The show's last episode of the half-season raises the question: Is the end near for Walter White?
If not for its last-minute cliffhanger ending, "Gliding Over All"—Breaking Bad's midseason finale, which aired last night—could have served as a fitting end for the entire series. With one partner dead, and another retired, Walter stands alone as the sad little king of a sad little meth empire. But having established Walter's dominance, "Gliding Over All" takes an unexpected turn by skipping over three months—and countless millions of dollars—of Walter's illicit business. One of Breaking Bad's all-time most inspired tricks was showing how rapidly Walter's job at Gus Fring's meth lab became another boring nine-to-five, and as "Gliding Over All" shows, being the newly crowned meth king of Albuquerque (and the Czech Republic) isn't any more satisfying.
Which isn't to say that the finale was dull. (TV episodes featuring ten consecutive prisoner murders rarely are.) Breaking Bad has never been shy about telegraphing its inspirations, and there's a lot of The Godfather in "Gliding Over All," with Walter serving as our stand-in for Al Pacino's Michael Corleone. When Walter closes the garage door in Jesse's face, cutting Jesse out of his professional and personal life simultaneously, it feels like a modern variation on the scene in which Michael Corleone shuts Kay out of his office at the end of The Godfather. And when Walter successfully orchestrates the murder of ten men, it's as shocking and as potent as the famous "baptism montage" in which Michael Corleone eliminates all of his enemies in a single coordinated operation (though Breaking Bad's "Crystal Blue Persuasion" is a far peppier soundtrack choice).
But where The Godfather earns its dramatic power by juxtaposing the sanctity of a Catholic baptism with a grotesque string of murders, Breaking Bad shows Walter sitting alone, estimating the murders' timing with characteristic precision. Walter has reached a point at which he doesn't even bother to put on a face for the rest of the world. When he's not working, he's sitting alone, waiting for one of the several possible deaths that the universe seems to have prepared for him.
The ticking clock has been one of this season's most recurring and powerful symbols. "You are a time bomb," Mike told Walt earlier this season, and the watch that Jesse bought Walt for his birthday has become a potent reminder that Walter continues to race against time. It's a race that even the best and brightest are eventually doomed to lose—and some, I imagine, quite a bit sooner than others. "Gliding Over All" doesn't come out and say that Walter's cancer is back, but I don't see another way to read it; his abrupt decision to quit manufacturing meth, and to give so much money to Jesse, feels like the actions of someone who's trying to get his final affairs in order. Even the direction of the episode—by Michelle MacLaren, who's fantastic as always—points to the cancer's return: the repeat shots of the MRI and the dented bathroom towel dispenser, which followed Walter's last terminal diagnosis, seem to indicate that the cancer is just another part of Walt's purgatorial routine. Breaking Bad made a daring choice by opening the season with a flash-forward featuring a nearly unrecognizable Walter purchasing a massive gun, and though "Gliding Over All" doesn't take us to that moment, the many ticking clocks serve as a constant reminder that Walter's fate is already sealed.
If "Gliding Over All" has a primary strength, it's the episode's lush, symbol-laden visual palette, which shows how much Walter's blue meth has come to dominate every other aspect of his life. Blue is everywhere in the epsiode: a blue pool that Walter stares hypnotically into, the blue clothing that he and Skyler wear to the blue storage locker, a blue Walt Whitman volume that Hank discovers at the episode's end. At one point, Walt even uses the phrase "out of the blue," which is exactly what he promises Skyler he'll be when he says "I'm out"—a promise we already know he can't keep.
Now that Walter is out, how will they pull him back in? It all comes down to one of Breaking Bad's favorite subjects: change. "Pretty cool how they do that. Turn a car into a cube," says Todd about the body disposal process that's now just another part of Walter's business routine. The comment recalls a speech that Walter gave his high school students in the series' pilot: "Chemistry is the study of matter. But I prefer to see it as the study of change. It is growth, then decay, then transformation."
But as Breaking Bad has repeatedly confirmed, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Molecules may become a compound, cars may become cubes, and people can become—as Hank so aptly puts it—"monsters." But growth, decay, and transformation can't change the fundamental nature of anything. A crushed car may be unrecognizable, but it's still a car—just a car in a different form. And Walter White may now think of himself as Heisenberg, but he's still Walter White.
"Gliding Over All" takes its title from the Walt Whitman poem of the same name, which ends with an ominous line: "Deaths, many deaths I'll sing." There are many deaths that Walter White could sing of already, and many more, I suspect, when Breaking Bad returns next year, with Hank now presumably hot on Walter's trail. "Pick yourself up and start all over again," sings Frank Sinatra over the episode's prison-murder montage. But no matter how much he may wish or try, that's never been an option for Walter White.