The internet doesn’t just let things be good. They have to be categorized, dissected, and most importantly, ranked. Is a show good? Maybe, but the real question is: is it as good as The Wire? Is it on Mad Men’s tier, just a notch below?
If you were ever going to make an argument for Breaking Bad’s candidacy for that very uppermost tier in the pantheon, tonight’s episode wouldn’t be a bad place to start; my notes read as an inventory of everything that makes the show great.
There’s the Mike Judge-quality satire–one of the secrets to Breaking Bad’s continued success, from Walt’s Aztek and wallabees to the pitch-perfect name Lydia Rodarte-Quayle–in the first scene, with Mike’s lawyer making the cash drop, bacon-bit cookies in tow. There’s the showoffy camera angles and slick editing in the safe-deposit room, turning something mundane into something exhilarating a la Scorsese. There’s the little touches, like Saul’s drawer full of burner cell phones. There’s the unbearable tension, from start to finish, which will probably resonate with me longer than anything else from this show. There’s even a classic meth-making music video.
So what happened? Using the hidden stash of methylamine as collateral, Walt forces a confrontation with Mike’s associate Declan and his hilariously-coiffed goons out in the desert. “It’s your play, Walter,” Mike tells Walt before it starts. And by God, it sure is. Earlier in the series, this would’ve been an ideal time to undercut Walt’s delusions of badassery. At this point, though, Walt can declare with absolute fearlessness that he’s the man who killed Gus Fring. He’s the best meth cook in the nation. He’s in charge. Which means, as he’ll soon come to tragically realize, that now he’s personally responsible for anything that goes wrong.
The deal works out against all odds thanks to Walt’s force of personality. He finds a new distributor to take over for Mike and, more importantly in his mind, he’s still in the empire business. After getting his severance, Mike tells Walt “I gotta hand it to you,” hilariously declining to elaborate on that thought. And we as an audience really do have to hand it to him; through his own ingenuity, cunning, and chutzpah, he beat the last obstacle in his path–the consummate pro–and clung to his empire with terrible ferocity.
So in true Breaking Bad fashion, it’s all got to unravel. First, Jesse still wants out, and no amount of cynical manipulation from Walt is going to change that. In one of the finest dramatic confrontations in the series to date, Walt tries to bully Jesse perhaps for the last time, only for Jesse to finally cut that tether by leaving his 5 million payout on the table. Just like The Sopranos, Breaking Bad affirms the notion that money, as it seems to represent freedom, ultimately weighs you down, makes you accountable, and puts shackles on your independence. It ties you down.
Mike’s reminder of that lesson has, as far as we know, much more dramatic consequences. His mule lawyer gets caught thanks to Hank’s quick thinking–another fine aspect of the show, revealing just how good Agent Schrader really is at his job–and Mike’s meticulously planned operation hits a fatal snag just as he’s largely disarmed himself. As Vince Gilligan and company love to remind us, there’s always another contaminant lying in wait, no matter how subtle the plan or precise the formula. (Just ask Gus Fring.)
It’s understandable that Mike would hate Walter out of loyalty to his former employer–Walt blew his face off, after all–but it’s only in this week’s closing minutes that we actually hear Mike articulate his frustration with Walt. After a heartbreaking scene in which Mike eludes the police at the cost of losing his granddaughter forever–were those tears in his fishy little eyes?–we understand just how tenuous Walt’s egomania rendered the only thing in the world Mike found precious. And if Walt neglects to continue paying Mike’s family, years of hard work and moral compromise in service to the lone redeeming goal in Mike’s life will have evaporated with Walt’s selfishness.
As for Walt, we get the ultimate undermining of the Heisenberg persona in an episode that started with its ultimate expression. Mike’s backup plan involves reconnoitering with his former partner in a secluded location to take the remainder of his cut, now that what he’s stocked away for his granddaughter is going to be confiscated by the DEA. Clever framing made Walt look small despite the enormity of his anger and hurt towards Jesse once his former protege left him for good; when Walt fumes maniacally after Mike chews him out and takes the bag of money, his rage manifests in a glorified hissy fit as he marches toward Mike’s car, pistol in tow. Despite Heisenberg’s pride, Walter White is still a petty, small man, and his senseless killing of Mike only confirms that.
In a lesson the Coen brothers love to pass along, however, the fact that the reasons for violence are petty and meaningless doesn’t undo the reality of it. It’s impossible to appreciate the deep cruelty of violence until you understand the gravity a single thoughtless moment can have. The irony is only grimly heightened when Walt realizes aloud that he could’ve just gotten the names of Mike’s “guys” he wanted so badly from Lydia, sparing the gutshot Mike his fate.
Paradoxes have fascinated philosophers for millennia because they represent thin places in reality, twisting helixes of simultaneous conflicting truths. Ponder them long enough and the rational underpinnings of our culture can seem suspect. Walt has been able to rationalize every decision he’s made thus far; every murder–or poisoning–has served a distinct purpose. But now he’s come face-to-face with something that can’t be explained away, by his own admission. A deadly mistake.
The longer he has to contemplate that, the more unsteady Heisenberg becomes. More loose ends appear, and soon the black hat is in tatters.
Is this the beginning of the end? You’re goddamned right.
- –Do you think Jesse is gone for good? He can’t be, right? If Walt is Macbeth and he’s already killed his Duncan and Banquo, then Jesse could easily be Macduff’s family.
- –Todd applied himself to the best of his ability. That’s the best we can ask.
- –Is Skyler ever going to be able to develop beyond her sense of devastating culpability? I don’t blame her for hating Walt by any means, and I appreciate how scenes like their scabby lasagna dinner undermine Walt’s sense of greatness, but it’s really one-note.
- –Do bacon-bit cookies sound the least bit appetizing to you?