September 1, 2011 / Mediation
According to reasonably reputable sources, this year’s MTV VMAs (the annual Video Music Awards, broadcast …
Zachary Thomas Settle:
Redemption’s Brief Encounter with Justice: Season 5, Episode 13
Last night’s episode of Breaking Bad caught me off guard. What’s impressive to me about last night’s episode is the way that all of the details and mechanics of the narrative came together so brilliantly. Each piece was meticulously placed in a moving form, and every aspect was seamlessly drawn together.
Hank’s method of luring Walt to his money was intriguing: the only way to trap the beast is to go after his animalistic urges. But what’s more interesting than Walt racing across town to save the money he worked so hard for is what it took for Hank to pull it off. The only way to combat Walt’s deception at this point seems to be more deception. Hank had to lie to Huell in order to lie to Walt for the sake of catching him and hoping to initiate some sort of judicial process. Walt’s mode of being in the world is infectious at this point, and it necessarily effects everyone that he comes into contact with, spreading like a bad disease that needs to be quarantined.
But the pace of last night’s episode also tended to mirror the wheels of Walter’s demise, turning ever so slowly, but turning nonetheless. I have been intrigued, for some time now, by Andrew Norman’s post from last week. I think Andrew is right to read our participation in Breaking Bad as somewhat startling. Are we really not open to the idea of Walt’s redemption? At what point, we are forced to ask ourselves, is someone too far removed from grace? But last night’s episode reminded me that redemption and justice are not mutually exclusive.
I was admittedly surprised when Walt called down the strike on Jesse because of Hank’s presence at the scene. In a strange sort of Cormac McCarthy-esque tone, Walt has a code of ethics, and he is faithful to it, strange as it may be. And I do think this was a redemptive moment in Walt. Walt called the whole thing off and turned himself end, thereby ending his entire project for the sake of avoiding killing his family. So he thought.
As much of a redemptive moment as it was, his arrest was jarringly relieving for me. I felt like justice had finally been served; at least it was in the process of being served. And I think we saw this in the rest of the show’s characters as well. Jesse was elated when Walt was handcuffed. Even though Jesse seems to be operating out of a vindictive nature, I think this concern is primarily a means of coping with a deep longing for justice. I can’t get the image of Jesse yelling at Hank out of my head: “He can’t keep getting away with it.” And think about the deep relief that Marie felt when she received the news from Hank. When asked by Hank if she was ok, Marie simply responded, “I am much better now.” How intriguing that Walt’s moment of redemption was also the inauguration of justice. These two distinct phenomena, we hope, must remain in close proximity to one another.
But Walt’s beast was already set free. And his particular, emotionally reasoned response, redemptive as it was, was not enough to cage the systematically functioning creature he set in motion. The beast is walking itself at this point, and it seems like last night’s episode confirmed that his creation will eventually find him out. It was, interestingly enough, Walt’s redemption that prohibited him from intervening to stop the monster he created. Walt’s hands were literally tied inside Hank’s car, and he was forced to simply watch the scene unfold from a distance. True redemption leads to justice, but justice cannot merely be served on an individualistic level. Walt’s distance from the mess he created, his very struggle to intervene, merely points to the reality of powers, structures and authorities functioning autonomously of him at this point. Arresting Walt and inaugurating the judicial process does not address the issue in its entirety.
And the shootout raises so many questions pertinent to this conversation. Will the powers win out? If Todd and his uncle kill Jesse, Hank and Gomez, will Walt really end up getting away with everything? And what would the escape of a man in the midst of a redemptive process caught up in the middle of an unredeemed system even mean?
Dead to Rights: Season 5, Episode 13
As last night’s episode ended abruptly amidst a firefight between the family Todd and the DEA (i.e., Gomez and Schrader), my mind immediately went back to the future.
To bearded Walt.
You know, Walt at the diner in episode one of this season. Walt with the automatic weapons in the trunk. Walt at the start of this second half of season five – episode nine – entering the abandoned White residence, retrieving the ricin.
These glimpses of the future help to inform our perspective on the present, especially as the great Revelation, the Apocalypse of Walt, has now begun to unfold. In a way, we at least know a little bit about how the story ends. Namely, it does not end in handcuffs in the back of Hank’s SUV because, well, Walt is still bald and goateed.
And it does not end the way Hank, in last night’s intense episode (is any episode not intense?), thought it would, with a phone call to Marie and a vindicated declaration: “Honey, I got him. Dead to rights.”
