I originally chose Breaking Bad for my ill-conceived "binge-watch" experiment, in part, because I somehow thought it was the kind of show one could discuss rather efficiently. I had some misguided notion that Breaking Bad was a relentless, plot-driven engine that would provide a lot of moments to talk about, but which would not require a lot of thought or analysis or pontificating on themes. I thought—for reasons that now surpass understanding—I could write relatively short reviews, and knock the entire series out in just a couple of weeks.
Well, that plan was thwarted almost from the beginning. As my regular readers know, this project has taken much longer than I'd originally intended, and it has required a lot of thought and analysis, and I've done little else but pontificate on themes. As I was quick to admit in the very early days of this very long trip, I clearly underestimated Breaking Bad.
As I've said before, I'm not the least bit sorry that this show turned out to be so much richer and more rewarding than I'd expected it to be. (Who could possibly complain about that?) But it has been more time-consuming and mentally demanding than I'd anticipated.
What I'm saying is that I am—as I complete the penultimate mile of this long marathon—a little tired.
Fortunately, this week provides me an opportunity to pick up the pace a little. At the end of its fourth season, Breaking Bad comes much closer to being the relentless plot machine I originally imagined it to be. I don't mean this as a criticism—in fact, I'd say this is one of the best runs of the series—but it is a culmination of what has come before, not an advancement in new directions. Precisely because Vince Gilligan has done such a thorough job of seeding his themes and developing his characters over the course of this series, he is able now to just trust what he has built and let Season Four of Breaking Bad sprint breathlessly to the finish line.
That's an exciting level of maturity for a series to reach, but it also means there's less to analyze this week. So I'm going to keep it relatively short and try to move on a little more quickly to the fifth and final season.
BREAKING BAD BINGE WATCH: SESSION TEN
Binge Watch Period: January 17–18, 2015
Episodes Watched: Season 4, Episodes 10–13 ("Salud," "Crawl Space," "End Times," and "Face Off" )
Overall Binge-Watch Mood: Anxious to be done.
In terms of the overall structure of Breaking Bad, I was very curious to see where this season would leave us. I have suspected since about midway through Season One that Walt's story would turn out to be one of damnation: certainly, every sign has indicated that the the arc of Walt's character development, while long, bent inevitably towards evil. However, there was a slim chance that Vince Gilligan would, at some point, try to redeem Walter White. Even if the series led to his ultimate (and earned) destruction—as I assume it will—one possible way to go with it would be to, at some point, return Walt's humanity to him and force him to recognize and accept his own moral culpability.
That may still happen next season. But we're running out of time, aren't we? Knowing there is only one more season to go, I thought we'd have to start seeing signs of Walt's redemption at the end of Season Four, in order for it to play out meaningfully in Season Five. And there are moments throughout these episodes when it actually appeared that might be happening.
"Salud," for example, features a scene between Walt and Junior. Having broken with—and been broken by—his surrogate son, Jesse (in the previous episode "Bug"), this reconciliation with his actual son finds Walt at his most vulnerable and powerless. "I made a mistake, and it's all my own fault," he weeps to his son. "I'm sorry. I'm sorry." It's significant here, I think, that Walt is in his tighty-whiteys, calling back to the iconic image of his very first, disastrous foray into meth-dealing way back in the pilot. That's where he began, and now—for a moment at least—all the illusion of "Heisenberg" he's constructed so carefully ever since has been stripped away: he's back to being the impotent, sad-sack science teacher who is in way, way over his head. (And it's important that this moment happens with Junior: one of the only people left for whom he still is that person.)
And the following morning, Walt gives us a little insight into why he constructed the myth of Heisenberg in the first place, as he talks about his own father. His family, he says, would paint this picture of Walt's father as a powerful man, but Walt's only real memory of the man was of seeing him helpless in the hospital, "like there was nothing in him." Walt doesn't want to leave his son with the same memory: the broken, weepy man he was the night before is not how he wants Junior to remember him.
Just last week I wrote about how Vince Gilligan eschews simple psychological explanations for his characters' actions, and this scene is no exception. This glimpse into Walt's feelings about his father isn't the key to understanding his psyche, but it's another piece of the puzzle, and one that takes him dangerously close to self-awareness. What do we value in our relations with other people, the illusion or the reality? Walt would rather have the illusion, and he'd rather be an illusion: he'd rather be remembered as strong, and powerful, and in control.
But of course that's not what Junior wants, any more than it's what Skyler wants. "Remembering you that way wouldn't be so bad," Junior tells him. "The bad way to remember you would be the way you've been this whole last year. At least last night you were real, you know?" Junior doesn't need Heisenberg: Junior just wants his father. But part of the tragedy of Breaking Bad all along has been that Walt can't be happy being Walt, and so he sacrifices any chance at an authentic relationship with the people he claims to love.
