With the greatest villain of all time finally defeated, Jesse, Mike, and the rest of the White’s all come to the same realization: in a post-Fring world, the man who killed him has become the true terror.
S5E1 Live Free or Die
The Season Five opener flash forwards, depressingly, to a Denny’s.
Walter, slightly disheveled, stares meekly into a plate of eggs, hash browns, and bacon. Methodically, sadly, he arranges the bacon into the number 52, which represents his age. This simple gesture transforms his modest American breakfast into a kind of gastronomical mirror. Walt, looking down at his food, sees the day of his 50th birthday, a day two years prior that began at 5:02 am, the numbers 5 and 2 refracting endlessly, perhaps even mockingly, throughout his middle age. On the day of his 50th birthday, his wife Skyler, in a precious, whimsical gesture, arranged Walter’s veggie bacon into the number 50. Two years later, she is nowhere to be found.
This humble American opening is simultaneously forward and backward looking. Quite obviously, the past two years have not been good ones for Walter if they have brought him to this moment, an isolated breakfast in one the most egregiously unhealthy dining establishments in the United States. As the scene comes to a close, and Walter places his duffel bag in a car trunk that also contains some kind of an assault rifle, the suggestion is that Mr. White’s future will not be much better than his past.
While Walter prepares to eat, his waitress asks why he arranged his bacon as he did. When he tells her it is his birthday, she happily informs him that Denny’s customers eat for free on their birthdays. It is in this tiny snippet of dialogue that the dual reference point of the episode’s title becomes clear. Walter, for reasons that should be illuminated in Breaking Bad‘s final episodes, has been living pseudonymously as someone with the last name “Lambert” who is a resident of New Hampshire, the state that carries the motto “Live Free or Die.” Though Walter has the momentary opportunity to live free at Denny’s, he chooses not to do so, preferring instead to pay $100 for his meal. Since he chooses not to live free, is the only other possibility that he will die? That is the question.
The first scene of Season Four’s “Open House” finds Walter alone in the super meth lab that Gus has built beneath his enormous laundry facility. Since Walter and Gus, at the time, were locked in a battle for control over the lab space, Gus installed a surveillance camera to monitor Walter and Jesse’s work. Upon discovering this camera, Walter becomes enraged, and he politely extends his middle finger to it. Later, he tells Jesse that the camera is a “violation of the workspace.”
Within the context of the first four seasons, that moment retains strong ties to the academic culture that undergirds Breaking Bad. Once again, Walter is a highly trained researcher. The lab — the “work space” — is for him a space that should be free from all contaminants, including administrative oversight. Walter, in other words, is a defender of academic freedom — the kind of freedom he presumably had in that other lab where he once worked: the research facility where he created Gray Matter. That lab is depicted briefly in the beginning of the episode “… And the Bag’s in the River.” Encased in glass, that lab is transparent, open, free. Walter’s new lab is a dungeon, one that keeps him indentured to Gus’ menacing control. “I see you,” his panoptic camera lens is perpetually saying.
When Walter does finally kill Gus, he briefly thinks that he has achieved the freedom — personal and professional — for which he has longed. However, just as a sense of relief sets in, Walt remembers that omnipresent camera and realizes that the video footage of his time in the meth lab must surely have been archived somewhere. This is the conflict that sets the present day action of “Live Free or Die” in motion. Walter, Jesse, and Mike have to scheme to determine how they can destroy the video evidence stored on Gus’ now-confiscated laptop. Hence, magnets:
What makes that scene so memorable is, of course, Jesse’s inimitable, nonsensical refrain: “Yeah, bitch!” Yet, what is of greater significance is the fact that this magnet thing is Jesse’s idea. Walter, the brilliant scientist, can only dream up a vague “device” as a possible solution to the problem at hand. Jesse, in contrast, cuts straight to the point. In fact, his solution is so perfect that it neither requires words to describe it nor to respond to it:
The student has become the teacher, yo.
This modest inversion of Jesse and Walter’s authority is further enhanced after the two destroy Gus’ laptop. Since neither they, nor Mike, could see into the evidence room to ensure that their caper was successful, the three are left wondering what exactly happened inside the police station. When Mike pushes Walter for reassurance that the burglary worked, derisively calling the scientist “Answer Man” in the process, Walter can only respond to Mike by telling him that their plan worked “because I say so.” It is an answer of arrogance, not of science, and it gives Jesse visible pause. No matter how many times Jesse has told Mike, in this one episode, that Walter is good at what he does — that he is really, really smart — the apprentice knows that without hard evidence, both him and Mike do have to take Mr. White’s word on faith alone. Faith has little place in the realm of fact. If nothing else, Jesse has learned that much.
As it turns out, Walter did, in fact, miscalculate the success of Jesse’s plan. Having increased the intensity of their magnet beyond the point of necessity, Walter unknowingly causes the destruction of a picture frame containing an image of Gus and Don Eladio, and behind which is hidden the routing numbers for Gus’ offshore bank accounts. In an effort to destroy an electronic data trail, Walter unknowingly creates a physical paper trail, one which, in a single year, will lead to that Denny’s parking lot. There, Walt will purchase a device that he has no idea how to use without the aid of a printed instruction manual. Apparently, Mr. White has become a student once again. We can only hope that he will do his homework. His future, it seems, depends on that. Joseph Fisher
Adolescence is such a strong theme — on so many levels — throughout the duration of Breaking Bad. On one hand, there is the stubborn, fundamental desire from Walt (and the various players that surround him) to be celebrated for something, anything. He missed out on the Gray Matter train that would have quenched such an accomplished thirst, so now, as we learn in Season Five, he wants to do whatever he can to be somebody. At its core, the wars that paint a lot of the drama within the series are rooted in establishing exactly who is the boss of whom, an age-old debate that causes quibbles between second-graders and senior citizens alike.
