Be warned: Spoilers for “Granite State,” the most recent episode of “Breaking Bad,” await you after the jump.
“Breaking Bad” has long been concerned with action and reaction. Many of the great dramas produced over the last 14 years have used long-form storytelling to explore cause and effect with their characters and stories, of course, eschewing the old-fashioned setup wherein a show would return to status quo every week and almost no plot had consequences lingering beyond a single episode. But for “Breaking Bad,” this is not simply a byproduct of the story. This is the story. Every single thing that has happened on “Breaking Bad” has occurred as a result of one decision made 60 episodes ago: Walt chose to cook meth. After that, every horrible tragedy, every calculated power play, every malicious lie, every trauma, every pain and every ounce of misery can be traced back to that decision. Cause and (myriad, sprawling) effect.
There was a moment very, very early in the show where Walt saw what was ahead of him and could have stopped. Not the point in the pilot episode when he decided to cook meth — that Walt, you could argue, was reeling from a cancer diagnosis and terrified and made a horrible decision in a moment of weakness. But a few episodes later, after Walt had already cooked meth and murdered two people, his old colleagues Gretchen and Elliott offer to pay for his medical bills. Walt plainly admits he never got over how they became hugely wealthy (with Gray Matter, the company the three started together) and left him behind, and his anger and resentment toward them blinds him to this opportunity. So he turns them down and cooks more meth. This is a definitional moment for the character, one that clearly illustrates the engine that powers him through the entirety of the show. It’s not just that he’s a meek and unhappy guy who relishes suddenly having power; it’s that he is a meek and unhappy guy who finally gets to build a massive enterprise (“the empire business,” remember) focused solely on his brains and his talent.
This original sin comes back to play in a very big way over the penultimate hour of “Breaking Bad.” Walt sees his former partners on television (with Charlie Rose, who shouts out Andrew Ross Sorkin) belittling his contributions to their company — a company he thinks was founded on his ideas — before he learns there is still blue meth in the Southwest and Europe. The impetus that put him on the path toward becoming Heisenberg in the first place is right there in front of him, mocking him as a nonentity in their company while making a multimillion dollar donation that’s really a publicity stunt of a response to Heisenberg’s identity becoming public. Yet more than that, he sees in them that this all could have been avoided. Had he taken their money, and had he opted not to enter the drug business, he would not be alone in a bar in New Hampshire waiting for the police to show up. His family would not be ruined, riven by his actions. He would not be dying alone in a small cabin, paying Robert Forster to spend a little extra time with him. And there would certainly not be blue meth flowing across the Southwest yet again.
It’s a beautifully scripted and staged scene, a pitch-perfect moment in a stellar episode written and directed by Peter Gould. Everything is right there for Walt. He has nothing, not his family or his health or his empire. He is dying alone in the woods. So he is, finally, going to try and do the right thing and turn himself in. But it all comes rushing back in that one scene: His anger at being dismissed, that foundational rage that defined him, being paired with the discovery of yet another unintended consequence of his actions (actions he never would have undertook if not for his furious pride) — and all of this following the realization that he had nothing to offer his family (putting him, in one sense, right back where he was in the pilot).
This particular climax is ideal for an episode so focused on characters reeling from the aftermath of Heisenberg’s unmasking and escape. For so long, Walt has talked about his desire to provide for his family after he’s gone. This episode is the first time we actually saw people deal with what happens when he is truly gone. Other than a conversation with Saul early in the episode and a phone call with his son at the end — both of which go with Walt being shot down for basically refusing to see things as they are — he interacts with no members of the main cast and is as good as dead to these other players.
Marie is seen, briefly, heading home in the care of armed guards when she sees that her home has been ransacked (Jack’s crew, looking for Jesse’s confession tape); it’s just the physical demonstration of what Walt’s actions have visited upon her, a quick but handy metaphor for how his behavior has torn her life apart from the home on out. Skyler is in shock, but her despair at being targeted by law enforcement officials pales in comparison to her horror that — just as she predicted — someone wicked this way comes, breaking into her home and threatening her and her children. Walt Jr. appears only in one scene at the end, horrified by the very fact that his father thinks his money can make up for his catastrophic actions.
But it’s Jesse — poor, beaten, broken Jesse — who perhaps suffers the most acute pain tonight. Jesse wanted to escape the meth business, but instead he is beaten and chained and forced to cook Heisenberg Brand meth for the Nazis who murdered Hank, Gomez and many others. Worse, when he finally makes his escape the Nazis don’t even kill him. They murder Andrea on her front porch in front of a bound, gagged and bloody Jesse, reminding him that if he doesn’t help them, her son Brock is still around to target.
