Zachary Thomas Settle:
The Beginning of the End: Season 5, Episode 9
The beginning of episode 9 of the fifth season of Breaking Bad reminded us why this show is so incredibly unique. The opening shot of skateboarders in the White’s abandoned pool and Walt’s terrifying greeting to his neighbor once again signify that Walt’s downfall is inevitable. In typical Vince Gilligan fashion, we were told from the beginning that Breaking Bad is a show about change and consequence; we learn this as viewers from the first episode in which we are candidly placed in Walt’s high-school chemistry lecture. Chemistry, Walt explains, is the science of life, the science of change. Introducing multiple factors necessarily affects the final outcome.
Unlike most other major shows on network television right now, Breaking Bad primarily documents the downfall and decay of its central character. The end of the first half of season five left us fairly certain of Walt’s eventual demise. With eight episodes left, though, we were left with an incomplete puzzle; that is, we suspected the final image or outcome, but we didn’t exactly know the path towards the shows culmination. The first episode of the second half of season five, though, only serves to solidify Walt’s downfall.
Even on the day of his 51st birthday, the day that we see a glimpse of at the beginning of the episode in which Walt has a full head of hair (intentionally alluding to recovery from cancer and radiation treatment) and seems to be living in the wake of some sort of fallout, Walt is still conspiring and conniving. We are left to suspect that Walt’s primary interest in visiting his old home is to get the previously hidden ricin from the outlet. We don’t have any idea what this ricin will be used for, but it is no longer difficult for us to imagine.
The most brilliant part of this episode has to be Walt’s discovery of the tracker on his car. This discovery signals a shift from suspicion to verified knowledge; Walt is now made aware that Hank has identified him as Heisenberg. Much to our surprise, Walt actually visits Hank, and the two of them have it out in Hank’s garage. Hank punches Walt, and Walt’s first line of defense is to tell Hank that his cancer is back. Heisenberg, he confesses to Hank, will be dead within six months. There is no reason, then, to press charges, as Walt will never even see the inside of a jail cell. Hank obviously doesn’t buy the strange product that Walt is selling, so Walt channels his most authentic self. Upon Hank telling Walt that he doesn’t even know who Walt is anymore, Walt instructs Hank to, “Tread lightly.” For the first time, Walt and Hank, after a few forced fabrications, actually tell each other the truth. This truthful communication, interestingly enough, is nothing less than the beginning Walt’s demise.
Walt is still doing his best to assure everyone that they are safe because he is no longer cooking meth. He instructs Jesse to stop focusing on the past. Nothing can change what they have done, and they’re out now, Walt says. He discusses expanding the family car-wash business with Skyler, and she seems authentically interested in and pleased with Walt for the first time in two seasons. One of the most interesting things about the viewer’s relationship with Walt is that we no longer believe him, as we did in the first three seasons, even though Skyler still seems to. He has crossed a critical limit, some sort of threshold through which we as viewers are unwilling to follow. At this point, we have checking off on Walt’s crude processes of rational justification, and we seem to identify ourselves much more with Jesse’s disillusionment.
Everything is out in the open now, and we are only progressing further down the road towards Walt’s inevitable demise. The fascinating thing, though, is that Vince Gilligan didn’t drag his feet in getting to the point; it didn’t take long for Hank and Walt to get around to the issue at hand. That seems, to me at least, to be the primary thrust of the series: actions necessarily have consequences, and no one seems to be safe. Walt has to pay for his sins. The main unanswered questions at this point are who will go down with Walt and to what extent they will suffer alongside him. Walt has constructed a massively complex web of deception and corruption, and his family is necessarily involved in his actions. Whether or not Skyler and Jesse are convicted with Walt in some sort of legal battle, they will inevitably suffer from the consequences of Walt’s actions and their compliance in them. They already are.
Zach J. Hoag:
The Past is the Past (and Other Lies): Season 5, Episode 9
Heisenberg is back.