What overshadows that pragmatic interpretation of immaturity, however, is the very literal presence of youth that happens to affect multiple occurrences throughout the narrative. What’s Walt going to do when confronted with the decision to further his business or be present for his daughter’s birth? In a house occupied by two meth-head parents, how does Jesse respond when he is approached by a toddler he knows has no shot at a fruitful life because of his family circumstances? Exactly how old was the murderer of Pinkman’s deceased friend, Combo? What stops Jesse from selling drugs to Andrea? And, of course, to whom will that $2 million be given after Mike is either dead, gone or both?
Enter Season Five’s “Madrigal”, the second episode of the first half of the series’ final run. Mike, the stone-faced killer/cleaner/enforcer/all-around tough dude, has a hit put on him by Lydia, the corporate attorney for Madrigal Electromotive GmbH, a company with which the now-departed Gus Fring used to to business. She’s convinced his guys will flip on him, her and everyone else under the sun, so she hires a guy named Chris to do the work Mike won’t (causing a flippant Ehrmantraut to somewhat hilariously tell her “This isn’t the movies … we don’t kill 11 people as a provelactic measure”).
As always, Mike is ahead of the curve, though, and kills her guy before heading to her house to squash the problem once and for all. And what is it that causes him to grant her a few more moments of life? We might never know for sure, but smart money says that her spiel about how she doesn’t want her daughter to think she went missing had some sort of impact on what The Cleaner’s next move may be. She lives to see another day. He decides once and for all to get back into business with Walt and Jesse. And (surprise!) nobody’s lives would ever be the same.
All because of the thought that an adolescent might find her mother’s face blasted to smithereens on top of her bed was too much to bear. Jeez, you might as well have had a six-year-old cook the meth. By now, it’s hard to tell which age bracket has more power in the Breaking Bad universe.
But back to that whole “nobody’s lives would ever be the same” stuff. The foreshadowing was thick when Mike initially turned down the proposition of going into business with the Blue Men Group. “You are time bomb, tick, tick, ticking,” the former Philadelphia cop (who knew!) told Walt in his kitchen. “And I have no intention on being around for the boom.” The line was great, but the delivery was better. Now, if only he could have stayed true to that mantra … maybe he would have been around to make sure his granddaughter got home safely from the playground that afternoon in episode seven.
The anticipatory actions double, though, when Hank shares a goodbye conversation with George, his now-former boss. In somewhat of a haunting exchange between the two and ol’ Gomey, Mr. Merkert launches into a reflective mini-speech on the history he had with Gus. “I had him out to my house on the Fourth of July,” he tells Schrader and Gomez. “And he’s somebody else, completely. Right in front of me — right in front of my nose.” Be it creator Vince Gilligan’s touch or not, the timing of Hank’s eyes looking up to see his former boss’s face before the cut to black is simply impeccable. Say what you want about the fun-loving limp-legged mineral collector, but he sure does have his share of intuition.
His proposed future target, Walt, meanwhile, is only gaining in momentum and confidence. “If Gus can manage it, so can we,” he tells Jesse and Saul when the three sit down to figure out how to move forward. His voice is missing the unassuming, goofy charm that made the former chemistry teacher so endearing in earlier seasons, though, and his assertion comes across as more bratty than authoritative (Side: Someone who isn’t missing that humility? Jesse, as his crying fit earlier in the episode leads to one of the most affecting “Mr. White”‘s he’s ever uttered. One more time, for good measure: Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman is the single greatest supporting role that has ever been broadcast on television).
All told, it’s gotten to the point where Walt’s obsession with himself has become quite creepy. “You know it gets easier,” he tells a superbly acted Skyler, whose face tells a million and one stories in this instance, when he comes to bed. “What you’re feeling right now, it’ll pass.
“We do what we do for good reasons,” Walter continues, constantly kissing her shoulder, arm and neck, presumably causing the presence of goosebumps in the same places on viewers’ bodies. “There’s no better reason than family.”
Whatever you say, dude. Just wait until Hank has to use your bathroom in a few weeks. Maybe then we’ll see exactly what the word family means. Colin McGuire
S5E3 Hazard Pay
With the help of his former subordinate Dennis Markowski’s crooked lawyer, Dan, Mike gains entry into the prison in which Dennis is jailed. Dan opts to listen to music while Mike speaks to Dennis, allowing their deliberation to fall on deaf ears.
Mike instructs Dennis not to reveal anything to the DEA, ensuring that he will receive his overdue hazard pay from Mike’s newly formed operation with Walt. “The deal is the deal,” Mike emphasizes to a worried Dennis, remaining fiercely loyal to and diplomatic with the people that made his former partnership a success, even at the risk of angering an already volatile Walt. As the two talk, their faces both frame Dan’s body, visually propagating the surreptitious nature of their discussion and ironically reminding us that, in this case, members of law enforcement are often the most responsible for the actions of lawbreakers.
Feeling secure and on top of the world in his business life, Walt tries to achieve the same feeling in his personal life. He confidently moves back into his home, shoving Skyler’s clothes to the side of the closet in order to squeeze his own clothes in the middle of the rack, indicating his self-centeredness and complete dismissal of Skyler’s opinions and feelings. As he unloads his books, he comes across his copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, happily reminiscing about his times with Gale. This is not the last time Leaves of Grass will make an appearance on the show; it is the one piece of evidence Walt has in his home that links him to his many crimes.
