“Say my name!” Walter White commanded last year, in his most deliriously evil Breaking Bad moment yet. Standing out in the desert sun, his bald head gleaming like a knife, he ordered a gang of high-roller drug dealers to admit they knew exactly who he was: Heisenberg, the legendary chemical badass, the man with the killer crystal-meth recipe. Nobody ever looked more ridiculous quoting Beyoncé than this geeky high-school-science-teacher-turned-drug-kingpin. But that just made the whole scene scarier. Everybody said that name out loud, and he loved hearing it.
So now, as Breaking Bad begins its final chapter, we recall the promises Walter White made at the end of last season. We know he wants to quit the drug hustle. He vowed to go back to being Walter White. But we didn’t really believe him, for two reasons: (1) We like Heisenberg a lot better than we like Walter White, and (2) Walter White does too. Who wouldn’t?
Breaking Bad is heading into the final innings – the eight-episode endgame for a gloriously sinister American gangster epic totally unlike any other. Over the years, Bryan Cranston has turned the short, unhappy life of Walter into a bad-brain archetype for everything that could go wrong with the suburban-dad dream. It’s comparable in dramatic force to The Wire, except the whole criminal network is in one man’s skull, and the burners are his own toxic memories. He is the game, which means there’s no escape.
Last season reached a startling climax – where else? – in the bathroom, where Hank found the most incriminating copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass since the one Bill Clinton gave Monica Lewinsky. (In return, Monica gave the president Oy Vey! The Things They Say! A Book of Jewish Wit. Any chance Walter has that one around the house somewhere?)
How could Walter, a planner so meticulous he stashes his ricin cigarette in the electric socket, leave a handwritten note from a dead crook in his bathroom? It was a foolish risk for Walter to take, and there were plenty of those by the end of the season. Most spectacularly, there was the prison bloodbath he ordered up, wiping out nine inmates at the same time. Bringing in Nazis to do his dirty work was a crazy gamble. Walt makes a lot of those, all while assuring himself he’s the only rational player at the table. Everybody knows this can’t end well, right?
It makes sense that the poet laureate of this crime story is Walt Whitman – a writer who took his dark inspiration from the painful secrets American men drag around. Those leaves of grass he wrote about – that’s not a sweet, pastoral image. Whitman saw all that grass as “the beautiful uncut hair of graves.” And the other W.W. has left a lot of dead bodies under him. Drug lords generally don’t retire, as the world already learned from Stringer Bell, Tony Montana and “Freddie’s Dead.”
Early on in the new season, somebody says, “There’s nothing left for us to do except try to live ordinary, decent lives.” But that’s definitely not an option for Walter, who already spent years proving he couldn’t hack it. It was tempting at first to see this as a “good guy gone bad” or even a “doing wrong for the right reasons” story. Except Walter found out he was always this corrupt and villainous – he was just too incompetent to realize it. His supposed love for his family was a shallow hoax, fooling nobody but himself. Heisenberg is the true identity; Walter White is the fraud. So he might hope to go straight. But we remember the way his eyes flashed when he barked, “Say my name!” And he remembers, too. That’s his curse.
This story is from the August 15th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.