I’ve been watching this season’s Breaking Bad with a sense of dread and intensity like no other. Every season has been fantastic, but this one, perhaps because it was truncated to make way for another next summer, has drawn me into the dark mind of Walter “I want an empire” White – his wanton ambition, ruthlessness, cunning, duplicity, and delusions of grandeur: gliding over all. Director Michelle MacLaren and writer Molly Walley-Becketthave both been working with the series for years, so it’s fitting that they get us ready for the send-off, or pre-send-off as the case is for this partial season finale.
Walt has been getter badder by the season, but after eliminating Gus Fring in last year’s finale, he’s broken off the chain and sees himself as an indomitable, untouchable kingpin toward whom all others, his partners, his associates, his wife, must bow. He’s not only abhorrently arrogant, his descent into bad has now made him irredeemable.
In “Gliding Over All,” we see the absolute worst of Walter White, using his newfound superficially loyal mutt Todd’s white supremacist prison connections to pull off ten (I think I counted correctly to make room for Mike’s lawyer) prison hits in under two minutes.
I wasn’t so taken by the montage of murders, set to Nat King Cole crooning Pick Yourself Up, bringing an absurd levity but lyrical match to the rapid repetition – “start right over again” – of the vicious attacks. It seemed as though they were aping Scorcese’s Goodfellas when they should have been doing more to document the precision of the hits – more than just Walter timing the process. But the brutality of the shivs, punches, and gasoline drenching did feel rather visceral, even with the purposefully and distracting sunny music of yesteryear. Sometimes flair and sentimental irony are unwarranted, but maybe the song made ten gruesome murders committed in two minutes in real time go by a bit more bearably.
Walt staring at his watch to measure the precision and punctuality of his mass murder plan made me think that his encounter with the white supremacist thugs put him dangerously close to the mind of the commandant of a Nazi concentration camp – calculating how many human beings could be murdered in short intervals. To Walt, it was all about efficiency, without a second thought to the people being gutted, thrown over railings, and burned alive.
He’s been really, really bad up to now. In this episode, he crossed a solid line into evil. Raúl can’t believe he was ever rooting for this guy, but he was, just four seasons ago, which is just one year in Breaking Bad time! And Raúl only started watching last summer, so it really has been a one-year run-up for me.
Walt was the star of this season’s finale. Everyone else in his sphere lies under his spell (Todd), control (Jesse, Skyler), or web of deception (Hank, in particular). Well, not everyone…
Oh, a newer character on the scene is not so malleable or readily deceived. Lydia, a despicable but cunning new partner, sees through Walt’s plans, including his recent murder of Mike and his intent to murder her, yes, right there and then, in the restaurant, as Walt suggests in mockery, though he has a vial of toxic powder ready to tip into her coffee. Lydia comes to the chess board prepared this time. She’s got a counter for everything Walt throws at her, including an offer to expand their business from the Southwest to Europe. Corporate number-cruncher Lydia knows that the Czech market is ripe for the blue crystal and presents a plan to take it over using her ability to ship internationally. (Only the restaurant division of Madrigal is under investigation by the DEA.) She plays to Walt’s unwieldy ambition and saves her own skin, though it’s at the expense of Mike’s ten men in three different prisons. She hands over the names only after Walt agrees to going global. She also cops her standard 30% cut while turning the tables on Walt’s business naïvety by asking, “You didn’t think Gus built that distribution system up all by himself, did you?” Even Gus Fring needed Lydia, and the glass-ceiling businesswoman in her isn’t afraid to let Walt know it. Count this character as both vulnerable and a threat.
Walt’s other partner, Skyler, has hit a wall, however. Though she’s agreed to launder the drug money and anything else he asks so long as he keeps their children out of the house, there is simply too much cash for even the most successful car wash in the world to pass off as profit. She can’t even fit it into the sealed laundry cases in the crawlspace anymore. There is just too much fucking money. When is enough enough? For Walt, I don’t think we’ll ever know. He’s so adrift in his sea of blue meth that he can’t even keep track of the cash flow anymore. He just divvies it up and drops it off. His own cut is so enormous that accountant Skyler has given up and started heaping stacks of greens in a rented storage unit, spraying the Uncle Sams with silverfish repellent to keep them pristine.
“When is enough enough?” demands Skyler. They’ve already amassed more than they could spend in ten lifetimes. Walt is now in the 1%, though I don’t see him enjoying it like his old, envied business partners. He can’t live large or respectably, so he lives small and dangerously.
[Aside: I guess I can’t help but extrapolate Skyler’s question to the growing share that the super-rich hold in the distribution of U.S. wealth. When is enough enough? Sure, Walt is a risk-taker and has been thusly rewarded. Is this capitalism at its zenith? Sitting in a storage compartment with untold stacks of money. How is this so different from millions stashed away in offshore accounts in the Caymans? 1% and your acolytes, here you are: Walter White.
Oh, but Raúl is getting fired up after the GOP convention and off the subject of Breaking Bad, though Walt and Romney do have a similar skill for prevarication and freakily false paternalistic caring. Will we see through it like Skyler and now Jesse see through Walt?]
