If last week’s “Ozymandias” snapped and cracked like a hangman’s noose, Sunday’s “Granite State” was the long, slow walk to hell. Not any conventional hell, mind you. This is still Breaking Bad. Even now, science reigns. The binaries that matter aren’t good and evil, but rather action and reaction, cause and effect.
I didn’t do that well in chemistry, so I can’t say for sure if there’s a textbook that accurately traces the downward trajectory of this fascinating and deliberate penultimate episode of Breaking Bad. With apologies to Mr. White’s no doubt carefully curated curriculum, what last night did remind me of was something I once read in English class: No Exit, Jean-Paul Sartre’s infamous bottle episode of a play. No need to get too in-depth — do you know what they call a spoiler in France? — but the gist is this: Three sinners arrive in the afterlife expecting Sisyphean torture, but instead find a room. With no punishment in sight, the three continue to deny their guilt before falling into bitterness, self-pity, and ennui. Eventually they realize the truth: No God or devil could ever devise a worse fate for them than the one they’re bound to make for each other.
For Walter White to end up where he did, 2,200 miles from home, with the desert sands replaced by hard-packed snow and frost, was the cruelest kind of joke — which is to say, the kind that’s not the slightest bit funny. The unnamed vacuum cleaner repairman — played, in a brilliant and sly piece of casting, by classic knockaround guy Robert Forster — had sucked Heisenberg out of the certain disaster he had made for himself and transported him across the country inside a gas tank. But when the newly christened Mr. Lambert arrived at his prepper cabin in New Hampshire, he looked anything but flammable. He looked exhausted. His legend had gone viral, but he was too sick to notice. It turns out living free and dying aren’t mutually exclusive after all.
This was a wonderfully ironic look at the real cost of getting away with it. Walt had $11 million — less his vacuum repair bill — for company, but nowhere to spend the money, and worse, no one to spend it on. Remember last year, when Walt and Flynn watched Scarface, and Walt, an almost orgasmic smile playing on his face, mused “Everyone dies in this movie, don’t they?” Yes, there’s still an episode to go — and a Holly-size machine gun left to be fired — but “Granite State” served as a sobering buffer between the internal reality of Breaking Bad and the sweet escape of fiction … or the grave.
Walt’s scream was internalized and silent, but he spent the majority of the episode like Jesse, yelling at the Nazis to get it over with and shoot him already. (Jesse’s own attempt to escape was no less cinematic — do paper clips really open handcuffs anywhere else than in the movies? — and, eventually, far more cruel.) What Walt wanted was a blaze of glory — any kind of blaze, really, other than the tepid warmth of his woodstove. Instead, what he got was two copies of Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, an occasional gin-rummy partner whose pity costs $10,000 an hour, and an ocean of time to obsess over how everything went wrong. Sartre wrote “Hell is other people,” but sometimes one man is more than capable of being his own worst enemy.
There was a perfectly awful bit of metatextuality early on in the episode, when Uncle Jack and the rest of the gang watched Jesse’s confession video the same way you or I might watch an episode of Breaking Bad: five to a couch, hooting and hollering at every other line. But the actual story — stripped of its derring-do, its drama — played a lot differently on the Nazis’ TV than it did on ours. “Does this pussy cry through the entire thing?” Uncle Jack asked incredulously, just as I was beginning to wonder if there was any other logical way to react to it all.
So much of this final season, in true scientific fashion, has been about systematically removing any of our hopes and expectations — let’s call them impurities — as an audience and instead letting things play out dispassionately, the way they would in a test tube. Jack is oddly poetic about his own desires: “The heart wants what it wants,” he tells love-struck Todd, quoting either Emily Dickinson or Woody Allen, though I have a hard time deciding which is more unlikely. He wants to watch something more flattering to his own point of view, something with more action and less regret. It’s a rough, unfair comparison, but he’s basically the worst-case scenario for Emily Nussbaum’s “bad fan” of Breaking Bad. For Jack, the show’s snowballing consequences have created a viewing experience that just isn’t good enough. For us, it’s hard to imagine it getting much worse.
