The only thing I wanted from the final season of “Breaking Bad” was for Walter White to have the scales fall from his eyes, to see what he had truly become, then see whether that repulsed him or made him even more monstrous. It’s easy to proclaim your own power when you’re riding high -- and we’d never seen Walter riding so high as he was in the fifth season’s first few episodes -- but it’s quite another to realize just how terrible you’ve become in pursuit of that power. Walter has always held grand delusions about himself, and seeing those delusions fall away seemed to me to be an important part of whatever end game the series came up with.
What’s been interesting about the show’s approach to this aspect of its storytelling has been that Walter’s realization is as gradual as anything else on the show. He doesn’t realize all at once how others see him, the kind of man he’s become. He realizes it in fits and starts, throughout the run of the show and especially the run of this season. Skyler telling him she’s just waiting for him to die or showing him his giant pile of money were important early indicators, but the back half of this season has been filled with these moments where the old Walter -- the pre-Heisenberg Walter -- peeks through the malevolent fury and vacillates between disgust and awe.
To accomplish his pursuits, for instance, Walter White has gotten in bed with white supremacist neo-Nazis. Because the show is so firmly situated within its protagonist’s point of view, this was treated as something of just another way to accomplish some nasty business in the first half of the season. But as Uncle Jack and his crew roll up to the site where Walter is in handcuffs, having just been read his Miranda rights by Hank, Bryan Cranston’s face flashes with the realization that Walter has allied himself with some of the most repulsive human beings on the planet.
Without Mike’s world-weary, vaguely moral code and without Gus Fring’s rigid sense of order and without Jesse’s inherent sense of what’s right and wrong, Walter ended up working with amoral sociopaths, as happy to start pumping bullets at Hank and Steve as they are to carry out a hit on Jesse. They don’t really see Walter as someone who’s in power over them. They see him as a walking collection of money (money they’re standing on top of as the episode ends, though they don’t know it yet) or a tool who can get the meth cook back to Lydia’s exacting standards. Strip all the personality out of the business -- any business -- and it becomes just another machine that grinds humans down into dirt.
This seemed like it might have been a theme of the fifth season early on -- remember that Madrigal executive who killed himself when the police came calling? -- but the season shuffled it to the back of the deck while dealing with other business in the first half. As the back half of the season has continued, however, the show has sidled its way back toward these thoughts. I still see Lydia and Todd less as characters and more as means to an end, which is disappointing on a series that has come up with so many vivid figures in even the smallest of roles. But the more the show loops them back into the ongoing story, the more its larger point is made: When there’s profit to be made, those who most benefit from that profit often won’t care just how it comes to be. Meth cooked by neo-Nazis? Why not, if the money keeps rolling in?
When I first watched “To’hajiilee,” I wasn’t sure how I felt about it, but the more I think about it and turn it over in my head, the more it seems to me the standout of the episodes to have aired in 2013 so far. My main complaint the first time around was that there’s a sense of inevitability to the episode that isn’t really in keeping with the show’s ethos, which generally manages to come up with a story turn the audience would never have seen coming. Here, when Hank is on the phone with Marie, telling her he’s arrested Walt with palpable relief, it’s all too obvious that something terrible and covered in swastika tattoos is coming to interrupt that plan. (The episode ends with Hank’s and Steve’s guns blazing, but I have trouble imagining them surviving this encounter.)
Now, however, that inevitability seems like the whole point. This is Walter White seeing everything he set in motion back in the series’ pilot come to full fruition. Even though he’s as surprised as Hank to see Uncle Jack round the corner out in the desert where his money is buried (and where he and Jesse first cooked), some part of him must have known this was always coming. He desperately wanted to protect Hank out of some misguided sense of preserving whatever was left of his soul. And now he’s brought his full wrath upon Hank’s head.
There are so many other rich moments in “To’hajiilee” outside of its final 10 minutes, however (and, in those final 10 minutes, Walter calling Jesse a “coward,” then rushing at him while wearing handcuffs, the moment he finally turns on his old protege). There’s the way Jesse and Hank painstakingly construct a plan to get Walter out near his money, even though they don’t know where it is. There’s the look on Walter’s face when he realizes he’s been outsmarted. There’s Walt Jr., getting to meet Saul and being so excited to see the lawyer he recognizes from all the billboards. (Even as it deals with such weighty subjects, the episode is wildly funny, another sign of an all-time installment of “Breaking Bad.”)
Ultimately, “To’hajiilee” succeeds because it gives the audience a taste of three separate outcomes it may have wanted. In one, Hank is victorious, slapping the handcuffs on Walter’s wrists after having outsmarted him. In another, Jesse finally steps out of the shadow of his former mentor, finding the chink in his armor and taking him down as surely as Walter used Hector Salamanca to take down Gus. And in yet another, Walter escapes punishment yet again when his backup rolls in to take out Jesse -- and the two DEA agents who just happen to be there.
But none of those endings feels like a big, satisfying conclusion. There’s a certain satisfaction to all of them, sure, but they also feel sickening, queasy-making. When Jesse is taunting Walter over the phone, playing off his greed, there was a part of me yelling at Walter not to fall for it, to be smarter, to realize he was being played. And when Hank had Walter in custody but paused to saunter around and talk with Steve and his wife, I was screaming at him to get a move on, to head back into town and get with the paperwork already.
By putting three of the most popular and predicted endings into this, the fourth-from-final episode, “Breaking Bad” gives itself a lot of room to play with in the weeks to come, while still letting the audience have a taste of that sweet, sweet finality cake. In so doing, it also reveals one of the major ideas of the show: Once you’ve broken bad, you can’t walk that decision back. You can get out of the business and put on all the beige sweaters you want, but if you’re Walter White, you’re still the man who built a meth empire and turned it over to a ruthless corporate suit and a bunch of white supremacists. Cancer doesn’t ever wholly disappear. It can go into remission. It can be survived. But it can come back at any time.
As the scales fall from Walter’s eyes in the back seat of Hank’s car, as the gunfire blares, as he discovers his control over Uncle Jack and his crew was always illusory at best, that moment of realization I always wanted is there. Walter might survive this. He might even thrive. But sooner or later it will swallow him whole.
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