Breaking Bag: Paste‘s Breaking Bad Mailbag (9/6)

TV Features

Josh and Shane will be running a Breaking Bad Mailbag each Friday so we can all get our BB fix before the new episode airs. To get in on the action, send your questions, theories, rants, and whatever else to [email protected]—or leave them in the comments—and stay tuned for the email exchange recaps on Mondays.

Thank you all for another week of solid participation as we get ready to start the fourth quarter of Breaking Bad’s final season. Everybody hold four fingers in the air. This is where TV-watching champions are made, and Josh and I are up to the task. Let’s start with one of my favorite questions of all time from Dan…

Maybe I’m just crazy but am I the only one who is still rooting for Walt? I don’t want him to necessarily survive the show but I still want him (whether it means sacrificing himself or not) to win in some fashion. I still connect with him on a deep level that states that we are all capable of heinous acts of evil and selfishness and yet we can still manage to view ourselves as the protagonists!
-Dan S.

It would be hard to overstate how much I love this take on Walter White. It’s one I’ve never heard, but it’s hysterical and pretty insightful at the same time. If I’m reading Dan correctly, he’s saying that Walt is a symbol of our ability to be shitty people, yet still delude ourselves into thinking we’re good. It’s a great observation on its own, but Dan won’t stop there—he wants to embrace it! Let’s root for the man, because hey, we’re all lying to ourselves on a daily basis anyway, so we might as well cheer for a guy who’s doing the same. It’s one thing to acknowledge our debased humanity, but Dan is proposing that we learn to love it through Walter White. Look me in the eye, readers of the world, and tell me that’s not brilliant.

Anyway, I’m curious about Walter’s fate, but I have no real rooting interest for or against his survival. So count me in, Dan. I hereby forfeit all notions of self-improvement and commit to justifying my weakness through Walt.

I, too, love this email, but I think what we’ve got here is the Calvinist perspective—we’re all totally depraved even if we don’t cook meth, poison kids and (kind of brilliantly) blackmail our brothers-in-law. I have to admit, when Walt is on the screen and about to get caught or killed, I find myself pulling for him too. I’m just not ready to embrace that fact.

Everyone just automatically assumes that Walt’s call to Todd for “another job” refers to a hit on Jesse. If Gilligan has proven anything time and time again, it is that he’ll trick you into thinking one thing is coming and then drop another. Sure, it seems like that phone call is in reference to Jesse, which almost assuredly means that it was not.

Josh, I don’t know about you, but Andrew is so right that it’s kind of infuriating. Of course that was a Gilligan trick! And of course it worked. One of these days I’m going to spot a misdirection before it rebounds and hits me in the face, but clearly last Sunday was not that day.

Andrew, if you’re right and there was a prize for this week’s Breaking (Mail) Bag, you’d totally win it.

When I think of the worse way it could end for Walt I think of Walt Jr., I think of Jr. finding out who his dad really is, and the anger that results could lead to murder. Is it crazy to think that Jr. could be capable of killing his dad? Walt wanted to do this all along for his children really. To have his own son, who Walt refuses to call Flynn, be the one to betray him in the end and side with Uncle Hank and Marie would be the worse way for all this to end for Walt. I don’t know that seems crazy and Shakespearean, but maybe it’s an awesome ending? The betrayal of Flynn to Walt would mean that everything Walt did this for in the end was for nothing. His own son turning on him or worse… Let’s face it, Walt would rather his children die than find out who his dad really is. I think the realization by Walt Jr. and rejection or murder of his father would be as bad as it gets for Walt. Just another crazy theory.

I don’t see this happening only because “Flynn” just seems relentlessly dumb to me. Sorry, but if you watch your dad keep odd hours and make loads of money and never suspect anything beyond gambling, you’re not going to be able to get your shit together for a Shakespearean murder. I remember reading that the actor who plays Flynn, RJ Mitte, said on some panel that he would’ve known Walt was up to no good if it happened in real life, which is a funny thing to point out. It’s basically saying, “just so you guys know, I’m not as dumb as my character.” A for effort on the crazy theory, Karen, but Flynn seems like a permanently passive victim to me.

