SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, make sure you take any necessary bathroom breaks, then watch Sunday night’s 2012 finale of Breaking Bad.
Breaking Bad began its final season with enough shoes-waiting-to-drop to fill Carrie Bradshaw’s closet. The ricin. The cancer. Madrigal. Walt’s secret poisoning of Brock (which, combined with his allowing Jane to die and killing Mike, makes three times he’s hurt someone close to Jesse without his knowledge). Ted Benecke’s head injury. Walt and Skyler’s marriage. And, as set up in the first scene: what “business” is Walt looking to take care of with that machine gun?
This first half of the last season dropped some of these shoes and left others hanging (the ricin is still out there, the gun still awaits). But “Gliding Over All” ended on a big one: the DEA investigation that was inexorably bringing Hank closer to the trail of his own brother-in-law. (I cannot characterize the last scene better than Ken Tucker, who noted that it gave new meaning to the term “info dump.”)
The bipartite structure of Breaking Bad’s last season (the final run of eight episodes is next year) forced the show to have two season 5 “finales.” And “Gliding,” an unusually mellow, reserved episode (for one, granted, including nine prison murders) took advantage of this by constructing itself as a sort of false finale—the ending that Walt, having won against Gus and Mike, having gotten his family “back,” might have imagined for himself, up until the end.
There was a sort of bittersweet, valedictory feel to much of the episode, which, even more than usual was loaded with callbacks to Breaking Bad’s past: the fly in the opening seconds, the paper-towel dispenser at the hospital, and, of course, Leaves of Grass. (Gale Boetticher died at the end of season three, but on Breaking Bad the dead stay very much with us.) It was as if we were looking back with Walt, on a passage in his life that was terrible and exhilarating, but, finally, over. Except that, as it turned out, it’s not.
I suspect some viewers are disappointed by the idea of Hank getting tipped off to Walt’s secret essentially by accident–literally, with his pants down. But on reflection, maybe that was the only way it could happen. This season gave us Walt utterly triumphant—if despicably so—and Hank, in the end, utterly thwarted on the verge of getting one of the prisoners to flip. There was simply no way Hank was going to catch Heisenberg; he was outmatched. But Walter White–relaxed, his guard down, convinced that he had in fact managed to pull off the perfect crime? That guy, Hank could get.
The first half of Breaking Bad’s last season felt like a strong setup to an end run–the elements involving Walt and Skyler’s home life, especially, have been devastating–albeit one with some odd pacing. It began with a flash-forward that suggested that Walt would end up the series in a very different psychological state than the triumphant one he was presently in, but it took baby steps toward that, instead slowing down and dealing with the minutiae of how Walt and company got their business going post-Gus.
“Gliding Over All” suddenly did the opposite, accelerating time and taking a leap forward. It covered about three months, a substantial shift for a show that moved roughly a year over its first four seasons. Walt’s imperial reign as an international drug importer was handled, essentially, in a montage–all business, all grinding clockwork. On Breaking Bad’s usual timescale, it could have been an entire season–how Walt operated in his triumph and why he decided to turn away from it. Instead, it fit within commercial breaks.
In part, that was probably dramatically necessary, because Walt’s success is not as compelling as Walt in jeopardy. But it also made to show that Walt’s “empire,” everything he had strived for, was, once achieved, a cold, unsatisfying thing. His triumph? A mound of green paper sitting in the dark in a storage locker.
And in a show that has paid very close attention to Walt’s moral and psychological evolution, it took an intriguing approach to Walt’s deciding to get out of the business. Rather than show explicitly why Walt decided enough was enough, “Gliding Over All” made that question–why did he get out?–the central mystery of the episode.
Was it his health? (The episode and the season opener suggested, though never definitively said, that the cancer was back.) Was it the experience of standing, with Skyler, in front of that massive cube of drug money, that shrouded, mystical Kaaba of cash? (Maybe, but it still leaves the question of why, since he explicitly told Jesse two episodes ago that he was in “the empire business”–that too much, essentially, would never be enough.) Was it exhaustion, disillusion, regret? (Again, maybe: he seemed drained, as if he realized that having won his personal drug war hadn’t made him happy after all, and his talk with Jesse about the RV and old times contained Whitmanian multitudes of unspoken woulda-coulda-shoulda.)
Answering some of these questions, I’m guessing, will be the business of the series’ final run. But it’s an interesting move to have that take place after Walt decided to take the money and run. After all, we’ve spent much of the season wondering why he wouldn’t just quit, as Jesse tried to persuade him.
But the end of “Gliding Over All” reminds us that that is a hollow answer. You can never really be done with the kind of life Walt chose–you can’t just turn a trophy from a man you had murdered into light bathroom reading and be done with it. The enormity of it hangs over everything—who was not expecting something horrible to happen in that last poolside scene? You might get away with your life of crime, or not. But in reality, there’s no such thing as “getting out.”
As I have quoted here many, many times, Vince Gilligan has said that Breaking Bad is the story of Mr. Chips turning into Scarface. It’s an apt description, but, as the mid-season finale suggests, also a bit of a fakeout. Turning Mr. Chips into Scarface was a long, difficult, and harrowing process. But for Scarface to turn himself back into Mr. Chips? Forget it.
Now for the hail of bullets:
* I liked the parallel of the two unused murder weapons: the ricin, which Walt did not have to use to kill Lydia, and Jesse’s gun, which he did not have to use against Walt. As much as Walt has told himself that, once he succeeds, he can run drugs his way–taking the violence out of the equation–the threat of death is always there.
* Speaking of which, as flighty as Lydia has sometimes seemed, she demonstrates her how she’s been smart enough to survive in a deadly business, calculating her value to Walt and offering up an opportunity that spares her a ricin cocktail.
* Nice touch, in his Leaves of Grass inscription, that Gale would have used the anglicized spelling “honour.”
* Breaking Bad Visual of the Week: Not one but two ironically scored musical montages in this episode–which is maybe one too many. But I’d give the edge to “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” not just for the song choice but the playful use of visual parallels: Saul’s pouring vodka and the pouring chemicals in the lab, Skyler and Lydia’s red mugs.
* So how would you rate the half-season overall? If forced to compare it against the other four full seasons—probably unfair since Breaking Bad seasons usually have a stronger second half—I’d have to mark off for some of the pacing/focus problems I mention above, and I wanted more from Jesse this season. But the sequences at the White household have been some of the most raw and effective the show has ever done.