With Walt on deep freeze in New England, a narrative that had been circling the drain was free to finish its flush unimpeded. Nazis ran wild through the once-inviolate homes of our protagonists. Marie — speechless, clad in black — was mercifully not home when the Schrader residence was tossed. Skyler wasn’t nearly so lucky. Credit new Emmy winner Anna Gunn, or credit the lumpy, unpredictable shape of an episode that stretched several months and the length of a continent — and felt like it — but the moment when Skyler discovered her baby’s room swarming with balaclava-clad toughs was legitimately terrifying. Just a minute before, she had been oddly calm: aware of her dire situation, but apparently resigned to it.
(Fascinating to see that Walt’s phone call, the source of so much online debate, ended up being both cut-and-dried and profoundly soggy: His intent was clear, but it didn’t really work. Like most things Heisenberg did, when he appeared to be taking on the burden for others, he was really just building a monument to himself.)
Yes, the cops were outside, but at least the darkness had been scrubbed from within Skyler’s household. The jarring transition from her relative serenity, drinking vodka and chain smoking on the couch, to her unspeakable fear was like that panicked moment in a swimming pool — something Skyler knows plenty about — when you suddenly can no longer feel the bottom. The drop was far more precipitous than Skyler ever could have imagined.
We didn’t see much else of the remains of the White family: the house seized and boarded up, Holly being raised part-time by a neighbor, Skyler working as a taxi dispatcher and avoiding the press by using her maiden name, which her husband has also taken as his alias up in New Hampshire. Saul’s collapse was played partly for laughs and, because of that, his presence was brief. Still, it was a remarkable scene down in Mr. Clean’s sleepover dungeon: Walt, pacing like a captured animal, his former attorney — stripped of his powers and his utility — quivering like a chicken dropped into the cage. Ironically, it was precisely now that Saul’s advice actually became legal: “Stay. Face the music. How much time have you got left? You walk in with your head held high.”
But Walt, the stubborn, bad scientist to the end, contradicted his own teaching at the start of the series. Chemistry is the study of change, he once said. But now, with his circumstances altered beyond all recognition, the teacher had become the failing student: “This changes nothing!” he raged. Which left it to the guy with the fake name and the faker hair to tell the truth. “The fun’s over,” Saul said as he gathered his sky-blue luggage. “I’m Mr. Low-Profile, just another douchebag with a job and three pairs of Dockers.”
(Forget the Saul prequel, by the way. I say own the story and make it a straight sequel about Bob Odenkirk in Omaha. Get Alexander Payne to give up some of his Nebraska film contacts. Call it Cinnabuddies and have it on the air in time for Christmas.)
What Saul knows is that there is more than one way to disappear completely. There’s the unexplained trip to Belize (where I can only hope Mike Ehrmantraut and Hank Schrader are drinking fruity cocktails on the beach, toasting to the better times and trading scalp moisturizing tips). There’s the unavoidable detour to the Cornhusker State. And then there’s the really bad kind of disappearance, the kind where the earth swallows you up but reveals two rows of razor-sharp teeth in the process. Earlier in this half-season, I referred to Jesse Pinkman not as a “Problem Dog” or a “Rabid Dog,” but as an abused rescue dog: a sensitive soul grown accustomed to absorbing all the kicks the universe had to offer. Even so, his current predicament was unspeakably inhumane: locked in a far worse cage than Walter White, forced to cook drugs for ice cream–slurping neo-Nazis. No one knows where he is. Fewer people care.
Death has played such a large part in Breaking Bad that it’s likely listed on the show’s IMDb page. Even so, I’m not sure a killing has unsettled me more than Todd’s hideous dispatch of Andrea. Unlike Krazy-8 or Victor or Gus or even poor, home-brewing Hank, Andrea truly was an innocent, a single mother in recovery whose greatest mistake was accepting kindness from the wrong hoodie-clad millionaire. Others have been dissolved in acid, but seeing Andrea reduced to a puff of red mist was simply devastating. It was something even worse for Jesse. Stripped of dialogue and devoid of all hope, Aaron Paul’s performance in these episodes has morphed into something primal and animalistic; I wouldn’t be surprised if his end-stage dialogue, such as it is, is written solely in punctuation marks and emojis. His post-gunshot howl was the opposite of lifeless: It was the hoarse and rattling sound of someone who has been alive too long. Unlike Jack, Jesse isn’t a passive viewer of this waking nightmare. He’s a part of it all.
