by: Michael Shields
In this week’s episode of Breaking Bad, entitled “Granite State,” the Heisenberg Empire goes viral, while some channel surfing sets the stage for the highly anticipated finale…..
It was way back in Season 1, Episode 5 (“Gray Matter”) when we met Gretchen and Elliot Schwartz ((Well before the fanfare and awards – including the Emmy for Outstanding Drama received just last evening!)). Walt, clad in an over-sized navy double breasted blazer with gold buttons, and Skyler, self-conscious and draped in a gaudy royal blue “prom dress from 1985,” bursting with the thrust of Holly within her belly (they “didn’t get the beige memo,” – yet!), apprehensively step foot into the monstrous domicile built upon the millions garnered from the success of Walt’s former company, Gray Matter. At one point, in deep reflective thought, Walt separates himself from the ongoing birthday party and soaks in the surroundings. It could have all been his you can sense him lamenting. Soon after, a run in with a former co-worker from Gray Matter causes Walt to sheepishly admit that he “has gravitated to education” ((He cannot even force himself to respond when asked, “What university?”)). It was Gray Matter, and the regret and rejection emanating from his separation from the company he helped found, which aided in the birthing of the man we know all too well as Heisenberg. It was a prominent catalyst ((Something he spoke of openly during the infamous “Empire Business” speech.)), an underlying reason for all that has transpired ((He sold his stake in Gray Matter for $5,000 – and Gretchen, we soon learned, was his former lover.)). And, it was Gray Matter one again, felicitously, that brought Heisenberg back from the dead in last night’s episode, “Granite State,” written and directed by one of the true backbone’s of the series, Peter Gould ((“Salud,” “Better Call Saul,” “Kafkaesque,” etc.)).
Penultimate episodes of Breaking Bad have traditionally been colossus. In Season One we procured our first real glimpse of Heisenberg’s competence as he displayed the true power of chemistry to Tuco ((“Crazy Handful of Nothing”)). In Season Two Walt watched Jane choke to death, allowing her to die and setting into motion a tremendous catastrophe ((“Phoenix”)). In Season Three Walt saved Jesse’s life by bulldozing two opposing dealers with his Aztec ((“Half Measures” – also written by Peter Gould with Sam Catlin)). And, in Season Four’s second to last episode, Gus’s and Walt’s chess game was at its bone-chilling peak ((“End Times”)). “Granite State,” the next to last episode of not only Season Five, but of the whole shebang, fits in admirably with the classics just listed. But, “Granite State” has loftier goals than the others, a more profound obligation in this final season. We had to find a way from Point A, the complete and utter unraveling witnessed in “Ozymandias,” to Point B, a grizzled, frail and bearded Walt armed with a M60 and a vial of ricin – and by episode’s end that mission was triumphantly accomplished. A journey, which began in the most unassuming of locations, a vacuum cleaner repair store ((On the Spot Vacuum, an “actual store”!))…..
It turns out that Walt wasn’t the only one who fled town in a maroon minivan ((Let’s take a moment and welcome Robert Forster to the show. What impeccable casting, a homage to the brand of product Breaking Bad has been immaculately delivering – crime drama.)). Saul, begrudgingly accepting his fate of becoming “just another douche bag with a job and three pairs of Dockers,” is being whisked to Nebraska for safekeeping and a possible Cinnabon gig, but not before one final confrontation with his most demanding client. Saul suggests to Walt that maybe it is best to stay and face the music, and emphasizes that this is what would be best for his family (that’s the point, right?). Walt, with revenge on his mind, has other plans, and demands Saul’s assistance. But ultimately, at this point, Walt cannot control anyone anymore, including the easily intimidated Saul who has abided by Walt’s demands, as crazy as they may be, for some time now. Walt is no longer the danger, the man who knocks, nor the mad scientist/kingpin who can think his way out of the stickiest of situations. With a fit of coughing ((It’s funny, their relationship began with a fit of coughing, on a dark night in the desert. “Mr. Mayhew?”)), Saul walked out on Walt, and his undoubtedly life-threatening intentions for him, flagrantly uttering “It’s Over” – possibly exiting stage right for one final time, and remarkably leaving on his own terms.
Todd’s villainy, his unique brand of polite evil, anchored the episode ((“That Opie, dead-eyed piece of shit Todd killed Drew Sharpe.” – Jesse)), and lifted him into a heralded class of psychopaths as he is easily one of the scariest motherfuckers on television forevermore. His cringe-inducing admiration for Lydia ((“92 percent” is music to Lydia’s ears, but Todd whispering, “We make a good team” across her shoulder is another story altogether.)) is driving the train right now, and the blatant motivation for all he does – whether donning a ski mask while menacingly circling Holly’s crib to threaten Skyler, or by convincing Jesse to behave in captivity, by again taking from him the little he has left.
Jesse’s suffering throughout the series, and in particular this season, is so extraordinary and gratuitous it is almost comical. He is the biblical Job, dragged deeper and deeper into the darkness as Breaking Bad’s writer’s continue to punish the heart of the show unrelentingly. Andrea’s assassination at the hand of Todd, while Jesse looked on in horror, is almost too much to take, and it is entirely compounded by the hard to swallow fact that Jesse just wants to die at this point. He needs it to end, but they won’t let it. Andrea was uniquely innocent in respect to the other characters dramatically eliminated throughout the course of the show, and because of this her murder has a certain sting to it the others do not. And now, all Jesse is left with, as he writhes in unimaginable pain, is the knowledge that if he tempts fate again, attempting to escape, that it could be Brock – the only thing Jesse has left, period – at the wrong end of Todd’s pistol.
