The worst-case scenario doesn’t even cover it. Call it the Walt-case scenario.
Gomez dies. Hank is executed in front of Walt as Walt begs for a reprieve. Laughing Nazi sociopaths loot Walt’s money. Walt betrays Jesse, hands him over to be tortured and killed, and reveals that he knowingly let the love of Jesse’s life die for good measure. Marie and Skyler tell Flynn the truth about his father. Jesse is consigned to a life of torture and slavery under the watch of an emotionless child-killer, with the lives of his ex-girlfriend and her little boy in the balance. Flynn finds out his Uncle Hank is dead, then is forced to break up a knife fight between his mother and father and call 911 to report Walt for domestic abuse and murder. Walt kidnaps Holly. Walt calls Skyler to lambaste her for her disrespect, call her a bitch, tell her and Flynn and Marie that Hank is dead at his bidding, tell them they’ll never see him again.
“Ozymandias,” the Shelley poem that soundtracked the trailer for these final episodes and which gave last night’s Breaking Bad episode (written by Moira Walley-Beckett and directed by Rian Johnson) its title, evokes the abject ruin to which a once-great man’s empire and pride can be reduced. Well, this was abject, all right. The truly remarkable thing about this episode is the speed at which it escalated, or sank. It’s as though the gunfight that ended last week’s installment blew away the show’s last vestiges of restraint in showing just how bad Walt has broken. Now, anything goes. Now, they can smash his blue-meth monument to atoms.
Credit the pacing of the episode with that sense of total freefall. Maybe half a dozen moments that had been built to for ages, that could have served as the anchor point for an entire episode apiece, were fired right at us in rapid succession. How long had we waited to see Jesse find out about Jane, to see Walt Jr. find out about Walt Sr., to see who would be left standing in the final Walt/Hank and Walt/Jesse showdowns, to see the final break-up of the White family? We got them all. There was just no weathering all those body blows without crumpling at some point. (I gave out when Holly started crying through the car window at Skyler as Walt pulled away. I just emitted some kind of high-pitched half-sob, half-wail. I’d rather never be made to make that sound again.)
The filmmaking cut loose, too. The eerie disappearances of Walt, Jesse and the RV in the intro; the Hostel-style charnel-house atmosphere of Jesse’s imprisonment and enslavement; the long and portentous shot of the kitchen knives on the counter, and the way Skyler’s wounding of Walt triggered a Shining-style breakdown of the family – these horror-movie touches made the episode feel not just unpredictable, but unhinged.
Which is as it should be. It’s not just that a whole bunch of stuff happened – this was more than just a rattled-off list of plot points. The emotional reactions of the characters to those plot points was catalogued in excruciating detail. Hank’s death knocks Walt to the floor, sobbing and silent, watching his and Gomez’s bodies dragged into shallow unmarked graves. Jesse scrambles and begs and stares in disbelief, first as Walt directs the Nazis to his hiding place and gives the go-ahead for his torture and murder, then as Walt crows about his role in Jane’s death, then, most brutally, as he fruitlessly drags himself across the concrete floor of his cell just to put a few extra inches and a few extra seconds between himself and his torturer, Todd. Marie, Flynn and Skyler are a three-part symphony of grief and terror, all wet eyes and open-mouthed grimaces of agony, pretty much for the duration of the episode. Walt’s kidnapping of Holly leaves Skyler running down the street in absolute horror, running after the monster in his beat-up blue pick-up truck instead of running away from him in her own – the final-girl ending of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (arguably a tonal touchstone for Breaking Bad‘s own take on Southwestern horror for many seasons now) in reverse.
And Walt is a man transformed. If his cackling meltdown in the crawlspace near the end of Season Four marked his transition from Walt to Heisenberg, the slow dolly zoom on his face when Jack shoots Hank was the moment when even Heisenberg disappeared, replaced by something worse. Heisenberg wanted Jesse dead, but quickly and painlessly; this new thing wanted him physically and emotionally destroyed first. Heisenberg was deadly but methodical, vengeful but careful; the creature now taking Heisenberg’s place lashed out wildly, inflicted suffering gratuitously. Most importantly, Heisenberg still wanted to be seen as a family man; whatever Walt is now, he gave up on having a family the moment he saw in their eyes that he’d finally gone too far.
Yes, you can make the argument that he was as cruel as he was on the phone to Skyler in order to keep her away from whatever his dangerous future plans might be, or to get her off the hook with any authorities who otherwise might not have bought the idea that she was forced into complicity. Hell, you can, and probably should, make the argument that Walt’s abuse and mockery of Skyler over the phone was the most epic audience trolling in the history of televised drama – that Vince Gilligan put the words of Walt’s most loathsome Internet defenders and Skyler’s most misogynistic comment-thread haters into Walt’s mouth precisely to demonstrate how repulsive and monstrous those ideas really are. I mean, come on – “Always whining and complaining about how I make my money, just dragging me down while I do everything” could be lifted verbatim from the comments at any article in which Skyler is mentioned, simply with the pronouns replaced.
But look at Walt’s eyes, his facial expressions, his body language, when he’s giving that harangue. He only starts choking up just before he brings up Hank’s death, taking “credit” for the murder that sent him over the edge in the first place. His contempt for Skyler, his rage at her perceived insubordination, his fury at not having spent his entire life being treated like the king of kings – that’s all very real. That’s the emotional landscape of a man who’d steal his own child, who’d give his blessing to the torture of a poor sap he once thought of as a son.
There are two glimmers of, well, hope is too strong a word as we head into the uncharted territory of the series’ final two episodes. With all the ground this one covered, it’s difficult to imagine what’s in store – which I’m sure was the point in covering all that ground to begin with. But there’s reason to believe that Walt, though beyond redemption, is not beyond some kind of atonement. First, instead of tossing Holly over a bridge embankment or something, which I for one had every belief he might have been preparing to do, he left her at the save haven of a firehouse. That’s a glimpse of Walt amid all the darkness.
Second, there’s the look in his eyes as he shook hands with Uncle Jack, telling us that he is in no way, shape or form square with what just happened. That machine gun in future-Walt’s trunk likely has a bullet with the name of everyone involved in Hank’s death on it – including, I suspect, Walt’s own. However many months it takes him to get back from hiding, it’s clear he has no intention of letting Jack and Todd defeat him. That’s a glimpse of Heisenberg from beneath the cracked surface of whatever Walt is now. It wouldn’t be justice, but it would be an execution befitting an emperor.
Last episode: White Supremacy