3
Sep
2012
Breaking Bad: Season 5, Episode 8
Gliding Over All
Jordan
This is the way the world ends. Not with a bang, but a whimper. After the titanic events of last week's episode, "Gliding Over All" can appear, at first blush, like a bit of an exhale, a breather before the real end times of the show's final eight episodes next year. Yet I do not think that's what we witnessed here this week. No, instead, what we saw was a quiet tragedy unfolding over the longest period of time the show has ever documented in a single episode. I expected that Mike's death would harken an era in which Walter White's hubris would be his downfall, but what happened instead is more fascinatingly tragic, a clever spin on expectations that is the sort of thing only a show as consistently excellent as Breaking Bad would be able to pull off with such elegance.

But instead of Walt's downfall, what "Gliding Over All" gave us was the pinnacle of Heisenberg's achievement, a sort of pitch black golden age in which a nascent criminal empire exploded, in which Walter White conquered the world. We have watched our mild mannered chemistry teacher, a man beaten down by the world and ready to die just to stop living, become the sort of person who can orchestrate the execution of nine people within two minutes and shrug it off by saying "it had to be done." We see a man who carries around a vial of ricin, ready to tie off loose ends unless they prove themselves useful. We see an international drug lord, reigning over an empire and filling a storage unit full of cash in such large amounts, he can't even count it. At the end of last season, Walt told Skyler, "I won." This is what that victory looks like.

With no danger left lurking just outside his line of site, with no competition standing in his way, and with no one even questioning his near omnipotence, we watch as Walter White becomes...bored by his role as victorious conqueror. In a masterful montage (set perfectly to Tommy James and the Shondells' "Crystal Blue Persuasion") we watch as Heisenberg's international criminal empire is built, and as the rhythms of life as a drug lord become just that: a routine. We watch as the job that gave Walter a new lease on life, a reason for living he previously lacked, becomes just another daily grind, just another thing he does to pass the time. Walter White isn't beaten by any one person; he isn't even beaten by himself. In the end, he is beaten by the inexorable passage of time.

That is why the fly in tonight's cold open is so vitally important. In one of Breaking Bad's finest hours, season three's "Fly," Walt felt he had lost control, felt desperate, depressed, and came to the realization that he had passed the point at which he should have died. In those bleak moments, quarantined off in an underground lab, looking back over a sea of destruction, Walt realized that, had he died before inadvertently playing a role in the plane crash that killed 168 people, his family would have had enough money and his soul would have remained (relatively) intact. The fly means something similar, but distinctly different in tonight's episode. Its a symbol that Walter White has lived too long, and that this lease on life means that even his apparent victories are hollowed out. Everything curdles eventually, and in "Gliding Over All," we watched as the great triumph of Walt's life curdled before his eyes into yet more discontent. There is a hole at the center of the man, and if he survives long enough, it will always prove to remain at his core.

So it seems that Skyler proved more adept at facing down her husband than we all expected. When she said she was waiting for the cancer to come back, it was a low blow, but it sounded like a desperate woman out of options. Instead, we now realize, waiting was exactly the right move. Confronted with a pile of money and the chance to get his children back in the house, Walter has to make a choice that isn't a choice at all. The power and the money never made him as happy as he expected. The freedom he won himself proved unsatisfying. Maybe his family can fill his internal void.

It is initially unclear why Walter decided to seek out Jesse. That he would give him his money is a kindness, a nice moment that resonated due to the collective weight of their experiences. But Walter didn't give Jesse his money to be a good man. No, he revisited his old partner to get that brief surge of nostalgia. As they discuss their shitty RV and the various adventures they had in it, Jesse ponders "We had the money. Why'd we keep it? Why'd we have to have the world's shittiest RV?" Walt reveals his current state of mind when he responds, "Inertia?" but I don't think that is really it. Walt wants that time back, a time when there was a constant adrenaline rush of danger. A time when he felt truly, vitally alive. When Walt leaves Jesse alone with his money, Jesse flings away the gun he had stashed. Just like Walter carrying the ricin to his meeting with Lydia,Jesse was prepared for Walt's visit to mean something much worse. These men are more prepared for things to go badly than well, and despite Walt admonishing Lydia to "learn to take 'yes' for an answer," that is exactly the flaw at his core that soils his triumph.

Like most Breaking Bad finales, "Gliding Over All" would have worked incredibly well as a series finale. But this is not the end of the story. We know things will get bad again for Walter White; worse than ever before. The show has built to the conflict between Walt and his DEA Agent brother-in-law from the start. And now that day is here. Walt believes he can walk away from the darkness that proved ultimately less rewarding in the long term. I thought that hubris would be the downfall of Walter White, and for a while this episode convinced me that in fact it was simply continuing to live. However, those closing moment reveal that the show is doing what we all thought, but in a more interesting way. It is not the hubris of Heisenberg the drug lord that will prove Walter's undoing. It is the hubris of a Walter White that used to exist. Keeping the souvenir that is Gale's copy of Leaves of Grass will prove to be the first piece of a trap to ensnare Walter White. This is cemented even further in a wonderfully brief flashback to Walt at his most arrogant, when he pushed Hank to keep pursuing Heisenberg because he refused to let Gale take the credit for his genius. "WW," Hank mused back then, "Woodrow Wilson? Willy Wonka? Walter White?" "You got me," Walt responded. And he had no idea how right he was.

Grade: A

Notes:

-Another beautiful Breaking Bad monologue in Hank's recollection of his old job tagging trees, and his wish he would have appreciated the monotony more. "Tagging trees is a lot better than chasing monsters," he muses. "I used to love to go camping," is Walt's tragic response. The best days passed these men by, and they weren't even conscious enough to appreciate them.

-I love the way the pool in the Whites' backyard is lit, bathing them both in blue, a color which infects their lives and their marriage.

-"How much is enough? How big does this pile have to be?" At the beginning of the season, this question would have inspired the vicious rancor of Heisenberg. But Walt is too tired to respond at this point.

-I liked the several nods to the show's history tonight, in the fly, the beaten up towel dispenser, and probably several other notes I am forgetting to mention. Again, this could have been a stellar series finale (but I am obviously glad it wasn't).

-Eight episodes left to go. See you all back here next summer.
Tags: Breaking Bad
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