Breaking Bad: Season 5, Episode 6
How begins the fall of Walter White? The argument can be made that it was his cancer diagnosis that changed the man for the worse. So too can it be claimed that the first time he was forced to kill a man, he was driven to a dark place from which he would never return. Maybe it was letting Jane die that night in Jesse's apartment, or perhaps it was the horrific, unimaginable plane crash that bore his fingerprints. All of these are turning points in Walt's downward spiral, but it seems to me it began a long time ago. Tonight, we hear more than ever before about Walter's involvement in Gray Matter, and while most of the personal details are still left vague, it is clearer now that Walter's anger and bitterness stemmed from a poor business decision he made as a young man. His turn toward the dark side began years before Breaking Bad, and in that view, perhaps all of this has been inevitable from the start.

What will be the final mistake that destroys Walter White? If we talk of tragic flaws, the most prominent is his arrogance. Walter truly believes himself to be superior to those around him; he sees himself as entitled to power, riches, and respect. He is also dangerously controlling and manipulative. All of these things have always been true, though, and yet the man still stands. What has changed since the death of Gus Fring, what season five of the show has been illustrating in ways I imagine some find over the top, is what Walter White looks like when he has nothing left to lose. He has always behaved desperately, like a caged animal trying to live one more day, but things have gotten worse than ever before. In previous seasons, Walter could rest on the pretense that he was doing all of his evil deeds for his family, that he was making sacrifices not in service of his own pride, but for them.

Now, though, that is over. His children are out of the house, his wife is literally counting down the days until he dies, and he is left with nothing. His private life has crumbled, his former career as a teacher is over. All he has now is his "empire," and that means that truly, for the first time, Walt has nothing left to lose. It also means that he is more dangerous than ever before.

To Walt, this must feel like he is finally free. He is able to be his real self in every arena of his life except with Hank and Marie. He no longer has to play meek husband to Skyler or indispensable employee to Gus. He can be Heisenberg full time. This exhilarates Walter, who has been on a dark quest for his own brand of freedom over the course of the show, but it must also depress him. He is only free because he has lost so much that he cannot regain with the desperate lies he used to cover his tracks with. He is left with only the self he created and the choices he's made. Which means he can sell out, as Jesse and Mike hope, and be left a shell of a human being with a pittance, a fraction of his potential profits, or he can give himself a dream again. Walter White sold out once before, and that decision has rotted his soul. This time, he chooses not to seethe; he chooses to act. This time, he invests his entire being into achieving his dream, even if that means losing everything else in his life. And we well know that it will.

Jesse, on the other hand, has reached the end of his rope. Faced with the death of fourteen year old Drew Sharp, he decides to "retire," if only because that means no one else has to die at his hands. Jesse sees a chance to have a real life free of the moral rot that has infected his partner, and he leaps at it. A key moment in an episode full of them comes when Jesse, leaping at the chance to take a day off after hiding the death of a child and being forced to keep the killer on the pay roll, prepares to leave and hears Walter whistling happily as he cooks the batch. The man Jesse went into business with was desperate, a meek, dying man who needed $737,000 to ensure his family could survive after he died. What he finds himself with now is someone who is not disturbed by the death of a child, someone who refuses to take a $5 million payout to get out of the business. Jesse has always been the conscience of the show, and at this point, he knows he needs to get away from Walter White, a man who no longer needs anything like a conscience; a man who wouldn't let something as trivial as moral considerations stand in the way of his "empire."

In the early day's of Breaking Bad's run, Walter White wanted an exit strategy. He was cooking meth to break out of a life that constrained him, sure, but he was doing so as a dying man. He wanted a taste of freedom, of real living, before he died, but he also wanted to leave his family something. At the beginning of season two, as Jesse points out tonight, Walter was looking to make $737,000 and then get out. Now, it is clear that nothing will stop Walter, not now, and not ever so long as he lives. He believes, in his core, that he was cheated out of billions of dollars, and that his genius and creativity have been ignored and undervalued. And while he seeks to have his capabilities compensated, we all know there will never be enough profit, nor power, to make Walter White feel appreciated.

