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'Breaking Bad' recap: A walk in the woods

September 23, 2013|By Todd VanDerWerff
  • Walter (Bryan Cranston) is taken to begin his new life in New Hampshire.
Walter (Bryan Cranston) is taken to begin his new life in New Hampshire. (AMC )

“Breaking Bad” is the story of Walter White. That seems obvious, of course. Bryan Cranston is at the center of nearly every episode, and he’s the guy who’s won three Emmys for his work as its lead character. But where many TV shows that run five seasons expand and expand, incorporating a larger understanding of their own worlds, “Breaking Bad” has honed itself to a fine point. As other stories and characters fall by the wayside, as all of his excuses and rationales prove hollow and false, there’s still Walter White, sitting alone in a cabin in the New Hampshire woods, with two copies of “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” for entertainment and only his own thoughts to keep him company. And those thoughts must make for rotten houseguests.

There’s no way around this: “Granite State” is a weird, weird episode, filled with odd structural choices and some leaps in character motivation that typify some of the problems the final season has had in making all of its character arcs count. It’s also an episode that finally tips Jesse Pinkman’s storyline over into something like misery porn, simply forcing him to stare at one terrible thing after another, while making that open, weeping face that Aaron Paul does so well.

Yet at the same time “Granite State” is starkly brilliant. It cast a pall over the rest of my evening, but in a way that was wholly intentional, I think. It's dark, uncompromising television, and if that occasionally results in story moments that feel placed there to punish the characters and audience, it also results in the brilliance of Walter slouching alone into a small-town bar and trying to win his son back to him over a long-distance telephone call.

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I said a couple of weeks ago that Hank's slapping the handcuffs on Walter’s wrists, only to be interrupted by Uncle Jack and friends, was the end of “Breaking Bad’s” plot. Basically everything that needed to happen to close out the plot had happened in that moment. But the story kept going. It had to. Walter kept making it go, kicking at it and screaming at it and refusing to let well enough alone. The last three episodes exist in the shadow of that certainty. “Breaking Bad” is as intent as any show since “The Sopranos” on making its audience realize the monstrous man they’ve been watching all along. Even when Walter seems like he’s going to turn the corner and do something good for a change, it gets warped and twisted by the evils contained within him. “Granite State” strips away every last bit of cover Walter had for his evil, then proudly stomps it into the dirt. It’s hard to watch. It’s also necessary.

As “Granite State” begins, Walter continues to argue that everything he’s doing is for his family, but the longer the episode lasts, the more that lie is exposed. His family wants nothing to do with him. He’s ruined all of their lives. Marie is a widow. Skyler is in severe legal trouble and trying to make ends meet with a job at a taxi company, to say nothing of the way Todd and his crew are able to slip into her house under cover of night and threaten both her and her children. And most gut-wrenching of all, when Walter calls his son at school to say he’s sending a $100,000 care package, Walter Jr., wants nothing to do with him, blaming him for killing Hank and wanting him out of their lives.

Walter prepares to turn himself in to the authorities, then sees Gretchen and Elliot -- who cut him out of a fortune at Gray Matter and formed an important part of the series’ backstory -- on the “Charlie Rose Show,” and as they talk about how Walter gave very little to the company other than its name, the familiar look crosses his face. But this time, there’s no Heisenberg to hide behind, no hat to shove down atop his head. It’s New Hampshire, and it’s cold. But there’s still the bottomless reservoirs of rage and self-pity Walt draws upon. There’s still his pride. And so he leaves his drink on the bar, heading back to Albuquerque for whatever fate awaits him.

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