece of theoretical reading with a large number of applications. It’s complex, so I won’t get into it too much, but I will sum up the central idea at work here.
Consider a painting as a work of original art that has meaning for that artist and for those who view the art, using their localized experiences to create personal meaning. But unlike a unique piece of art, a mass produced item loses some of its unique potency as a piece of art—its soul. In “Bit By a Dead Bee”, Walter ascribes meaning to this painting (standing in vigilant judgment above his hospital bed) that reflects back upon his own life and actions. It leaves a doubt in Walter’s mind as to the personal cost of his actions to himself and to those around him. But in “Gliding All Over”, Walter realizes that there might be hundreds of these paintings in a warehouse somewhere. Benjamin’s essay, as the title suggests, questions the value of art in the age of mechanical reproduction.
So Walter’s aside here about the painting is a reflection upon its new lack of potency. Because it is mass-produced, the painting loses its agency over Walter. Walter’s concern over the painting as a telltale symbol for his struggle to keep his soul intact is diluted and thus the concerns we saw in “Bit by a Dead Bee” are brushed aside here. But Walter’s acceptance of the diminished meaning of art still has meaning for the audience about Walter, and even acts as a moment of reflection for the viewers about society. Contrary to Walter’s decision to deny import to the painting’s previous function as a question of the cost to one’s soul, this denial not only says a lot about Walter’s current state of decay as he gives the go ahead on the murders, but it also reveals society’s acceptance of mass produced products and the loss of meaning in the absence of personal and localized achievements (think back on Jesse’s woodshop box and his desire to be a part of something meaningful in Season Three’s “Kafkaesque”).
Aside from the painting, this scene solidifies another transformation for Walter. It’s a rare state for him to be almost completely outside of the action dialogue. The plan that’s being concocted in this scene is extremely delicate and complex, but Walter remains silent. We’ve seen this type of scene play out before, where a scheme is explicitly detailed out loud while another sits by silently listening, but we have never seen it with Walter in the silent role. When Walter receives the phone call following the jailhouse murders, confirming its completion, we get a low angle shot of an en-shadowed Walter, wearing a mustard yellow shirt. It might be the closest we’ll get to the ghost of Gus Fring. “Figure it out. That’s what I’m paying you for,” says the new Walter, free of the burdens of scheming, free from proving his worth to equals and other threats to his power, and apparently free of semiotics. Or at least that last one is what he seems to be trying to convince himself of here. But it’s worth noting that we do get a dialogue-free scene later in the episode wherein post-MRI checkup Walter sees the still smashed-in paper towel dispenser he assaulted after finding out his cancer had gone into remission.
But it’s true to an extent that he appears to have overcome pretty much all his obstacles (at least the non-metaphysical ones). It might not have been completely solidified when he declared it at the start of this season, but Walter has indeed “won.” Everyone that’s still left standing is on board or terrified of him. We get some closure between Walter and Jesse in the “three months later” portion of the episode, wherein Jesse cautiously opens a bag of money outside his house and collapses on his floor, throwing away his hidden gun—relieved. Hank has a short conversation about his college job marking trees, in which he declares that he is tired of “chasing monsters,” after which Walter insubstantially replies, “I used to love to go camping.”
The one person who seems to be kind of “OK” at the end of this episode is Skyler. I say this with some reservation, as I previously noted that Walter has really put her through the psychological, spousal abuse ringer this season, but I find her seeming return to the “normal idyllic family life” at the close of this season a bit incredulous. I know we’ve seen her on the edge in the past, and she always tends (in the long run) to choose keeping the family close over her fears of what lies ahead (see Season Four’s “Cornered”, where she moves the quarter at The Four Corners back to New Mexico after a second flip of the coin tells her to go elsewhere).
But then again, we’ve just had a three-month time jump. For this show, that’s an eternity. And I suppose we’re just meant to take that into account here. Skyler does make her pitch for moving everyone back together and getting Walter to quit cooking in a very Walt-esque manner, carefully describing all the ways she has tried to account for how much money he has earned, and how she couldn’t possible spend it all, let alone launder it all. The scene plays well, and ultimately works. I suppose my qualm isn’t with Skyler trying to get her family back; it’s with her ability to forgive Walter.
I hope that these episode analyses will have provided something of a guidepost for identifiable thematic arcs, recurring symbols, and continuing character developments. I say that knowing that a lot has been wrapped up at this point, and that we only have a vague Season Five cold open, and the huge Hank reveal at the end of “Gliding All Over” to go on. And perhaps that is the point of this episodes twist ending. All the way back in “Bit by a Dead Bee”, I wrote on how that episodes theme partly setup the idea that no matter how well Walter cleans up after himself, there are going to be loose ends, and those loose ends are going to sting when they come back. Brian Steinbach