Awful as this murder was, I have to point out the karmic similarities between the horror show Jesse watched and the one in which he played a starring role. Tellingly, it was the same part of the Breaking Bad story that Uncle Jack found so maudlin: Jesse’s “nothing personal” execution of Gale Boetticher. Here again was another late-night knock on the door, another guileless victim all too eager to undo the locks and let in the unimaginable horror waiting on the other side of the threshold. Jesse didn’t “deserve” to watch Andrea die, just as she didn’t deserve the bullet. But unlike Walt, who still rages and self-justifies against the dying of the light, Jesse’s moral ledger is never anything less than immaculate. For every bad thing he’s done, something even worse has happened to him or to those around him. That’s why, even as his existence redefined the word “bleak,” my confidence in his ultimate survival only rose. Making it out of this show alive isn’t the same as “winning,” but it’s still a result worth rooting for. The universe Vince Gilligan created is based on balance, not cruelty.
If that’s the case, though, what are we to make of Todd? Of all the devious stunts pulled by Breaking Bad over the years, the casting (and corruption) of Jesse Plemons in this role has to be among the most memorable. On Friday Night Lights, Plemons’s features — as wide and open as the Texas prairie — were perfectly suited to play the boy next door. Now, they’ve been perverted: He’s the boy next door only if your neighbor happens to be a Supermax prison. Jesse described Todd best as an “Opie, dead-eyed piece of shit.” But what Peter Gould gently teased out in his script last night was that Todd — vicious and murdering, gentle and polite — is the logical conclusion of Heisenberg’s quest for the perfect son and heir. He does what he’s told, he’s motivated by love and science, and he’s able to cleanly segregate the unspeakable things he does from the (in his mind) justifiable reasons for which he does them.
When he meets Lydia in her favorite, awkward café, Todd sips tea and suggests that the two of them make a “good team.” He’s not wrong. Sure, one is high-strung and the other has the vibrant, inner emotional life of a cinder block, but they’re ideal co-conspirators: 92 percent purity, 100 percent avarice. The market decides what’s best for both of them; anything that gets in the way, be it a Czech tariff or a single mom, is what soldiers call collateral damage and what capitalists call a write-off.
In comparison to these two automatons, even Walt begins to look borderline human again. It helped that Heisenberg died last night. First at the end of the driveway, when a long walk to nowhere seemed like a final destination. And then again, in pieces, across a long winter and a brief phone call. I’ve noticed already some slight grumblings about Forster’s role in all of this, some amateur online criminologists wondering why a guy who makes people disappear for a living would agree to keep showing up. This didn’t bother me. I loved the character for a number of reasons, primarily because every slow boat to Hades needs a greedy Charon. But also because his continued presence — and the cost of that presence — was a cutting reminder of the limits of wealth. Throughout the 75 minutes, Walter kept insisting that all of his money was for his family. But as Flynn loudly established, they don’t want it. (Flynn especially has every reason to reject his awful inheritance. Walt using his son’s beloved Aunt Marie as bait was proof that the cancer still hasn’t managed to penetrate his monstrous ego.) The barrel of blood money can buy almost anything, it seems: silence, loyalty, DIY chemotherapy, and an hour’s worth of company. But it can’t buy back what it cost Walt to earn it in the first place.
In that awful phone call with his son, Walter wanted to be lauded for things he tried to do and absolved for everything he actually did. “The reasons were always … ” he stammered. “Things happened that I never intended … ” This doesn’t make him a hero, but nor does it make him a villain. It’s possible to pity someone without forgiving him. (In Albuquerque, as in life, RTs do not = endorsements.) With Heisenberg buried in the snow, only the original heat of Walter White’s burning resentment is enough to melt away the accumulated ice and ignite Breaking Bad’s final chapter. The Charlie Rose ex machina seemed a bit much, but Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz had to return, if only to remind both the audience and the character that losing his life’s work is Walter White’s life’s work. The business of his death is the only thing still unwritten: how Walt will go, and whom he’ll take with him. Last night, the man formerly known as Heisenberg had the distinct misfortune of learning exactly how he’ll be remembered. Now it’s up to Walter White to make sure his enemies, real and imagined, never forget.