Skyler walks into the bedroom, frightened by the idea that she must share her bed with a power lusting criminal who has now made her home a viable target for his most dangerous enemies. “Do you really think that’s a good idea?” she asks. Walt carries on, knowing that Skyler is too fearful and reticent to stop him.
But before Walt can get too comfortable, he, Jesse, and Saul meet at Saul’s office to determine the organization of their business. The first topic of discussion is Mike, who Saul is wary of given their testy history. Walt and Jesse try their best to convince Saul that Mike is a necessity, arguing that he “knows the business.” Mike, meanwhile, waits in the lobby, having a humorously awkward staring contest with a wheezing Huell.
Saul folds to Walt and Jesse’s request and invites Mike to the meeting. Mike quickly asserts himself, declaring, “Here are the ground rules. Division of labor: I handle the business. Making the stuff: that’s your end.” With this setup, Walt has gotten what he has wanted since the First Season: complete authority and control over producing the purest meth that he can without having to interact with distributors.
But Walt is not about to completely relinquish his control over the business as a whole. When Saul asks Walt if he is okay with the agreement with Mike, Walt tells him, “he handles the business, and I handle him.” Walt ostensibly makes himself the CEO of their business, claiming the title that Elliot and Gretchen Schwartz robbed him of so long ago.
With the business officially established, Saul takes Walt, Jesse, and Mike on a tour of various potential cook sites, including a box factory and a tortilla factory. The men argue about the lack of feasibility of these locations, continually pointing out their flaws. Saul then reluctantly takes them to his last resort option: the cramped garage headquarters of Vamanos Pest, a pest control company.
Just when the others are about the dismiss the site for being too small, it dawns on Walt to use bug bombed houses as their cook sites. He explains the brilliance of the plan one afternoon as the four men watch the Vamanos Pest crew prepare to bug bomb a house from Saul’s car, which is parked across the street. Walt argues that their activities will be blocked off from everyone’s sight, and that any chemical smells emitted from the house will never be met with suspicion. When Mike asks if they should take a vote on it, Walt simply asks, “Why?” Even Mike’s seniority and experience is no match for Walt’s obtrusiveness.
Lending some helping hands, Badger and Skinny Pete buy roadie gear in order to easily and safely transport Walt and Jesse’s meth lab and supplies into bug-bombed homes. In what is simultaneously a hilarious and sad moment, Pete plays a gorgeous rendition of C.P.E. Bach’s “Solfeggietto”, only to be interrupted by Badger’s horrendous guitar strums. The musical clash represents their dashed potential due to their involvement in drugs, both its usage and its creation.
Before their first day on the job, Mike instructs Vamonos Pest workers to be on their best behavior and to never bother Walt and Jesse. “As far as you’re concerned, you’re a ghost … you don’t speak unless you’re spoken to,” he says. Walt and Jesse exchange slight smirks, gaining a sense of power and independence that they never felt under Gus’ constant surveillance.
That night, at Jesse’s house, Walt and Jesse draw up their plans on how to easily transport and assemble their new lab. In the middle of their conversation, however, Andrea and Brock — who Walt has not seen since he poisoned him — arrive, and Andrea encourages Walt to stay over for dinner. When Walt forcibly introduces himself to Brock, Brock silently stares at him and does not appear to have any recollection of Walt whatsoever.
As Jesse and Andrea make their way to the kitchen, Brock plops down on the couch and plays a portable video game. Walt decides to sit on the far end of the couch, staring at Brock with both intense discomfort and disbelief. Has it hit him that he almost killed this innocent child, or is he afraid that Brock will finally recognize him? In the end, Brock turns to Walt and briefly returns his gaze, only to direct his attention back to his game seconds later. Walt, however, remains paranoid, turning his head forward and evidently pondering how he can spare himself of another awkward run-in with Brock.
But first, the day has arrived: Walt and Jesse drive up to their first house, donning their Vamanos Pest uniforms. One employee, Todd, immediately takes advantage of his brief moment with the pair to inform them that he disabled a nanny cam inside of the house. Walt and Jesse have obviously turned into an admirable, legendary duo, even leaving one of their own co-workers completely star struck.
They slip into the shrouded house, finding their yellow suits and respirators neatly laid out for them on the kitchen counter, almost like spa robes at a luxury resort. To The Peddlers’ sleek and cool song, “On a Clear Day (You Can See Forever)”, a dreamy montage including Walt and Jesse effortlessly assembling their laboratory in a tented lab in the middle of the house, close-up shots of bright blue meth cascading from a pipe like a waterfall into pans, and the rapid chemical reactions taking place plays on, displaying the blend of artistry and science that Walt and Jesse put into the creation of their signature product. This is one of the Breaking Bad team’s greatest montages yet, as it effortlessly renders the process of making something so horrific and deadly seem exceptionally beautiful.
After a hard day’s work, Walt and Jesse wind down in the living room, drinking beer and watching The Three Stooges. Though they look like they are off the clock, Walt seizes this opportunity to toy with Jesse in order to regain full control over him. “Seeing you with Andrea and that little boy is nice,” Walt says, laying the foundation for something bigger. “So, it it, um, moving in any particular direction?”
Jesse simply tells Walt that he isn’t sure where the relationship is going, spurring Walt to probe him further. “Have you thought about what your plan is vis-à-vis honesty? Secrets create barriers between people. Speaking from experience, believe me,” Walt says, knowing that Jesse is still emotionally scarred about killing Gale. Because Jesse is well aware of Walt’s marital woes (which have never weighed down on Walt), he believes that he is genuinely concerned about his relationship with Andrea.
