All good television shows are about either work or family. The best, of course, are about both. The office and the home are the two great sacred spaces of American life (with the sports stadium, the movie theater, and the Laser Tag arena close behind); any program that concerns itself with one or the other — or, better yet, the push/pull between the two — will likely find not only an audience, but also find itself celebrated for its universality.
Two of the most acclaimed comedies of recent years have followed this blueprint to a T: The Office, with its sad drones learning to love those they work with, and Modern Family, about manic relatives forced to work hard to deal with those they love. The laughter, in both cases, comes from recognition. On the dramatic side, the challenge is bigger. Using extremes of context — murder, say, or the pre-dating of casual Fridays — shows like The Sopranos and Mad Men seek to hold a mirror up to our own voracious ambition. Maybe we think it’s OK to skip a few birthdays or not make it home in time for dinner, but there’s a slow, debilitating cost to all that earning, a price we pay for providing for others. Even if we can’t spell gabagool, let alone eat it, and would never allow our daughters near a creep like this, when we cringe, it’s also out of recognition.
At the start, Breaking Bad seemed to have much common with its broadcast peers. It was about an everyman, or at least an everymoustache, forced into outlandish, often illegal situations. Yet we could forgive him because he was doing bad for good reasons. He was putting his natural, God-given abilities to work, and the working was to provide for his family. This was a moral calculus we’re used to, in life and in entertainment. We forgave Walter’s transgressions for the same reasons we thought he forgave himself; everything was dependent on people depending on him. But over the past few seasons that argument has been methodically deconstructed, piece by piece, with the same cool precision as Evel Knievel Jr.’s dirt bike just a week ago. Walter’s CAT scans are clear, his family is gone, his professional partnerships sundered. The only justification for any of this now Ᾱ and, maybe always Ᾱ was vanity. This violates nearly every precept we hold dear, as both television viewers and, hell, as Americans. But still there’s a part of us that wants him to get away with it, that covered our eyes when he went to fumigate Hank’s office of electronic bugs, that actually tried to hear a thread of logic in his monstrous monologue to Jesse. “Say My Name,” the dark and, in many ways, darkly predictable penultimate hour of this half-season, was as much about rubbing the audience’s noses in this moral flexibility as it was about rubbing out a beloved character.
Last week, in The New Yorker, Emily Nussbaum raised a clever question: What if Vince Gilligan’s game isn’t just one of expectations, but also of structure? What if there’s a shadow version of Breaking Bad that we’re just not following, a more traditional narrative in which Hank is the hero? So much of the show, at least until recently, emanates from Walter’s POV. So we’ve mostly seen newly appointed A.S.A.C. Schrader the way his bitter brother-in-law does, harping on the traits he disparages (Hank’s coarseness, his lack of children) and aggravated by attributes that, in other contexts, would be admirable (his tenacity and watchfulness). But the shadow theory extends further, to the latest in a depressingly long line of phenomenal characters chewed up and spit out too soon by the insatiable ego-monster at the top of the call sheet. Mike Ehrmantraut started on the show as an underworld Superman, a fixer who excelled at breaking and entering, a cleaner who wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. But gradually he morphed into everyman, a doting grandfather who took time and great care to do things the right way, even when the things themselves were very, very wrong. If Hank is our more traditional cops ‘n’ robbers hero, then Mike was the stand-in for our Golden Age protagonist, a conflicted worker whose reasons were virtuous even when his behavior wasn’t. “We had a good thing, you stupid son of a bitch,” he rails at Walt just before the end. “We had everything we needed. If you’d done your job, known your place we’d all be fine right now.”
But Walter White recognizes no “place,” can’t ever leave well enough alone. I’ve written at length about how Breaking Bad’s commitment to the scientific method elevates and differentiates its storytelling: Everything is connected, nothing is left to chance. But the great trick of this season has been the revelation that the scientist at the core of this evidence-based show is no more; Walter White has been replaced by Heisenberg, not the man but the uncertainty principle that bears his name. Calm and collected, Mike played whatever hand he was dealt last night, no matter how outrageous; he was as composed watching Walter’s Beyoncé moment in the desert as he was dumping his personal artillery into a well, as placid setting up his granddaughter’s trust fund as he was abandoning her at the playground. But his last bit of advice before he got out (and before, Pacino-like, he inevitably got pulled back in) was telling: “Get the bug, Walter.” He meant the wire in the DEA office but he was still way, way off. Walter, the perfectionist pricing power-washers for his laboratory, is the bug. He’s the fly in the ointment now, the infestation that can’t be purged. (“Vamanos,” says Jesse, dumbly, about the pests on the side of the van. “I wish,” says Skyler.) Two years ago, there was a bravura bottle episode called “Fly” that many people wrote off as a one-off, but Vince Gilligan doesn’t do digression. In that tense hour, Walt and Jesse drove themselves crazy trying to do something as simple as swat a buzzing insect. Their failure was predictive. There can be no pure lab, not when Walter himself is contaminating it. For all the orderly lines Mike tried to draw, in business and in life, everything still fell apart in the end.
