Every week for the second half of the final season of Breaking Bad, our roundtable of TheAtlantic.com's J.J. Gould, Chris Heller, and Spencer Kornhaber will discuss the latest happenings on AMC's show.
Gould: When Walter White first called himself "Heisenberg," it was a practical thing: He was a high-school chemistry teacher and mundanely respected member of the community who was looking for a meth distributor and needed an alias that didn't trace back to him or his family. As it would turn out, though, "Heisenberg" didn't just hide an identity. It named one: an emerging alternate personality, someone who would cause fear rather than live with it, a man "in the empire business." Walt mightn't have known it at the time. He might have seen his taking the name of a great scientist who died of cancer as an improvisational note of irony. But was there more to it than that? Was there more to Walt than the defeated, dying man he'd become at the age of 50? You're goddamn right.
As Breaking Bad has progressed through five seasons and into this final half-season chapter, the show's evolving dark-heart character study of Walt has been more and more about the relationship between these two personas, "Walt" and "Heisenberg"--with the latter appearing increasingly more authentic, or at any rate less inauthentic, than the former. Both are liars, both are manipulative, both are evasive about who they really are. But Heisenberg doesn't seem like the mask Walt opportunistically puts on anymore, so much as Walt seems like the mask Heisenberg has been wearing, possibly for years.
Consider these three scenes from this week's episode, "Confessions":
- After Jesse is brought in for questioning by the Albuquerque Police Department, following a manic, guilt-and-despair-induced session of chucking fat stacks of cash out the window of his early-'80s Toyota Tercel--and Hank steps in but fails to get Jesse to turn on Walt--Walt arranges a meeting with Jesse in the desert. There, Walt awkwardly expresses sympathy for Jesse's moral and psychological crisis. He says Jesse needs a change. Maybe he needs to start over somewhere, leave Albuquerque behind and disappear altogether. With his world collapsed and nothing left for him emotionally but disappointment and heartbreak, Jesse is cynically clear-minded. He knows Walt is really thinking of his own interests, not Jesse's, and calls Walt out for trying incessantly to play him. Walt embraces Jesse; and Jesse, in the moment, gives himself over to it, letting himself feel paternal acceptance and love from Walt, even if deep down Jesse doesn't really believe in it. This is all of course reversed in the plot twist at the end of the episode. But it shows Walt, as long as he still has to leaven Heisenberg with "Walt," as at best a shaky-but-ruthless manipulator.
- Walt's return to the A-1 Carwash is almost (almost) a comedy scene: He screeches into the parking lot, sprints to the door, and then stops himself, slowly sauntering in for a faux-casual conversation with Skyler. Oh, hey, I've been meaning to get to this, that latch on the soda machine isn't latching. He retrieves the .38 Special he's hidden in the machine. And, oh, hey, gosh, yeah, I just remembered, they gave me a prescription to pick up; I gotta go. Skyler, zoned out as she is, doesn't blink. She just says, yeah, sure. Now, when Walt tries to function in full Walt-persona mode, as he does when trying to keep the peace with Skyler, he's just a transparently ridiculous liar.
- And then, the video tape: After Hank tries and fails twice to persuade people close to Walt to turn on him by telling them that he believes they are Walt's victims, not having really chosen what they've done, Walt portrays himself as a victim of Hank, whom Walt is able too-plausibly to suggest has been behind his meth operations from the start. He stares into the camera; he tells his story; he's clear, convincing, remorseful, self-blaming at exactly the right moments, choking up with artificial guilt at being a coward and fearfully enabling Hank's evil. "Fring was able to arrange, uh, I guess, I guess you call it a 'hit' on Hank ...." Walt in full Heisenberg mode?--is a frighteningly brilliant actor.
It's striking that in the last of these three scenes, Walt is not only at his most convincing as a liar; he's at his most convincing at the very moment when he's flaunting his deception to his target audience. He's lying to the camera while revealing himself, finally, to Hank, showing that he was never the Walter White Hank thought he was. He was never the weakling Hank bro-ishly condescended to for so many years. Walt-Heisenberg is saying implicitly to Hank what he once said explicitly to Gretchen: "Fuck. You."
Remember what Walt looked like back then, in those flashback sciences with Gretchen? Or even in those flashback scenes when he and Skyler were first moving into the Albuquerque home that Jesse douses with gasoline at the end of this episode? Walt had a different look and feel, a different composure, a different wardrobe, even. Remember that leather jacket? Remember that lack of cardigan sweaters?
Walt isn't just a shaky liar when he's "Walt," getting away with it mainly to the extent that no one's really paying attention; he's increasingly unconvincing as "Walt" at all. But when he's "Heisenberg," when he has to walk in and take his money from a psychopathic drug dealer, or when he has to defend his turf from another operation, or when he has ultimately to face down his cop brother-in-law, Walt—Heisenberg—is as talented an actor as Bryan Cranston and as authentic a character as any on the show.
Why is that?
Maybe it's because in that moment, Walter White is assuming an identity that is ultimately truer than "Walt." No, he's not becoming an alternative-universe version of the man Walt could have been, if it weren't for his self-destruction and compromises and failures. But a perverse, corrupt, last-ditch, this-universe version of that man? A version that takes all of Walt's lost potential, mixes it with all of his anger, frustration, and resentment, and catalyzes it with desperation, fear, and imminent death? No, Walt will never be what he might have been if he hadn't, e.g., walked away from Gray Matter Technologies. He will never be that Walter White. But he has brought fragments of an older version of himself into the midst of a newer one that all but killed it off over decades. And the result is a very real, increasingly pure monster.
Chris, I want to see what you're thinking about this episode's big plot turn with Jesse. But … am I right about Walt?
Heller: I'm intrigued by the idea that Walt always had the potential to be Heisenberg. It reminds us that Breaking Bad is a philosophical argument masquerading as tragedy. We're anticipating Heisenberg's demise -- and if you're like me, you want it to happen -- because the show presents the duality of good and evil as the fundamental aspect of the individual. Every character has a choice. That choice becomes them.