Walt is a master of learning people’s weak points and the behaviors that are a result of them; without having to say anything to Jesse directly, Walt states, “If you choose to spend the rest of your life with this person, then you will have to decide how much you share with her.” In a childlike manner, Jesse worriedly asks, “Everything? Like Gale?” Walt is all to well aware that Jesse is not one to bottle up his feelings without any consequence, after all, he threw a never-ending rave at his own house just to avoid being alone with his thoughts about the murder. Given his moral compass, there is simply no way that Jesse can remain in a committed and honest relationship with Andrea without having to tell her about his most heinous crimes.
We see just how a dishonest and untrusting relationship with can completely affect one’s psyche in the next scene, as Skyler has lunch with Marie in her office at the car wash. Marie is in an especially nitpicky mood, and her constant chirping proves to be the main ingredient in Skyler’s own recipe for disaster. Not only does she bring up Hank’s case, but she also interrogates Skyler about Walt’s upcoming birthday, which she believes should be an even bigger celebration to recognize his overcoming cancer.
When Skyler curtly replies, “I don’t think we’re going to do anything this year,” Marie is even more agitated. She eggs Skyler on so much that Skyler reaches into her purse, taking out a cigarette and a lighter without even thinking twice. Marie, stunned, shifts the conversation on bashing Skyler for smoking and therefore harming her husband and her baby daughter’s health. Bubbled over in anguish, Skyler repeatedly and increasingly violently yells at Marie to “shut up,” ultimately breaking down in tears at her desk. Until this point, Skyler has dealt with Walt’s deepest secrets as gracefully and privately as she could, but with his recent move back home, it is simply too much to bear.
Back at Vamanos Pest, Jesse and Walt discover that they have an “excellent yield,” and soon pack up for the day. So far, things are looking up for their business, so long as Walt remains Jesse’s puppet master.
Walt later comes home to a concerned Marie, who is nervously sitting in the dark living room. She informs Walt that Skyler is in the bedroom resting after an unusual breakdown. Hoping to get to the bottom of Skyler’s behavior, Marie presses Walt into telling her what has gone wrong between them, asking if he is gambling again or if his cancer has returned. Marie is no fool, she knows that whatever is irking Skyler, it has to be about Walt.
Instead, Walt, cognizant of the fact that Marie thrives on drama, decides to turn the focus on to Skyler’s own wrongdoings. “You heard about Ted Beneke. The accident. Well, um, a couple weeks back, Ted took a fall, a bad one,” he tells her. Again, without having to say anything directly, he simply lets Marie come to her own conclusions. When Marie is not sure how Ted’s accident could have lead to Skyler’s breakdown, Walt says, “Yes it could…you do know, right? You must know.” He pretends that he accidentally let the cat out of the bag, further fueling Marie’s shock.
Nailing his role as the kindhearted victim, Walt instructs Marie not to tell Hank anything about Skyler’s affair. “I don’t want Hank to think less of her,” he says, pretending that he is actually concerned with how others perceive her. In fact, he is simply mimicking what he selfishly said to Skyler in Season Four’s “Bullet Points” in response to her making him out to be a weak criminal in her speech about his purported gambling: “I don’t want Jr. to think less of me.” In the end, Walt paints Skyler in the exact manner that she said others perceived her in “Bullet Points”: the “bitch mom” who could not cut Walt “any slack.”
Marie hugs Walt tightly, visibly upset over her sister’s actions. Walt, however, is smirking; he has gotten his way once again. After Marie leaves, Walt slowly approaches the closed bedroom door in the hallway, but decides to enter the kitchen instead. He picks up a large red apple, the forbidden fruit, from the fruit bowl and takes a satisfying bite. Though he is off the hook once again, it is only a matter of time until he falls.
For now, Walt’s plan to keep Jesse subordinate works, as Jesse emotionlessly plays video games with Andrea and Brock. He is regressing back into his state of numbness that he lived through after he killed Gale; he realizes that he can no longer try to have a cookie cutter relationship with Andrea knowing that she deserves to hear the truth.
Later that evening, Skyler remains in bed, staring straight at the ceiling. The sound of rippling gunshots tear through the bedroom, reminding her once again of the imminent danger Walt has imposed on her and the children by moving back into the home.
The gunshots are coming from the living room, where Walt, Walt Jr., and Holly happily watch Scarface. Skyler slowly walks in on them, stunned by the images of a maniacal Tony Montana unrelentingly shooting his assault rifle. What is especially troubling to Skyler, perhaps, is the possibility that Walt too has killed multiple people in the same manner. “Everyone dies in this movie,” Walt says nonchalantly.
The episode ends with Walt and Jesse’s first major payday. Mike divvies up each man’s money in piles, and Walt is already upset that his share is far too low. Mike explains that their mules get a “flat 20%” due to hazard pays, but Walt argues that he is making even less than he did with Gus. Jesse remains neutral, distracted by recent events in his personal life to even be concerned about the money.
To make matters worse for Walt, Mike reduces his money pile even more to account for the hazard pays that he promised his former subordinates earlier in the episode. “So we are paying them why?” Walt snaps. “Because it’s what you do … my guys are keeping their mouth shut. We keep them whole,” says a noble Mike, sticking to his principle of full measures.
As the two bicker about whether or not Mike’s strategy is simply a blackmail device, Walt places his hand over his stack of money in order to shield it from him. Jesse once again intervenes as peacekeeper, offering Mike to take the hazard pays out of his share. Walt backs off, but it does not stop Mike from giving him a piece of his mind. “Let me tell you something. This is how it’s gonna be from here on out. My guys are an ongoing expenditure. So you best get yourself comfortable with it.”
