Breaking Bad Review: "Granite State" (Episode 5.15)
Shane Ryan and Josh Jackson review Breaking Bad each week in a series of letters. Want to join the conversation and see your name on the digital pages of Paste? We’ll be running our final Breaking Bad Mailbag on Friday to whet our appetite for the series finale. Send your Breaking Bad questions, theories, and rants to BreakingPaste@gmail.com before Friday, and Josh or Shane—possibly both!—will answer the best ones.)
I’ve figured it out. I’ve figured out the answer to the question I never knew Vince Gilligan was asking:
God wants Walter White to be a badass. GOD, Josh. He wants him to rain terror on everyone, consequences be damned.
Forget morals. Forget the idea of “breaking bad”—the series title is a red herring. Forget his family, including his ungrateful kid who rejected Walt’s name before the meth business even started. None of that matters. This is about the ENTITY THAT RULES THE UNIVERSE wanting Walter White to cook meth, kill people, and destroy the entire southwestern part of the United States of America.
Because, look, how else can you explain that the first time the guy’s around a TV in two months, there’s a Charlie Rose interview with Gretchen and Elliott undercutting him in every way possible. That is divine intervention, Josh. And now we also know why he’s been so lucky throughout the series. He’s been protected all along! The man cannot die! He cannot be caught! He is the chosen one!
If the show doesn’t end with Walt getting on an alien spaceship while the desert is burning, Vince Gilligan has failed us, and will be punished by the real Walter White, who I believe has the power to transcend his fictional TV character status and become a real man to exact revenge on those who have wronged him. Which includes you and I, Josh. We’ve said too many words about Walter White, and some of them must not have been flattering. Our days are numbered.
Putting my “actual critic” slacks on for a moment, I loved this episode. Loved loved loved it. Going in, I thought there was almost no way for it to live up to “Ozymandias,” last week’s episode which will almost definitely go down as the best, most harrowing episode of the entire show. But “Granite State” was the perfect response; brooding, dark, and slow in the best way possible.
Let’s start with Robert Forster, the actor who played “Saul’s Guy,” for lack of a better term. He’s a character actor you’ve seen a thousand times in TV and movies, the classic “it’s that guy!” type whose face rings a bell, but whose name you wouldn’t know in a thousand years. The last time I remember seeing him was as a crusty grandpa in The Descendants, but he’s played cop figures in Me, Myself, & Irene and Mulholland Drive (two films I mention because they’re so similar), along with a thousand other roles you’d recognize if you heard them. I mean, look at the man’s IMDB page—he never stops working! The reason I bring him up now, though, is that he was absolutely perfect as Saul’s Guy. Professional, calm, utterly realistic and ultimately cold. The scene where Walt, lonely for company, begs him to stay, just killed me. And Saul’s Guy wasn’t about to throw him a bone; he accepted the ten grand, but negotiated down from two hours to one hour. This is Walt’s demise made manifest; he can’t even pay someone to hang out with him.
But it gets worse. Much worse, as when his son refuses to accept his money and wishes death on him. I’m a sucker for the dark, wooden interiors of the kind you only see in the frigid parts of our country (New England, upstate New York, Wisconsin-Minnesota-Michigan, by my count), and I loved that bar as a setting, just like I loved Walt’s cabin. This will sound like a weird thing to say, but I think if Breaking Bad had taken place in that kind of setting, I’d love it even more, if only because of the bone-deep nostalgia I hold to the quiet, frozen locales of my childhood BUTTTTTT…I’m getting off track. The point is that New Hampshire turned out to be a perfect setting for Walt’s isolation, and Saul’s Guy turned out to be his perfect keeper. It actually makes me sad that we can’t see more of this, somehow.
Back in the southeast, though, life continues at its faster, hotter pace. Jesse breaks out some pretty impressive gymnastics in his escape attempt, but can’t quite get out. It costs Andrea her life in a scene to which I felt weirdly emotionally immune, almost like I’ve programmed by brain not to be affected by anything Todd does ever again. His sadism doesn’t quite reach me the way Gus Fring’s did, even though they pull off the same attempt at a startling contrast. Gus was brutal and bloodthirsty, but he behaved like an impeccable gentlemen and a pillar of the community. To me, that was interesting because you could see the benefits. With Todd, he’s a murdering sadist without a conscience, but he behaves like a little boy and he can still have crushes on girls. I don’t think I “get” him, in the sense that I can ascertain his motivations or which parts of him are real and which are phony, and for that reason I only care about him as a character insofar as he relates to others.
