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Breaking Bad Recap: Walt, Anonymous?

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) - Breaking Bad - Season 5, Episode 8 - Photo Credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC

It's Hank's show now. 

The final shot of Breaking Bad's mid-season finale "Gliding Over All" has already inspired arguments among fans. Was it dramatically right and hilarious, or way too easy? Too easy, I think. I was disappointed by it. But maybe that's just me. I like Hank and despise Walter for all the harm he's caused others. After Hank's crushing tactical defeat by Heisenberg, who had all Hank's potential Madrigal informants killed in prison simultaneously, Godfather-style — I really, really wanted this episode to end (if indeed it had to end in a revelation for Hank) with the DEA agent putting things together on his own. Instead, series creator Vince Gilligan and screenwriter Moira Walley-Beckett ended with Hank sitting on the can at the White house three months after Walt eliminated all his immediate foes and set up his business to take the next big leap, and had him find a copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass given to Walter by the murdered Gus Fring chemist Gale Boetticher. I guess I was hoping that Hank would put it all together on his own rather than having it almost handed to him, like a present. 

On the other hand, this does jibe with the Hank we've been following since season one. He's a good DEA agent and a good man, but time after time he's been presented with what seem like crushingly obvious clues and has been unable to interpret them. As critic Sarah D. Bunting wrote in a comment under a "Press Play" recap of the season opener, "It's like the optic nerve's ability to 'finish' a pattern that isn't complete (i.e., in a carpet or a painting) — it substitutes what is "supposed to" be there, so you don't see what actually is there. People do this emotionally all the time, though it is getting to the point narratively where it's not realistic." Somebody had to finish the pattern for him, I guess — thus the inscribed copy of the book, plus a flashback to the moment in season four when Walt deliberately threw Hank off the scent during their conversation about possible WW's. 

I'm also annoyed by the book itself. I hauled out my DVDs from Seasons 3 and 4, trying to find a moment where Gale gives Walter an inscribed copy of Leaves of Grass, and I couldn't find one; maybe I overlooked it, and if so, I'm sure one of you will point me to the episode with exact timecode, because y'all are absolutely on-point that way, but this seems like a ret-con job to me. (Lo and behold, within minutes of this recap's publication, a commenter writes, "The book itself appears in episode 306 [time code 25:00]. They planted it way back." You folks are truly something else.) We saw Walt take a copy of Leaves of Grass out of a box at the start of this season, but I don't believe we ever saw Gale actually give him that particular book with that particular inscription, did we? 

Nevertheless, this was a satisfying episode, one that wrapped up all the lingering Gus Fring threads from Season 4, showed Walt making the momentous and long-delayed decision to quit cooking meth ("I'm out," he told Skyler), and moved us forward three months via that hilarious and visually stunning "Crystal Blue Persuasion" montage. When the show picks up again next summer for its final eight episodes, we'll be nine narrative months away from the flash-forward that started season five: Walt in that diner in "Live Free or Die", bearded and hounded and buying a gigantic machine gun from Jim Beaver's weapons dealer. 

And as I said up top, this is now Hank's show. Not literally, because I'm sure we'll get plenty of face time with the other major characters, but in the sense that where Breaking Bad spent its first four-and-a-half seasons being about crime, now it's about punishment. It's about watching Walt's empire — the drug business he built through a mix of scientific brilliance and tactical ruthlessness — falling apart as the DEA closes in. I don't know if Gilligan and company will go quite as far as they hinted in that season five moment where Walt and Walt, Jr. watch the 1983 Scarface on TV ("Everybody dies"), but knowing this show, one way or another it's going to be grim — if not physically gruesome, then emotionally wrenching. As I wrote in a recap of "Thirty Seconds Flat": "For all its violence and treachery, is one of the most deeply moral shows on TV, one in which characters inevitably reap what they sow." Walter is going down, and the punishment will be the thing he fears the most. 

And what is that? Losing his family of course. But in what way? Will Skyler or the now-toddler Holly or Walt, Jr. or maybe Jesse (Walt's surrogate son, no matter how many times he abused and manipulated him) turn state's witness and inform on Walt? Or will one or all of them die horribly? Will Walt die or end up in prison, or will his punishment be to lose (in some sense) everyone who meant anything to him? Will Gilligan twist the knife further by having Walt die without anyone knowing he was Heisenberg? 

This seems to me the ultimate punishment: anonymity.

To my mind, Walt's greatest sin, in my mind — the one that contains all his other, myriad sins — is arrogance. He spent most of his adult life stewing over the fact that he had a chance to be rich, famous and respected back in grad school, when two former business partners put together what later became a billion-dollar business, and blew it. On some level I think he wants to be "exposed," meaning recognized, as Heisenberg — to have the world look at all the money he's accumulated, all the drugs he's distributed and all the enemies he's dispatched and say, "Wow, all this time we thought he was a nebbishy chemistry teacher with cancer, but he was secretly a criminal genius." Maybe that's why he did something as stupid as keeping that inscribed copy of Leaves of Grass on top of his toilet tank where any guest could find it. The ultimate punishment for Walter would be to die alone and unknown — for the legend of Heisenberg to separate from Walter White and continue beyond his death, with Walt deriving no emotional satisfaction from it, just misery. 

