WARNING: FULL SPOILERS FOR THE EPISODE.
“Chemistry is the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change … It’s growth, then decay, then transformation.”
— Walter White (Season 1, Pilot)
Last week’s horror show “Ozymandias,” was like watching a high speed collision morph into a ten car pileup; now the extended penultimate episode of Breaking Bad, “Granite State” slows things down to examine the carnage.
On the agenda tonight? The sad onscreen death of Walter Hartwell White. No, not literally (my guess is that’s still to come in the finale). But the majority of this episode focused on the final pathetic demise of the “sweet, brilliant man we once knew…” As Gretchen reminds us at the end, Heisenberg notwithstanding, “He’s gone.” Ironically, by their efforts on Charlie Rose to publicly distance their company’s image from Mr. White—by dismissing his contributions to their success and minimizing his genius down to half a name—Gretchen and Elliott are directly responsible for refueling Heisenberg’s mojo. In some ways, Walter’s transformation these past five seasons always had more to do with wasting his potential by burning bridges at ‘Grey Matter’ (while the company he helped seed went on to become a multibillion dollar success story without him) than with securing his family’s future. After all, if his ego and bitterness over the falling out did not enter into things, he surely would have taken the job with Elliott back in season one. If family were more important than whatever happened between Walter, Gretchen, and Elliott way back when, Mr. White never would have opted to continue making meth. (I really hope we get one more short flashback in the finale to finally close the books on just what exactly drove Walt to break up with Gretchen and abandon the company he helped found for a measly $5,000!) Thus, Gretchen and Elliott’s words preside over the birth of a fully realized Heisenberg, unbound from familial ties holding him back, just as he was ready to turn himself in to the DEA. But first, we need to take a long last look at the lonely remnants of our favorite chemistry teacher as he wallows in exile in the frozen wasteland that is New Hampshire.
“Granite State” opens with some trademark Breaking Bad black humor, potentially the last bit of levity in the entire series, as a means for the audience to come down from the trauma of watching “Ozymandias” last week. As per usual, the laughs are provided by “Better Call” Saul Goodman, who has decided along with Walt to get the hell outta Dodge. Only, Walt isn’t too pleased about it as he angrily snarls when Saul suggests he is leaving his wife and kids high and dry, “God, you think I want to run?! That’s the last thing I want!” We finally get to meet the “vacuum cleaner” repair guy who disappears people (played masterfully by Robert Forster) who seems indifferent when Saul observes with amazement that he really does run a vacuum cleaner repair shop: “I guess I figured ‘vacuum cleaner repair’ was a term of art.” And guess who Saul gets to bunk with in the basement? An enraged and desperate Walter White! Fun!
Here we begin to see the powerlessness of the fallen King Walter, who can no longer muster his money or his intimidating cult of personality to control people anymore. When Saul refuses to go along with Walter to his new home in New Hampshire (protesting that he’s only a civilian now), Walter advances on Saul, trying to turn on the old Heisenberg menace. In a callback to an earlier episode, Walter begins to growl, “Remember what I told you? It’s not over until I…” but is rudely cut off by his own fit of violent cancer coughing, bringing him literally to his knees. Saul stares down at him and seems to genuinely pity the man, remarking sadly, “It’s over.” And who can blame him? After this episode, even the biggest Walter White haters out there must have felt some twinge of pity (if not actual sympathy) for Walter in this episode as his truly pathetic fate begins to unfold throughout the remainder of the hour. Shacked up in a cabin in the icy middle of nowhere with barely the amenities to survive and the indignity of two copies of “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium,” on DVD as his only source of entertainment, things look grim indeed for Walter. Forbidden to leave the cabin, Walter decides to don his famous porkpie hat to work up the courage for a rebellious Heisenberg tryst. However, in a parody sequence of his usual badass Heisenberg marches, he is cowed by his most intimidating opponent yet: the great outdoors. Apparently an eight mile hike in the cold leading to certain capture trumps the hat where a more tangible opponent might give way.
So now Walt hangs up his hat on a deer antler and impotently reassures himself he will make his move tomorrow, and as the tomorrows accrue and months of inaction pass we see how truly defeated Walt has become. Now sporting flashforward hair and a Grizzly Adams beard to match his new climate, Walter has become a wretch of a man. He has lost so much weight that his wedding ring slips off his finger while he is sleeping and he has to tie it around his neck on a string. He depends on Vacuum Repair Guy (as he will henceforth be known) to deliver his groceries and perform homemade chemo on him. Such is his soul-crushing loneliness, Walter pays Vacuum Repair Guy $10,000 just for two hours of company (like he is buying a prostitute), but he only gets one. When Walter asks him morbidly if he would deliver the money to his family if he finds Walter dead on one of his visits, Vacuum Repair Guy grimly responds, “If I said yes, would you believe me?” Finally, desperate to funnel his money to his suffering family somehow, Walter manages to get Junior on the phone by pretending it is a call from Marie. In one of the series’ most tragic scenes to date (or cathartic if you really hate this guy) Walter weepily tries to say goodbye to his son and project an image of good intentions gone awry. As he has made clear in the past, Walter cares more than anything—outside of his own power tripping ego—about the way his children will remember him when he is gone. But Flynn, still under the impression Walt murdered Hank (which he did, in a way), is having none of it and screams at his estranged father to screw off and “just die already!!” Walter sobs over the phone, pleading for his son to take the dirty money, imploring him, “Your mother needs this money. It can’t all be for nothing.” But Flynn slams down the phone.
