Spoilers. Kevin McFarland reviews the penultimate episode of Breaking Bad's final season, in which we ask which option is better in the Granite State: to Live Free, or Die? Catch up on previous episodes in our Boing Boing "Breaking Bad" archives.
“Doctor, my wife is seven months pregnant with a baby we didn’t intend. My 15-year-old son has cerebral palsy. I am an extremely overqualified high school chemistry teacher. When I can work, I make $43,700 per year. I have watched all of my colleagues and friends surpass me in every way imaginable, and within 18 months, I will be dead. And you ask why I ran?”
Walter White directs the above monologue at the physician responsible for figuring out his fugue state back in “Bit By A Dead Bee,” the season two episode that ends the first major arc of the series. While still under the guise of paying for his cancer treatment with money from his former research partners at Gray Matter, lying extensively to his wife and extended family about his forays into cooking meth, and on antagonistic yet fatherly terms with former student Jesse Pinkman, Walt uses the excuse that he ran away from his problems.
At the end of “Ozymandias” he turned that previous half-measure into a full escape. He abandons his family, in the only move left, to buy him some time to figure out whether he can find a way to orchestrate fulfilling his initial goal of providing for his family after his death from cancer. Even in the face of losing his family, his money, and all of his control, Walt still acts as though he can pull an end-around and solve everything. He still believes there are cards left to play in order to make this right. He still parrots the phrase “for my family” over and over again, as though there is a shred left of that original intention in the destructive consequences that played out over the course of this final season.
Walt blames Jack and his crew for everything, and as such scrambles for access to hitmen. Not just to exact revenge for Hank, but to recover Walt’s property, his life’s work, the other barrels of money that amount to the price of his misdeeds over the past two years. As Gretchen says in her interview with Charlie Rose at the end of the episode: “the sweet, kind, brilliant man that we knew once ago, he’s gone.” This is Walt at his most delusional, and the goal of “Granite State” is to strip away all of those illusory, false goals, and mine down to the core of Walter White and what he wants: recognition and meaning after toiling in what he views as a meaningless existence.
We do get confirmation that Walt’s phone call was both unleashing all the feelings bitterly locked deep inside his mind toward his wife and his own failings and an attempt to exonerate her from further criminal scrutiny. And in a deft reversal of the scene where Walt channels his victory over Gus into towering over Saul from “Live Free Or Die,” Walt attempts the same kind of intimidation while awaiting transport in the basement “safe house” of Saul’s disappearance expert. Because Walt’s lung cancer is progressing, he can’t pull it off, and Saul reacts to the literal representation of Walt losing total control by stating the obvious—-“It’s over.”
But though Walt foolishly attempts to exert control over the situation, he’s at the whim of Saul’s guy (the eminently talented Robert Forster). Skyler is in deep shit with the DEA, and unable to provide Walt on a silver platter, meaning she’s prosecuted instead. Jack’s crew raids Marie’s house and takes all the evidence Hank had stockpiled, including Jesse’s confession tape. That’s the situation Walt leaves behind: unpredictable terror, not a single person he claimed to care about in any way safe from the destruction he wrought from his own hubris and extreme miscalculation. He’s stranded with no ability to contact the outside world, under penalty of abandonment from the man who hides him and almost certain capture. But amidst the possessions he brings along is a familiar hat: there is now only Heisenberg.
If Jesse was in hell already, there was another circle to descend to. His misery is now incalculable as a tortured meth cook slave. Todd, ever the more obvious sociopath, desperately wants to continue a business relationship with Lydia because of his affections—which the other neo-Nazis openly mock—and thus keeps Jesse barely alive to improve the quality of the meth they send to the Czech Republic. Jesse Plemons continues to take Todd to creepier heights, using Jesse’s enslavement to hit on Lydia, and talking to Jesse through the grate as though nothing out of the ordinary happens in their “professional” relationship. Though he presents a disconcertingly flat and unfeeling image, Todd is not entirely dispassionate.
