Zachary Thomas Settle:
The End is Nigh: Season 5, Episode 13
I think last night’s episode of Breaking Bad was genius, and it has rejuvenated my hope for the ending. I’ve been convinced of Gilligan’s abilities to gracefully end this hellish ride for some time now, but the immanence of the end started setting in last night. I had an extremely difficult time writing on this episode, though. To a certain extent, whatever sort of pith commentary I was able to generate felt a bit distasteful after Hank and Gomez’s deaths, after having to look the imprisoned Jesse in a single eye when he spotted a picture of the only people he has left in the world that care about him.
We’ve been understandably mesmerized by the figure of Walter White for weeks now. We’ve known, conceptually at least, that the end is nigh, and I think the show has created in us the need to clarify a few things conceptually about Walt’s person. I think part of this tendency in us as viewers is created by our participation in Walt’s demise. I’ve talked previously about the way we went so far down the rabbit hole with Walt that we are necessarily implicated in his crimes, as we were the one’s justifying his actions in the first three seasons. I’ve also tried to point out the way that everyone is necessarily implicated in Walt’s transgressions at this point. The monster he created has been set free, and even he can’t stop it. The systematic, self-perpetuating nature of Walt’s demise is what killed Hank and Gomez; its what chained up Jesse in that meth lab.
And as inevitable as Walt’s demise is, as much as his downfall is already costing his family, Walt is trying so terribly hard to free them. Hank’s death seems to have inaugurated a moment of clarity for Walt. He is very much self-aware of his situation and person at this point, and so he’s trying to sever ties. I don’t think there can be any doubt that Walt was freeing Skyler last night with that phone conversation. He knew the cops were there; he watched his son call them, and he knows two law enforcement officers are missing at large. I also think that Skyler was aware of what was going on in that moment. She asked for Holly back, and I think Walt answered by safely placing her in the fire truck, signaling her rescue and eventual return with the lights.
We’ve been put in the place as viewers where we have to draw a line somewhere, and refusing to draw a line is still an assertion of value. I’ve been pleading and hoping for Walt’s demise for some time now, and I am well aware that this tendency says a number of things about me, about my place in society. But as hard as Walt is trying to make thing right, he simply can’t. And I stand by my feelings in that I still hope Walt is found out. Skyler confessed to Walt Jr. and was set free; it seemed as if literal weight was lifted from her shoulders, which seems to be a fairly honest account of the practice of confession.
But Walt is still on the run, more than ever now as he rides out of town. And we know that a new start doesn’t free him. He’s carrying his sins with him in that van because he can’t let go. And while we are definitely being confronted with Walt’s humanity, with the necessary possibility for redemption in Walt, we are also watching a man faithfully march his burden towards his inevitable demise. Walt is doing his best to clean up the mess that he implicated everyone in. but he can’t. Hank and Gomez are dead and Jesse is now imprisoned as a meth cook. His son is forever scarred, and his daughter is horrified. But nonetheless, he’s trying. He freed Skyler, but he has not freed himself. He is carrying this thing to the end, so it seems, just like he’s carrying that barrel of money. Walt’s committed to seeing his project through, as we saw when he rolled that barrel through the desert, and I still think that the consequences of his actions will find him out. Some sort of justice has to be served.
Concealment and Confession: Season 5, Episode 13
After the lull that was last week’s episode of Breaking Bad, this week gained in momentum and affect, and perhaps for the first time all season, the series feels the weight and urgency of finality closing in. With only two episodes left, the events of the narrative are finally moving as quickly and dramatically as they feel like they should. In spite of its proximity to the finale, this latest episode makes several interesting gestures and raises some compelling questions particularly about the nature and role of confession. Breaking Bad has been frequently and appropriately compared to St. Augustine’s work Confessions and there is no more fitting instance than here in this episode.
First and probably the most dramatic is Hank’s death. The gravity of Hank’s murder falls much more heavily on Walt than the pain of merely losing a family member. The entire balance of Walt’s carefully ordered lie is shattered by a single irreversible event, one that Walt can’t lie his way out of or cleverly conceal. More than anything, Hank’s death comes as the crushing reality that Walt is incapable of controlling everything, accounting for every variable or planning for every contingency with his lies. He is at the mercy of far more powerful forces that though he helped create, he can no longer control. Much like the viewership, all Walt can do now is watch as his lies play themselves out. He can’t lie his way out of Hank’s murder or effectively cover it up. The truth is too great to conceal and forcibly pushes its way into Walt’s life, shattering the fragile edifice of the life upon which his “empire” has been built.
Next is Jesse. Walt seems to have recovered from his desire to try and save Jesse, perhaps even blaming him for Hank’s death. Regardless of the full reason, Walt not only condemns Jesse, he uses the truth of having passively watching and allowing Jane to die to wound Jesse one last time. Here again, the truth pushes its way through the lies, and though this confession is willful on Walt’s part, it comes as a result of the forces beyond him. Jesse is tortured and effectively enslaved, most likely to die, with Walt’s full knowledge and even blessing.