He made a bad call decades ago, taking a $5,000 payoff, and selling out his "kids' birthright." But that isn't why he is so angry and bitter; not really. Walter White seethes in his core because he feels he sold out on his potential, a mistake he never plans to make again. But there is no amount of money that will pave over his ancient anger and endless bitterness. Even if he made billions at the head of a drug empire, Walter White would never stop, because he has awakened a long dormant hunger within himself. He has rediscovered a desire for more that no set amount will ever satisfy. There is no light at the end of this tunnel for Walter, no soul searching on the horizon. There is only the next score, the higher grasp for power, the endless push to prove how much more intelligent, how much more resourceful, how much better he is than everyone around him. Walter White wants to build an empire, and while empires always fall in the long run, they are not dissolved. Emperors tend to relinquish power only at death, and conquests reach ever further until eventually, they are defeated. Walter has chosen a path that will end only when he is destroyed, but his arrogance and his lust for money and power mean he does not see a day where defeat will come. He only sees an endless grab for more money and power.

So it isn't surprising that Walt, when caged, behaves as any trapped animal. He doesn't cut off his hand (which honestly wouldn't have surprised me), but he does burn himself to get free of his zip ties, to steal the methylamine before Mike returns. Unbeknownst to Walter, he has Mike exactly where he wants him. Mike has roughly 24 hours before the DEA are back on his trail, and no time to kill Walter and find the methylamine before he is being tailed again, and even more seriously. Walt has somehow pulled Jesse back in too, with the promise that he will get his money even as Walt keeps the methylamine. While Mike doesn't kill Walt because he can't, its hard for me to believe he isn't at least a little bit curious to hear what Walter has to say. Mike knows how dangerous it is to listen to Walter, a problem that wouldn't exist if Walt wasn't so persuasive. Mike is wise and world weary, but he is not entirely above being persuaded by a great Walter White pitch, especially when he has no choice but to give it a chance. Walt claims that "Everybody wins," but we know that's not what's important to him. All that matters is that he wins, and wins, and wins. But if you play the game long enough, some day you're bound to lose.

Grade: A


-Apologies for missing last week. If its any consolation, I thought "Dead Freight" was great, and pulled off a fairly over the top concept (a train robbery) in a more realistic and thrilling way than the season premiere's "giant magnet" scheme.

-Another amazing cold open this week. Breaking Bad will go down as one of the greatest television series of all time, a place it well deserves, and may even become my favorite television show ever made, but it will definitely go down for being the show that best utilized the cold open.

-The episode returns several times to the idea of cheap knock-offs, from Hank's rant about Miracle Whip not being mayonnaise to the TV commercial about fake caviar made of kelp, to Jesse's discussion of frozen food not being as good as its advertisements. I am not sure what this is implying, as of yet, but we all know those knock-offs are never as good as the original.

-Jesse's aforementioned line, "Its like 'Yo, whatever happened to truth in advertising,' ya know?" and my coming to think of Walter's convincing speeches as pitches means I was thinking about Mad Men a fair deal tonight.

-"I would never have come to the headquarters of our illegal meth operation dragging a bunch of cops. It would be unwise." God, I love Mike, and Jonathan Banks continues to kill it this year.

-"Are we in the meth business or the money business?" A great question that leads to the phenomenal line, oft alluded to above: "I'm in the empire business." That line will go down in the show's history along with things like, "I'm the one who knocks," and "we're done when I say we're done."

-"May I please be excused?" In a scene full of blackly hilarious lines, this is probably the best. Also, Anna Gunn has been at her best this year.

-"My wife is waiting for me to die. This business is all I have left now. Its all I have. And you want to take it away from me."

-"I have never seen anybody work so hard not to get $5 million."
Tags: Breaking Bad
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