There are other moments in these episodes where it seems maybe Walt is waking up to reality. "All that matter is that the rest of you are safe," Walt tells Skyler at the beginning of "End Times," when he believes he's lost his last chance to save himself. "I have lived under the threat of death for a year, and because of that I've made choices…I alone should suffer the consequences of those choices, no one else."
At this point it looks as though Walt is willing to make new choices, to protect his family and accept responsibility for his actions. We see him wordlessly deliberate his options as he sits by the pool in his backyard. He spins his revolver once, and it points to him. (He could kill himself: that would be one way out of this trap.) He spins it again, and once again the barrel points to him. (He could confess everything to the DEA, and guarantee protection for his family and Hank's.) Either of these choices would be tantamount to self-sacrifice: he could either kill himself, literally, or he could symbolically murder "Heisenberg," the manifestation of his deluded, desperate self-image. (Apollo Sunshine's melancholy song "We Are Born When We Die" plays over this scene—a good choice, I think, to represent both Walt's contemplation of his own death now and how he himself was "reborn" as Heisenberg when his cancer diagnosis forced him to confront death the first time.)
But then Walt spins the gun a third time, and this time it comes to rest pointing away from him, towards a potted plant—a Lily of the Valley—that sits nearby. He gets an idea, and he decides on a third option. Though we don't know it yet, he has come up with a risky plan to save both his identities, for he is unwilling to sacrifice either his own life or Heisenberg's.
And there—in the same spot where the evidence of his greatest crime fell down upon his head in Season Two—he surrenders, instead, his very last chance for redemption.
From this moment, we're off to the races: the final two episodes of Season Four are a brilliant, tense cat-and-mouse game as Walt's plan comes to fruition. Andrea's little boy has fallen sick, and Jesse—believing Walt has poisoned the child with the ricin cigarette—goes to kill his former friend. But Walt convinces him that Gus has engineered all of this. "Who do you know who's okay with using children?" he asks Jesse. "Who do you know who has allowed children to be murdered?"
By the end of the season these lines will take on a new meaning, but here there is a certain logic to it: Jesse has repeatedly refused to sign off on Walt's death, but now Jesse has been manipulated into wanting to kill Walt himself. Here, Jesse believes Walt's explanation, and agrees that Gus needs to die.
There is a theme running throughout these episodes about the personal. "There's no place for emotion in this," the soon-to-be-late Don Eladio tells Gus in "Salud." "You of all people should understand, business is business." Men do what they have to do, and they make their decisions logically and in accordance with code, and they do not allow sentimentality or affection to sway them. There's no room for emotion: it's not personal, it's business.
Jesse has never been able to live by this code. Everything is personal to Jesse, because Jesse is not a cold-hearted businessman. Jesse wants to be liked; Jesse wants everyone to get along; Jesse has never understood why they can't just sell meth without anyone getting hurt. Sent to rough up some meth heads in Season Two, he ended up taking care of their tragically neglected child. Coming up with a cynical plan to sell meth to recovering addicts in Season Three, he ended up in a relationship with Andrea and being a surrogate father to her son. Even after Hank beat him unconscious, Jesse didn't want Hank to be killed; even after he broke with Walt this season, Jesse still refuses to allow Gus to have Walt killed. That's just not who Jesse is.
And make no mistake, Jesse's humanity is often a practical problem, and something other people use to manipulate him. I wrote last week about how, for many characters within the world of Breaking Bad, emotion is considered a liability: it's feminine, it's messy, it's a weakness that can be exploited. For men like Gus—and that increasingly includes Walt—the pursuit of power involves sacrificing any real human relationships. Love and affection and a concern for humanity are all incompatible with the will to power.
So what is interesting here is that Walt convinces Jesse that Gus is exploiting his humanity: when Jesse refused to recognize the practical, logical, business-related reasons Walt should die, he argues, Gus gave him a personal, emotional one. Jesse's weakness for children has always been his true Achilles heel—it was the source of his biggest feud with Gus to date—and Walt convinces Jesse that Gus is once again taking advantage of that.
But Gus isn't. (When Gus arrives at the hospital, and expresses sympathy and concern, and allows Jesse to skip out on work, all of that is genuine.) As we learn in the final shot of the season, it was Walt, not Gus, who poisoned the little boy, in order to get Jesse to do what he wanted.
Reconsidering these last two episodes in light of that knowledge, what I find most interesting is the realization that Walt—far from reclaiming his own humanity, as it appeared he might do—is now the person exploiting the humanity of others. He takes advantage of Jesse's emotions to enlist his assistance, and he exploits Gus's emotions to engineer his murder.