Though he chalks himself off to be the boss, Walt is going to have to deal with the remnants of Gus’ operation if he wants to move forward with his own business. Mike proceeds to put Walt in his place: “Just because you shot Jesse James, don’t make you Jesse James.” If anyone can call Walt on his bullshit, it is definitely Mike.
After the deal is over, Walt asks Jesse how he is feeling, to which he responds that he broke up with Andrea. Walt rudely dismisses him, saying, “I meant this,” raising his bag of money, “how are you feeling about the money?” Jesse assures Walt that they have actually received more than they ever did with Gus, telling Walt that he need not worry so much.
Although Walt has successfully gotten Jesse to break up with Andrea, he delivers him one last warning. He brings up Victor, saying, “All this time, I was sure that Gus did what he did to send me a message. Maybe there’s another reason — Victor trying to cook that batch on his own. Taking liberties that weren’t his to take. Maybe he flew too close to the sun, got his throat cut.” In other words, Walt subtly warns Jesse not to overstep his boundaries with him, and to not overtake his efforts. Walt then walks away from Jesse, who looks to the ground, digesting what Walt has just told him. Karina Parikh
Despite his absolute worst intentions involving a series of head-on collisions and sideswipes with humans, light poles, other vehicles, etc., Walt’s Pontiac Aztek has somehow survived.
It was therefore telling that the final goodbye to Walter White’s iconic mode of dweeby white guy suburban transport was said with a tip of Heisenberg’s equally iconic black hat found in the backseat. The vestiges of Walt’s former life have vanished faster than Emilio in a tub of hydrofluoric acid, but somehow the Aztek stuck around. Serviceable, tough-as-nails, and as geeky as it is nondescript, the car befits a middle-class man living a middle-class life of quiet desperation. This is no longer who Walt is.
Walt buys not one but two flashy cars to replace the aforementioned Aztek, ostensibly inspired by his 51st birthday, the same birthday he none too subtly asks to be celebrated with a medium-sized get-together replete with chocolate cake. It all still comfortably fits into the ever-expanding narrative of the upward mobility afforded by a fledgling carwash business begotten by gambling winnings, he insists.
Somewhere in there also resides the touching, triumphal story of Walt’s successful journey through the pain of life-threatening lung cancer. It’s a story Walt recounts with the trembling timbre of a humble man who is just grateful to still be alive. It has been a full year since his initial cancer diagnosis that set in motion his whole ignoble voyage into darkness. “Fifty-One” marks a set of milestones to be sure, the consideration of which leads Skyler to step slowly and deliberately into the freezing swimming pool that offers her only escape from Walt’s insipid recounting.
In a series known for superlative writing and acting performances alike, when a peerless performance such as the one turned in by Anna Gunn in this episode stands out, it resonates all the more. Skyler has been demoralized over her inability to provide her children with any protection from Walt. She holds on with her fingernails to the thought of the life she once had, the life she seems less and less able to pretend to be in possession of any longer. Skyler has all along chosen the path of least resistance; her future is too closely tethered to Walt’s to permit her to leave, and she is still too pusillanimous to get up and walk away. All she can do is step into the blue abyss for a moment of respite, wondering what it might be like if she could just stay down there, out of earshot of the monster constantly in her midst.
So how does she go on? How does Skyler muster the requisite energy to even care for herself enough to keep watch over Holly and Walt Jr.? In a scene that captures the uncompromising brilliance with which Gunn plays the role of a hopelessly outfoxed, vulnerable and terrified woman, she finally lets Walt into that desolate place in her soul where she culls enough motivation to live. She isn’t hoping for him to change. She isn’t hoping for Walt’s enemies to get the best of him. She doesn’t believe Hank will crack the case and lock Walt away in a prison cell. He’s too smart, too successful, too sadistic to succumb to any of that. Skyler merely hopes for the cancer to return and finish the job it started.
It is the conundrum for which Walt has no solution. “Fifty-One” is a reminder of how little temporal space has been covered in Breaking Bad. One year since Walt’s maiden RV trip into the desert, Walt has a storage locker full of cash, a bunny hill of dead bodies with his name on it, a cadre of henchmen helping him run his meth enterprise and a long list of vanquished enemies. As we come to find out by the end of this season, his most identifiable foes are the silverfish that threaten to eat through his mountain of money if Skyler does not chemically treat it. However, what Walt no longer has is even a sliver of respect from his wife.
The bond that existed between Walt and Skyler is irretrievably broken. The betrayals are far too profound and long lasting to ever return to that beautifully simple thing they had: love. He has no answer for this problem at the moment. Walt seems resigned to the fact that while he is up to his neck in blue meth, Skyler will continue to loath him. But in love as in meth, Walt thinks ten moves ahead. He brandishes the watch that Jesse gave him as proof that he will solve this little problem of a shattered marriage.
The watch, as Walt explains to Skyler, was given to him by Jesse, who once upon a time wished him dead with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns. In Walt’s mind, the transgressions perpetrated on Jesse were far more severe than anything he has visited upon Skyler, bottoming out when Jesse pointed a gun right between Walt’s eyes and threatened to pull the trigger. No one else got Walt a gift for his 51st birthday. Someday, he believes, it will be Skyler honoring him on his day yet again.
“Fifty-One” explores more than the depths of the Whites’ marriage. Delightfully frantic, Laura Fraser’s tightly wound Lydia Rodarte-Quayle presents as a new problem for Walt and the boys. The once-reliable Madrigal now appears to be a blind spot where the DEA is poised to pounce. Considering the scale of the threats already neutralized, the tracking device that she may or may not have planted on a barrel of methylamine seems like small potatoes. Considering the utter disarray of his home, these really are only minor nuisances.