What is most remarkable about this particular episode is the juxtaposition between truth and lie and the role each plays in radically effecting the trajectory of Breaking Bad. Confession and concealment are the two most powerful forces in this episode, perhaps the entire series. The episode opens with a scene recalling Walt’s initial lie to Skyler, a point of reference highlighting all the subsequent corruption and degeneration to follow, and dramatically contrasting the end, wherein Walt confesses the truth to Skyler as starkly as he has at any point in the series. The initial lie is told to conceal the truth of Walt’s misdeeds, the final confession is made to bolster and uphold the lie that has become Walt’s entire world. Even more compelling is the fact that none of the characters are vindicated by the truth when it is finally uncovered. Walt Jr. is irrevocably crushed by Skyler’s confession about Walt and subsequently their family is shattered, not only by the truth of Walt’s hidden life but by his inability to lie any more. The episode culminates with the greatest confession of the series, and for the first time we hear Walt tell the truth in his own words with what is the most terrifying and raw glimpse into the will and psyche of Walter White thus far. His lies now irreversibly destroyed, Walt has no option but to flee. Now that light has been shed onto all of Walt’s falsehoods and crimes, it remains with these final two episodes to determine whether the truth has any power to absolve the characters and narrative and answer the question of what the actual power and value of confession.
Ozymandias: Season 5, Episode 13
This is the point at which one’s role as a critic and one’s role as a fan must collide. Because last night’s Rian Johnson-directed episode of Breaking Bad was masterful and worthy of discussion and praise, but all I wanted to do was curl up in a ball by the end. A silly thing I find myself doing sometimes is to shoot up prayers for fictional characters. I hadn’t recovered from the initial shock of Hank’s death before Uncle Jack had a gun to Jesse’s head. There is a shot right there where Jesse’s eyes dart to the heavens, and in that moment I prayed, no, no, please. Kyrie Eleison. Vince, have mercy.
Let’s go back the cold open. Jesse still a sarcastic punk in a beanie, Walter still a square chemistry guy looking for a teachable moment. For those of us who haven’t revisited season one since beginning, the sight of Walter with hair, his ubiquitous tighty whities still able to provoke laughs– it’s heartbreaking. We listen to him rehearse exactly how to phrase his lie to Skyler, back before Heisenberg knew how to rattle them off. The season one Walt and Jesse look here like a buddy comedy, Walter’s lie like a white one. It’s clear what we are meant to see: that despite how benign this all looks to us now, it was just the first steps on a path that has been carved out from the first choice.
Parts of this episode felt like twisting the knife, in a way that worked brilliantly for the narrative but was murder on the heart. Marie visiting Skyler’s office as a figure of justice and mercy was a perfect move: we got to see Skyler break down and surrender in the face of the best-case scenario of Walter’s arrest. It occurred to me in Marie’s lecture to Skyler that Skyler is caught in a moral position that is much more familiar to us than the true degeneracy of Walter. Here is a woman who has decided to harden her heart after she perceives that that path will be the easiest for her: “I have nothing to say to you.” Marie’s declaration that the game is up– and that there is hope for Skyler yet– is sheer grace to her. I know what it is like to feel trapped in a series of choices that might just keep going if not derailed from the outside by grace. As painful as this hour is for her, it is the only thing that can set her free. Which makes it all the more devastating when they find out Marie was so very wrong.
Images from this episode haunted me as I tried to sleep last night. Walter rolling his barrel through the desert alone. Skyler running through the street screaming. Walter Jr. with his arm stretched to protect his mother. Thugs rolling Hank’s body into the ditch where Walt’s money lay. And Walter’s fall to the ground in the desert, his face twisted into pure despair and remorse.
This episode seemed to solidify the image of Walter White that I have been trying to put together during this last season. I kept being confused by the flashes of humanity that we see in Walter, hints that maybe there is still something of the man we used to know in him. “Ozymandias” gave us a portrait of a man still holding onto a twisted delusion that he’s been doing something for the right reasons. He is utterly broken by Hank’s death because it demonstrated the true bankruptcy of his belief that his actions did anything to benefit his family. But he carries this delusion back to his house, still trying to salvage what he can– enough to bellow at Skyler, who brandishes a knife at him, “What is wrong with you? We’re a FAMILY!”
Walter’s phone call at the conclusion of the episode sums up the state of his heart. He hurls vitriol at Skyler– partially an act for the police listening in, but nonetheless with true passion. And after saying these unforgivable things, he breaks down crying, mourning for the failure and loss of everything he thought he was protecting. He’s the same man from the cold open of season one, episode one, blinking back tears as a dead man slides around the back of his RV, wondering how he got there. Now he knows how he got there, and yet there is still the sense of wonder that sin can bring on.
And you may tell yourself, this is not my barrel of eleven million dollars. You may tell yourself, this is not my wife threatening to kill me. You may ask yourself, how did I get here? You may say to yourself, my god, what have I done?
All I can say is that if Jesse doesn’t make it out of here, I don’t know what I’m going to do with myself.
About the Author
Zachary Thomas Settle
Zachary Thomas Settle currently lives in Nashville, Tennessee, where he is a PhD student working in political theology in the Graduate Department of Religion at Vanderbilt. He is also the editor, alongside Taylor Worley, of a forthcoming volume on theology, phenomenology, and film: Dreams, Doubt and Dread: The Spiritual in Film.