The midway return (not “premiere”) episode of Season 5 makes this abundantly clear from the opening sequence. Skateboarders session concrete, which becomes a pool as the shot pans out, and then, of course, the Whites’ pool as it pans out even further. The house is different, vacant, boarded up, almost looking condemned. When Walter White drives up and gets out of his car, we remember the premiere episode of this season which aired over a year ago: because now, as then, Walter has hair and a beard and an automatic weapon in the trunk.
We are still speculating about what all this means, as it is obviously a glimpse of the future. But one thing is clear: this is Heisenberg we are watching onscreen. And if we were unsure, it’s tagged right there in spraypaint on his bedroom wall as he crouches to retrieve the infamous ricin (what will he use it for next?) from behind the outlet.
This episode was a truly satisfying return, with at least two edge-of-our-seats scenes, both occurring “in the present” before there is beard growth and ricin retrieval. Many have pontificated about the downward spiral of Walter’s increasingly abhorrent choices and how, in some way, these speak to the propensity of the human condition toward a snowballing sort of depravity if the circumstances are applying just enough pressure, or if the temptations are just that alluring. Thus, we think, Wow – I could totally see myself making the same unethical choice as Walter in a similar situation! Scary! or something along those lines. And while I believe this may be a decent interpretation of Walter’s trajectory over the course of these four and a half seasons, it is a superficial one. And tonight’s two big scenes get at the reason why.
In the first, we find Walter rushing to Jesse’s apartment to stop him from sending his share of the meth business – five million dollars – to the unsuspecting families of Mike Ehrmantraut and Drew Sharp. These recipients may be able to trace the money back to the source or give the authorities some way of doing the same, and that is unacceptable to Walt. As we have seen him do so many times, he begins to weave in and out of soft and strong words to his former protégé, using empathy and scolding interchangeably to play on Jesse’s obvious unbearable guilt and vulnerable emotional state.
Assuring Jesse that Mike is alive and well and can take care of his own family, Walt urges: “I need you to believe me.” And then, to assuage Jesse’s guilt, “The past is the past. Nothing can change what we’ve done.”
Both of these are lies.
As is Walter’s bald-faced attempt to deny the direct accusation of his brother-in-law Hank Schrader in the second big (and final) scene. The first half of season 5 ended with that breathtaking discovery of the hardcover Leaves of Grass in the Whites’ bathroom, with the telling dedication from Gale (“To my other favorite W.W.”). Who could forget Hank’s face before the cut to black? Picking up at that moment, this episode gives us a Hank who is first suffering a panic attack, followed by a manic home-based reopening of the Gus Fring case files, and then a frightened and furious showdown with Walter right there in his own garage.
Of course, Walt first denies everything outright, despite the evidence. Then, when Hank only grows more fierce, Walt leverages his resurgent cancer, telling Hank that he’ll be dead in six months anyway. Hank rebuffs both of these attempts, with a visceral kind of righteous indignation.
Then he says, “I don’t even know you, Walt. I don’t know who I’m talking to.”
Walter replies, “If that’s true, if you don’t know who I am, maybe your best course would be to tread lightly.”
What I am interested to explore as this second half of season 5 continues is not how Walter has sadly slipped into the Heisenberg state as an example of the way we all may fall into sin as morally corruptible human beings, but rather how the root of everything we see in Walter’s life now is the Lie – capital “L” – that he became long ago. We know this at least stretches back to when he left Gray Matter Technologies just before his partners became rich, and the obsessive disappointment that came to dominate his perspective after that. We also know that it manifests now as the inability to discern who the “real” Walt is – his lies are so convincing on both sides because they are only symptoms of the deeper Lie. This is no superficial series of unfortunate choices, choices that can then be left in the past and moved on from. No, this is the outworking of a deep and hideous flaw.
Thus, my belief is that Walter is not a good man gone bad, as the title of the show implies, but that, ironically, his badness goes down deep and far back. There is a borderline sociopathic core. It oppresses Jesse, who at least laments his own badness. It repulses Hank, who is driven toward goodness. But it is the Lie that defines Walter’s existence.
Yes, Heisenberg is back.
And the truth is, he’s been there all along.
About the Authors
Zach J. Hoag
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.