BREAKING BAD BINGE WATCH: SESSION ELEVEN
Binge Watch Period: February 7–10, 2015. (Yes, it's taken me almost a month to find time to write this post: sorry.)
Episodes Watched: Season 5, Episodes 1–8 ("Live Free or Die," "Madrigal," "Hazard Pay," "Fifty One," "Dead Freight," "Buyout," "Say My Name," and "Gliding Over All")
Overall Binge-Watch Mood: Can't I just skip to the end?
Prior to beginning the final season of Breaking Bad, I went back and rewatched the pilot episode, to remind myself of what a long, strange journey it has been for these characters.
Actually, one of the shocks of the fifth season is the revelation that it has not been such a "long" journey. The pilot opens on Walt's 50th birthday, and Season Five opens with a flash-forward to his 52nd birthday, but the first few episodes of the final season all really take place around his turning 51. In other words, everything that has happened in the series so far has taken place over the course of a single year. It has taken less than 365 days to turn this man from an impotent milquetoast to an irredeemable monster.
But the seeds of the monster were there all along, weren't they? They're there in all of us, inextricably spliced into our cultural DNA. I've covered a lot of this ground before—and I'm sure I'll return to it as we close out the series next time—but I think it's important to reiterate that what Vince Gilligan is critiquing in Breaking Bad is our cultural obsession with power as a mark of masculinity. And I think he is particularly critiquing it as a subject for entertainment, even as he builds his own entertainment around it. The very first true narrative film, 1903's The Great Train Robbery, was a western about train-robbing bandits, and ever since then American popular entertainment has been obsessed with stories of masculine power. We love cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians. We love stories of renegades and outlaws and vigilantes, in which the heroes live outside the constraints of the law and seize power through violence.
The seduction of such narratives is powerful and obvious, and I think it's safe to say that the widespread popularity of Breaking Bad is itself evidence of our shared obsession. The most impotent-feeling modern man can look at Walter White and imagine himself "breaking bad," and breaking out of the emasculating constraints of modern life: as we can in other such entertainments—whether films or shows or books or video games—we can live vicariously through him and partially sate our own desire for manly power.
Gilligan consciously plays to this seductive element—there are plenty of moments when the show itself indulges in the fantasy of how cool such a life would be—but he is also consciously and deliberately deconstructing it, and forcing us to grapple with the dark side of our cultural obsession. The show is very self-aware in its use of tropes from the classic American entertainments. In this batch of episodes, for example, we get: a classic heist film (in "Live Free or Die"); an actual, western-style "great train robbery" (in "Dead Freight"); and a Godfather-inspired mob-revenge scenario (as Walt takes care of all family business in "Gliding Over All"). We also get deliberate, self-aware shout-outs, from Jesse's violent video games, to Walt and Junior watching Scarface, to Mike telling Walt that shooting Jesse James "don't make you Jesse James." The show constantly hangs a lamp on the primordial cultural soup from which both Breaking Bad and Walter White have emerged in order to ask us, Do you really want to live in the fantasy?
Which is another way of asking: would you really want to be Walter White? Because, as we enter this final season, it's no longer even a question whether Walter is redeemable: it's just a question of how he will ultimately be punished, and how many lives he will destroy before he is.
I closed out my look at the end of Season Four by saying that Walt was now free to be the person he wants to be, and the person he wants to be is Heisenberg. The first half of Season Five seems to confirm that, as there is virtually no distinction between Walt's two identities. The most obvious sign of this is that—beginning in "Fifty-One"—Walt starts wearing his Heisenberg hat in his normal life: he dons it when he goes to buy new cars for himself and Junior, and never really takes it off. (There are other indications that the carefully constructed walls between his worlds have effectively broken down. When Jesse wants to meet somewhere to talk business in "Buyout," Walt casually tells him to come to the house: he feels no need to keep his professional and domestic lives separate anymore.)