Killing him? No way. Betraying him? Quite possibly. No one in this series is going to be as emotionally scarred from the proceedings as Walt Jr.—if he’s alive to find out the truth. (Vince, he better be alive to find out.)

It didn’t feel like there were too many new questions raised last week, but here’s a big one: The whole point of Hank stashing Jesse at his house was to keep everything off the radar, right? Both to keep Walt and the DEA from finding anything out, yes? So how and why was Gomez helping Hank? When did Hank finally abandon his lone wolf approach on Walt?
—Kerrance M.

Seriously, for a show that meticulously explains every plot point, how did they rush past this one? Did they forget it was a huge fight between Hank and Marie the week before, and that Hank was resolved to solve this one on his own? Why didn’t we see the moment when he finally opened up to Gomez? What’s up, writers?

I don’t know… I think Hank feels like he’s got just enough of a hand to play here that he can bring in one other person before involving the whole department. He’s wrong and he overplays it, of course, but this seemed believable to me.
—Josh, blackbelt in the suspension of disbelief

Do you think Breaking Bad is trying to create “Hank Heisenberg?” If so, how do you feel about this? Does this show need a hero or not?
—Justin W.

If you mean “Hank Heisenberg” in the sense that Hank is becoming just as culpable as Walt, then maybe. The scene where he showed little concern that Jesse might die in the plaza certainly cast a negative light on him, and more and more it seems like Jesse is the show’s touchstone, a moral center who brings out the immoral nature in everyone. Nobody, but nobody, actually cares about Jesse the person. But if you mean that Hank is becoming a hero to Walt’s anti-hero, I think the answer is probably not. Walt has become his white whale, and you can’t ascribe heroic motivations to Hank any more than you could to Ahab. He wants his prey, it’s personal, and he showed in the Jesse scene that he no longer cares what’s right or good. The hunt is everything.

I’m of the opinion that, of the major players, Saul Goodman is the only smart one on Breaking Bad. I don’t mean intelligent, because I think Skyler, Walt, and Hank are all intelligent also (sorry Marie!). But in terms of pure street smarts, Saul wins, hands down. He always has the right suggestion for everyone involved, evidenced most recently on “Confessions,” where he tries to get Jesse to leave town with his head still on.

This leads me to my second point about Saul; namely, that his smarts are why I think he’ll make it out of this show alive. Saul has shown himself capable of getting out of any situation he puts his mind to, like the first scene where we meet him in Breaking Bad, where Jesse and Walt are going to kill him. Instead, he somehow makes them his most lucrative clients. Hell, he’s made more money than the both of them combined at this point (that he can use- buried money’s no good, Walt). What do you guys think? Will Saul live? Is he indeed the smartest person in this show?
—Theo From Boise

A great call from Theo. One constant trope in stories like Breaking Bad, involving violent dramas between huge personalities, is that the slimy wheeler-dealers are the ones that make it out. I’m going to call it the Thenardier Phenomenon, after the sleazy innkeeper and his wife from Les Miserables. In a play where almost everyone else dies, they’re there at the end, surviving and thriving on the misery of others. Monseiur Thenardier has a great moment in the song “Dog Eat Dog,” while he’s stealing valuable trinkets from dead soldiers, that essentially sums up Saul’s worldview:

Well, someone’s got to clean them up, my friends
Before the little harvest
Disappears into the mud
Someone’s got to collect their odds and ends
When the gutters run with blood.

For a really chilling performance by Alun Armstrong, the greatest Thenardier, see the following clip where he says exactly how he feels about God, morality, and anyone who judges him for being a money-grubbing creep:

Don’t you worry, Theo. Saul’s not dying. The Sauls and Thenardiers of the world never do. Not while the harvest moon shines down.

