We could start with Future Walt and the ricin and that wonderful dropped bag of groceries. Or we could start with Walt reorganizing the high-margin air fresheners. Or his visit to Jesse’s apartment. Or the garage scene—oh man, the garage scene. But I want to start at the beginning of this week’s episode and one of the most remarkable aspects of the show—the cinematography. Opening on the tight shot of the skateboard that eventually pulls back to reveal the ruins of the White house in suburban Albuquerque was perfect. The show has always excelled at the unusual perspective, the slow reveal, the enigmatic opening. This single episode, the first of the series’ final run, was filled with shots that tell the story in a style all its own, so much so that it led to this video.
From the close-up shot of an aggressive dog when Jesse is driving through rough neighborhoods to cleanse his soul of the blood money to the wide shot on Hank and Walt that ends the episode, it’s just a pleasure to watch. And that first scene—the signs and fence condemning Walt’s family house, “Heisenberg” spray painted in the dining area where Walt Jr. used to live a fairly balanced life, the socket where the ricin was hidden, and, Carol dropping her bag of groceries—this is what Walt’s series-long untethering from morality hath wrought.
You might think that by tipping his hand on where we’re headed, Vince Gilligan has removed some of the tension in these last handful of episodes. We know this is going to end badly. But we always knew this was going to end badly. We’ve just had mixed emotions about that. For four and a half seasons, we’ve been pulling for Walt to get away with murder (and drug manufacturing, dealing, a nursing-home explosion, a train robbery, and basically being “the one who knocks”)—and then catching ourselves and remembering that Hank is the good guy. We didn’t know when this started that a show about a meth dealer was going to be a morality play without the repentance and salvation. That we were going to be watching a man face temptation, fall and spiral down into the abyss, dragging countless others with him.
Walt may have gotten out of the game, but he’s still lying to Jesse about Mike. His “dark past” is something to shake his head ruefully at, but even if he’s refusing to help out Lydia with her meth operation, he’s living with no regrets. He’s come out on top by not letting anyone or any qualms get in the way. We might still find ourselves pulling for Walt—he’s the protagonist—but we can’t abide an ending with Walter the car-wash magnate leading his family off into the sunset.
Gilligan does offer us repentance in the form of a stoned-out-of-his-gourd Jesse Pinkman making it rain in the hood. Jesse has been crushed by the weight of his guilt—a human response to the enormity of his sins that shows that his life may be in shambles but his soul has not been destroyed. He knows the stacks of cash in the duffel bags cost too many lives. What he feels is what we know Walt should feel—in fact, Walt had a similar moment at the beginning of Season Three when he lit his money on the grill before throwing the grill into the pool. That change of heart now seems permanent. But while Jesse is sitting in Saul’s waiting room, trying to get the money to the families who’ve been destroyed by their actions, “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” plays over the PA. Even the cheesy elevator music carries weight: “I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished rows of steel / As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal.”
Your email is pure brilliance, clearly written by a studious fan of the show, and I’m going to respond with the attention it deserves in just a second. But as you and I have discussed before, I’m one of the four people on planet Earth who doesn’t think Breaking Bad is quiiiiiiiite as amazing as everyone else. It’s an odd feeling, because usually I’m in lockstep with the TV intelligentsia; I love all the shows that are supposed to be timeless works of art, and I actually hate when people are critical just to be anti-establishment. But Breaking Bad is a tough one for me, because while it captivates me and I have stuck with it through five seasons, there are always glaring plot holes and convenient devices that drive me up a wall. So I hope it’s cool with you if you give me one shortish paragraph a week to have a “Breaking Bad Rant” where I get all my negative vibes out of the way early and then join you (and almost literally everyone else whose opinion I respect) in recognizing what makes this show really, really good.
My Breaking Bad Rant, Featuring Poor Punctuation and Irrational Anger
Nobody nobody NOBODY can drag a plot out longer than Vince Gilligan and his team of writers and right away my complaint is WHAT? ARE YOU SERIOUS? Hank knows he did it! Hank knows, Josh! Why didn’t he come out of that bathroom and either arrest Walt on the spot or call up cops to appear and do it for him? If not then, why not do it the minute you get the materials from work and realize it’s him? Why drag this out, other than to serve the show? IT WAS HIM, HANK. YOU KNOW IT. Am I supposed to believe his shock can last through an entire WEEK of missed work? Instead we get this confrontation in the garage, and the whole time I’m waiting for the mechanism of delay that is so crucial to this show, where the writers have admitted they sort of make it up as they go along, and lo and behold, it comes with this absurd idea that Hank should somehow let Walt off because of family or a cancer relapse or whatever, followed by a threat, followed inevitably by a season of weird coincidences that drag out the final confrontation. My suspension of disbelief has already been murdered by this show and now THEY ARE KICKING MY CORPSE, JOSH. THEY ARE KICKING MY CORPSE AND SOMEHOW IT STILL HURTS.
