“I’m the cook. I’m the man who killed Gus Fring…now, say my name.”
Sunday night’s Breaking Bad was so fascinating – equal parts wrenching, shocking and creepy – that I actually logged on this morning hoping that James Poniewozik felt compelled to say his piece. I wanted to read his thoughts and insights – but only then remembered that the responsibility this week falls to me. Our Breaking Bad expert will return next week, with his expert analysis of the mid-season finale.
Needless to say, MAJOR SPOILERS ahead.
Like several of the series’ recent episodes, there was a lot of rapid plot advancement in “Say My Name,” as the show’s creators race to position the storyline for an Sept. 2 cliffhanger that will have to satisfy us until next summer. At times, this urgent surge forward brushed by what, in earlier seasons, would have been gut-twisting developments.
I’m not the best when it comes to comprehensive episode recaps, but as I viewed “Say My Name” with a more critical eye, I was startled by how far Walter White has fallen since my last appreciation of TV’s greatest character of the moment. Earlier this season, as he started to lose hold of his family, and grasp of his allies in the drug biz, the show seemed appropriately somber about his slow but steady descent into egomania and paranoia. But now we’ve fallen so far below sea level that his final ounces of decency are crushed under the pressure almost without a second glance.
Let us recall that Walter White began as a desperate man employing desperate strategies to care for his family. He knew he’d be dead soon, he wanted to bank some cash that would keep his family safe, and he was willing to risk his life and liberty to make it happen. Much the same can be said for Mike. As long as his granddaughter has been alive, that’s been his focus – keep her safe, and stay out of prison to be there for her. And while he’s been a very violent man, willing to kill and intimidate when necessary, I think it’s safe to bet that for many “Breaking Bad” fans, witnessing his demise was far more emotional than anything that has yet to happen to Walter White. With one immoral decision after another, White has passed the point of forgiveness, but across the scenes that we’ve spent with Mike, he’s always seemed to be fair, measured and rational, often a counterpoint to White’s irrational flailings.
Over at Vulture, Matt Zoller Seitz invokes the memory of Michael Mann’s crime epic Heat (one of my all-time favorite films) to detail Mike’s demise. It’s an apt comparison – as Mike’s final glimpse around the tree of his granddaughter, swinging unknowingly towards the cops who have descended on the park, succeeds in being even more emotional that Robert De Niro’s panicked ditching of Amy Brenneman in “Heat” as he spots the heat coming down the alley. De Niro looks directly into Brenneman’s eyes as he makes the decision to run; she even steps out of the car, wondering where he is going, why he is fleeing. But Mike doesn’t even get the chance to indicate to his granddaughter that he must flee – that he’s well aware of the hurt he’s about to cause her. She swings away from him, oblivious to this life-defining turn, and surely Mike knows, staring into the sunset while bleeding out in the marsh, that she will feel confused and abandoned. That he never said goodbye.
It is a tragic and heartbreaking turn of events – and while Mike perhaps deserved what he got, surely we thought he would go down swinging or scheming, and not utterly dejected. As Walt pulls away his piece, the sequence turns even more bleak: Mike could have killed Walt if he had wanted to, but what’s the point? In at least his later years, he was fighting for his girl, and now it’s all over. No money, no safety, no fond farewells. This is probably the series’ most emotional death scene – but surely not the last.
But I digress. While Mike’s solemn swan song will surely have more people clamoring this morning, I found myself equally moved and saddened by four pivotal scenes that show Walt hitting rock bottom. First and foremost was that astonishing opening scene, in which we see Walt’s true motives – his true reasons for being – laid bare. Out in the open desert, there is not a hint of the apprehension or anxiety that colored his earlier showdowns with drug kingpins. Instead, he calmly steps out, defiantly rejects demands, and goes so far as to mock, insult and shame the other meth dealers. He throws the bag of meth in dirt, where they must pick it up, he attacks the quality of their product, he makes them bow and submit and “say my name.” “Heisenberg.” “You’re goddamn right.”
We’ve seen Walt turn tough, but have we really seen him salivate like this over the kill? Relish in rubbing another man’s face in the dirt? It isn’t just that he’s standing up to the challenge, which led some of us fans to rally around him and cheer him on. He’s like a wild beast drooling over his quarry. It’s an eye-opening moment, but less awesome than repulsive. Here we see our first glimpse of Walt the Monster.
The second glimpse comes when Jesse says, without reservation, that he wants out. He’s done with the drugs, with the violence that has now killed a kid (and which nearly killed another kid earlier, all at Walt’s hands). And unlike other episodes that required Walt to talk Jesse off the cliff, in a bid to keep the product flowing or to keep the pair alive, here we see Walt begin his con game anew, arguing against all reason for Jesse to stay involved. Gone are the profit motives (Jesse could easily bank $5 million from selling the liquid) and the safety concerns (at this point in the episode, the DEA seems a million miles away, and Gus is still underground). Jesse is making the perfectly reasonable request that he be freed from this bloody business. And instead Walt picks up the gloves, furrows his brow and starts in on the shame and the guilt. The implication, of course, is that Walt the Monster is holding Jesse’s money hostage, and finally Jesse says screw it – keep the dough.
Then there’s the pitiful dinner at the family table, where it becomes abundantly clear that Skyler won’t just be keeping the kids away from their terrifying father, but that she has no interest in uttering a syllable to him. Breaking all his promises that he would keep the danger away from his family, Walt has hid the methylamine in the carwash – the business that was supposed to be a clean and clear front for the money laundering – and put Skyler directly in harm’s way. If there was ever any doubt that Walt the Monster had lost sight of his family behind the mountain of blue crystals and dollar bills, here’s the confirmation.
But above and beyond all these moments, there is the final scene of Walt on the riverbank, apologizing to the man he has killed. Walt tells off Mike while holding his bag of money hostage, he starts to walk back to his car, then he bolts for Mike, gun drawn. He shoots, is shocked to see the car crash, then stalks his prey like a professional, before cowering at the sight of a bloody Mike, accepting his fate. He seems genuinely shocked by what he has done – and therein lies some of the most compelling evidence yet that Walt has gone off his rocker. Sure, he’s been violent and dangerous before, but it almost always has emerged from survival instinct. Here he shot a business colleague who was not poised to harm him, a partner who was about to hit the open road. And he seemed to realize that in his fit of rage, he had taken things too far.
It was sobering to see the episode move at such a rapid pace – to see Walt emerge scene by scene as a lost cause to his business colleagues, his wife and even his mentee. But in this final crescendo, not only did we see Mike die; we saw Walt struggling to grapple with the capabilities of his own inner demons. You don’t typically shoot a guy and then apologize as he dies. But it wasn’t Walt who shot Mike; it was Heisenberg. And I think Walt is starting to realize that his alter-ego is now officially running the show.
Things are bleak in the Breaking Bad world. I’m starting to brace myself for pitch black.