My conversation partner, Zac, is correct in pointing out the possibility that Walt may have experienced a moment of redemption in this episode when he called off the strike in the desert, but that the mechanisms of his madness are already too far gone, gears grinding away, to stop on a dime. But I would add to Zac’s perspective a futuristic reminder: the Walt we see may not be the actual Walt, even when he seems to be acting authentically. Because the Revelation is not over. It is the bearded Walt who will show us the truth. Yes, Walt is indeed a “lying, evil scumbag” as Jesse so viscerally summarizes in his epic phone call, but the real tragedy and what, I believe, will prevent this from being a story of redemption for Walter White is the degree to which he continues to be a lying evil scumbag to himself.
The star of last night’s episode, however, was not really Walter at all. If, as I surmise, the grand narrative of Breaking Bad will really end up being about Jesse Pinkman, episode thirteen was undoubtedly all about…Todd Alquist. Todd is, of course, played by Jesse Plemons, known most for his role as Landry on another beloved TV series, Friday Night Lights. And he plays Todd with the same kind of innocence and earnest as Landry except that Todd just so happens to be dedicated to the family business of killing, hustling, and all around thuggery. And he’s dedicated to his future as the heir apparent to the legendary Heisenberg.
The episode opens with Todd in a new meth lab completing a cook as his uncles and Lydia, from the Madrigal megacorporation, look on. The purity of the cook is up from the previous operation, you know, now that the previous operation has been sufficiently cleansed. It’s getting better. But Todd’s work is still not good enough for Lydia’s discerning customers in Europe. And, it’s not blue. And that’s not acceptable because, “Blue is our brand.”
The significance of Todd in this final Revelation is precisely that he is the yang to Jesse Pinkman’s yin. He, like Jesse, is in awe of Walter, relating to him as something of a father figure or at least hero. And, like Jesse, he is committed to perfecting the art of the cook as Heisenberg’s devoted apprentice. But, where the two part ways is precisely in how they reflect the essence of Walter White. Jesse could admire and imitate Walt only so far before his maturing psyche began to reveal a deep-rooted conscience that vomited up all of the manipulation, deception, and deathdealing, essentially ripping his soul in two and forcing him to side with the good (or die trying). Last night, Jesse demonstrated his departure from the Way of Heisenberg in stark relief, venting months of pain and anger back onto his abuser during that epic phone call, setting the trap for his abuser’s capture. But Todd remains the devoted servant, his own mild manner housing the same sinister interior as his master.
And even in Walt’s moment of redemption, calling off the strike on Jesse because his Brother-in-law Hank arrived at the scene, Todd knew better.
Todd is the mirror image of Walter White, without the self-deception and hypocrisy.
And he represents a terrifying vision in this great Revelation.
Am I too hard on Walt? Is there something redeemable here, even if it is not realized in the final three episodes of Vince Gilligan’s magnum opus? Perhaps, but it’s not likely.
Indeed, as Walter raced to the scene of the “seven barrels worth” of money buried in the desert, alternatively growling and begging on the phone with Jesse, we got a glimpse of just how far gone this character truly is. So much so that not even Jesse can get him right, still thinking he’s just a “greedy asshole.”
It’s so much worse than that.
Season 5, Episode 13: To’hajiilee
There isn’t much left to talk about after the latest episode of Breaking Bad. At this point in the series the pieces have been set into motion and there’s not much left to do except watch as the narrative unravels. Undoubtedly the finale will give ample opportunity for discussion and speculation, but the events leading up to it have slowed almost to a crawl. There hasn’t been a flash forward in several episodes and the current timeline is moving at the pace of a few narrative hours an episode. It would seem that Breaking Bad may be asking its viewers for the patience to watch a series of events come to an end not with a bang, but a whimper. Nonetheless there are still several things that stood out to me about the this episode and raised some questions.
It’s striking to me that Walt is so committed to ensuring that Jesse and Hank live, even after he gives the order to remove Jesse. As obsessed as Walt has become with keeping his money and protecting his family, he is still strangely invested in preserving the things that keep him connected to his identity as Heisenberg. Essentially, Walt wants to have his cake and eat it too. He wants to get away with the money but seems more reluctant than ever to risk or cause collateral damage. It occurred to me that Walt is acting more like the Walt of the first and second seasons than the third and fourth. Frantic in his actions, erratic in his calculations, acting out of desperation and existential panic, with the threat of lethal cancer once more looming over his family. In some ways, Walt has come full circle back to his initial circumstance, but now with the burden of incalculable deception and destruction in his wake.