To Walt, matters of the heart can be analyzed with the same shrewd rationality as even the most esoteric scientific question. It’s the central conceit upon which Walt operates, assuming that he can indeed perform enough penance during his post drug dealing life to win back the family he believes that he has only temporarily squandered. He cannot.
He cannot comprehend the vast differences between his relationship with Jesse and the relationship he has with Skyler. He cannot see that Jesse never trusted Walt the way Skyler did. He never loved Walt the way Skyler did. He never felt so afraid, so vulnerable, and so alone when it appeared that Walt might be on death’s door. He never pictured himself growing old with Walt. He never created two lives with Walt for whom he is completely responsible. Skyler did all these things; she felt all of these things. She said, “I love you” to Walt countless times, and she meant it.
A lot has changed in a year. Robert Downs Schultz
S5E5 Dead Freight
The black-and-white shots of a stuffed animal floating in the White family’s pool that opened all of the Season Two episodes caused a stir in the fan community. For some, the reveal in the Season Two finale, that all of the police cars amidst the wreckage were not caused by some meth lab incident by Walt but instead by two planes colliding in the sky, is a huge cop-out. Others, this writer included, find that while it may be a “sucker punch,” it is a tastefully executed sucker punch.
Part of what makes the finale so gut wrenching is that it demonstrates how cause and effect’s wide reach spans even the most tertiary of events. In this case, a simple version of the chain goes something like this: Walt’s desire to cook meth leads him to Jesse, Jesse meets Jane Margolis, they get high together, she chokes on her own vomit in her drug-induced sleep (which Walt sees but does not prevent), and finally, Jane’s father, an air traffic controller, loses focus at work, resulting in an occasion as rare as a mid-air collision. Walt’s myopic view of the harms of his drug business is countered masterfully with this season-long story arc.
“Dead Freight”, easily one of the finest hours of this broadcast, takes that type of causal chain and compresses it into a single hour. Like many Breaking Bad episodes, this one begins with a tease: a young boy rides out into the New Mexico wilderness on a dirt bike, enjoying the thrill of the high desert and all of its creatures, namely a tarantula he stumbles upon. This boy has never been seen in any Breaking Bad episode prior; is this a new character being introduced? This show being the corpse-littered universe that it is, one shouldn’t get their hopes up. By the time the heist of the titular train comes to its almost-perfect end, the young biker boy has a bullet in his chest.
Most would point out that it’s at minimum deeply improbable that a boy’s choice to go biking out in the middle of nowhere would result in his death. They are right. As with nearly everything in Breaking Bad, some explaining is in order.
Once it is discovered that their source of methylamine is being bugged, Jesse, Mike, and Walt take swift action. Walt’s mind immediately runs to the DEA, who had just taken a look through Lydia Rodarte-Quayle’s warehouses. Mike believes Lydia planted a fake bug so as to spook the three away and no longer be associated with them. A thoroughly terrifying interrogation of Lydia, aided in part by Walt’s bugging of Hank’s office, immediately follows, which brings out some of the best in Mike’s bone-dry sense of humor. After demanding that she call the DEA to ask Hank if the bugs were planted by his men — which would then prove her innocence — Mike makes himself nothing less than clear as a certain blue crystal. If she fails to follow their instructions, he tells her, “I will pull out my gun, and I will shoot you in the head.” He repeats this twice more. He then makes her repeat it verbatim, including and especially the part about “in the head.”
Lydia, as they say, wises up. She divulges to the recently formed meth triumvirate that there is a way to get the methylamine they need to fuel their enterprise. Having just found out through the bugs in Hank’s office that it was the DEA surveilling Lydia’s warehouse, necessity demands that the trio find a new avenue for their List 1 needs. A train carrying “an ocean,” to use Lydia’s words, of methylamine passes through New Mexico on the way to Texas; Lydia’s company has unique access to its cargo manifest.
During this route it reaches a three-mile stretch called a “dead zone,” where all channels of communication, including the TSA alerts that go off when a train is stopped out of schedule, go cold. If Jesse, Mike, and Walt were able to stop the train, they could siphon off an enormous amount of methylamine. And, as Walt tells their underling Todd, so long as they fill the tanker they steal the methylamine from with a proportionate amount of water, when the cargo arrives at its final destination, the owners of the chemical will presume they were delivered a watered-down batch.
So far, so good. The crucial element of the heist is variable control, and on this matter the trio is covered. The heist being executed in a dead zone out in open desert means that, in terms of probability — which is all one has to work with in a location as open-ended as this — they aren’t likely to run into anyone. The water-for-methylamine replacement is backed up by Walter’s extensive chemistry knowledge. And even though their plan hits an unexpected snag when the truck they use to block the railway is helped off the tracks by a kind trucker, which shortens the timeframe to siphon off the chemical, they manage to get all 1000 gallons without catching notice of the train conductor or engineer. By most measures, their heist was a success.
But then come those last fateful seconds.
Early in the episode, when concerns are raised about the viability of the heist, Mike says, “I have done this long enough to know there are two kinds of heists: one where the guys get away with it, and those that leave witnesses.” This is the first principle of the “Dead Freight Heist.” The second is a line first uttered by Walt, which is then repeated multiple times by Jesse to Todd: “No one can ever know this happened.” Each of these principles is a solid one to adopt when undertaking a robbery as risky as this one, but what is missed by Jesse, Walt, Mike and Todd is that once these rules are adopted as the foundation for the theft, one cannot control all the potential outcomes they elicit. What happens in “Dead Freight”‘s final moments is the logical extension of the “leave no witnesses” mantra, as well as the fulfillment of Jesse and Walt’s insistence that “no one can know it ever happened.”
