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Breaking Bad Recap: Nothing Personal

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) - Breaking Bad _ Season 5, Episode 15 - Photo Credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC

Written and directed by Peter Gould (“Hazard Pay,” “Problem Dog”), last night’s penultimate Breaking Bad episode, “Granite State,” was one in which Walter seemed more sinned against than sinning, but only if you hadn’t been paying attention. After removing himself to the semi-safety of Saul’s makeshift version of witness protection — courtesy of the previously alluded to but never seen vacuum cleaner salesman played by the great Robert Forster, who was once a vacuum cleaner salesman! — Walter holed up in snowy New Hampshire, a state previously alluded to in the season five, part one opener “Live Free or Die.”

The title of this episode, “Granite State,” was another New Hampshire reference, but the phrase did double-duty as a comment on how Walt’s prospects had hardened. As critic Daniel Walters wrote, the second half of season five has been all about the hero declaring himself “out” of the business and learning that’s not how it works, and anybody who thinks so is a morally obtuse, naïve, or both. You don’t get to just clap your hands and say “I’m out” after building a drug empire, killing people and ordering people killed, and putting your friends and family in jeopardy: “'I built you,' Walt is yelling. “'I created you,'” Dr. Frankenstein insists at his creation as it tears him apart."

Walter suffers in his snowy woodland cabin, sans phone and Internet and TV contact with the world, huddling for warmth in front of a wood-burning stove, learning about his case’s progress through the legal system via newspapers that Forster’s character delivers to him by car. (How much time elapsed between Walt’s flight and the end of this episode?) Meanwhile, though, everybody else in Walt’s former orbit has it as bad as Walt or worse — but they aren’t so much doing penance as enduring the punishment that Walt escaped by getting in that van. Gee, how big of Walter to “save” Skyler that way — by making her, in his self-serving words, the “blameless victim,” then not-really-sacrificing himself in a way that leaves her in the spotlight, but without a home or the money with which to mount a proper legal defense.  

As Saul put it, allowing himself a rare editorial comment on his client’s actions, Walt hit the “ejector seat … some might say you’re leaving her high and dry.” Saul urges Walt to go home, turn himself in, and become “the John Dillinger of the metropolitan detention center,” but he won’t. “What I do, I do for my family,” he repeats, the umpteenth variation of that phrase, even though most of the money he amassed is now in the hands of Nazis who’ve taken Jesse hostage and terrorized Skyler to keep Lydia’s existence (and presumably the whole European consortium’s role in New Mexico’s meth scene) a secret. And Walter can’t get any of his own cash stash to his family without (a) risking interception by the feds and (b) giving his secret location away. Thanks, Galahad.

Meanwhile, Marie is still in emotional limbo, her husband Hank “missing” and presumed dead (we saw him die along with his partner Gomez last week). Skyler and Walt Jr. are bearing the brunt of media scrutiny and public infamy that Walter eluded. Skyler is being grilled by Feds eager for scraps of information that’ll lead them to Heisenberg (she doesn’t know where he is). And poor Jesse is being tortured so brutally that you can picture Mel Gibson’s Jesus thinking it all a bit much.

Todd the “Opie dead-eyed piece of shit,” as Jesse put it, keeps Walter’s former partner at the bottom of a pit, plying with him ice cream when he’s not beating the hell out of him and forcing him to cook meth and bring the quality up. He lets Jesse know who’s boss by murdering Andrea in front of her own home while her son Brock slumbers inside — one of the most purely evil acts in Breaking Bad’s entire run. (“This is nothing personal,” he says quietly, right before he shoots her in the back of the head.) Even Saul suffers as a result of having known Walter, abandoning the law business he spent years building and looking ahead to becoming “just another douchebag with a job and three pairs of Dockers.”   

“Seems to me just the spot to rest up, think on things,” the vacuum cleaner salesman tells Walter, describing his Granite State retreat. But Walter’s not big on introspection. He doesn’t think, not in the way that he should. He obsesses. His conclusions are invariably self-serving, confirming the self-image he built for himself a long time ago — a false self-image of himself as a wronged, betrayed, unappreciated genius, cheated of his birthright. When he sees the founders of Grey Matter appearing on The Charlie Rose Show, something in him seems to break. Could it be that Team Walt’s fantasies of Walt “rescuing” Jesse from the Nazis are as absurd as they always sounded? I guess we’ll find out, but in this episode I don’t believe Walter mentions Jesse, or that his mind is on him; why would it be, as according to Walter, Jesse is a betrayer, a rat? No, I think that huge machine gun we glimpsed in the trunk of his car in “Live Free or Die” is a tool to get his money back from Jack and Todd and company. Not that he could do anything with it — on the contrary, the episode establishes time and time again that Walter can’t spend any of the money he was allowed to keep, just as Mike couldn’t get any of his stash to his granddaughter. It’s a pride thing. The timing of the Charlie Rose clip and the episode’s final shot—the hero’s empty glass of scotch (Dimple Pinch!) — implies that something in Walter might have just snapped. And it was a long time coming. As Todd VanDerWerff put it in a recent Salon piece, linking Breaking Bad to Falling Down and a long tradition of Failed American Dream narratives, “This is the voice of white male privilege, the angry, unfiltered sense that one is owed something and has had it taken away. Never mind that Walter built an empire worth $80 million. He always wanted more  — respect or fear or worship — and he never got it.”  

The episode’s most scathing, borderline unwatchable (in a good way) scene finds Walter packing up cash in an Ensure box to send to his family via Walt Jr.’s much-discussed, rarely seen pal, Lewis. He can’t resist calling Walt Jr. from the bar, despite his handler’s warnings to keep the lowest possible profile. “I wanted to give you so much more,” he tells his boy, voice cracking. “But this was all I could do.” “You killed Uncle Hank!” his son replies. “You killed him!” And you can almost hear some viewers collectively crying, “No, no! It was Jack! It wasn’t Walter. Jack pulled the trigger.” But it was Walter. In the end, it was Walter who killed Hank, and it was Walter who killed Andrea. Walter is in some sense responsible for almost every horrendous event that has occurred in this universe, and the show has always been very clear about this. The pattern established in season two — Walter’s evil as metaphorical, moral cancer, infecting people both directly and indirectly — continues.  

“Why are you still alive?” Walt Jr. cries into the phone. “Why don’t you just die already?” 

Odds and ends

• Jesse’s escape attempt was inspiring and ultimately depressing. So close!

• The shot of Jesse bawling after Todd killed Andrea goes on the short list of images I’m in no hurry to see again. This poor man has suffered so much, and it’s nearly all the result of having joined Walter. Maybe the series will end with Walter suffering a coughing fit in Jesse’s presence, and Jesse standing there watching him choke on his own vomit.

• Jack often comes across as a stand-in for phony-macho Breaking Bad viewers: “Does this pussy cry through the entire thing?” He’s all “hard,” and therefore barely human.

• It’s unexpected and impressive, the degree to which Todd has dominated this final stretch of episodes. The home-invasion scene in this episode might be the most frightening five minutes of TV I’ve seen in a while. Todd’s crush on Lydia, on the other hand, is darkly hilarious; so is her tactical encouragement of his crush. A man who appears to feel nothing has fallen head over heels! Is it love that he’s feeling, or is love what Todd wishes he could feel? We’ll never know. I love Jack chiding Todd over it, and the little details that subtly put across how Lydia’s influence and sense of confidence have increased since the first half of season five, such as the way she repeats that back-to-back configuration at the diner with Todd, a cornball way of being subtle that the veteran Mike refused to entertain in “Madrigal.”

Photo: Ursula Coyote/AMC