But Jesse’s pitiful escape attempt could only lead to more torment. I thought they’d be waiting for him the second he emerged from his subterranean cell—presumably inspired by the underground lab operated by the Phoenix crew. Jesse makes it to the compound border fence before getting caught, and as if to further demonstrate their cruelty and not-fucking-around attitude, punish Jesse in exactly the way they threatened last week. Todd coldly draws Andrea out of her house by preying on her concern, and with a flippant “nothing personal,” puts a bullet in the back of her head. That’s yet another demoralizing blow to Jesse, the last vestige for anyone searching for a scrap of a happy ending escaping the overwhelming tragedy. But just like every other character on Breaking Bad, he’s not pure enough to get away unscathed. I do question the purpose of exacting repeated and devastating psychological trauma on top of physical beatings, but I’m willing to wait it out one more time to see if Jesse’s ultimate fate will lock into place with Walt’s.
And then two months go by.
If you wanted “Granite State” to be this season’s “Fly” or a version of one of Mad Men’s many stylistic flights of fancy, you probably ended up a little disappointed that the only lumberjack-in-hiding scene on television happened over on Dexter. And as much I feel like defending this penultimate episode because I spent most of it enraptured at merely discovering what came next, I did question the pace at which the episode skipped over chances for deeper exploration. My knee-jerk response it to blame AMC’s nearly disastrous mishandling of the final season negotiation with Vince Gilligan, which perhaps squashed 26 episodes down to 16, depriving us of more time that could’ve yielded Walt’s Walden Pond-esque digression and spiral to rock bottom.
Even with the final two episodes stretched out to a full hour, the focus is on how Walt fleeing gets him to the point where he meets up with that opening flash-forward in “Live Free Or Die” picking up firepower to do battle. Character arcs have been abbreviated this season in favor of intricately constructed stepping-stones of plot. If there is a larger criticism to be made of this season as a whole—and again I’d lay that blame at the feet of AMC for trying to squeeze maximum ratings and profit out of as little traditional budget as possible—it’s that Breaking Bad no longer has time to press pause and let a character-driven episode take the reins for an hour, especially not this close to the finish line. That would have been ballsy, to be sure, but for better or worse, we’re now on a fast track to the end of the plot of this show.
So instead of an episode devoted to the intervening time between when Walt shows up in New Hampshire—with that gorgeous progression from the cramped inside of a propane truck to the final wide shot of desolate, snow-covered wilderness—to his decision to leave the property and face near-certain capture, we get a time jump. After only a few months in frigid isolation, Walt’s chemotherapy is only prolonging the inevitable: he’s lost so much weight that his wedding ring won’t stay on his finger and he ties it around his neck. He’s combing a stack of newspapers when supplies get replenished. Most tragically, Walt pays a man he doesn’t know—whose name is never spoken—to sit with him while the drugs drip into his vein. Skyler used to schedule out chemotherapy and plan on being there for him; now he has no one.
It would have been great to get the episode that fills in those gaps, showing what happened over the course of that time with no contact and no idea what’s going on in Albuquerque does to Walt, how he slowly unravels to the man so desperate for companionship that he pays out the ass for an hour of cards he doesn’t really want. Instead we got this episode, which probably didn’t trigger as personal a response, but still feels masterfully calculated and tuned to a larger goal.
And so I return to the opening epigraph from “Bit By A Dead Bee.”
There are a lot of people already complaining that “Granite State” isn’t just a letdown after “Ozymandias,” but somehow an invalidation of what came before. I think guessing when Breaking Bad would bottom out emotionally—or thinking it would occur somewhere other than the penultimate episode—is a fool’s errand. We watched the winding, costly, and ultimately thrilling rise of Walter White’s empire. The fifth season poster depicts Walt resting on his folding-chair throne in a warehouse filled with bales of cash and tubs of meth, surrounded by the words, “ALL HAIL THE KING.” But the funny thing about criminal empires—especially ones founded on bloody coups—is that they tend to crumble relatively quickly, like the statue of Ozymandias destroyed by the sands of time. Gus Fring had barely savored his vengeful victory over the cartel before his own pride and anger put him in that nursing home room with Hector Salamanca.
