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'Breaking Bad' recap: Scales falling from Walter's eyes

September 09, 2013|By Todd VanDerWerff
  • Walter's (Bryan Cranston) plans are all for naught after Jesse and Hank trick him into giving away the location of his money.
Walter's (Bryan Cranston) plans are all for naught after Jesse and… (AMC )

The only thing I wanted from the final season of “Breaking Bad” was for Walter White to have the scales fall from his eyes, to see what he had truly become, then see whether that repulsed him or made him even more monstrous. It’s easy to proclaim your own power when you’re riding high -- and we’d never seen Walter riding so high as he was in the fifth season’s first few episodes -- but it’s quite another to realize just how terrible you’ve become in pursuit of that power. Walter has always held grand delusions about himself, and seeing those delusions fall away seemed to me to be an important part of whatever end game the series came up with.

What’s been interesting about the show’s approach to this aspect of its storytelling has been that Walter’s realization is as gradual as anything else on the show. He doesn’t realize all at once how others see him, the kind of man he’s become. He realizes it in fits and starts, throughout the run of the show and especially the run of this season. Skyler telling him she’s just waiting for him to die or showing him his giant pile of money were important early indicators, but the back half of this season has been filled with these moments where the old Walter -- the pre-Heisenberg Walter -- peeks through the malevolent fury and vacillates between disgust and awe.

To accomplish his pursuits, for instance, Walter White has gotten in bed with white supremacist neo-Nazis. Because the show is so firmly situated within its protagonist’s point of view, this was treated as something of just another way to accomplish some nasty business in the first half of the season. But as Uncle Jack and his crew roll up to the site where Walter is in handcuffs, having just been read his Miranda rights by Hank, Bryan Cranston’s face flashes with the realization that Walter has allied himself with some of the most repulsive human beings on the planet.

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Without Mike’s world-weary, vaguely moral code and without Gus Fring’s rigid sense of order and without Jesse’s inherent sense of what’s right and wrong, Walter ended up working with amoral sociopaths, as happy to start pumping bullets at Hank and Steve as they are to carry out a hit on Jesse. They don’t really see Walter as someone who’s in power over them. They see him as a walking collection of money (money they’re standing on top of as the episode ends, though they don’t know it yet) or a tool who can get the meth cook back to Lydia’s exacting standards. Strip all the personality out of the business -- any business -- and it becomes just another machine that grinds humans down into dirt.

This seemed like it might have been a theme of the fifth season early on -- remember that Madrigal executive who killed himself when the police came calling? -- but the season shuffled it to the back of the deck while dealing with other business in the first half. As the back half of the season has continued, however, the show has sidled its way back toward these thoughts. I still see Lydia and Todd less as characters and more as means to an end, which is disappointing on a series that has come up with so many vivid figures in even the smallest of roles. But the more the show loops them back into the ongoing story, the more its larger point is made: When there’s profit to be made, those who most benefit from that profit often won’t care just how it comes to be. Meth cooked by neo-Nazis? Why not, if the money keeps rolling in?

When I first watched “To’hajiilee,” I wasn’t sure how I felt about it, but the more I think about it and turn it over in my head, the more it seems to me the standout of the episodes to have aired in 2013 so far. My main complaint the first time around was that there’s a sense of inevitability to the episode that isn’t really in keeping with the show’s ethos, which generally manages to come up with a story turn the audience would never have seen coming. Here, when Hank is on the phone with Marie, telling her he’s arrested Walt with palpable relief, it’s all too obvious that something terrible and covered in swastika tattoos is coming to interrupt that plan. (The episode ends with Hank’s and Steve’s guns blazing, but I have trouble imagining them surviving this encounter.)

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