Breaking Bad: Season 5, Episode 15
These days, I write my Breaking Bad reviews in the dark. It seems appropriate somehow, I guess, though that’s not really why I do it. I do it because increasingly, it seems impossible to look at the light after these episodes end. After I’ve watched people I care about be torn down further and further into the depths, its not easy to switch on the lights and pretend things are normal. Nothing is normal here. Nothing ever will be again.
Say what you will about the final stretch of Breaking Bad episodes, but the show has the courage of its convictions. It has become difficult, wrenching television to watch. It has become the ending I always imagined for the show but never quite conceived of in all its relentless brutality. If “Ozymandias” was Walter White the man, decaying into nothingness when faced with the sands of time, “Granite State” is Heisenberg in Hell. I have never been part of the camp that believed Walter White should die at the end of the show. I’ve always thought death was too easy for this man. But “Granite State” gave me huge heaping helpings of the suffering that he has long deserved. Last week, we saw the Emperor reduced to mortality; this week, we watch the dissolution of that man, as everything is taken away from him, and he’s left bribing the one person still in his life to spend just an hour with him before pulling away. If Walter White does indeed die next week, the show has at this point prepared me for his end. There’s no amount of suffering that can redeem him in my eyes, but we’ve seen him put through the one torture after another. We may not yet have seen his lowest point, but this downward spiral is running out of room to bottom out.
What we saw in the final moments of “Ozymandias” was the last vestiges of the one thing Walter White had left: control. When he climbed into the back of that minivan, he gave that up, even if he didn’t yet realize it, and “Granite State” taught him that lesson, again and again, rubbing salt in the wound and then cutting him ever deeper. He rages in the basement of the vacuum cleaner repair shop. He tries to intimidate Saul into coming with him, but even his most pliable prey is beyond his reach now. He decides to leave the grounds he’s been confined to immediately, only to have second thoughts. “Tomorrow. Tomorrow,” he promises himself, but he doesn’t go tomorrow, or any tomorrow close to it. By the time he is paying his one remaining ally to spend time with him, he can’t even bring himself to cut the deck. Walter White has given up control completely.
Control is at the center of “Granite State” in all of its permutations, and every story the episode tells returns to the question of who has control. Walter White has lost it, to the point where he depends on the vacuum repair man for company, for news of the world, for his very survival. He wears his Heisenberg pork pie when he first marches toward that gate, but we don’t see it again tonight. With no one left to control, with no variables left to manipulate, with no one left to spin his lies to and no foe left to outwit, Walter White rots in a cabin in the woods.
Todd, meanwhile, has gained a position of control through his continuous willingness to let everyone around him think they are in control. He lets Jack think it is his idea to keep Jesse alive, and persuades him through humble, “aw shucks” suggestions that money is money and they should keep cooking. He persuades Lydia to continue their partnership by putting the number 92 on the table and daring her to walk away. And he persuades Jesse to cook with a photograph and, when it comes to it, a bullet. For the last two seasons, Todd has been a dark mirror to Jesse Pinkman, and the trend continues tonight.
Where Jesse rages against being controlled, Todd passively accepts his role as a cog in the machine; more than that, Todd thrives off of other’s perceptions of him as pliable and complacent. Where Jesse constantly rebelled against authority (remember how long Walt had to make concessions to Jesse as his equal partner), Todd is every bit the loyal lapdog. Where Jesse died inside with every moral compromise, Todd strides over any line with an eager-to-please look on his face. Todd is Jesse Pinkman with no compunctions, no regrets, no soul.
And Jesse, poor Jesse, tastes freedom from control for a few blissful moments before he is brutally reminded that affection is a liability in his line of work. So long as he cares about anything or anyone but himself, he will be controlled. The tragedy of Jesse Pinkman, it seems, is that he’s kept his soul in a soulless line of work. He’s managed to retain his humanity, and it will cost him again and again until he has nothing left to lose. He’s virtually there already tonight, but Brock, that unlikeliest of survivors, still stands, and so, for the moment, Jesse remains a tool in Todd’s toolbox. Despite all of his raging and all of his bluster, he’s still a pawn in a bigger game.
It takes Walt a long time to decide what his next play will be. Months go by as he loses himself completely, and eventually thinks he’s landed upon someone he can control, a weak spot he can still squeeze. Walter decides his son will still believe in him, will still be pliable enough to get his friend Louis to accept a package full of cash. But he miscalculates, and the moment is vicious. Once again, tonight, we see a moment when Walter White gives in, when he decides there are no moves left and prepares to give himself up. Time after time on this show, Walter White is backed into a corner and throws up his hands in defeat. Time after time he thinks he’s in checkmate. But time after time, he pulls himself back from the edge.
If there’s one thing I continuously find I respect about Walter White (and this is a caustic, grudging deference more than actual admiration), it is his inexhaustible will to live. The arc of this show has been a deep descent, yet the journey Walter makes again and again is choosing life, even when everyone he knows and loves is begging him to die. It may not be the right choice, it may not be the best choice, but he makes it, again and again. He cannot let himself die. He cannot let himself fade away. He doesn’t want to be a legacy reduced into dust. Take everything away from Walter White, and what does he have left? His pride. He may rage in that basement, he may rot in that cabin, he may capitulate in that bar. He may have lost everything that has ever mattered to him. But he hasn’t lost his sense of self. He hasn’t lost his greatest and most dangerous delusion. He hasn’t lost that deranged entitlement, that sense that he and he alone has made himself, that he has earned everything and that he alone deserves the credit.
“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” Kris Kristofferson once said. That must be music to the ears of Walter White right about now, a man who thinks he’s finally got nothing left to lose, a man who believes himself to be truly free. He’s wrong of course, as he so often is when it comes to the big picture. Like Hank told him out in the desert, Walter White is the smartest man in the room, but he has one blind spot. He just can’t ever see when he’s been beaten. This is why he has that will to live, even when at his most prescient (back in season three’s “Fly”), he knew he should have died. This is why he keeps going, even though everything he’s gone through tells him he should stop. This is why he fights, even though he thinks he has nothing to fight for. Walter White has one thing left to lose, after all. He can still lose his pride.
-He can also, of course, lose his life, and while “Granite State” did a lot of work toward convincing me this is a plausible ending, I want to keep from committing myself to one vision of how next week plays out. All I know is, it will be stupendous.
-Robert Forster is probably the absolute perfect choice to play the vacuum cleaner repair man, a figure who has haunted the edges of this series for years now. I never thought we’d see him, so great is the mystery that has surrounded him, but damn it if the show didn’t make him everything I’d ever hoped for and more.
-I increasingly see a reading of these final episodes that recasts Breaking Bad as a deconstruction of the white male anti-hero who has populated our prestige dramas for well over a decade now. Walter White is a near-perfect exemplar of white male privilege, and though I’m sure smarter minds than mine will make the case for this, its something I am finding fascinating as the show comes to a close.
-“Everything good?” “Define good.”
-Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. Two copies.” “I’m not much of a movie guy.”
-“I just wanna see the stars.”
-“Stay a little longer?” “I got a long trip ahead of me.” “Two hours? I’ll give you another ten thousand dollars.” “Ten thousand? One hour.”
-“Want to cut the cards?” “No.”
-“Why are you still alive? Why don’t you just die already? Just die!”