Their first attempt to kill Gus, at the end of "End Times," involves placing a bomb on Gus's car when Gus comes to the hospital to visit Jesse. It's a fantastic scene, as Walt—watching from a nearby rooftop with binoculars—sees Gus approaching his car in the hospital parking garage. But then Gus suddenly stops. He doesn't know that something is wrong, but he knows something could be wrong, and he is far too smart, and far too careful, and far too professional, to take the risk. To Walt's frustration, he turns and walks away from the fateful car.
So they need to come up with something else: they need to find a weakness, a chink in Gus's armor, a moment when Gus drops the mask of the consummate professional. And they do it, in the end, by exploiting the one remaining bit of humanity in Gus.
Gus doesn't make a lot of mistakes; in fact, Gus almost never makes mistakes, because he has almost completely removed emotion from all his equations. But there is still that original sin we learned about a few episodes ago: Hector Salamanca's murder of Gus's friend (and lover?) Max. I wrote last week that Max was probably the last person Gus ever allowed himself to care for, the last moment in which Gus was actually a real human being.
And that's what gets him killed now, because his frequent trips to torment Hector in the nursing home are Gus's last indulgences of his emotions. He has stripped everything personal out of his life except this: his long-lost love for Max, and his long, lingering hatred of Hector. That last remaining ounce of humanity is Gus's weakness, and—in a rare misstep—he is foolish enough to reveal it to Jesse, who then reveals it to Walt.
"Face Off" is one of the most ridiculous, bravura, absolutely brilliant episodes of the show's entire run so far. I feel like I should be criticizing it for its plot contrivances and far-fetched elements, but I can't. Yes, it's over-the-top, and more than a little preposterous, but it manages to be clever, and funny, and unbearably tense, while still being firmly founded on the show's rich character development and central themes. In fact, this might be Breaking Bad at the height of its game. I loved the fleeting moment of physical comedy when Walt gets off the elevator with the bomb from Gus's car in his bag—the magnet clinging stubbornly to the elevator door—and Jesse's reasonable and horrified follow-up question. ("Did you just bring a bomb into a hospital?") I loved the phony ploy of arranging a meeting between Hector and the DEA, and Hector's petty, vindictive, painfully slow spelling-out of profanities. ("S-U-C-K-M-Y…") I loved the tension of the scenes where first Tyrus, and then Gus, scope out the nursing home, trying to think of every conceivable threat and still missing the one right in front of them. And yes, I love Hector's final moment of triumph—looking Gus in the face for the very first time—and the absolutely ridiculous aftermath of the explosion, in which Gus, professional to the end, straightens his necktie with half his skull blown away.
But before we leave this week I want to return to this theme of the personal, and what it means as we enter the final season. As I said, there are moments in these episodes when it seems as though Walt might be regaining his humanity, and beginning to recognize what he has become. The breakdown with Junior in "Salud" is Walt being an actual human being, with actual emotions, and I find myself wondering if that will be the last such moment we get from him. Because the end of Season Four sees him turning away from this surfacing humanity and plunging even further into monstrosity.
Because the way everything plays out is all about emotion and humanity, for everyone except him. It's personal for Jesse, who genuinely cares about Andrea and her son. It's personal for Hector, who gets revenge for the deaths of his family members. It's personal for Gus, who makes the mistake of indulging his humanity for one last time. (Before he goes to the nursing home—this time to kill Hector—Tyrus tries to talk him out of it, but Gus is adamant: "I do this," he says firmly. It's not business, it's personal, and that's what gets him killed.)
The only person acting out of cold, heartless practicality is Walt. Yes, he is motivated by fear for his own life, and he is arguably acting to protect his family (though there were almost certainly better ways to do that). But the ruthless, emotionless way he goes about it is terrifying. He risks killing a little boy, just to get Jesse's help. ("Who do you know who is okay with using children?") He sends his unsuspecting neighbor into his house, just to flush out any assassins that may be hiding there. He detonates a bomb in the middle of a nursing home because that was the only safe place where he could destroy his enemy.
I've long argued that Breaking Bad is about the male-empowerment fantasy of violence and power, and how that is incompatible with more humane qualities like love and affection. I'm not going to dwell on further on that theme here (because I'm sure we'll be getting into it more in the final season), but I think it's safe to say that, as we enter the final act, Walt isn't reclaiming his humanity: he's purging it. Season Four ends with Walt free from any external forces that would control him: he is now free to be the family man he claims he wants to be, to be the "real" person that his wife and son would prefer to the cold, distant figure of Heisenberg.
But, over the course of these episodes, it feels like Walt has made his final choice, from which there's no turning back. He begins these episodes in a moment of humanity, saying "I'm sorry," but he ends them in monstrous triumph, saying "I won."
He's now free to be the person he wants to be. And it's now clear that the person he wants to be is Heisenberg.