As the first part of the final season comes to a close, one truth is increasingly clear: Walter was never good to begin with.
If the first four seasons of Breaking Bad were about how bad Walter could get, the AMC drama's fifth season—which comes to its midseason finale on Sunday night—has been about who he can take down with him. In last week's "Say My Name," Walter warns Jesse that "being the best at something is a very rare thing." But at this point in the series, the list of things Walter's "the best at" is pretty long: betraying his partners, lying to his friends, and—of course—making the country's finest crystal meth. Walter doesn't care what he's the best at; he just wants to be the best. And if anyone ever questions his credentials, he has the stacks of dirty money and the 99.1-percent pure product to prove it.
It's fitting that Breaking Bad, a show built on chemistry, is so precise about its numbers. It's a quality that makes the show unique within the AMC lineup. By contrast, Mad Men is deliberately vague about exactly how much money Don Draper has squirreled away, and The Walking Dead seems to take a certain perverse pleasure in withholding key data about the zombie outbreak.
Breaking Bad always tells us exactly how much each of its characters stand to gain (and, inevitably, lose). The gang's first meth batch this season earned Walter, Jesse, and Mike $367,000 each—until the cuts earned by Saul, the underlings, and Mike's "legacy costs" eroded the number to $137,000. When cooked, the methylamine stolen from the train in this season's "Dead Freight" episode would be worth $300 million—but Mike and Jesse opt to cash out by selling their shares for $5 million each, and urge Walt to do the same. And when Walter complains about the tens of millions that Mike and Jesse stand to lose in the following episode, "Buyout," Jesse turns Walter's numbers back on him: "I know for a fact all you needed was $737,000, because you worked it out, like, mathematically."
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Breaking Bad has been known to hide messages in its episode titles. When put together, the titles of the first, fourth, tenth, and 13th episodes of Breaking Bad's second season spell out "737 down over ABQ," which turned out to be the resolution of the season's central mystery. But if those episode titles served as the literal Rosetta stone for that season, the episode titles of Breaking Bad's fifth season serve a more symbolic purpose. "Live Free or Die," "Hazard Pay," and "Buyout" are oblique references to the primary motivator in Walter's life: money.