Okay, thank you. Thank you for that. My problem is just that for all this show’s genius, I feel like they get away with insulting our intelligence plot-wise a little too often, and I have the unshakeable urge to call it out.
Now, on to rational conversation. I completely agree with you that this show just destroys it (in a good way!) with cinematography and visual creativity. Who can ever forget the people crawling to the Santa Muerte altar in Season Three, for one? The opening scene with the skateboarders was wonderfully loud and harsh and chaotic, and is just one example of how well the various directors can set a mood. Not to get all nuts-and-bolts here, but I’ve always noticed how successfully this show uses sound, diegetic or otherwise. A couple examples from this episode, besides the grating skateboard sound:
1. The footsteps while Walt is searching for the ricin in his bombed-out home. It functions in its basic purpose of creating an atmosphere of suspense, but there’s also the metaphorical meaning that has been the theme of the whole show (Walt trying to escape capture) and that you have to imagine will finally catch up with him by the end of this season.
2. The droning noise while Hank is driving home after discovering Walter = Heisenberg. That, plus the shifting camera angles, were just amazingly effective at capturing the utter shock/panic/revulsion of someone’s world turning on its head. Weird historical tangent: Apparently when Khruschev gave his “Secret Speech” to the Russian congress after Stalin’s death, which basically functioned to denounce Stalin and the way he cultivated paranoia and a cult of personality, several listeners went into cardiac arrest. They’d lived so long convincing themselves of a lie their lives depended on—that Stalin was ominiscient and perfect, essentially—that even hearing these words upset them to a literal heart-stopping degree. That’s what I thought of watching Hank reel on the front lawn; there is such a thing as informational overload, and it was conveyed perfectly.
3. The “Battle Hymn” in the office. I honestly didn’t even consider your angle about the meaning of the lyrics, so thanks for enlightening me on that. I just thought the slow, saccharine version playing over the loudspeakers was a hilarious touch for a lawyer like Saul Goodman who loves to drape himself in the flag in his commercials while running what has to be the scummiest law office in the southwest. It’s totally a song he would choose, and the fact that you noticed the other, more serious implication of the lyrics shows what a multi-faceted, inspired choice it was.
4. The remote-control car just before the Hank-Walt confrontation. Again, nothing too special, but the sound took on such an ominous feel that it was just a perfect mood-setter. I can’t remember a show besides Twin Peaks that used sound so effectively (maybe The Sopranos, particularly in this scene), and the vibe is positively Lynchian at times. To be quite honest, the writing lapses might have turned me off of this show by now if everything else wasn’t so great, and the sound and cinematography are huge, huge parts of that.
On to Walt. At this point, I think I’m squarely rooting against him at this point, but you’re right that it’s been a fluctuating emotional battle. At first, he was weak and eager to please, and even, I thought, a little unlikeable. Then he took control of his destiny and began making meth, and even in the panicky incarnation of Criminal Walt he suddenly became interesting, and you began rooting for him because his crime made sense—make money for the family, and give yourself a sense of importance and excitement while staring death in the face. You even got the sense that turning to drugs may have saved him, in some way. Then he made his choice to become a true criminal, though he still scrambled to stay alive and free of the justice system. Now? I have to admit that I feel his recurrent Houdini escape acts have turned me against him a little; as mentioned before, I think his comeuppance has been dragged out to the extent that I have trouble believing it, and the only thing that can surprise me now is seeing him get caught or killed. Which is why the garage confrontation, so beautifully filmed and acted, left me frustrated with the emergence of the totally inconceivable-in-real-life idea that he might finagle his way out again.
On the other hand, I LOVE the Heat comparison. Just like that in that movie, this show is left with two very compelling characters, and we inherently want them to face off. And just like the diner scene, this was the face-off before the face-off.
Peripheral stuff: Breaking Bad doesn’t often make me laugh, but the idea of Badger conceiving of a Star Trek script that starts with a pie-eating contest and ends with Kirk sending Chekhov’s guts into outer space because he’s distracted by breasts…that’s pretty hysterical.
And how about Skyler? I hate Skyler. I don’t care how many nonsensical accusations are cast at the legions of my fellow Skyler-haters (the most prevalent: we’re misogynists who don’t like empowered females!), because it’s all tripe. The fact is that Skyler White is a bad character played by a bad actress, and we are within our rights to be infuriated when she’s on screen. In this episode, I would put her annoyance factor at a low 3.8/10. She gave Walt an unnecessarily terse greeting at the car wash, then was back on his side when he came up with a good idea for laundering money, and then had a mostly non-annoying (but also pretty unbelievable) confrontation with Lydia. Nothing too drastic so far. But I’m ready, Josh. I’m ready to be angry at Skyler. Just give me a chance, man.
I see that I have truly rambled. I’ll leave you with this: I was really hoping when Jesse offered the first stack of cash, the homeless guy would see the bag, produce a gun, and be like, “you know what? I’ll take the rest, too.” But on a serious note, I also like that Jesse has a soul and can sniff out Walt’s lies about Mike, and my gut tells me that even though the Hank-Walt confrontation was compelling, the real showdown is coming later between the former partners in crime.