Walt has two choices: die alone in a snowy cabin in New Hampshire, utterly forgotten and lost to the world, or in a hail of messy gunfire. This is no heroic option, and credit to Walter Jr. for not yielding an inch to the father who shredded his own family. But sitting in the cabin on an IV drip, knowing deep down that all his actions to fuel personal desire for meaning led to nothing, to failing on an even more epic scale to do right by his family, Walt again thinks of the money. And the nameless fixer’s response when Walt asks if he’d find a way to get it to them: “If I said yes, would you believe me?” Skyler uses her maiden name, Walter Jr. disowns him, Jesse betrays him, Saul skips town, and the cash sits in plastic drums, utterly useless.
And thus “Granite State” returns to Gray Matter Technologies, to the origin of Walt’s bitterness and seething anger. It’s a risk to base this decision on an aborted plot line from years ago that peeled back Walt’s backstory before the series before turning to his present descent into madness, but one that feels entirely justified by tapping into the original event that left him feeling like a disappointing failure to everyone around him.
Breaking Bad isn’t going to get me to root for Walt to succeed. I egged Walter Jr. on as he yelled at his father over the phone. That was my catharsis for the evening. But I will defend the show’s decision to tie Walt leaving that glass of whiskey to return to Albuquerque because at his core he’s still bitter about the lack of credit from the company he co-founded. There’s only one thing left for Walt to do, now that all ties to his family have been severed and the money appears to be a wasted pile of green linen: achieve recognition through a sadistic and masochistic form of going out on top.
• So there’s Bob Odenkirk’s send-off as Saul Goodman, a fitting me-first move by a guy looking to make a lot of money off a chemistry teacher he never saw turning so evil. He even gets one final bit of sardonic comic relief: “Define good.”
• Marie only gets a cameo appearance this week, but the episode does continue the costuming trend of putting her in black (pre-emptive mourning?) and Skyler in white.
• There’s a ton of snow on the ground in New Hampshire, with car tracks leading up to the cabin. Is there even a tiny chance that Walt didn’t leave traceable footprints to wherever he was going?
• Let’s talk about Lydia for a moment. She has the same desire to orchestrate desperate attempts to remain unscathed by DEA proceedings that Walt did when asking for help “taking care” of loose ends. Is she the cockroach who outlives the nuclear disaster?
• One of the dangling plot threads that will most likely never be explained: Walt left Gretchen during a vacation with her family. Though it doesn’t particularly matter, I’d love to know what the writers explored with regard to that dangling unexplored bit of information.
• I know it’s weird, but when Breaking Bad sets the public achievements of Gray Matter in opposition to Walt’s private meth empire, I always think of Mr. Ollivander in Harry Potter And The Sorcerer’s Stone: “After all, [Heisenberg] did great things—terrible, yes, but great.”
• I am convinced that if every other fan favorite character dies, but Jesse gets to kill Todd, 99% of Breaking Bad’s viewership will be satisfied.
• Also, another observation about Mad Men’s typical experimental episode one in a season: AMC breaking the final season in half (even while bumping up the episode order for a bonus hour) will probably mess with that show’s ability to deviate as it has in previous seasons.
• Seriously, though: What did the DEA do with Huell? Side note: I would watch a spin-off entitled 'Everybody Loves Huell.'
Catch up on previous episodes in our Boing Boing "Breaking Bad" archives.
Published 10:25 am Mon, Sep 23, 2013
About the AuthorKevin McFarland is a Contributing Writer at The A.V. Club and in other little corners of the Internet. His Alaskan Malamute, Dynamite, loves the snow so much he might as well be a direwolf. Follow him on Twitter.
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