[WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW]
When we last left Walter White, he had finally agreed with his terrified wife that it was time to stop this double life, although what is now “normal” to Walter and Skyler is anyone’s guess. Unfortunately, the cracks in his carefully-built wall between his family life and his world of drug kingpin have now come crashing beyond repair with the discovery by his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank of the book “Leaves of Grass” gifted to “WW” by the known meth chemist Gale Boetticher. Hank – who up until this point ignored some pretty large irregularities about Walt in his single-minded pursuit of mythical meth-maker Heisenberg—now has before him incontrovertible evidence linking his brother-in-law to fallen drug kingpin Gus Fring. Has Hank figured out that he has been dining with and caring for the children of Heisenberg all this time?
Series creator Vince Gilligan likens the narrative arc of “Breaking Bad” to “Mr. Chips turns into Scarface,” and in these final eight episodes, we’ll see the culmination and consequences of this transformation. But I’m not so sure that Scarface wasn’t lurking inside Walt all this time. Though the initial season saw the conversion of the mild-mannered chemistry teacher into a meth-maker, Gilligan and his amazing writing crew gave just enough hints that Walt’s greatest demon eating away at him wasn’t the cancer, but his ego and pride. And every step along the way, Walt’s ego has led him to make choices that lead to nothing less than sucking everyone around him into this destructive vortex that will be his ultimate demise.
Having said that, the opening scene of season five tells us that Walt’s demise is not necessarily a mortal one. Alone and melancholy, we see White celebrating his 52nd birthday in a greasy spoon, a stark contrast to his 50th birthday celebration in the bosom of his family in the premiere episode of the show. His name has been changed (Lambert, which was Skyler’s maiden name, but also the name of a scientist who first offered up a proof of irrationality of numbers, an interesting counterpoint to the Heisenberg and his uncertainty principle); he is now a resident of New Hampshire though his clothes and car do not speak to wealth, so clearly, his fortune has changed too, and the only security or company Walt has for this milestone is a machine gun in the trunk of his car. But for a man who willingly walked into the gates of hell of meth cooking for the protection of his wife, disabled son and newborn daughter to be at least financially secure after his death, isn’t that kind of isolation from the ones he loves –however it came about—an indication that the Walter White of the first episode is dead?
The episode opens with more of the same flashforward from the first episode of this season of gaunt, lonely Walt breaking into his boarded-and-gated-up empty shell of a home, tagged and trashed, his pool being used by skateboarders, in search of the ricin he took from the cigarette.
Whatever has happened in these intervening months has neighbor Carol freaked out by the appearance of Walt, who drops her grocery bag at his greeting, causing oranges to roll down the driveway. That’s a symbol for Gilligan and crew, because they used the same image when Ted Beneke fell and broke his neck in Season 4. This contrasts directly from the friendly greeting Carol gives Walt in the next scene.
We then jump back in time to the end of the last episode with Hank in the bathroom, his head reeling at his discovery. Hank feigns illness (although once you realize that your brother-in-law is the evil drug kingpin you’ve been chasing for years, wouldn’t you feel queasy too?) to get out of there, but his mind isn’t on driving, dizzily crashing into a front yard of a ranch house on their way home. Marie insists on going to the hospital, but Hank knows he isn't suffering from a physical ailment so much as an existential one.
We then cut to A-1 Car Wash. Newly retired from the meth business, Walt has to have something to do, so he is all up in Skyler’s car wash business, interrupting her to suggest where to place merchandise to push higher profit margin items (like air fresheners and energy drinks) and suggesting that a second car wash may be a good idea because of how much money they still need to launder.
Lydia shows up to the car wash in a rental car, complaining about the purity of the product now coming out of the lab. That crystal blue is now at 68 percent and falling. Uh oh. She begs Walt to come back to increase quality, clearly desperate. Walt refuses, and admits to a suspicious Skyler that she is a “former business associate”, but reassures her that he is not interested in going back to that life. Skyler unceremoniously asks Lydia to leave, but I suspect this is not the last we see of Lydia.
While Marie is happy that Hank isn’t going to work in deference to his spell while driving, that doesn’t mean that Hank is going to take it easy as boxes of evidence are delivered to his home. It’s a montage of the death wrought by Heisenberg as Hank searches for something that he can tie Heisenberg to Walt. It’s there, in the shadowy security video images of a previous theft (I don't remember which one that is) and the drawing of Heisenberg by an eyewitness.