I don’t think I need to follow a Monseiur Thenardier reference, but when it comes to smarts, I’m still reeling from Walt’s DVD. Saul is savvy, but Walt is still (but not for long) the king.

Last week I wondered why Jesse would meet Walt in the desert knowing how he is. As well I wondered why he would stand there “reporting” to Walt Hank’s queries from earlier in the day. This week I’m wondering why is Saul still taking orders from Walt like his lackey. Saul’s smart enough to know Walt’s ego issues. Walt’s paid him… he’s supposed to be retired. He has nothing else to offer Saul but trouble. So a guy like Saul easily dropping the M word without blinking, with untold contacts coming out of his rear-end… dealers, drug distributors, meth makers, contract killers…hasn’t decided to clean up the mess behind him by killing this ass yet? OK.
—Felicia K.

I have nothing to add except that I totally agree. Saul seems a little too smart to be letting Walt set the terms of engagement here, and the point at which Walt became more trouble than he’s worth happened loooong ago. When’s the Goodman hit coming?

Well, Saul is more than just Walt’s lawyer; he’s an accomplice to many of his crimes. It’s in Saul’s interest to keep Walt out of the spotlight. It’s also in his interest not to cross Walt, who’s much more dangerous than Saul ever imagined in that first meeting. As for Jesse, his allegiances were confused up until that pay-phone call.

In the past, Jesse has always eventually obeyed Walt’s commands. Sure, Walt often had to trick Jesse into doing what he wanted (the equivalent of fake-throwing a tennis ball to get a dog to run across a field after nothing); and sure, Jesse sometimes disobeyed at first and behaved rambunctiously (I’m thinking of the knock-down, drag-em-out brawl the two of them got into a couple seasons back), but eventually, Jesse always did what he was told. And Walt rewarded him—with money, with compliments, and, above all, with acceptance (sort of).

Walt made Jesse feel important and valued, and while Walt clearly feels attached to Jesse, I no longer believe he saw Jesse as anything approaching a son. And just like a man attached to an old pet, Walt at first denies that Jesse has really gone rabid. He seems genuinely shocked and appalled when Saul and Skyler suggest he put Jesse down, and he goes out of his way to try to convince himself that Jesse is the same old loyal dog he always has been. But when it becomes clear Jesse really is “rabid,” Walt doesn’t hesitate to call in Todd’s uncle to put him down. When I look at the situation from this angle, I don’t find it especially shocking that Walt was so quick to decide that Jesse had to die, despite their history.
—Dan L.

Putting aside for the moment the fact that Gilligan might be tricking us into thinking Walt is calling a hit on Jesse, I liked this angle because it reconciles Walt as a human being vs. Walt as a sociopath. He behaves toward Jesse with normal human emotions, but only insofar as Jesse is like a pet whose life is less valuable, which is a sociopathic to the extreme. And the tie-in to the last episode title, “Rabid Dog,” has me pretty much convinced that Jesse occupies that role in Walt’s mind. The problem with some egomaniacs, though, is that they think nobody else can possibly be as smart as they are, and I have a feeling Walt’s demise will come about because he underestimates Jesse. The kid is no dope, as he’s shown time and again by surprising Walt with clever solutions to hard problems, and while he may have an animal rage, he has a very human calculating side that Walt ignores at his peril.

Jessie is going to get Walt “where he lives”—we know Jessie’s feelings regarding children so it’s unlikely to involve Holly & jr, and it won’t be money based, which leaves us with the one thing that’s driven Walt since early in the series—being the best meth cook. So Jessie is going to join Todd & the gang, or at least offer to do so.
—Paul W

That’s as good an answer as I’ve heard about “where Walt lives.” Walt has no social circle to protect other than his family and even that has shrunk down to the nuclear level. But I don’t know if it’ll be Jesse who cooks or Jesse will hit Walt as he cooks. But Jesse has no reason to believe that Walt is getting back into the game. What’s going on?!?

