Everyone has been asking, "How will Breaking Bad end?" We don’t need to ask anymore. We know. The opening of "Blood Money" tells us. All that’s left is the particulars.
In what looks like a seamless continuation of the flash-forward that started season five, part 1 — "Live Free or Die" — Walt returns home to a deserted house, looking for the ricin capsule that he stored behind a light fixture in the second episode of season five, "Madrigal." Throughout the run of the show, he’s said that the only thing that truly matters to him is his family. In the future we see his family is gone, along with all evidence that he ever had one. The house is a dilapidated husk. Teenagers skate in the empty swimming pool where Skyler attempted to drown herself in "Fifty-One," the same episode in which she wishes for her husband’s death and admits she lacks his "dark magic."
We later learn (after returning back to the present) that Walt’s cancer is definitely back, and presumably in this opening scene that knowledge must be weighing on him, along with everything else. He’s a walking dead man. We don’t know why he needs the ricin capsule. We don’t know why he needs the gigantic machine gun that he bought from Jim Beaver’s arms dealer character in "Live Free or Die." We don’t know where Skyler, Walt, Jr. and Holly are, or why they left. But it doesn’t matter. It’s all details. At the end of season four, after killing his employer, enemy and de facto jailer Gus Fring with a bomb strapped to Hector’s wheelchair, Walter proclaimed, "I won." And from then on, Walt acted like a sore winner. In season five’s "Buyout," Jesse tries to convince Walt to join him in retiring, selling the methylamine they stole in the train heist that ended with Todd shooting an innocent child who stumbled upon their operation. Walter waves off this idea, instead trying to convince Jesse to stay with him in the business for another year, at which point they'll be comfortable enough for "soul-searching" and can make sure that such a thing "never happens again." He adds, "Jesse, you asked me if I was in the meth business or the money business. Neither. I'm in the empire business." "I don't know, Mr. White," Jess replied. "Is a meth empire really something to be that proud of?"
The opposition between Walt and Jesse has defined the series up to now, and it surely defines this episode. Walt’s cold confidence contrasts starkly with Jesse’s agonized, numbed expressions. Walt long ago lost whatever conscience he had left; whatever is left seems (in this episode at least) like a vestigial appendage, the psychic equivalent of a phantom limb demanding a scratch. Jesse is still decent, a gentle soul corrupted by Walt and the drug trade. There’s a marvelous shot, right before Walt comes over with the bag of money Jesse tried to give to Saul to get rid of, that subtly reinforces the fact that even after shooting and wounding Tuco and murdering Gale and taking part in so many other horrible schemes, Jesse is still a good person at heart — not evil but weak: the shot of the cockroach scuttling over the cluttered glass tabletop in Jesse’s living room. This is a visual callback to the opening of season 2’s "Peekaboo." Jesse couldn’t kill a bug then, and in his heart he still can’t. He hates what he’s done and hates himself for doing it. That’s why, after Walt brings him back the cash, he gives it to the homeless guy in the parking lot and then tosses the remainder on random lawns as if he’s Robin Hood redistributing wealth (or Ben Affleck at the end of Reindeer Games). He knows he’s going to hell, and emotionally he’s already there.
Aaron Paul’s performance is, as nearly always, extraordinary here, communicating the psychic distress of a man who hates himself so much that he can hardly bear to be alive. He’s greatly aided by episode director Bryan Cranston and cinematographer Michael Slovis, who photograph Paul’s pale, scruffy, haggard face as if it were the visage of a suffering saint in a Renaissance painting.
Vince Gilligan was raised Catholic and has said that he likes to see evil people punished in fiction, and that he’s fascinated by notions of karma — that you reap what you sow. The episode is filled with overt allusions to the black-and-white moralism of the simplest religious codes, plus subtler pop-culture signifiers of sin, redemption, and the pretense of respectability. Skyler and Walter (who has said he's now out of the business) have taken to wearing much lighter clothes than before, as if that will somehow make them angels. When Jesse can no longer bear his buddies’ blabbing about Star, he takes the bag of about $5 million in cash to Saul’s law office to make him find a way to get rid of it, and while he’s sitting in the waiting room, "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" plays on the PA system. Saul dismisses his plan to give the money to Mike’s granddaughter and to the parents of the boy Todd killed in "Dead Freight" by warning him that he’s still "two miracles short of sainthood." When Walt pukes in his bathroom (and then discovers that his copy of Leaves of Grass has gone missing), he folds a washcloth beneath his knees like a Muslim gently positioning a prayer rug, and Slovis and Cranston’s camera angles make Walt look like a religious pilgrim kneeling before an altar — one where you come to retch up the evil spirits that have hold of your soul. (The most chilling moment for me was Walt making baby Holly "wave goodbye" to Hank and Marie as they drove off. That little high-pitched voice — "Bye, Uncle Hank! Bye, Aunt Marie!" — is evil made cute.)