Any show or movie or book whose tension comes from a game of cat-and-mouse is going to ask for some kind of pass when it comes to suspension of disbelief, and I’ve never felt like Breaking Bad was especially greedy in that regard. Think of the work Gilligan has done to prepare you for this. Hank for all his moral grounding has already put family before the law when his wife was medicating her depression with five-finger discounts on shoes. (Going back to your rigid/fluid thinkers spectrum from our Game of Thrones letters, this also makes him a much more interesting character than the terrible, hypocritical Skyler.) His moral code places family pretty high. He knows what his actions will mean for Skyler, Walt Jr. and Holly—in fact, Hank doesn’t really fully go into shock right when he learns the truth—that only happens when he looks at Walt holding Holly as he starts his car. It’s not just the revelation that causes his mind to shut down; it’s the collision of his two highest codes—law and family.
But please keep bringing your critical eye to the party. We Breaking Bad superfans could probably use a little grounding now that the show is entering conversations about “best drama ever” (a conversation I won’t be ready to have until we see where exactly we’ve been heading with that M-60 in the trunk).
And I can tell you right here that I decided to pull against Walt when he let Jane choke on her vomit…at least intellectually…when he’s not on screen. He transformed from antihero to villain. But even now, I keep finding myself caught up in his moment, hoping he’ll stay a step ahead of the game. And I love that inner tension even as I watch. I have to keep reminding myself that I’m not on his side.
And I love this dark, serious show has three truly funny characters. I can’t look at Skinny Pete the same since he sat down at that piano. And Badger’s Star Trek script was the best nerdy monologue since Patton Oswalt was on Parks and Rec. And Saul’s green shirt!
But what’s your take on Future Walt/Hirsute Walt? He wasn’t lying to Hank about the cancer’s return, but he’s certainly got his hair back. Who’s that gun for? What happens to Carol after those groceries drop? Is he somehow related to Lost’s Future Walt on the parallel timeline? What’s going on here?
Have an A1 day!
PS – Where can I get Saul’s green dress shirt? And dibs for Halloween.
You’re probably right on the suspension of disbelief. I’m a fan of Justified and Sons of Anarchy, two shows that demand it from me on a routine basis (especially the latter), and I oblige without blinking. Whatever it is that sometimes rubs me the wrong way about Breaking Bad is probably destined to remain a mystery.
The rooting for or against Walt is another interesting element that I have trouble explaining. Because, again, I’m fully ready and able to root for awful TV characters if they’re compelling enough. I rooted for Tony Soprano right up until the bitter end, despite all the horrible things he did, and in minor respects, the same could be said for a lot of the gangsters in The Wire, though that’s more a credit to David Simon’s excellent work painting them with shades of gray. In a minor way, the same could be said for Justified’s Boyd Crowder, GoT’s Jaime Lannister, Deadwood’s Al Swearengen, and too many others to mention. What does this say about me? Either that I’m a completely healthy adult who can discern between television and real life and makes aesthetic decisions, or that I’m a sociopath/psychopath who roots for evil under the guise of “hey, it’s just TV, man!”
Anyway, point is that Walt could go on a puppy-murdering spree and I’d still root for him if I liked the character enough. But I think one thing that makes Breaking Bad interesting is that there’s a falseness to Walt that, unlike some of the more compelling baddies in TV history, really makes you unsettled and uncomfortable around him. It’s why Hank’s line in the garage—”I don’t even know who I’m talking to”—was so powerful. Because truly, we’re in the same boat. Walt does all his evil things, we try to justify him, we watch him transform into “friendly dad” with his super-lame patter around Skyler and Walt Jr. and Hank and Marie, and we’re at the point where there’s a real sense of anarchy underlying Walt. I don’t get him, and I mean that as a compliment (I think). His motivations are beyond me, and I think in my brain there’s a sort of “fear of the unknown” going on, which is why I’m craving his comeuppance.
And yes, speculating about Future Walt is going to be fun. My theory on the newfound hair is that at some point in the next few episodes, his cancer comes back full blast and he gives up on chemo and says “screw it.” He’s going to die, Skyler probably leaves again, and he just gives up on his image and is waiting for death. The ricin he’s fetching from the house is for himself—he’s been on the run, chased by Hank and maybe Jesse and God knows who else, and rather than suffer from the alienation and pain and fear, he’s going to off himself by tasting his own medicine. I have no idea why the house is bombed out, and I can’t even begin to speculate unless Lydia got sick of his non-compliance and had her foot soldiers bomb/burn his house to send a message.
How’s that sound? Not bad for a start? So it’s about time to wrap up, and when we did the Game of Thrones emails, I always ended by writing, “Please don’t die, George R.R. Martin.” There’s no exact equivalent here, since we’re now guaranteed an ending to this story, so instead of that I’m going to sign off with a plea for survival centering around the character I’d be most upset at losing. So, here goes:
Please don’t die, Jesse Pinkman.