The thrill that comes from watching the quartet pull off the heist by the skin of their necks is palpable. Trying to oust scenes like the finale of “Crawl Space” and the face-melting of Gus Fring was undoubtedly a difficult challenge for the writing staff of Breaking Bad, but they set the bar high and vaulted it by leaps and bounds. Nothing, however, comes close to the jaw-dropping horror that comes right before the end credits kick in. The aforementioned young boy rides up on his dirt bike right as the heist reaches its conclusion. He waves at Jesse, Todd, and Walt. Todd waves back. Then Todd pulls out a gun and shoots him. Cut to black.
Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, “Cause and effect, means and ends, seed and fruit, cannot be severed; for the effect already blooms in the cause, the end pre-exists in the means, the fruit in the seed.” The plane collision that brings Season Two to its end and Todd’s rash decision to shoot the boy are two sides of the same coin. Cause and effect is a beast much like the hydra; with every one head that one chops off, thinking it will do the trick, another two will emerge, proving that there is no such thing as avoiding divergent paths in a plan.
For all of the time Mike, Jesse, and Walt put into devising a latticework of controlled variables, there was always going to be the possibility of a flaw that could threaten to undo it all. But the even simpler fact is that just as Walt’s devotion to the principle of the need to provide for his family led him to the logical extreme of selling methamphetamine, the creation of this heist meant holding fast to the principles of its preservation, one of which is leaving no witnesses. No one can know. In this case, “No one” just happens to be an innocent little boy, out to take in the rays of the sun while feeling the dirt kick up around his feet. Brice Ezell
For all the hints we’ve been given in past episodes, the one thing required to really set Jesse’s moral compass to point north is the mistreatment or killing of children. So watching the methodical cleanup at the start of “Buyout” of all evidence of the murdered child who witnessed the crew’s daring methylamine heist serves as a boiling-over of tension, something we as viewers know carries the potential to drive Jesse away from Walter completely. It boils over when he punches Todd in the face after the young man brushes off what he’s done as something which was unavoidable. Jesse becomes more frustrated when Walter tells him he’s all torn up about what happened, only to hear him whistling as he returns to work. So it’s no surprise to find that Jesse’s wanting out.
Mike’s another matter. But as we see early in the episode, he’s being dogged by the DEA, and his advantage — knowing their comings and goings via the bug Walter planted in Hank’s office — can only last so long. Near the end of the episode Mike and Saul play their final card, which should buy Mike enough time to make his Albuquerque exit quick and painless if he can pull it off. But there’s the matter of extricating himself from the whole Walter equation, and that tends to be easier said than done no matter who’s doing the exiting. For a man who claims to never take half measures, Mike sure has a soft-spot for surrendering control when Walter’s involved. Which in the coming episode, of course, serves to get him killed, making a re-viewing of “Half Measure” and “Full Measure” almost certain musts, if only to see where he fully lost control of his own ship.
Walter is flabbergasted when he’s told by Jesse and Mike that they want out, and that in order to do so, he too must leave the meth game, selling all the stolen methylamine for “pennies on the dollar.” This in turn finally gets Walter to open up, although only slightly, about the dealings which led him to leave Gray Matter. Jesse tells him $5 million is not nothing, but Walt begs to differ. “I’m not going to go into details,” he tells Jesse, “but for personal reasons I decided to leave the company and I sold my share to my two partners. I took a buyout for $5,000. Now at the time that was a lot of money for me. Care to guess what that company is worth now? BILLIONS, with a B. $2.16 billion as of last Friday — I look it up every week. And I sold my share, my potential, for $5,000. I sold my kids’ birthright for a few months’ rent.”
With that nugget revealed at long last, we understand that there’s nothing Walter would exchange for what he’s gained in the meth world. To use a rock music analogy, he’s Dave Mustaine post-Metallica. No matter how much he gained in Megadeth success, everything was tainted by what could have been with Metallica. In Walter’s world, he can never get back what he lost by leaving Gray Matter, and even with that tainting everything he gains under the Heisenberg banner, he’ll never again take a buyout. He’ll never let someone else determine when he’s reached his potential.
And of course his family is shattering all around him even as we watch. Skyler comes as close as she ever will to telling Marie what’s really going on, revealing her internal battle in trying to make “the right decision.” She needs to protect her children — from both herself and Walter — but knows they need to stay with Marie and Hank because “whatever I choose is wrong.” But before she can elaborate, Marie blurts out that Walter already revealed her affair with Ted, and that shuts Skyler down for good, and sets up that incredibly awkward dinner conversation between her, Walter and Jesse, at the end of which she reveals that she fucked Ted “and may I please be excused?” leaving Walter no choice but to expound to Jesse on the subject:
“You know my kids are gone,” he says. “I don’t mean they’re out for the night. They’re gone. They’re staying with my in-laws. She made me kick my own kids out of the house. She told me that she was counting the days until my cancers came back. My wife is waiting for me to die. This business is all I have left. It’s all I have, and you want to take it away from me?”
In other words, there’s no way out, Jesse. You’re tied inextricably to Walter, and Walter doesn’t want out — he’s in this to the bitter end. And anyone who gets in his way in that regard is someone who must be dealt with, someone who is simply in the way. But he’ll allow you to think you still have a choice, as long as you make the right one.
Walter returns to the crew’s headquarters that night to steal back the methylamine, only to encounter Mike, who holds him hostage until the next morning, then chaining him to a radiator while he goes with Saul for the final meet with the DEA. Of course this final half measure seals the deal for what will happen in “Say My Name”, as Walter escapes, hides the methylamine, and demands Jesse and Walter play along as Heisenberg makes a final stand. With Mike holding a gun to Walt’s head, Jesse argues that Walt’s come up with a win-win: they each get their buyout, and Walt gets to keep the new family business.