Here’s one solution to the difficult riddle posed last week—what does Jesse man when he says he’ll get Walt “where he lives”? Paul’s theory plays off the question above—could Jesse pierce Walt’s egomania by becoming the best meth cook in the country, and in that way draw him back into the game? Is that particular vanity Walt’s one true weak point? If he does it, Jesse would have act within the confines of the DEA as a double agent, in which case he’d be used as bait to lure Walt into the open. I have to admit, I like this theory. On the other hand, I’m starting to discover that I can talk myself into basically any theory, so don’t take this as a ringing endorsement, Paul.

As I understand it, “peckerwood” is used as a general term to describe a member of a white racist prison gang, e.g. The Aryan Brother, or “AB”, etc. It’s apparently often shortened to “woods”: “We had to keep to ourselves because them woods had full run of the yard and were shylocking the commissary”.
—John L.

Moments after I read this comment from John in response to last week’s intense peckerwood discussion, the term “woods” was used in a Sons of Anarchy episode I was watching. And I knew what it meant, which means that this mailbag has had a positive effect on my life, insofar as knowing a synonym for white trash can be seen as a “positive.”

I can understand your argument and I relate to your inability to suspend belief with Walt as his character has slowly progressed into total darkness. But my counter-argument would be… When was Walt ever a character we could relate to? Sure there’s the obvious relatable character arcs, Walt’s a father/husband, Walt is dying of cancer, Walt cares for his family so much that he’d do anything for them. Yes, these are the issues of the common man. But Walt is not a common man—Walt’s a genius trapped in the banalities of the common man’s life. Whereas Tony Soprano possessed the ability to successfully run and maintain an entire family of mafiosos, that reality is not so unattainable to fathom, therefore making Tony a much more relatable character (for argument sake).

My point: Give a couple of guys a target, some baseball bats, and a leader, and you’ll have yourself a homegrown gang in no time. However, give a couple of guys access to chem lab and let’s see how many can cook up a batch of meth. And there’s where Walt’s character differs from the rest, Walt’s not just Mr. Chips becoming Scarface, Walt’s always been Scarface and we’re just now saying “hello to his little friend.”

Think about it: Here’s a man who has the ability for greatness but who let past failures and bitterness beat him down to the tighty-whitey-exposing, hand-job-while-wife’s-selling-products-on-ebay-receiving, Aztec-driving, mediocre-job-having loser he became. He accepted this reality as a self-imposed exile from the realm of the Noble Prize-winning geniuses. But there was always that darkness rapping at his door, the darkness of genius and the power of knowledge that characters like Tony Soprano couldn’t begin to wrap their feeble minds around. But I digress—all this is to say that Walt is an evil genius, and how can one relate to an evil genius?
—Federico M

Federico, I can honestly say you’ve blown my mind. I imagine Josh will have more to add, but that is probably the smartest, most illuminating thing ever I’ve read about Walt White. I tip my cap, bow my head, and even curtsy in respect. Well done.

We begin and end our Mailbag with two opposing views of Walt. One reader who still relates to Walt and one who never could. I find myself squarely in the middle. He’s faced with everyman problems I can relate two and he makes decisions that I sometimes can’t relate to at all. But as event’s spiral out of his control and he’s faced with complete failure and/or death, I can relate to the temptations of self-preservation at all cost. I’m pretty confident I wouldn’t have let Jane die or poisoned Brock, but what would I have done with Crazy 8 who was going to murder me? I cheered him on when he blew up Tuco’s building and when he ran over the two thugs who were coming after Jesse. I don’t want to want to be able to relate to the darkness in Walt, but Dan S. at the beginning of these letters, I sometimes can’t help it.

Thanks to all for reading and writing in. If you want to get in on the mailbag action, drop us a line at [email protected], and make sure to check in Monday for our email recap.

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