The feeling of Breaking Bad being vindicated by Walt’s death or incarceration has diminished for me over the last several episodes. The question posed by this latest chapter, and likewise the question of the entire show, is the nature of justice. Hank’s actions are motivated by vengeance, fury, and fear, but are they necessarily more justified because he carries a badge and works for the government? Is Jesse more justified because he is motivated by a need to redeem himself, seeking revenge for Brock’s near murder and force Walt to pay for his litany of crimes? Would Walt’s demise, whether through death, the loss of his family, or the shame of being publicly identified as Heisenberg, truly be just? The question immediately on the heels of these is the question of viewership. Is the viewer motivated by revenge or justice? Or is that an appropriate distinction at all? What Breaking Bad is asking us is to wrestle with the delicate interrelation between justice and grace. What we desire for the final outcome of the show and its characters may reveal a much darker heart, within culture and within ourselves, than we may not be comfortable admitting.
Season 5, Episode 13: To’hajiilee
There has been discussion about whether Heisenberg overtook Walter at some point, or whether Walter has really been Heisenberg all along–whether Walt broke bad or already was bad. And after the rising body count and the hundreds of condescending lies and rationalizations multiplying since the second season, one would think the case against Walter is sealed. But for some reason, in both this and the last episode, I find myself still capable of sympathy for the devil.
Last week Skyler told Walt that the time had passed for him to simply “talk to” Jesse, but there Walt sat on that bench, ready to do just that. Would Walt’s talk with him be manipulative? Surely. But in Jesse’s misunderstanding that Walt meant to kill him, my heart broke a little. This is all I cling to now–these snatches of humanity, or at least a lack of monstrosity, in Walter. This week we saw Walt visit the house of Andrea and Brock in a ploy to get Jesse to come out of hiding, and it was the first time we had seen the kind version of Walt in a long time–speaking pleasantly, expressing concern. It’s the side of Walt that comes out when he holds Holly or talks to Walter Jr. And it works on me.
Maybe the fact that Walt still has access to this side of himself is just more proof of his diabolical nature, the ability to seduce and manipulate with honey as well as vinegar. But I do believe we’re meant to see something in him yet that has not passed into the monstrous. Four times in these last episodes, we have seen Walt confronted with the idea of murdering either Hank or Jesse and seen Walt push away the idea in disgust. These men are family to him, and on some level that matters. This seems to be the only boundary he has left, but it is still a boundary and still incredibly meaningful to him. And when he sees Hank show up at To’hajiilee with Jesse, the force of seeing these two figures together makes Walt surrender. He cannot withstand the sight of the two men he swore he’d never kill banded together against him–even as he’s already set plans in motion to take out Jesse, “Old Yeller.” The show has seen Walter continue to cross lines he thought he’d never cross, but it seems that this one was the last impossible line. He calls off the hit on Jesse and puts his hands up.
But this is episode five of eight, which means that Hank can’t have won. When he placed that call to Marie with three minutes left to go, I felt almost unbearable dread. And then up drove Todd, his uncle and his goons, and we watched Walt screaming to stop the coming bloodbath. In the minutes since his arrest, Walter has swiftly had to come to terms with his defeat. We finally see him willing to go down rather than to see Hank and Jesse dead. But Walt’s willingness to do business with people like Todd has come full circle. The entrance of Todd in the fifth season, with his cold-blooded murder of the child who witnessed the train robbery, has seen the beginning of a new kind of evil–bald-faced evil with a lack of shame or rationalization, the kind with which Walter is uncomfortable. Walter poisoned Brock, but we hear him yelling at Jesse in this episode about how he knew exactly how much to give him so as not to kill him. Todd just shot the boy on the bike. Which is worse? Is the kind of wrongdoing we see from Todd and co. just the same as Walter’s without the hypocrisy? Or is Walter’s discomfort a sign of the humanity that still lingers inside him?
What is a monster? The word is strong enough that I’m still not convinced we can apply it to Walter White. Maybe I’m crazy.
Lauren Wilford is an intern for Image journal and a film and music blogger. She studies aesthetics and narrative as an undergraduate at Seattle Pacific University. You can find her at www.wilfordlauren.tumblr.com.
Robert Andrew Norman
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.