Brief spoilers for Sunday’s Breaking Bad coming up after the jump:
Having fallen behind this Memorial Day weekend, it’s become pretty clear I’m not going to be able to do a full-length Breaking Bad Watch. (I like Tim Goodman’s Spoiled Bastard on the episode this week.) So let’s just focus on that amazing, awful last scene.
The obvious comparison is to Tony Soprano’s asphyxiating Christopher in “Kennedy and Heidi.” And yet there are important differences, which don’t necessarily make Walter better or worse than Tony, but complicate the picture. The similarity is obvious: like Tony, Walter sees that he has a business interest in killing a junkie, or at least letting her choke to death, which is only different in the most technical sense.
Tony’s act was to save Tony from a relative who had become a liability. Walt is trying to save Walt too—but is he only trying to save himself? Walt has, in a sense, written off Jesse. But as we see in this episode, he seems to feel some real responsibility for him: he may hold him in contempt, but on same level he wants Jesse to get clean and get away from Jane. Now, letting Jane die to “save” Jesse may well be a rationalization: the financial upside to his blackmailer’s death is obvious. But it could be a rationalization and a genuine motive at the same time.
The other difference between Walter and Tony is that, after all this time, he is still an amateur. And that comes chillingly plain in the manner in which Jane dies: she chokes on her own vomit because Walter will not turn her on her side, something that as a father he knows he needs to do for his own infant daughter. And that, in a way, makes his inaction more awful than Tony’s action: he is literally suppressing the part of himself that is a father. Because that’s what being a parent is; from the first second you hold your new baby, you are struck with the realization that your charge on Earth is to keep a helpless life from dying.
That Walter could abdicate that responsibility—even when it comes to someone else’s daughter, an adult, a junkie, a blackmailer—calls into question the very rationale he has used to distinguish himself from the Tony Sopranos, or the Tucos, of the world. That he is acting as a dad. A good guy, as Walter Jr. ironically calls him. As his charity website says: Father. Husband. Teacher.
That website, by the way, calls into question another part of Walter’s rationale: that he had no other choice. Yes, it was Walter who originally started funneling money into the tip jar, but it raises the larger question of whether Walter didn’t have other options to get care and take care of his family—notably, for instance, taking the job offer from his big-shot former friend.
Even now, as his cancer is in remission and Skyler has gone back to work, Walter is fixated on reaching The Number that he’s set in his head. Will that number finally be enough? How much is his drug-dealing career no longer simply about providing for his family? How much is it about Walter, having failed as a scientist, achieving his own kind of applied-science renown as Heisenberg? Has the drug dealing really become an end in itself? How many people will have to die? And where—and when—does it stop? Does it ever?
(I’ve seen next week’s finale, and suffice it to say that it will only put a sharper point on those questions.)
By the way, speaking of the website, you can find the page at http://www.savewalterwhite.com/. (Thanks to jaymzstevens on Twitter for pointing me to the site.) The donation link on the real site leads to the National Cancer Coalition—in case you want to open your wallet and offset that feeling of moral ambiguity with some moral clarity.