Even the Peckerwoods took a step back in my estimation when they didn’t react EVEN A LITTLE to the revelation that Todd had murdered a kid. I’m not saying they should have exploded in anger and strung him up, or anything, but aren’t hardened prisoners renowned for despising and torturing their fellow inmates who have committed crimes against children? Couldn’t we at least get a, “damn, dude, you killed a kid?” I was hoping that when Uncle Jack was waving his gun around in the yard, he might squeeze a round into Todd. No such luck.
But “The Granite State,” to me, Josh, was about just that. The scenes with Walt in the snowy north gripped me like the frost grips the soil. And now I’m taking off my critic slacks and returning to my original point, which is that Walter White has the armor of the firmament girding him from capture and harm! When his eyes narrowed at the very end, and the opening theme song started playing (somehow, one of the best and most creative uses of music the show has ever employed, in terms of “ohhhh SHIT!” factor), did you not feel his power?
I want the finale to be a revenge tour, Josh. Gretchen, Elliott? DEAD. Betrayal begets vengeance. Flynn? DEAD. If you won’t take my love or money or name, son, you shall take my wrath! Skyler? GONE. Peckerwoods? NO CHANCE. Jesse? KAPUT. Lydia? STOP DOING THE STUPID SITTING BACK-TO-BACK AT CAFES THING. DEAD. Brock? ALL LOOSE ENDS MUST BE TIED. Marie? WHY NOT? Vince Gilligan? Me? You? ALL OF US! WE NEVER SAW THE TRUTH!
I am so excited, and I’m not even remembering the half of it. And so I turn to you, sir.
First off, thanks for saving me the trouble of looking up Robert Forster’s IMDB page because I got a little giddy when he stepped out of that minivan. Of course that’s the guy. And of course it was a soulless, fluorescent-lit vacuum repair shop and a featureless remote cabin in the snowy woods. There’s a reason that Breaking Bad won Best Drama at the Emmys last night, and the writing and acting are just a couple of them. Everything just felt perfect in this episode.
At least until Todd shot Andrea. I’m not sure I can yet “love, love, love” this episode just yet when I’m still a little wrecked from that scene. Jesse’s squashed tomato of a face last week was crushing. The look on his pulpy mug when he saw the photo of Andrea and Brock just made it worse. Seeing him completely broken in the truck as Todd murdered the girl he loved started to feel like the Theon torture porn from Game of Thrones. Except that I didn’t like Theon. Jesse was a screw-up from the start, a small-time crook who made some terrible decisions at the behest of his mentor, the worst of which was murdering Gale. But his remorse and desire to set things right begs for a little mercy. Death anywhere along this journey would have been more merciful than having to helplessly witness Andrea’s death and know that Brock is next if he doesn’t cooperate. I think he’d have traded places with Theon. So, yes, it was a brilliant episode, but it was also another brutal one.
The refrain we’ve all been singing, “Please don’t die, Jesse”—I may have to drop out of that choir. What hope does he have? What does he have left to live for? At this point, it’s the same thing as Walt—revenge. And what else can be waiting in store for us next week? Walt avenging those who’ve wronged him. Jesse avenging everyone else who’s actually been wronged. Does it matter if one of them gets to ride off into the sunset? That’s a pretty miserable ride for either. I’m just happy Saul’s in Nebraska and not Belize.
You’re right that it’s a little ridiculous (and clichéd) that the bartender just happened to start flipping through channels as soon Walt decides to turn himself in. We never see it, but I’m pretty sure Walt prays to the Deux ex machina five times a day. We all knew he wasn’t staying in that bar. But if that’s the show’s only weakness (and the Emmys say that it is—Anna Gunn just won Best Supporting Actress), those narrow escapes don’t even pull me out of the story anymore.
And Todd’s aw-shucks politeness as he tries to talk Lydia into sparing Skyler’s life ‘cause she “seems like a nice lady” only makes him creepier. His awkwardness and puppy love used to be cute. But did you see him pick the lint off Lydia’s jacket while she sits at the next table completely unaware? That was completely perfect and kind of made my skin crawl. He’s such a different kind of villain—one that we can’t relate to but often hear about in the local news (“he seemed like such a sweet boy…”).
