“It can’t all be for nothing.”
I have no secret knowledge of how Vince Gilligan and Breaking Bad’s writers plotted how to finish Walter White’s story, but I have to wonder if the scenario we saw tonight was considered, at one point, as the end. Walt isolated, thousands of miles from home, dying alone, knowing that everything has gone wrong, knowing that his child hates him, knowing that his plan to enrich his family has failed — and powerless to do anything but, wait, and know, and think on what he has done.
It feels in a sense as if these past few weeks have tried on several alternative endings for the story of Walter White. His surrender to Hank in the desert, as I said then, was one way it could have gone down. His disappearance into the horizon, last seen in the rear-view mirror of Vacuum Guy’s minivan, was another. (Hell, the end of last season’s run — Walt retired, successful, free and in the bosom of his family was, before Hank found Leaves of Grass as bathroom reading, the end for a very dark, cynical version of Breaking Bad.)
The Shield’s outstanding finale left its antihero-villain, Vic Mackey, alive and chained to a desk, presumably to ponder his crimes forever. Walt’s exile in “Granite State” might be considered The Shield alternative for Breaking Bad — letting Walt “escape,” but in such as way as to be tortured by his deeds for the rest of his short life. So his world ends, as another New Hampshire resident posited, not in fire but in ice.
There’s something purgatorial about Walt’s New Hampshire; we’ve spent so much time in the red-and-brown sunbaked vistas of New Mexico that emerging from the propane tank into New Hampshire feels like entering another world. As Vacuum Cleaner Guy — played, in an in-retrospect obvious bit of genius casting, by Robert Forster — says, it’s the kind of place where Walt could rest and get some much needed thinking done. “If you look around,” he says, “it’s kind of beautiful.”
But our Walt is not so easily going to slip into a contemplative mood. On the way to his New England getaway, he’s still nursing the idea that he can Heisenberg his way out of it again. He rants to Saul — like Hitler in the bunker in those “Downfall” videos — that he is not done: “My money goes to my children. Not just this barrel, but all of it!” And no sooner does Vacuum Cleaner drive down the road than he stuffs his pockets with money and dons the black hat–shot from behind, like a ceremonial crowning — ready to walk the eight miles to town and —
And what? He has, he sees, run out of practical options. “Tomorrow,” he tells himself. He retreats, takes off the hat, seems to give up and wait to die.
And yet in the end he can’t. In part, maybe, because he knows that once Vacuum Cleaner’s ministrations are done and he is dead to cancer, his friend-for-hire will Hoover up his barrel of money and be gone. In part, because his last phone call to Skyler was not quite as brilliant a ruse as he hoped. In part, maybe, because the prideful Heisenberg is still within him, as he sees Elliott and Gretchen denigrate his existence and his meaning to Gray Matter on Charlie Rose — he sees himself being erased from significance. Ready for a moment, after Walt Jr’s rejection, to turn himself in, he instead finds that burning anger relit, and he hits the road.
Because there is still too much to reckon with for Breaking Bad to end things this way. There is a vast and still-growing catalog of people whose lives Walt has ruined or ended, directly or indirectly. There’s Skyler, ruined, terrorized, and facing jail; Marie mourning; Junior bitter and angry. There’s Jesse captive in his meth dungeon and Andrea now, dead from the hell Walt unleashed by summoning the demons of Todd and Uncle Jack. As the suffering rolls out in this bleak, bleak episode, you can almost see the paper being crumpled up on the “Walt dies alone in hiding” idea and thrown into the wastebasket. Breaking Bad is not an elliptical show, and these things must be confronted.
Gilligan and company have created an amazing run of seven episodes leading up to next week’s finale; and yet they’ve still posed themselves a challenge in pulling off a satisfying ending. I’d now guess that the finale is building toward what it’s looked like: some revenge plot against Jack and company, abetted by Jesse (who now has a reason powerful enough to ally even with Walt), then freeing up Walt and Jesse for some final, cathartic confrontation. (Though what do I know? Is Walt carrying a machine gun for Gretchen and Elliott too?) He offered his son his money and was rejected. He has nothing to give anyone anymore but his freedom, or his life.
If you accept the premise that Walt was once at least mostly a good man — he really meant well, he truly loved his family, and so on — and that he became bad, indeed evil, through a series of gradual moral compromises, then you can see Gilligan’s dilemma in crafting the ending. How do you honor the good in Walt (or once in him) while punishing (or at least not excusing) the evil in him? Well, one way you do that, of course, is to give him a nemesis even more despicable and utterly hateful than himself: the sweet sociopathic Todd on the one hand, and actual Nazis on the other.
The trick, then, is to bring all this to a satisfying, cathartic climax without seeming to engineer Walt back into a good guy simply by giving him a bigger bad guy to fight. And you want — at least I want — the unrelenting suffering we’re seeing to end, or at least to see some sign of hope. (At this point in the series, most everyone we’ve come to care about in any way has been put into misery that shows no sign of ending, or is simply dead — and ugh, I can’t stand to think of Brock inside his house with his mom shot dead on the front lawn.) But you don’t want a happy ending — or let’s be realistic, a not-unrelentingly-miserable ending — to come at the expense of writing off the immense moral debt Walter White has rung up in this series.
At this point, I can only have the faith earned though four-and-a-half fantastic seasons of this series (recognized by an overdue Best Drama Emmy last night). We’ve seen Vince Gilligan run through several could-have-been endings for Walter White. Next week, we get the real one. Walt, and this story, are on the move, and this time it’s a one-way trip.
Now for the hail of bullets:
* I’m fascinated by the comparison of Lydia and Walt, two civilians who have descended into drug evil one step of moral compromise at a time. Where Walt acts out of hubris and pride, she acts out of caution and calculation. She doesn’t want to take any risks and she doesn’t want to see the consequences of her actions; and the two put together make her absolutely chilling, ordering brutal acts from a shelter of distance and euphemism. (Like Walt too, she justifies her deeds in the name of her family.) So she initially, coldly insists that Todd kill Skyler — a mother like herself — because she can’t be exposed to the slightest risk, and tells Todd this like she’s giving orders to the exterminator. I’d be fascinated to see what a Breaking Bad that was centered on Lydia would look like.
* On a lighter note, glad she finally got her chamomile tea! I’m guessing unlike with Mike, she picked the meeting place this time. (Todd, you are no Mike Ehrmentraut!)
* Honestly, the idea of punishing Walt with a lifetime of watching Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium does sound like a pretty heavy punishment.
* Speaking of which, the 2007 date of that movie reminds us that Walt arrives in New Hampshire just a couple years too late to run into The Sopranos’ Gay Vito.
* This week in probably-unfortunate product placements: Ensure, Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. (Meth Nazis love it!)
* It’s interesting that an episode that ended with one emotionally wrenching phone call should be followed by another — this one not a ruse, but devastatingly open and honest. [Update: Another parallel/inversion — at the end of “Ozymandias” we saw Walt controlling Heisenberg, using his villainous persona to try to exonerate Skyler. At the end of “Granite State,” we saw Walt–the part of him still able to be moved to surrender by his son’s repudiation–losing control to Heisenberg and his injured pride after seeing the Charlie Rose interview.]
* “Go ahead, do it! There’s no way I’m doing one more cook for you psycho fucks!” Oh, Jesse, poor Jesse. We’ve been talking a lot about what kind of ending we want for Walt. What do you want for Jesse?