Unfortunately, that goes for the storytelling to a degree here as well. There was much to love about “Say My Name,” and even more to admire. Utilizing the show’s trademark knack for goofy detail (bacon banana cookies!) and visual curlicues (safety-deposit-box cam!), writer-director Thomas Schnauz crafted an hour of tension that was exhilarating and shattering in all the best and worst ways, even if the outcome was never much in doubt. But, like Mike with his DEA tail, time was never his friend. There were so many steps on the ladder down to hell that I couldn’t help but notice some of them. Breaking Bad usually takes the long view when it comes to characters — even Mike’s faceless “guys” aren’t forgettable; we first met the laundry manager when he was in a suit, not handcuffs — so it felt like an oversight when we were introduced to the cakepop-baking lawyer just in time for him to be flipped, a coincidence too convenient that Walt’s phone call reached Mike only moments after the trap was set. The plotting, at times, was closer to Phoenix’s 70 percent solution than Gilligan’s usually impeccable blue. [Correction: As a commenter points out, we had seen the lawyer before — Mike was his “paralegal” a few episodes back. But I do think the point stands: Breaking Bad is usually more graceful. It rarely has to establish things just to resolve them in a single episode.]
Yet even if the medium was sometimes clumsy, the message never was. Above all else, “Say My Name” was about recognition. Walter got it from the rival gang in the taut teaser, and he got it from Todd, his surrogate surrogate son, in the latest chemistry class–cook montage. But everyone else on the show knew Walt before he was Heisenberg, and every single one of them sees right through him now. Jesse was the last to have the blinders removed, and the scene in which he confronts his former father figure was a stunner. Aaron Paul’s eyes, usually so wide and trusting, grew wider in disbelief as he finally saw the hissing, spitting manipulator in front of him. First Walt plays to Jesse’s greed, then he flatters his ego like a satanic guidance counselor (“You want to squander your potential?”). Finally, he picks at Jesse’s darkest places: his empty life, his gnawing addiction. Nothing works. The empire-builder has no clothes.
There are few things more dangerous in the world of Breaking Bad than seeing Walter the way he once saw himself. That’s why we pour a little Ensure out for Mike, a guy who knew what kind of toxic bomb he was dealing with from the start. In many ways, his fate was sealed in the moment last season at the bar when he flattened Walter like the doormat the world always expected him to be. (What was more telling about The Big Heat, the movie of the week at Chez Ehrmantraut: that it concerned a “bad cop” meeting a worse end, or that the protagonist of the picture unwittingly ruins everything he touches?) In the end, by that quiet and beautiful river, Mike had the go-bag, but wasn’t allowed to leave. Why? He couldn’t bring himself to say “thank you” to the man who ruined his life. To his last macho breath, Mike’s work ethic was immaculate: He did everything without complaint and he did it all for someone else. But Walter is a living — still living — argument against that antiquated value system. Mike worried about what he owed to others. Walt will never stop trying to collect on what he thinks the world owes him.
Even as I mourn the loss of Mike, the character and the remarkable performance of Jonathan Banks behind it (an IRL example of a true blue-collar professional, putting in the time with no guarantee of future rewards), his sacrifice picks at a fascinating scab — like the blistered one atop a microwave lasagna or Walter’s freshly flambéed wrist. Just before gut-shooting an old man out of spite, Walter raged about how he, unlike anyone else in the world, has “a family. I’ve got people who depend on me.” Except he doesn’t, not anymore. The central conceit of Breaking Bad and, really, all of these lauded cable shows about complicated men is that personal interests trump those of the society. On Mad Men, Sons of Anarchy, hell, even Copper, we never stop caring about our heroes’ survival, even as others suffer. Tony Soprano was a sympathetic criminal, happiest when eating onion rings with his family, not betraying them.
Breaking Bad, by contrast, explodes the fallacy that any good can come from evil; by setting us up to wish otherwise, it makes the viewer complicit in the criminality.
It turns out there’s enormous ego involved in the act of making something out of yourself; there’s plenty of self-interest in selflessness. It’s the ugly side of the American dream, exposed in the harsh Western sun. There’s a ferocious avarice to Walter that can be read as parable for a bad decade, one in which no one is content to “play their part,” where everybody has to be someone, and no one is ever at fault because everyone can win. Walt killed Mike not to save the lives of others, but to make his own puny existence feel bigger, if only for a second.
You know what? Mike’s last words were right on: Shut the fuck up, Walter. Let somebody else have a dignified, uninterrupted moment for once. Even if it only lasts as long as it takes to die.