Season four of Breaking Bad wrapped up last night in spectacular, satisfying fashion. (Misdirection! Plot twists! Character development! Gore!) With so much going on and, thankfully, so much still to come, New York Magazine TV critic Emily Nussbaum and contributing editor and Breaking Bad recapper Logan Hill took to IM to hash it out. Be warned: Their conversation about last night's episode, the show's future, and the possibility that baby Holly will be the one to eventually off Walt, contains spoilers.
EMILY: So, what did you think of THAT EPISODE?
LOGAN: Honestly, I was expecting to be disappointed. I have loved this season of television like few others. I have been obsessed with this show, all-in, and really just thrilled week to week by all the surprises. I was sure my heart would be broken. Particularly, I was sure that they just couldn't go any further over-the-top than the last three episodes or so, and that they had to. That was what the show demanded. Amazingly, they went far beyond: Zombie Gus! And then you find out that Zombie Gus isn't actually the big surprise. It's this subtle little twist with the flower, with the quiet soundtrack humming and the camera moving so slowly and ominously in on this very pretty little plant.
EMILY: I was insanely excited by that last shot, in part because I was certain last week that Walt had poisoned Brock and I'd spent the last week lobbying people on this subject. But during the actual episode, my sense of things swayed several times, so that at the point that Jesse told him about the plant, I briefly considered the possibility that this was a random twist of fate ...
LOGAN: And I spent last week telling people that Walt, a father, couldn't possibly sink that low. Not yet. For some reason, I was still thinking he wasn't ready to be so devious, but it's clear now: He is, at all costs, a survivor. And he would do anything. This show feels like a real game-changer. I love how it's redefining the most basic terms: "Defense," is what Walt says he'll use the gun for. "I'm good," he tells Skyler. "I won." Good?!!
EMILY: I feel like Gilligan is doing a true test of the audience's relationship with these resentful, violent, masculine characters, a decade of antiheroes on cable, because Walt is no longer a real moral mixture. He's been a bad man since he killed Jesse's girlfriend, but this is a bridge you can't re-cross: premeditated poisoning of a child.
To me, the show operates on two parallel levels: It's a thrilling caper, so you admire Walt for pulling it off — and of course, that's horrifying, because that means rooting not just for a mobster but for a full-out villain. The only show it's comparable to is The Sopranos, but that was slightly different to me, because over the course of that show, Tony shriveled, became small and Golem-like, he didn't transform into his own moral opposite.
LOGAN: I think our assumptions about antiheroes are generally misguided in most narratives. There's generally a lot more emphasis on the "hero" than the "anti," and I think a lot of that is due to the episodic, long-arc form of TV, where our opportunities for identification and empathy are so numerous, and spread out over such a long time period.
EMILY: We need to like the person in some way, because we keep letting them into our home this week. I've said this before, but TV antiheroes are vampires.
LOGAN: It seems to me like fans have kept excusing Walt at every turn, like you'd excuse your fucked-up drunk uncle. After four seasons, a character like this becomes a kind of family member: someone you know so well that your understanding of where they come from can excuse them of so much. But, yeah, not so much child-murder.
EMILY: I love it, because it's the definition of the unforgivable, not just child-murder, but premeditated child-murder that involves lying to someone who trusts you and loves the child.
Which brings us to next season. When Jesse will inevitably find out.
LOGAN: But how? Do they end up in another mano a mano fight and Walt tells him? Does Jesse see the plant while visiting for a pool party?
EMILY: Impossible to say, but I find myself hoping the endgame involves Jesse killing Walt. And/or Hank bringing down the entire operation.
LOGAN: I think, at some point, Walt will want Jesse to know. He wants recognition.
EMILY: I just think that telling Jesse this would be an act of suicide.
LOGAN: I think this is so much about Walt's ego and next season we'll see him go more ego-mad. He's all over the place, frenzied and panicked and paranoid. And that's much like Pacino's character in Scarface: paranoid and delusional and eventually imprisoned in a fancy mansion of his own creation. Tony Montana went power mad and utterly delusional. Walt's headed there!
EMILY: I don't remember who told me this theory, but they described the show as a classic heroic story, about an underestimated, seemingly bumptious DEA agent who brings down a huge drug operation — only it's told from the opposite POV, from his brother-in-law's perspective. This makes a lot of sense to me, that if you spin the show backwards, it would actually be Hank's story, only told from the POV of the villain, so it has this buried traditional hero narrative.
LOGAN: I think Walt has to go down in a blaze of gunfire at the end, if he goes down at all. He's not going to give up. Someone's going to have to kill him. And I think that, by the end of next season, he's going to be so powerful that only the feds will be powerful enough to bring him down. Unless Jesse takes a shot. Do you think that Walt will kill Jesse? Skyler?
EMILY: Walt Jr. The ultimate bizarre twist. Or Walt Jr. kills him. Or Baby Holly, with a candlestick, in the meth lab. Someone suggested to me that Walt would end up in witness protection, living his old awful boring life, but I think that train's left the station.
LOGAN: Skyler keeps imagining that there's an out. She keeps suggesting that he go clean or tell Hank. At some point, I could imagine her telling Hank, and then Walt killing her for the betrayal. And no way does Walt walk off into the sunset. He's got no reasons anymore for doing this. It's all crazy. He just loves it.