Andrea’s death is a brutal, shocking moment for Jesse as well as for the show. It would have been very “TV show” moment for them to threaten Andrea to force Jesse to work; it’s quite a “Breaking Bad” moment to show this single mother, endangered only by her connection to Jesse, gunned down in the middle of the night because he tried to run and then refused to cook any more meth. The pain and misery that has suffused this show of late doesn’t feel like an exercise in maudlin brutality. We’re not watching a snuff film here. Instead, it serves a purpose. We are seeing the ramifications of countless actions, big and small, taken over the course of the series. Jesse meets Andrea because he is trying to go to meetings of addicts to sell meth; her son is poisoned because of Jesse’s involvement in the drug business; she is brought to the attention of the Nazis because Walt is hunting Jesse; and, in the end, she dies because of these connections. Andrea is a bystander, an innocent, and her death serves to remind Jesse and the audience that the business at hand is a gruesome, ugly one.
There was a time — about two years ago, when Walt was making his final stand against Gus Fring — when the show had triumphant moments that felt like victories. We were seeing a chess game involving two well-matched adversaries (played by terrific actors given great material), and by the end it was hard not to feel a thrill at seeing Walt come out on top. Yet the show immediately followed that victorious beat by revealing that Walt had poisoned a child to achieve this, reminding us who we were dealing with, and there really has been no turning back since that moment. This is a vicious world. We’re not watching Walt dispatch a charming (but merciless) rival drug kingpin anymore. We are seeing children shot and innocents murdered and family members slain in front of Walt’s own eyes. We are seeing the consequences of these actions shatter and destroy those around Walt, whether they are murdered (Hank, Gomez, Andrea) or emotionally ruined (Skyler, Marie, Jesse, Walt Jr.).
In a way, the lengthy sequence of Walt in self-imposed exile in New Hampshire offered perhaps a fitting punishment for him. He is alone there with no television, no phone, no Internet, no company and no way to communicate with the outside world. The only human being he sees is Robert Forster’s fixer, who shows up once a month and needs to be paid to spend any extra time there. He is given regular reports on how his wife and children are living wrecked lives. He keeps giving himself the chemo, but for what? Why is he hanging on? What else is there for him?
Early on, we see that Walt believes he still has a purpose. He has to seek revenge on Jack and his men (for killing Hank and stealing his money) and make sure his money can make it to his family. That has been his focus for so long, with his belief seeming to be that if he can just financially take care of his family his reign of terror will have been worth it. Saul quickly shoots down the idea of hiring hitmen to take out Jack, and Robert Forster tells him that if he even tries to reach out to anyone he will be caught and on his own. What else is he doing except clinging to life because he still believes, stubbornly, that he will eventually be able to fix everything? What else is he hoping other than that he will make it away from his cabin without coughing too much to walk?
Walt believes that his money — the reason he did all of this, he says — can make everything okay, because he believes it had to have been worth it to do everyting he did. And he believes getting that money to his family is still his purpose, which gives him a reason to go on living. But Walt Jr. very clearly explains to Walt that he has ruined their lives, and giving them money isn’t going to repair the horrific damage he did to countless people.
Finally, shattered by the realization that he really does have nothing to offer his family and that his money is for nothing, Walt is ready to turn himself in (taking Saul’s advice, albeit a couple of months too late — the exact timetable is unclear, but Walt has time to grow his hair and beard back, and Robert Forster makes a reference to prior visits and putting in an IV for Walt). It takes this conversation for Walt to finally give up. He settles in at the bar, ready to nurse a drink and await his long-delayed fate. Seeing the interview with Gretchen and Elliott revives him. It’s possible he is going to pay them a visit in the finale before he moves on to Jack, Todd and Lydia, but I don’t believe he is reinvigorated by his desire to yell at them about Gray Matter.
What we are seeing is his rage at seeing history repeat itself. He was left behind by Gretchen and Elliott and Gray Matter grew large and, even now, they continue to dismiss his contributions to what he considers his children’s birthright. As they downplay his involvement, he learns that another of his innovations — the Heisenberg meth and its affiliated drug distribution networks — continues to flourish without him. This is why he snaps. Again, he helped create something. Again, someone else stole it from him (he couldn’t stand to let Gus order him around or let Hank think Gale was Heisenberg). Again, someone thinks that they can continue on without him but with his ideas and his genius.
Walter White’s original sin has always been his hubris. It is what made him think he could break the law, it is what made him ignore legitimate ways to try and improve his health and it is what made him always think he knew best. It is this pride that has been the source of his initial misdeeds and his endless escalations. This pride is also the only thing he seems to have left as we head into the finale. All other roads are closed to him now, as he’s a fugitive, removed from most of his money, isolated from his family and former partner, without any allies or much time left. Yet he cannot rest until he has finished what he started and put an end to Heisenberg, his drug and his empire.
As I said before, this is a vicious, brutal show trafficking in difficult, harsh stories. This last run of episodes has seen virtuoso performances from the people involved in this series as they have painted a truly immersive portrait of pride, rage, pain and despair. There’s something fitting in having it all come down to what seems to be such a simple setup (the Nazis — plainly vile characters — are still cooking meth and killing people and profiting from Walt’s formula, and he has to stop them), both in how that encapsulates the bleak story we’ve seen and given how we know the finale will inevitably be about so much more than that. I cannot imagine any way this thing ends with anything approaching a happy ending, though I also learned a long time ago not to bother trying to predict what Vince Gilligan and his writers will do or how they’ll do it.
One to go.