The cars themselves are another sign of Heisenberg's ascension, of course. In the middle of Season Four Skyler still had enough power in the relationship that she could force Walt to get rid of the first flashy car he bought for his son, but now things have changed. Walt has all the power now, and Skyler is a broken woman: the full realization of who she is married to has left her with the air of an abused wife, living in constant, docile fear for herself and her children. At the beginning of the season—following his successful orchestration of Gus's death—Walt is smug, self-satisfied, and looking for a little validation and admiration from her. "Are you going to show some kind of mild relief that I'm alive?" he asks her, in "Live Free or Die." "I am relieved, Walt," she says. "And I'm scared." Scared of what? he asks her. "You," she responds.
Skyler gets her own taste of power in that same episode, as she goes to visit Ted in the hospital: he is terrified of her. "I am not in danger, Skyler, I am the danger," Walt told her in "Cornered," but here Skyler finds out what it's like to be the danger, and—in a mark of the difference between men and women—she doesn't care for it.
Skyler's evolution is interesting, from this perspective. She, too, was occasionally attracted to the kind of power games that Walt's life represents: she enjoyed manipulating Bogdan out of his car wash, for example, and it was her idea to send thugs to intimidate Ted. But, ultimately, the lust for that kind of power is very much presented as a male characteristic on Breaking Bad: far from being empowered by Ted's fear of her, she is sickened and horrified by it. She doesn't want to be feared; she doesn't want that kind of power; she doesn't want to be like Walt.
Though it could be seen as weakness, it's actually to Skyler's credit that what enfolds from here on out is not a battle of wills between her and Walt. She doesn't attempt to reclaim the power in the relationship, or to beat him at his own game. (It is easy to imagine another show turning them into rivals in that way, with Skyler evolving into a powerful female version of Walt himself.) Instead, she retreats into passivity, not only refusing to endorse his monstrosity but refusing to emulate it.
The tension in their relationship comes to a head in "Fifty One," at the family dinner for Walt's birthday. (He had been expecting a party, but Skyler is clearly in no mood to celebrate this year in Walt's life.) It's symbolic, of course, that she jumps into the pool to escape the nightmare her life has become. (I've blathered on enough in previous reviews about the symbolism of pools in this show, and water as a feminine symbol in general, so I won't belabor it here.) But what's more interesting is the conversation they have afterwards.
"I don't want the children here anymore," she tells him. "It isn't safe." At first he tries to convince her that there is no danger, because Gus is dead. "I thought you were the danger," she reminds him, because she now realizes that he is the danger. Nothing but evil and misery and death will follow him everywhere he goes, and she won't have the children around it anymore. It's notable that he switches gears immediately from reassuring her to threatening her. "Maybe next time I have you committed," he says. (This—it goes without saying—is unforgivable: the kind of power-based threat men have used to control women since time immemorial, it's as clear a sign as any of how irredeemably evil Walt has truly become.) "You want to take me on?" he asks her. "You want to take away my children? What's your plan?" But again, Skyler recognizes that she can't beat him at his own game, and she won't even try. "I don't have your magic, Walt," she says. She doesn't threaten him in return. She doesn't say she'll kill him, or have him killed. (She certainly could: she has control of all the money, after all.) She doesn't even threaten to go to the police. (Which, in my opinion, is what she should do.) Every manipulative power-play that he would use, she rejects. Instead, she just moves to protect her children—by sending them to Hank and Marie's—and says she'll otherwise just hold out and wait. "Wait for what?" he asks her. "For the cancer to come back," she says coldly.
Skyler isn't the only person coming to terms with what life with Walter really means. Since the beginning, Jesse has wanted to believe that there was a way to build a meth empire without actually hurting anyone. He argued way back in "Breakage" that a certain amount of theft was to be tolerated in their business; there was no reason to hurt anyone. He kept Mike and Gus from killing Walt several times, and he does so again here in "Live Free or Die." ("Mike, if you kill him, you're gonna have to kill me," he says.) He argues in "Fifty One" against the killing of Lydia (Laura Fraser), who he doesn't even know. ("I vote it's a voting thing," he says to his partners.)