So Breaking Bad is no longer about who we hope lives; Vince Gilligan has passed out the pitchforks and torches and riled up his audience to go hunting for monsters: Lydia, Todd and the rest of the Peckerwoods. Eventually Walt himself. There is no mercy in Gilligan’s world. All we’re hoping for is some measure of justice.
Your point about the merits of Jesse surviving is totally spot-on. At this point, he’s a broken man who has been tried and tortured like Job, as the writers pour endless agonies on him as if they’re curious how he’ll react. What hope is left for him? The only thing I can think is that maybe he’ll survive, take all the money, and find some meaning in raising Brock? That does seem far-fetched though, and far more likely is Gilligan & co. continuing their scorched-earth policy. It’s like a closing sale at a department story—everything must go. I don’t see either Walt or Jesse surviving, but at this point I’d take either.
One quick aside—did you notice when Saul’s Guy asked Walt if he knew how to use the flue for the wood stove? Walt brushed him off, and so far so good on that front, but this is a television show, and television shows don’t have random bits of dialogue like that for no reason. And now that Walt has left the reservation and brought an Ensure box full of $100,000 with him, I am actually going to make a prediction in which I feel pretty damn confident, considering that I’ve yet to be right, ever: Walt is going to return to the cabin to find it burning or burned, and the rest of his money gone. He’s going to have the $100k, and nothing else.
Yes, I totally saw Todd take the lint of Lydia’s shirt, and it was the creepiest thing he could do at that moment. It’s the banality of evil, and it makes your skin crawl. On the other hand, I’m glad to see you’re still trouncing me in the battle of who has a heart. It would probably take a team of psychiatrists to understand why Walt (a murderer) making a necklace of his wedding ring when his fingers grew too thin tugged at my heartstrings, but the cold-blooded killing of an innocent woman did not. I think part of it was my annoyance with her for so easily believing Todd, and another part was just the fascination of what Todd is even up to in this life, but my reaction was more along the lines of, “Oh man, this is going to make things interesting!” Then I had some pudding. Again, the banality of evil…television reviewers.
A few random thoughts:
1. “Inside the empty tank of a propane truck” should be the title of a country song.
2. Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium is a real thing.
3. I have two beefs with Saul’s Guy. One, he allows Walt to adorn his cabin wall with newspaper clippings about his own case. What if the New Hampshire version of Drew Sharp (on a snowmobile instead of a bike) gets curious one day and sees it? Todd’s not there to shoot him this time! Two, his main goal is to keep Walt from leaving the cabin and going into town, yet on his first visit he tells him how bad everything’s going for Skyler (taxi dispatch, young public defender, crappy house). Come on, man!
4. Hey Skyler, lock the door to your baby’s room. Just as a rule.
5. Anna Gunn winning an Emmy is a total reactionary move by they liberal elites who vote. And I say that as a liberal…well, I’m not elite at all. But liberal. Also, I just realized that this New York Times editorial by Gunn was total Emmy-bait. Very, very clever.
6. In the DVD of this season, I want the entire Jesse Pinkman confession video with Uncle Jack doing commentary. Mocking him the whole time, in character.
7. Flynn needs to get over the whole “dead Hank” thing. It’s been two months!
Just kidding on that last one. Okay, Josh, sometime in your next email, I think we need an updated “dead or alive” prediction list. One episode remaining. Who lives among the following: Walt, Jesse, Skyler, Todd, Peckerwoods (I think we all agree they live or die as one, right?), Marie, Gretchen, Elliott, Lydia, Flynn, Holly (not even Vince Gilligan is this brutal, right?? Please say I’m right.), Carmen the school principal, Saul, Huell, Brock and anyone else I’m forgetting.
Back at ya,
I loved how Walt brushed off the flue question, but I didn’t think it was random; I thought it was an example of Walt being offended that The Disappearer (Can we call him The Disappearer? It’s such an awkwardly accurate name.) would deign to question his intelligence when it came to working anything. (I also love how when we saw the M-60 in the trunk, we also saw the instruction manual. Reading that instruction manual was probably Walt’s favorite hour in exile—just above the card game with The Disappearer (see how awkward that sounds?).)