And that is really at the heart of Breaking Bad’s tragedy. This is no escapist fantasy. There is no romanticism here. There is no redemption. It really was all just for nothing. Walter White has inadvertently allowed his ego and a heavy dose of “good intentions” to drown his family in a sea of blood laced with meth. The shattered remains of his “empire business” have rained destruction down on everyone around him. The theme of the last two episodes and the driving moral of this entire series is that actions have consequences. And evil actions forged from good intentions must eventually reap the consequences sown. Now the terrifying chickens have finally come home to roost.
Walt isn’t the only one facing consequences. Jesse has truly reached critical mass in the human suffering department. After being fed Ben & Jerry’s by psychopath Todd (like a farmer fattening up his pet pig) as a ‘reward’ for increasing the White Power gang’s product to 92% purity, Jesse works out an elaborate escape, MacGyvering himself out of his constraints with the paperclip from Andrea and Brock’s photo. But he is halted by barbed wire and a security camera. As he pleads for them to just kill him, they decide to go another route and take Jesse for a little drive. Todd sadistically shoots Andrea in the back of the head at her own home, remarking dispassionately, “Just so you know this isn’t personal.” Oh, polite robot Todd. We could never stay mad at you. Jesse is made to watch in the van nearby and reminded that they spared Brock so he had better keep cooking for them. Jesse’s screams of anguish hit a new level of hard to watch, which is really saying something for this show.
Skyler is also facing consequences. In a scene that calls back to the pilot when Walter is first told he has lung cancer, Skyler sits at the lawyers’ table with a deer-in-the-headlights look on her face. The sound is muted under heavy feedback and just like with Walt, they ask her if she understands what has been said. Parroting that earlier scene Skyler replies, “Yes… I understand… I understand I’m in terrible trouble.” But Skyler’s legal problems are only the beginning. She also has to deal with Todd and his White Power gang who have broken into Holly’s nursery and are wearing ski masks. Todd extracts a promise from her under implied threat against her baby that she will never mention Lydia Rodarte-Quayle’s name to the lawyers or the feds, nor approach her police detail stationed outside after they leave. You see, our boy Todd is in love (if robots had human emotions). Or at least in lust. He is keeping Jesse alive specifically so he can impress his new boss with the improved product. That 92% purity goes a lot farther in convincing Lydia not to have Todd kill Skyler “loose-end” White than his turning on the “charm” does. Their meeting once again echoes an earlier episode in the series when she met with Mike to discuss cleaning up loose ends. Only this time, everything’s coming up Lydia. She gets to talk to Todd sitting back-to-back just the way she wants to and even gets her chamomile tea with soymilk and Stevia. She smiles as she says, “We’ll talk like this,” feeling like she is finally the one in control with no Mike Ehrmantraut around to screw things up. He’s in Belize, remember?
With one final episode to go, I for one am not ready to let go of Breaking Bad. It has me addicted like meth. For some strange reason, I’ve fallen in love with these horrible, horrible people. And there is a sick fascination in watching the chaotic fallout as it swallows their lives. But as the promo goes, “All Bad Things Must Come to an End.” I doubt I will see another serialized drama in my lifetime that surpasses this series. In terms of telling one complete perfect narrative from start to finish, Breaking Bad is unique in the medium of television. You could argue about The Sopranos. Without its influence, Breaking Bad surely could not have existed. But The Sopranos was more about powerful themes than a single focused narrative. No, I don’t think there will ever be a show quite like Breaking Bad again, but I’m excited about the legacy it will leave behind. It’s been one crazy ride so far; I hope you’ll join me here for the series finale next week.
Also, congratulations to Vince Gilligan and the cast and crew on their win at the Emmys in the Best Drama category, and to Anna Gunn (Mrs. Skyler White herself) for winning Best Supporting Actress in a Drama (Although I’m frankly shocked and appalled that Bryan Cranston, whose monumental performance has been a driving force behind the series, lost to The Newsroom‘s Jeff Daniels). You can watch the video embedded below.
One more thing: for anyone not caught up (I hope you didn’t just read my review) or feeling like an extreme Breaking Bad binge to celebrate the ending of an iconic series, AMC will be running all 61 episodes in a row starting Wednesday, September 25th leading all the way up to the finale on Sunday, September 29th. This is the first time the network has aired the series in one complete block (no surprise there). How many days can you go without sleep?
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(SPOILERS) Making of Episode 515 Granite State: Breaking Bad Video
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