We cut to Jesse’s place where Badger and Skinny Pete are talking Star Trek. Skinny Pete tells them that it’s “science, yo!” that beaming is essentially a suicide and full-scale replication of each individual being beamed. Jesse – who just wants out of not only his life but his person at this point – leaves for Saul Goodman’s office (you gotta love the Muzak version of The Battle Hymn of the Republic playing in the waiting room). Jesse needs to relieve himself of the blood money, asking Saul to deliver two duffel bags of money for a total of $5 million, one to Kaylee Ehrmentraut, Mike’s granddaughter, and one to Drew Sharp’s parents. Saul is hesitant, because he knows it will call unwanted attention to them. He calls Walt to let him know what Jesse has asked him to do.
Walt is in the hospital receiving chemo when he gets the call. The cancer is back.
Walt goes to Jesse’s place with the duffel bags retrieved from Saul. Walt takes a variety of tactics to reason with Jesse: the authoritarian, the supportive parent, the empathetic friend. Jesse needs this baggage off of him both literally and psychically, but all Walt wants is to keep Jesse bending to his will. He lies to Jesse full on, implying that Mike’s still alive, but Jesse isn’t buying. He denies that he killed Mike, to the skepticism of Jesse. Walt insists that Mike is well and able to provide for his own family. The tension is thick as they sit there. Does Jesse believe Walt, or is he saying nothing because he knows that Walt's not above killing? Part of me think that Jesse isn't fearful of death anymore, because of what he's torturing himself with in his life now.
At dinner, Skyler reveals that Hank is still ill and unable to go bowling as scheduled the following night. Walt excuses himself to be sick (from the chemo?) in the bathroom. There, he realizes that the “Leaves of Grass” book is missing from the bathroom. Skyler mentions that whatever bug Hank is suffering from has caused him to miss work all week. Putting two and two together, Walt goes to his car and finds the same kind of tracking device Hank had him put on Gus Fring’s car.
We then cut to Jesse in his red car (see notes) sleeping on the street. When a homeless man comes up to the car asking for help, Jesse hands him a stack of money, inspiring Jesse to relieve his guilt by tossing this money through the poorest area of Alburquerque.
Walt drives up to Hank’s place the next morning, acting like nothing was wrong, joking with the agents helping Hank. They talk about Hank’s illness, but their eyes are telling another story. Walt makes like he’s going to leave and then pulls a Columbo, returning casually but then taking the tracker out of his pocket. It goes quickly from familial concern to threatening. Hank closes them into his garage workroom and then punches Walt. Hank tells him he knows Walt is Heisenberg. The rage from Hank is palpable, but Walt is subdued and in control. Walt tells him that he has cancer again and that even if Hank could find the evidence, he will not live long enough to see a jail cell. Hank stares at him and says he doesn’t know who Walt is anymore.
Walt’s response is the line of the episode:
That ego of Walt’s is never not asserting itself.
- Let’s give it up to Vince Gilligan and director Bryan Cranston for the pacing of this episode. I literally had to remember to breathe several times during the episode, especially the confrontation between Walter and Hank. There is a master class in writing and editing that will take me several viewings to unpack.
- I can’t begin to tell you how much it tickled the Trekkie in me to hear Skinny Pete and Badger tossing around essentially Star Trek fanfic. Could this be foreshadowing something in the future, pie-eating aside?
- Walt and Skyler wore beige almost exclusively the entire episode. The use of color is a critical part of Gilligan’s storytelling and characters have worn specific colors all series (Marie is almost always in purple, Saul is always in brown). Every character who has killed someone was wearing red (Jesse with Gale, Gus with Victor). Walt migrated to wearing black as he sunk deeper into the Heisenberg persona. What could beige signify? Note that in the final confrontation between Walt and Hank, Hank is wearing a red shirt.
- I love the inversion of emotional investment that Gilligan and his writers have created. It reminds me of some of my favorite John Irving novels. The person that you’d assume would be the most sympathetic, cancer-stricken Walt, is a monster. And loser meth-dealing stoner Jesse ends up being the moral compass. You completely feel his anguish.
One of the things that has had me reeling throughout the entire run of this series is Gilligan’s masterful use of the device known as “Chekhov’s Gun”, where something seemingly inconsequential when initially introduced becomes a critical plot point. While it’s impossible to know if or how some items will play into the finale, let me suggest right here and now some potential Chekhov’s guns to keep in the back of your mind:
- That ricin made another appearance, it’s gonna kill someone at some point;
- The machine gun in the back of the car--remember Mr Chips into Scarface;
- Lydia’s “moving parts” and fear of being in a box.
- “Heisenberg” is tagged on his living room wall. Who put that there?
- The red bong in Jesse’s place.
- What was the prescription that Walt had hidden under the sink?
Next week’s episode: “Buried”