EMILY: One other option. He could die of cancer. Surrounded by his loved ones! Livin' the dream.
LOGAN: Ha! Could be, though I feel like the way these stories tend to end is that drug dealers die young or end up in prison. There aren't a lot of stories of big-time dealers retiring at Casa Tranquila. But I like that idea, because I do think Gilligan is invested in this idea of refuting certain old hoary clichés, like "crime doesn't pay," for instance. But maybe evil isn't punished.
EMILY: Yeah, maybe the guy just lives evilly ever after. To me, it's not really a show about the drug trade. It's more realistic than Dexter, but like that show, it's a stylized allegory. And aside from testing the audience's tolerance for arrogant egghead scumbag heroes, there's a surrealistic quality to it, the kind of thing that came across in that earlier finale, with the plane crash. That gives Gilligan way more options in the ending — it just has to be poetic and resonant in some way.
LOGAN: I agree it's more allegory than Methland/Traffic-style drug reportage. I was thinking about that airline crash last night — particularly with Walt back by the pool. And this child-murder plot was spectacularly contrived. It was more mythic Greek child-murder stuff than drug biz. But I also think a lot of this show has been about the efficacy of cruelty. About the way a kind of naked ambition guides everything. And I think one of the more disturbing aspects of the show has been the way that abject cruelty and manipulative sadism win in the end.
EMILY: Well, they pulled one punch. They let Brock live. Not that I wanted Brock to die — it would have been kind of a repeat of Jesse's girlfriend. And this way, Walt might actually interact with Brock and his mom in the future.
By the way, small issue, but where did Jesse's cigarette go? Did Walt steal it, in order to get him to think Gus had poisoned Brock?
LOGAN: You've got me: I was wondering about that, too. I think Walt did steal it — and then, on some level, you have to think that he subbed in the Lily of the Valley poison because he knew it was less lethal. Maybe there was still a glimmer of empathy in him at the end: I'll nearly kill the kid, but I'll give him a chance ... So, next season, where do you think this allegory goes from here?
EMILY: It's kind of sad, because this episode would make a great series finale! Which Gilligan knew — he made it so it could work that way, if the show didn't get picked up for another season. But I really trust Gilligan et al. at this point in a kind of painful way.
LOGAN: Next season, I think Walt has to stay in the business. He's lost a big chunk of his money to Skyler's buddy, and I just can't see him fighting so hard to be the top dog, and then giving it up. I think, on some level, the show is about how people get addicted to power. It's never been about money, or drugs. It's been about one-upping, out-maneuvering, surviving.
EMILY: I agree he has to get back in the business, but mostly because the show demands it: The drama needs him to be the new Gus, so Hank can bring him down. Not that he doesn't have other reasons to do it, but it's amazing how many chances he's had to actually get out, from the time his ex-girlfriend was offering him that money, and on and on.
LOGAN: Yes — I remember that episode was when, for me, it became clear that he was really enjoying this all. That he liked the thrill and the test and the power. In a way, the regular world (tech start-up, schoolteaching) didn't work for him. Those rules didn't work for him. So he found a place where his obvious social deficiencies and weirdness wouldn't hurt him. Where a kind of scientific ruthlessness mattered much more than his social/political deficiency. As Jesse keeps saying, he's a dick. Nobody wants to work with him. But he gets results. How much deeper do you think Skyler will go?
EMILY: I used to be very interested in Skyler, but I'm not anymore. Honestly, I feel like her story was done much more richly with Carmela — and that in reality, Skyler would in fact leave Walt. I know that for the purposes of the show, she's now corrupt and complicit, but I don't entirely buy it. I don't mind, though, because the rest of the show is so good. There are all sorts of factors about Skyler I've never understood anyway: Where do she and Marie come from? How did she and Walt get involved? Whatever happened to her fiction writing? But the show can't cover everything — I mean, I used to fret about the loss of Jesse's family as a plotline, but I don't mind a kind of storytelling triage to get us through in a purer way. What's one wish you have for next season?
LOGAN: My one wish for next season is that Walt's descent into depravity continues to accelerate. I don't know how he could continue to get worse, but I'm sure he will. And I want to see how that plays out with the way he justifies all this. I think it's been fascinating to see how, the more powerful becomes, the more he's convinced that he's someone else's (to use Jesse's favorite word) bitch. The self-delusion is fascinating: The way he convinces himself that every murder is self-defense, that every criminal action is necessary. To me, that's the link between his scientific background and his druglord ways: He thinks he's being logical. That's scary. It's like Walt is becoming both Scarface and Robert McNamara.
EMILY: Yes, I agree. His main issue is that he thinks he's smarter than everyone else. And in a way, the finale shows that he was actually right.
You know, I watched the first several seasons in a massive binge watch — this is the first one I watched as part of the audience, online and off. In the piece I wrote about my binge, I talked about how hard it was to come back into the world of recaps and tweets. But I have to say, it was thrilling to be part of the live response to the show last night. I think I don't even have any wishes for next season. I'm just looking forward to it.