By: Daniel Reynolds
So much of Breaking Bad has been about a certain duality. Sure, it has always been about how a good guy can break bad, obviously, but it also concerns itself with the hidden interior lives of its characters; the different ways they act and react to the world around them; and the public face they show to society. It is unfortunate that my writing partner in these Breaking Bad reviews, Paul, is not here to provide a viable counterpoint on this final episode of Season 5 (I’m going to call the shortened run of episodes Season 5, even if AMC gave it short shrift). While we agree on the general quality of Breaking Bad and its brilliant run of episodes leading up to this finale, much like the show itself, there is something to be said for a different perspective; an alternate consideration.
After the heartbreaking events of the previous episode (RIP Mike), there really only remained one fly in the ointment: the ten names in prison. Some shows would maybe draw out an entire season worth of drama with such a monumental problem. And to be fair, we’ve seen Walt (and Jesse) spend an entire episode dealing with such “trivialities” as a dead car battery or a fly (making a glorious, symbolically loaded return again this week). But ultimately, Breaking Bad is different. And the difference is clear with one terrifying, Godfather-like montage. Walt achieves his dream. He is left alone as the king of the hill.
And by God, just think of all the obstacles: Crazy Eight, Tuco, Hector, The Twins, Jane, Jesse (on drugs), Mike, Victor, Tyrus, Gus, Skyler, Ted, Jesse (off drugs), Lydia, and probably some I’m forgetting. Think of how nervous we were for Walt whenever he had to go into a room full of gangsters to negotiate. Hell, there was a time he was scared of Saul Goodman! Now, he sits in a room full of shady characters (tattoos and weird facial hair, a must), and he does not even move; does not even flinch! Walt tells a room full of scary dudes to kill ten people (in prison!), some of whom, lest we forget, are not exactly hardened criminals (that poor, goofy lawyer, with his baked goods comes to mind), and he literally does not even blink.
Look, I could rant on about how terrifying it is to realize that Walt actually considers using the ricin on Lydia, and that Jesse is even afraid to answer his door when Walt comes knocking. Instead, consider that when Breaking Bad started, its thesis was very clear. Vince Gilligan planned on telling a story where the main character, the “hero”, would gradually slide into villainy. As Gilligan said, it would be Goodbye Mr. Chips meets Scarface. To that end, we have watched Walt scramble into and out of trouble, we watched him kill reluctantly, then defensively, then proactively, and, finally, remotely. We watched him turn friends (or at least, allies) into adversaries and vice versa, overcome huge odds of survival, and somehow, in some way, win. We have rooted for this, cheered for this. We have watched a good man become totally evil. And while we knew this conclusion was coming, we watched with revolted fascination. When Skyler shows Walt the storage locker full of money, we are witnessing the culmination of all of that pride and ego. As Skyler remarks, the sum of the money is incalculable. It is detached from any real practical concerns, meaning or value. It is purely a monument to a grand and terrible man.
There is an antithesis to all of this, though. And it starts with Hank Schrader. Remember meeting him? He was loud, sort of obnoxious, a bit of a boor. He didn’t have Walt’s high-minded intellect or taste. He craved his home brewed beer (cleverly named Schraderbrau) and enjoyed racially insensitive jokes. We laughed at Hank. It was fun to watch Walt elude not only the scary underworld, but the grasp and understanding of his brother-in-law, along with the DEA and their field operatives. But then something happened. A bomb was strapped to a turtle and we saw Hank as a scared man. He appeared broken. Then we saw him in a terrifying situation in a parking lot, trained killers approaching. He fought and survived. Suddenly Hank’s jokes concealed not incompetence, but a strong will and a new found bravery. By the time season 5 rolled around, we were stunned by Walt, amazed at the levels of his calculating evil, but we were silently, almost cautiously, rooting for Hank. Now he was walking again, he was getting promoted, he was closing the gap between himself and the mysterious Heisenberg.
Finally, as the episode ends, the chapter appears to be closed. Walt is reunited with his family, newly retired, and all appears at peace. But then Hank, the one true morally correct hero on the show, thinks back to Walt and his subtle gloating; the small fly buzzing around the room that insists something is wrong. He figures it out.
WW means Walter White and July 2013 can’t get here soon enough.