In "Dead Freight," Mike and Walt are debating how they can rob a train full of methylamine that Lydia has turned them onto. Mike estimates that the job would require killing, at minimum, the two-man crew on the train. ("I've done this long enough to know there are two kinds of heists," Mike says. "Those where the guys get away with it, and those where they leave witnesses.") It might be old hat to Mike, but this is, if memory serves, the first time Walt and Jesse have ever discussed the straight-up murder of innocent people to further their criminal enterprises. (Walt and Jesse have deliberately killed people before, but folks like Gus and Gale can't really be considered "innocent.")
As usual, Jesse wants to find an approach that leaves their hands and consciences clean. "What if we can rip off that train, and no one ever knows it got robbed?" he proposes, and so is born an elaborate plan to stop the train, siphon off the chemicals, and replace them with water so no one is the wiser. Like "Live Free or Die"—with its improbable magnet gambit—this is one of my favorite kinds of Breaking Bad episodes: the "how-do-we-solve-a-practical problem" kind. Unlike their magnet plan, however, this one turns disastrous right at the end. Everything works perfectly until a friendly 14-year-old boy on a dirt bike happens by, and waves at them, and is shot dead by Todd (Jesse Plemons).
Children, as I've said many times before, are Jesse's Achilles' heel: he doesn't like it when anyone gets hurt, but he has a particular soft-spot for children. We saw it in Season Two, with Spooge's little boy in "Peekaboo." We saw it in Season Three, when he took a potentially fatal stand against Gus over the operation's use of children—including Andrea's little brother—to do their dirty work. We saw it last season, when he thought that Walt had poisoned Andrea's son Brock, and then became convinced that Gus had done it instead. Jesse, despite everything that has happened and everything that he has done, is still tender-hearted, and he can't abide the suffering of children.
And now their criminal endeavors have claimed another innocent child. ("Man, shit happens," Todd says, afterwards, earning himself a much-deserved punch in the face from Jesse.) Paralleling Skyler's realization about her own children, Jesse now knows that innocents will always be hurt in what they do: it's an inevitable by-product of their work, no matter how hard they try—as they did here—to avoid it. And he also realizes—hearing Walt whistle cheerily to himself after they discuss it—that Walt doesn't really care: the dead boy doesn't weigh on Walt's conscience for a moment, because Walt doesn't have a conscience anymore. "I'm out," he tells Walt in "Buyout." "I don't think I can do this anymore."
Since Mike wants out too, they come up with a plan to sell all the methylamine to a cartel for an even $5 million, but Walt won't sign off on it: he doesn't want to quit. "How many more people are going to die because of us?" Jesse pleads with him in "Say My Name." No one else will die, Walt assures him, but Jesse isn't buying it anymore: "You keep saying that, and it's bullshit every time." As he did with Skyler, Walt tries to bully Jesse, disparaging him where it hurts: in his sense of self-worth.
"What we do? Being the best at something is a very rare thing. You don't just toss something like that away. You want to squander that potential, your potential? To do what?…Look at you. What have you got in your life? Nothing? Nobody. Oh, wait, yes, video games and go carts. And when you get tired of that, what then? And how soon will you start using again?"
Finally, Walt threatens to keep all the money, leaving Jesse with nothing. But Jesse, to his credit, isn't falling for it anymore: he's willing to walk away from all of it, with no money, if it means he doesn't have to see anyone else hurt through their actions.
Which just leaves Mike to deal with. With the DEA watching every move Mike makes—and having seized the millions of dollars Mike had stashed away for his granddaughter—Mike is on his way out of town when he has his final confrontation with Walt. Walt wants the names of the eleven guys from the old Fring operation that Gus has been paying "hazard pay" to keep quiet, but Mike won't give them up. ("I don't know what kind of movies you've been watching," Mike has said earlier—in another meta-callout to pop-culture fantasies—"but here in the real world we don't kill 11 men as some sort of prophylactic measure.")