“Is this true, Walter?” Mike sneers.
“Everybody wins,” Walter smirks, knowing that Mike’s already made all the wrong decisions, there’s no reason to think he’ll pull that trigger now, so close to escaping the powerful Heisenberg once and for all. Like all self-centered psycopaths, Walter alone knows what’s right, and he’s invulnerable to failure. And in this case, he’s ready to assert himself and make sure that by the end of this series we’ll all be saying his name, giving him the proper credit due.
Our pal Mike Ehrmantraut doesn’t have what it takes to bring Heisenberg down. In the end, the question becomes what Walt’s true potential is: to be known as the criminal mastermind, or to be the man whose own hubris destroys him and everyone he claims to love. Jonathan Sanders
Say My Name
Photo Source: Heisenberg Chronicles
S5E7 Say My Name
What is his name?
As they head out to their desert rendezvous with Declan, Mike continually, almost deliberately, calls him Walter. J.P Wynne High alum Jesse cannot let go of “Mr. White.” For Declan, shocked by the revelation of who did actually whack Gus, he is, pointedly, Heisenberg. He’s all of them at once, the three-in-one. The trinity.
He had a disciple too. They may not always have had the smoothest of relationships, but they’ve come a long way together, Walter and Jesse. They part on bad terms in this episode, the gap in their emotional responses to Todd’s killing of the boy in Dead Freight becoming too great a chasm to cross, but they’ve done well to get this far together. It’s a peculiar relationship that has survived murders, double-crosses and a colossal difference in active vocabulary, but survive it did. How?
They have always described themselves as partners, and at one time or another, each has insisted on the involvement of the other, even when it would have been inconvenient to do so. All the same, their relationship has been more of teacher and pupil, and Jesse’s continued insistence on calling his partner Mr White is emblematic of this. As his schoolteacher, Walter had been frustrated at Jesse’s sloppiness. Recall all the way back in “Cancer Man”, when Jesse finds his old chemistry homework, over which had been scrawled in angry red marker pen, “APPLY YOURSELF.” Apply yourself. How many times has Walter said that to Jesse? Well, Jesse did apply himself and now Walter is able to say that “he is the best meth cook,” no, the “two best meth cooks in America.” Finally, in terms of chemistry, Walter is able to consider Jesse a partner, not a pupil, but the epithet remains. He still calls him Mr White, even as he walks away.
Unperturbed, Walter simply recruits Todd as Jesse’s replacement. He’s quietly impressed by his diligence; taking and reviewing careful notes and disdaining to consider payment until he’s got the cook down pat. In a scene made grimly hilarious by its everyday nature, Walter proudly tells Skyler about this “new guy he’s working with.” It looks at first glance to be an ordinary “how was your day honey?” conversation, but look closely. Walter’s dinner is a pathetic microwave meal and just how much wine is Skyler putting away? It has all the appearance of a nice, neat suburban mealtime, but it’s a hollow sham. Mr and Mrs White have been destroyed.
Still, this new guy at work? He really applied himself.
Declan would be advised to do likewise. He’s working with a new guy too and this guy doesn’t tolerate any sloppiness. It’s convenient to think of him as the villain now, but it’s hard not to root for him a tiny bit as he stands firmly in the desert and sets the terms, his terms by which they will now be working. In a just world, the final moments of the exchange between Declan and Heisenberg would be as well-regarded as the I am the one who knocks speech. It’s confirmation that we’re dealing with a changed character here. The old label of Walter White is not only troublesome from a law enforcement point of view, it’s also out of date. Walter has gone.
The switch is more apparent in Hank’s office, when he briefly adopts his old persona to distract his brother-in-law and remove the bug that he’d planted there earlier. Walter is now merely a disguise of convenience. A mask that Heisenberg wears when he needs to.
The DEA’s pursuit of Mike’s lawyer and the resultant cessation of the hazard pay brings necessity home. Keeping them paid off worked up to a point, but money was never really a tight enough hold on these nine loose ends. It worked for Mike, but Heisenberg runs tighter game. Now that the money has gone, Heisenberg has no reason not to do something about it. He needs those names. Mike has them.
Mike still refers to him exclusively as Walter. He uses personal nouns a lot but for Walter it has significance. Walter is the put-upon part of the trinity. Mike has no respect for Walter. He just wants his money so that he can, like Jesse, walk away. It’s owed to him, and Walter’s stupid insistence on a “thanks” falls on deaf ears. Walter, it’s always the same with him:
“We had Fring, we had a lab, we had everything we needed, and it all ran like clockwork! You could have shut your mouth, cooked, and made as much money as you ever needed! It was perfect! But no! You just had to blow it up! You, and your pride and your ego! You just had to be the man! If you’d known your place, we’d all be fine right now!”
Yep. If he’d only known his place. This is too much for Walter, or rather, it is too much for Heisenberg. “Know his place?” No. He’s Heisenberg, the best meth cook in America, the guy who killed Gus Fring Goddammit! He’s not “Walter” any more Mike, you idiot. He’s Heisenberg, and Heisenberg does not tolerate anyone telling him to know his place.
It’s Heisenberg who fires the shot, but it’s Walter who apologizes for it. Or is it? He’s not really sorry that he shot Mike for any moral reason, but because it was “unnecessary.” He could have got the names from Lydia. Mike is, ultimately, just another guy who got in the way. If only he’d remembered his name. Michael Noble
Glinding Over All
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