Odds and Ends 

  • Cancer has been a central organizing metaphor for this series, and the show returned to it in that stunning "Crystal Blue Persuasion" montage that skipped the story forward in time: the helicopter shot of Alberquerque dotted with magically-appearing Vamonos Pest Control tents suggested up-close images of cancer cells spreading. That might be my favorite extended montage in a show that has made extended montages its specialty, though I think it was a mistake to put two of them in the first 40 minutes of this episode (the other one was the montage where the Madrigal informants are killed in prison by skinheads; it was inventively shot, cut and scored, but perhaps a bit much in context). 
  • Speaking of montages, and of direction, I think we need to stop affixing qualifiers when we praise co-executive producer Michelle MacLaren, who directed this episode and "Madrigal." MacLaren isn't just the best all-around Breaking Bad director, she's one of the most exciting and intelligent directors working today, in any medium. She isn't just aces at blocking and shooting action in a visually pleasing way, she also aces quiet moments, such as the scene where Skyler goes out to talk to Walter by the dark swimming pool, Walter staring into the gloom looking like Al Pacino at the end of Godfather II, and the conversation about the giant pallet of money in the storage locker, which had a Kubrick-like cold vastness that made the storage locker seem immense and coldly clinical, like a different sort of prison cell. Every shot in this episode comments upon the plot or adds another dimension to characters. When I rail about the difference between "coverage" (shooting action with multiple cameras and figuring things out later in the editing room) and honest-to-God direction (using the camera to tell the story), Michelle MacLaren is one of the filmmakers I use as an example of the latter. She's phenomenal.
  • So Lydia is Walt's new business partner, helping Walt expand into the former Czech Republic? That's not going to end well for her. In fact, I was slightly surprised that she survived the episode. If that ricin capsule under Walt's hat is any indication, she might not have survived the lunch. 
  • And yes, the ricin capsule is still in play. I wonder who's going to end up being the victim of it?
  • I love the scene where Walter gets a cancer checkup and looks at the same towel dispenser that he angrily beat and dented months earlier. We don't know what the diagnosis was. I suspect it was bad news, because what else would prompt a monster of arrogance to give up the business he'd worked so hard to build? (Also, in the flash-forward at the star of "Live Free or Die," he was taking pills.) If there's one thing I know for sure, it's that profoundly egotistical, amoral men never quit the job they love in order to spend more time with their families, even though that's always the reason they give. Their hand always has to be forced, and I think Walt's hand was forced by his health. But it's Breaking Bad, so I could be wrong. 
  • And now an "I told you so" moment. In my recap of "Hazard Pay," I suggested that Walt's much-discussed Icarus monologue seemed to be about him — that on some level maybe he was subconsciously realizing that he was Icarus flying too close to the sun on wax wings, and that sooner or later he would fall. A lot of commenters blasted me for this, saying that Walt was "obviously" the sun and Icarus was Jesse, Mike or perhaps someone else on the show. What do you think of my Icarus-is-Walt reading now, folks? 
  • I'm glad to see that my old colleague Alan Sepinwall has come around to my camp. As he wrote last night in his recap of the mid-season finale, "Suddenly, Walt's Icarus speech to Jesse seems to be inadvertently pointing right back at Mr. White, no? He flew close to the sun, got to bask in its warmth and light and majesty, and now he's gonna come crashing down to earth."

  •  I loved Anna Gunn's performance in this episode, which balanced workaday diligence, moral panic and emotional exhaustion. I believed that she could force Walter into making the right decision. I bet that during that moment in the bathroom at the hospital near the end, he was thinking about all the warnings she'd given him and finally decided to accept them in the spirit in which they were intended.

  • Marie has worn purple, and been obsessed with purple, throughout the run of Breaking Bad. But during a post-show phone conversation with my friend Ed Copeland, Ed pointed out that in the poolside shot near the end of this episode, Marie is wearing yellow. What's up with that? Breaking Bad is so attuned to symbolism that I can't imagine this was just a costuming mistake. To quote Close Encounters, this means something!
  • The title of this episode comes from Leaves of Grass. It continues Breaking Bad's ongoing Walt Whitman fixation: "Gliding o'er all, through all, /Through Nature, Time, and Space, /As a ship on the waters advancing, /The voyage of the soul--not life alone, /Death, many deaths I'll sing." American literature scholars should feel free to jump in with a deeper analysis, but I saw these lines as a sort of stealth summary of the show we've been watching, and this episode in particular, with its many shots gliding over all, through all, through nature time and space, to push the story forward and set up the final eight episodes and all the horrible, delightful twists that are sure to be contained within them. Deaths, many deaths it will sing, he typed, not meaning to sound like Yoda.

  • Walt is — to quote an overquoted Whitman line — large, and contains multitudes. But I suspect that as the law bears down and his empire crumbles, he's going to have to narrow down that array of selves and try to get back in touch with the best one, whoever he is, if indeed he's still alive inside him and responding to distress calls. (For a superb analysis of Whitman and Breaking Bad, see "Walter White vs. Walt Whitman," by Michael Shields of Across the Margin.)
Photo: Ursula Coyote/AMC