But this bone of contention between them is not even what really sets off the fatal exchange that follows. Rather, it is Mike's hard and honest assessment of Walt's character:
"All of this, falling apart like this, is on you…We had a good thing, you stupid son of a bitch. We had Fring, we had a lab, we had everything we needed, and it all ran like clockwork. You could have shut your mouth, cooked, and made as much money as you ever needed. It was perfect. But no, you just had to blow it up. You, and your pride, and your ego. You just had to be the man. If you'd done your job, and known your place, we'd all be fine right now."
Every word of this speech is true, and deep down Walt knows it, and that's what makes Walt kill Mike. Walt had any number of opportunities throughout this series to leave well enough alone—to "take yes for an answer," as Mike once told him to do (and as he in turn tells Lydia to do in "Gliding Over All"). "This whole thing could have been avoided," Walt concedes, pathetically, as Mike is dying—and he's right: it could have been. Jesse, in these episodes, reminds him that he once thought $737,000 was all he needed. Skyler, at the end of "Gliding Over All," shows him the mountain of cash he's accumulated through his work with Lydia, and asks him point-blank: "How much is enough?"
But Mike could see Walt for who he really was: he knew it was never about the money at all. It was never about money, and it was never about Jesse, and it was never about safety and security for Walt's family. It—all of it, everything that has happened and every single person who has gotten killed—was about Walt's masculine pride, and his ego, and his pathetic need to "be the man." It was about power: not real power, but the sense of power, the feeling of importance and respect and self-direction that "Heisenberg" represents. If you'd only known your place, Mike says, but that's the worst thing he could say to Walt, because Walt's place in the world was exactly the problem: he had that peculiarly American belief that he was destined—even entitled—to something better. Mike sees what we see by now: that this has all been about Walt's need to rise above his "place," and to stop being that impotent high school teacher he was way back in the pilot.
I use the word "impotent" deliberately, because I believe this is, at its core, what the series is about. I am not talking about sexual impotence, though the pilot played with that idea in introducing us to Walter White. (Early in the first episode there is a pathetic scene in which Skyler tries, unsuccessfully, to give Walt a handjob; by the end of the episode—after he has "broken bad"—Walt has reclaimed his sexual power and takes his wife in a manly fashion.) However, in a show in which many of the other seven deadly sins are well represented—especially pride, wrath, envy, and greed—lust plays a curiously small part in Breaking Bad. The show has never really been about sex.
But I do think it's about impotence: from the Latin impotentia, meaning lack of control or power. That pilot episode is a study of a man who feels powerless—disrespected by his students, henpecked by his wife, disparaged by his manly brother-in-law, bullied by his boss—breaking out of his oppressive routine and seizing an exciting taste of power for himself. His cancer diagnosis is just the final indignity in a life full of indignities: already helpless, the reaction against the ultimate helplessness—the inevitability of death—is what finally pushes Walt to chase a little bit of power for himself.
"Jesse, you asked me if I was in the meth business or the money business," Walt says in "Buyout." "Neither. I'm in the empire business." Jesse asks him if a meth empire is really anything to be proud of, but that's just the point: it doesn't matter what kind of empire, it just matters that Walt feel powerful and in control. This is the addiction—not to money, not to meth—that really drives Walter White, and he's sacrificed countless lives, his own family, and every decent impulse within himself to satisfy it. It's the addiction that drives so much of popular American culture, which romanticizes violence, and celebrates outdated ideas of masculine power, and diminishes decent, law-abiding, loving men as impotent and worthless. The myth of the ordinary man who summons the courage to do extraordinary things is hard-wired into our consciousness, and Breaking Bad is exploring how that version of the American dream has so often been expressed in fantasies of violence, destruction, and greed.
Walter White is no hero. He's not even an anti-hero. He's a villain, pure and simple. He's a monster, a monster born from popular culture, from too many movies and TV shows in which men like him are celebrated as the masculine ideal.