About Leaves of Grass: While Breaking Bad is busy positioning Walt and Jesse as moral counterweights, Hank serves as the fulcrum of the episode’s moral and dramatic power. He is so shocked by the discovery of the book — autographed by the murdered Gale — that he suffers another of the many panic attacks he’s endured since Walt became Heisenberg. (I love how, after the car crash, Hank looks as if he’s about to impale himself on that white picket fence — a little touch of Blue Velvet, perhaps.) Having recently finished a re-watch of the first four seasons of Breaking Bad, I couldn’t help thinking about the arc of this good man’s suffering, all of which is directly or indirectly due to his brother-in-law’s decision to pay his way toward health by cooking meth, and double-crossing or killing anyone who stood in his way. Hank’s silent and very rapid piecing-together of Walt’s treachery reminds us that he’s a superb cop — except for the not-recognizing-your-brother-in-law-is-Heisenberg part. (I love the music montage of Hank putting the puzzle together: it’s like an instant recap of the whole series, nearly as compressed as the credits for season five of The Wire, which laid out all the major and minor players while reminding you of who’d died.)
When Lydia shows up at the car wash to tell Walt that the business he set up in Europe — then distanced himself from — is going off the rails, Walt’s polite yet icy demeanor is reminiscent of Gus Fring’s. When Walt first met Gus in season 2’s "Mandala," Walt tried to flatter Gus and himself by suggesting they were kindred spirits. Gus rightly shot him down, but now that Walt has gone "legit" — with the car wash, soon to be car washes, serving the same function as Gus’s chicken restaurants — it seems as though Walt is much closer to making that wish come true. "Wouldn’t two be better than one?" he tells Skyler, pressing her to double-down on their money-laundering front. "I left a viable operation," Walt tells Lydia. "The rest is up to you." But like Michael Corleone in The Godfather, Part III, just when he thinks he’s out, he gets pulled back in. Maybe. "Get out of here," Skyler warns Lydia. "Now. Never come back here. Do you understand me? Go."
"The past is the past," Walter tells Jesse when he comes over with the money bag and tries to convince him that he didn’t murder Mike. Jesse knows he did; even though the younger man talks his way around the truth, we can see the certainty in his exhausted face. "I think he’s dead, and I think you know that," is as far as Jesse can go, but in time I think he could go further. "I did not kill Mike," Walt lies. "For all I know, he’s alive and well." I was reminded here that Mike was in many ways a good father to Walt’s bad father, somebody who for all his violence truly seemed to care about Jesse as a human being. The bad father murdered the good one. Walt let Jesse’s great love die, too, and took so much else away from him that you can hardly begin to list the losses. Will Jesse end up killing Walt? Is Breaking Bad turning into Hamlet?
I won’t predict anything, because I’ve been wrong too many times before. This show is smarter than all of us.
That ending was powerful: Hank in the garage facing off against Walt, aka Heisenberg, telling him he knows pretty much everything, and Walt responding that he has cancer, then ending his pathetic denials with a warning that Hank "tread lightly." Walter’s Achilles heel, we’re reminded again, is his pride. His masculine inferiority complex in relation to the fireplug-macho Hank is part of the reason he ended up in this horrendous psychic place, the good man subservient to his dark alter ego. Dean Norris and Bryan Cranston have been waiting over five years to play this moment. They finally got their chance, and the result was as powerful as anyone could have expected.
- Love the quick pan between the handwriting samples when Hank solves the mystery. Breaking Bad is so much better than most shows at communicating epiphanies without words.
- The Star Trek bit was one of Breaking Bad’s funniest pop-culture riffs, grossly reminiscent of the pie-eating contest in Stephen King’s novella "The Body" (which was then adapted into Stand By Me). "Scotty beams his guts into space!" I also love the psychedelic pattern behind Jesse’s head during this sequence, which is very 1960s TV. "Cause he’s a doctor, bitch! Look it up, it’s science!" (Watch Badger's Star Trek script, animated by Vulture here.)
- If you’re interested in the look of the show, you really should watch my friend Dave Bunting’s amazing series of Breaking Bad video essays about the show’s cinematography. He also did a thorough interview with the show’s director of photography, Michael Slovis, which you can read here.