As Jesse rots in a cage, mutilated inside and out and cooking meth for ice cream, Walt is withering away, alone, in the paralleled isolation of New Hampshire. Balise Pascal once stated, “all human evil comes from a single cause, man’s inability to sit still in a room.” This is pertinent because instead of resting up and thinking on things, sound advice from Walt’s only lifeline to the outside world, Walt’s inner demon bubbled to the surface the moment he emerged from within a propane truck after the three-day trek across country. Once again, he found himself wrestling with his inner Heisenberg, eventually dusting off the notorious 1940’s Pork Pie hat and trudging out into the world. But reason caught him in his tracks, remanding him to his impoverished confinement to fight another day (”Tomorrow, tomorrow”).
While Skyler reverts to the use of her maiden name, takes a job as a taxi dispatcher, and his former house becomes a tourist attraction, Walt wastes away in New Hampshire. His legend may have gone viral, but he remains marooned on a desert of snow, paying for companionship (at the bargain basement price of $10,000 / hour), corralling do-it-yourself chemo, and re-watching Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. A lonely, dying Walt becomes easy to sympathize with. It is here, where we find ourselves once again able to detach ourselves from all of Walt’s sins and feel sorry for him. He may have ruined countless lives, decimated his family, and is fundamentally responsible for Jesse’s innumerable migrations to rock bottom; but there in that cabin he is a human being. A desolate, depreciated shell of the man we once knew – and loved – writhing on his deathbed, dwelling on the sufferings he has caused and the limitations of his situation. It’s agonizing, and you could imagine it all ending there (“One of these days you come up here, I’ll be dead”), but Walt’s will transcends, and he defiantly (and naively) sets out to do what he has always intended to do – provide for his family.
“It can’t all be for nothing.” This has been Walt’s plea to his wife from the moment she was in the know; a plea that he desperately showered Walt Jr. with from 3,200 miles away. Walt Jr., appropriately unforgiving, bitter and forthright, confirmed Walt’s greatest fear, effecting the reality that all he did was indeed for nothing. Walt has never had the opportunity to attempt to explain himself to his son, and after this failed attempt it appears he never will. This was the final nail, and Saul’s last words for Walt were easily recalled; yet with far greater impact (“It’s over”), as a phone call to the DEA signified the waiving of a white flag. Walt, a brilliant man in countless respects, has a way of being clouded by desperation, and the achievement of his personal goals, and becoming truly obtuse. This was one of those moments, as believing he could entice Walt Jr. back into daddy’s dearest graces is incomprehensible ((“Why are you still alive? Why don’t you just die?” Brutal.)).
True to form, in keeping with Breaking Bad’s affinity with that almost-moment, that near-escape or closure, some opportune channel flipping changes the game, steering us back on a path towards the Denny’s on Mr. Lambert’s 52nd birthday. The imperative return of Gretchen and Elliot displayed in sparkling clarity how the world is now viewing the fall of Heisenberg’s Empire, and the man formerly at its helm. Perfectly plucking at Walt’s ego, the Schwartz’s unwittingly woke the beast within. Claiming that the “sweet man” they once knew is gone, and that Walt’s contribution to Gray Matter was merely the company’s name, and nothing more, turned that knife in Walt that has been buried deep within him since that multi-billion dollar company he stood at the ground floor of slipped out of his hands for good, forcing him “towards education.” With the brilliant accompaniment of the original and extended version of the theme music, Walt – who was attempting to summon Heisenberg all episode long – transforms before our very eyes (full body chills), possibly into something or someone we have never seen before, and he is now bound for Albuquerque with a tremendous axe to grind ((Charlie Rose mentions that the blue meth is still out there. Walter White is a gifted and talented scientist, apt at reading between the lines. This begs me to wonder if he was able to decipher this to mean that maybe Jesse is still alive.)).
It is apropos, for our sake here, that the motto of the Granite State is “Live Free or Die” ((Episode 501’s title)). Walt, ignited by all the sufferings that led him deeply unto this wayward path, brazenly chooses option one ((It could be argued that they are mutually exclusive – and he was in fact succumbing to a fate of both in solitude!)). With disregard for anything but his own compulsions ((If he cared about his family he would have taken Saul’s last piece of advice.)), adhering once again to his ego as he yearns for some meaning or purpose before all is said and done, Heisenberg appears poised for one last blaze of glory; set to make sure that he doesn’t only remain front page news, but to make sure that everyone, far and wide – “Remember My Name!”
“Granite State” may not have had the earth shattering impact of the previous episode, a high water mark of pain and anxiety in television, but it set up the highly anticipated conclusion with finesse. We have one lone episode left before us, and it is now up to Vince Gilligan, who writes and directs the finale, “Felina,” to knock it down. The saga’s final act thus far has been gut wrenching, yet simultaneously spell-binding and incredibly ambitious. Now, it is time for them to stick the landing.