As I enter the final half-season of Breaking Bad, I genuinely don't know what is going to happen. I think Walt will die, but I don't know that for sure. Maybe he'll be arrested. (Hank, at the end of this half-season, finally seems to figure out that Walt is Heisenberg—a development foreshadowed in "Madrigal" when Hank's boss says, of Gus, "All the time, he's somebody else completely, right in front of me, right under my nose.") I hope that Jesse will take Walt down, one way or the other, either killing him or helping to orchestrate his downfall. (The number of crimes of which Walt is guilty—and of which Jesse is ignorant—just keeps growing, with Mike's death only the latest. Jesse's discovery of any of these crimes—Jane, or Brock, or Mike—should be enough to turn him against Walt for good.) I also don't know if Jesse, or Skyler, or Junior, or Hank, any of the other people in Walt's toxic orbit will be destroyed before the series comes to an end.
What I do know—if I understand anything about what Vince Gilligan is doing here—is that there will be a reckoning. Walter White cannot have a happy ending. He can't find redemption, he can't get away with his crimes, he can't be allowed to forge a new identity or ride off into the sunset towards new adventures. That sort of thing can happen in a lesser series, like Dexter: one of those pieces of American popular entertainment that relishes in celebrating, and romanticizing, and rewarding its monsters. A lesser show would give Walt one more improbable victory over impossible odds, one more narrow escape, one more fiendishly clever outwitting of his opponents. A lesser show would cater to the fact that, deep down, we all love an outlaw and want them to get away with it.
A lesser show would, in its final act, embrace the vicarious fantasy of violent empowerment that is so fundamental to our culture and formative for Walter White. But, unless I've completely misunderstood the entire point of Vince Gilligan's project here, Breaking Bad is not that kind of show.
I guess we'll find out next time. See you at the finish line.
Additional Thoughts and Favorite Bits
- First of all, my usual apology for yet another long delay in posting. I do realize that my pace here completely belies the promise of momentum that the phrase "binge watch" implies. The truth is, I've been buried under a major project in my real job the last few weeks, and I just couldn't find the time. I'm going to start watching the final eight episodes of Breaking Bad immediately—like, literally immediately, right after I finish this post—and I will do my best to get my final post up within a week or so.
- I skipped over a lot of important stuff in these episodes. I don't know if Lydia becomes a major character: if she does, I'll talk about her next time, and if she doesn't, I guess it doesn't matter that I skipped over her. (I do think she potentially offers an interesting contrast to both Skyler and Walt. When Mike comes to kill her, for example, she, like Skyler, is concerned about her child, but she is primarily concerned—like Walt—with appearances, with how her child will remember her. "I can't just disappear," Lydia pleads. "She has to know I didn't leave her." Unlike Skyler—who has consistently been willing to look terrible to protect her children—Lydia cares about her image more than she does about reality.)
- I don't know if this element comes back in the back half of the season either, but it's worth noting that Walt's steady path towards damnation now has him in bed with neo-Nazis. Stay classy, Walt.
- I tried to stay off symbolism-patrol this week, but a couple of things worth pointing out. In addition to the pool—which I did mention—the other two most important recurring symbols in Breaking Bad are the pink bear and the fly, and both make appearances here. The pink bear—which represents Walt's sacrifice of his "nurturing," parental side—gets another callback in Holly's outfit in "Dead Freight," foreshadowing the death of yet another child at the end of that episode. And the fly, of course—representing nothing more complicated than evil and death—makes a return appearance at the beginning of "Gliding Over All," after Walt has murdered Mike.
- Aaron Paul is really a marvel: he is excellent in the scene in "Buyout," good-naturedly trying to make polite conversation with Skyler during the most awkward, bitter dinner ever. And he still, consistently, makes me laugh. ("Yeah, bitches! Magnets!") I know he doesn't really deserve it, but I sort of am hoping for a happy ending for Jesse. (Not expecting, mind you: just hoping.)
- How on earth did this show go 54 episodes before it set a cooking session to "Crystal Blue Persuasion"?