Maybe Walt’s later acquiescence to getting out of the business, as he tells Skyler, has a hidden dimension. We’ve been to the radiologist with Walt before, but curiously, we haven’t been with him for the results shared with the doctor in several seasons. In this episode we are back again, and perhaps tellingly, Walt later makes his announcement to leave the business. Is enough enough? You never know what Walt is really scheming, and his sincerity has long lost any hope of reality, but a dire prognosis might cause him to return to the life of the Old Walt (but not the Old Walt himself; he’s gone forever, and I’m not sure he was ever really there).
And Walt did try to make good with Jesse. Speaking of the Old Walt, he makes some attempts at nostalgia when he engages Jesse in some conversation about their start-up days, cooking meth in a shitty RV that broke down constantly. While the scene is jarring – we’re not sure of Walt’s motives for the visit and Jesse keeps at least ten paces between them the entire time – Walt does appear to be reaching back for something that is past and gone, irretrievable especially after his decisions in this episode. On leaving, he dumps a giant black bag of cash for Jesse to unzip in disbelief. He drags the bag inside his house, which has not descended to the level of squalor following Gale’s murder, but it’s getting close and even sadder considering the total isolation of it – not even a working phone. Jesse wants out of the world, not just the meth business. He’s not ready to go completely, though. After Walt leaves, Jesse breathes a sigh of relief and tosses a pistol he’d been hiding on his person, revealing that he expected to be #11 on Walt’s list. I was a bit worried myself.
Skyler takes Walt at his word, which surprises me, considering her raw confession that she was merely waiting out their marriage/business relationship until his cancer returned, which she viewed as her only escape. Some time has elapsed, as we know from her visit with Marie, who nudges her toward taking the children back home and patching the family together again. I don’t really buy this because Skyler had become the one character, maybe aside from Mike, who could see straight through Walt’s machinations. She didn’t need any details – she looked through his unending deceit and found only a hollow space in the form of the man she married. Why would she go back? Relief? Escape? Does she really buy it?
But now Walt seems to yearn for a return to the pre-meth years. Seems… The concluding scene at the White home in the back yard, with the couples babbling while Walt, Jr. pushes the now mobile baby Holly around the pool seems a quaint throwback, despite some fleeting references to chemistry. There is even a discussion of brewing, this time regarding Hank’s beer brewing Schraderbrau in the garage. Everyone votes an enthusiastic yes for the beer. The visuals are sunny, the banter is bright and playful, yet the mood remains ominous.
The good times don’t last. Not when Hank has to take a shit, and the bathroom reading material on the toilet tank features a book of Walt Whitman poetry with an inscription from the kindhearted, sacrificial lamb Gale to his scientific hero Walt, as in W.W., the other W.W., whom Hank had read about in Gale’s writings while investigating his murder. Raúl has never been sure if Hank seriously suspected Walt. The clues presented themselves in abundance: the flush of cash, the cars, the supremely stupid insistence by Walt that Gale was not Heisenberg.
I’ve read that the book of poetry is serving poetic justice, but I’d argue that it’s Gale’s handwriting that brings it home. Walt up to that point had been slipping deeper and deeper into the shit, already committing murder himself (to save Jesse) and watching Jane die (to keep Jesse), but when he emotionally blackmailed Jesse into shooting the trusting, affable Gale point blank in the face, Walt proved himself as a calculating, self-serving monster-in-training. For me, this was the tipping point from bad to really, really bad. It kept getting worse, from poisoning Brock to whistling while he worked after Todd gunned down a waving child on a bicycle, but murdering Gale was the gateway to evil, and it’s only just that the inscription, written in almost fanboy prose, should serve as the gateway to Walt’s deserved downfall.
I’ve clearly switched sides since the story began. Walt’s awkward attempts at nostalgia with Jesse in this episode showed us how far removed he has become since the dawning days of Breaking Bad. Instead of rooting for the underdog to beat cancer while breaking the rules, I’m ready to see him go down at almost any cost. My worry is who he’ll take down with him. And I’ve got a year for my anxiety to mount. Vince Gilligan, I’m not sure what you’ve done to me.
In the meantime, I will be pondering:
How does Walt expect to simply walk away from his meth operation just after making multi-million-dollar deals with Lydia AND with a pack of unknown but presumedly unforgiving drug distributors?
Where will Hank begin in investigating Walt? Using the personal advantage, just as Walt has used against him?
When is that vial of poisonous powder hidden in the electrical socket going to re-appear?
When the fuck are we going to get the Gus Fring story? We are at least owed an explanation as to why he was untouchable even by don Eladio.
Is Skyler just going through the motions, or will she be one of the first to turn on Walt? She’ll be condemning herself in the process, so it’s a hard call.
Who are going to make up the collateral damage that I see coming? Lots of characters are like moths close fluttering close to the fire, some without even knowing it.
What does Lydia know besides distribution that can be used against Walt? She’s a master of self-preservation, and I imagine Walt to be expendable to her, despite increasing her invisible profit margin – and where does she stash the cash? I think she’s of the class that can set up overseas bank accounts and secret Madrigal funds that are really hers to keep and shift about.
How will Jesse factor back into the game? He’s out now, but when the house of cards fall, he’ll be under the rubble. He’s already on Hank’s radar, Skyler knows his involvement, and Jesse himself seems worn out enough to just give in.
What else should I be thinking about for the next solid ten months?