Also, if Jesse’s hell is a return to the cage, where he’s forced to cook meth, mourn his ex-girlfriend and fear for Brock’s life, Walt’s is probably Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. And I’ve only seen bits and pieces.
As for Anna Gunn, I don’t think she’s the even the best supporting actress on this show (clearly Betsy Brandt), but I’m not sure I buy your conspiracy theory. I think the voters just really like Breaking Bad, and I’ve talked to several critics who think Gunn has done an actual good job on the show. This may just boil down to taste—Skyler should be a sympathetic character, but I think the writers have been wishy-washy on whether they want us on her side. Walt was always becoming the bad guy, but the story was always told through his perspective, so Sklyer could be maddening. It was like they kept re-writing her through the series. You could either see that as complex or as wildly inconsistent, and I think the two of us lean towards the latter. But even with the writing challenges, if the actress couldn’t bring any sympathy to a character who’s been destroyed by her husband’s awful transformation, it’s hard for me to see “Best Actress.” But I don’t think they give out Emmys for hurt feelings.
Okay, on to the predictions:
Alive: Skyler, Marie, Gretchen, Elliott, Flynn, Holly, Carmen, Saul, Huell, Brock
Dead: Walt, Jesse, Todd, Lydia, the Peckerwoods, Gus Fring.
I’m absolutely sure about one of those.
You have my approval for “The Disappearer,” though in my more pretentious moments, I can’t promise I won’t call him “The Disappearist.” And I forgot to add him to the alive-or-dead list, but I definitely think he’s a goner next episode.
I think I agree almost entirely with your Alive/Dead list, though to force some difference I’m going to add Skyler to the dead list in the theory that anybody who is complicit in Walt’s crimes, even to a small degree, has to meet his maker. The only exceptions are Saul and Huell, who can’t die because one’s too slimy and one’s too innocent. All the talk of the Saul spin-off has been carefully branded as a “prequel” to keep viewers from having any clue about his fate as the end of this show approaches, but I can’t see where he could possibly fit into the finale beyond Walt going out of his way to slaughter him in the Nebraskan cornfields. And that seems unlikely. On that topic, though, Saul’s passivity and even trepidation in the last few episodes have been disappointing. Jesse’s violence really shook him, but I miss the swaggering know-it-all Saul.
One thing I meant to mention before—were you as disappointed as I was that the explanation for Walt’s house being a total wreck was just that some kids were treating it like a mecca? I wanted an explosion! I wanted contamination!
Last question: Who’s getting the ricin next week? My bet is Walt uses it as his own personal cyanide pill, ready to be consumed if he’s about to be taken prisoner. I think he keeps it on him as a contingency plan while he prepares to fight Todd and the Peckerwoods (first single: "The Empty Tank of a Propane Trunk). But that doesn’t mean he takes it, does it? So I’ll hazard a guess that one way or another, the ricin is Jesse’s way out.
Surely “The Disappearist” is already a show on CBS? If not, Leslie Moonves, what are you waiting for? Just pair Robert Forster with the third Deschanel sister. There’s no third Deschanel sister? Well, find a cousin! Do I have to do everything for you?
And yes, the answer to “Who scrawled Heisenberg on that wall?” is a little anti-climactic. Although, it’s a little funny that Walt’s got groupies. A barrel of money he can’t spend (or give to his family), groupies, an M-60 and cancer are all he has left.
Oh, and a vial of ricin. I see three possibilities left, from least to most likely:
3. Jesse. If Walt is going to kill Jesse, he doesn’t need to be coy about it anymore. There’s too much already pinned on him for one more murder to matter. Besides, hasn’t he already done enough to Jesse? He can’t still feel the need to get his revenge there.
2. Walt. If he’s going to die, he’s going to want it to be on his own terms. But even if that’s his intention, I’m not sure he goes through with it.
1. Lydia. She doesn’t seem like the type to be gunned down unless Walt happens to find her with the Peckerwood gang. He might need to be more subtle in killing her, and I have a feeling she’s the first to go next week—with some ricin-laced chamomile tea.
Remember, send your Breaking Bad questions to BreakingPaste@gmail.com and check back on Friday for more Breaking Bad goodness. Also, follow Shane Ryan at @ShaneRyanHere and Josh Jackson at @JoshJackson on Twitter.