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.
Kornhaber: Breaking Bad has been called a tragedy of Greek or Shakespearean proportions, but it never quite felt that way to me. Yes, human suffering has long driven the action, and, yes, it has long been clear that Walter White may well end up dead. But the notion of Walter suffering has seemed abstract, far off—a fuzzy eventuality that, if anything, would be satisfying to watch. Given what Walt’s become, his ruin has seemed like it would be vindication and justice: grim and unpleasant, sure, but also comforting.
Tonight, though, that impression changed for me with the episode’s ending shot. “Todd, I think I might have another job for your uncle,” Walt says, his face squinted in anguish. As the credits cut in, I gasped and loosed an “oh no.” The plaza bells tolling seconds earlier, right after Walt and Jesse could have met up for a bloodless resolution to this entire mess, weren’t even necessary. In that phone call, Walt crossed a final line, consigning both himself and the viewer to a wrenching conclusion.
That’s because even as we’ve come to be horrified by Walter over four and a half seasons, we’ve also come to share his emotional attachments. Family’s off limits. Jesse’s off limits. Walter says these things, and intellectually, we know they’re silly—as Saul and Skyler and even Jesse himself put it, it just makes sense that Walter must kill Jesse. It made sense, too, that Walter would let Jesse be killed by Gustavo Fring in Seasons 3 and 4. It originally made sense for Vince Gilligan to write Jesse as dying at the end of Season 1. But in all cases (even Gilligan’s!), feelings intervened. Walt likes Jesse, as Hank deduces. So do we. And now we’re in the challenging situation of judging Walter as deluded and hypocritical when he stammers that Jesse is a person and not a dog—while also agreeing with Walter.
So this seemingly deadly falling-out between the two central characters hurts more than I expected it to. But for much of this episode, I found myself feeling somehow off balance—which at first I chalked up to flaws in the hour’s writing and direction, but now I think may have been the intended reaction. In ways large and small, the show tonight baited and switched its audience, thereby underlining how much misunderstandings and the illusion of free will drove the plot action.
The dumbest but most exemplary moment of what I’m talking about came in the Schrader residence, when Marie asks Hank whether Jesse’s presence is a bad thing for Walt. “Very,” Hank says, to which Marie, badassedly, says she’ll go heat up some lasagna. A lowrider-rap beat starts playing, and for a second I was about to laugh—were we going to get a hip-hop montage of Marie, Hank, and Jesse collaborating on revenge? But no: “Phone’s ringing,” Marie says, before Hank checks his pocket only to realize it’s Jesse’s burner playing the beat. A joke on the audience? It felt like one to me. But our disorientation came at the same time as the characters’, which is fun.
The more significant disorientation came from the fact that the episode was bisected into halves covering the same period of time but from different points of view. First, we pick up at the previous cliffhanger from Walt’s eyes. What happened to Jesse? It actually seemed like the show meant to answer this question at the end of the cold open, when Walt finds that compact disc on Saul’s dashboard. Was I the only one who assumed the disc was Walt’s “confession” tape, left by Hank as a fuck-you token after picking up Jesse? I can’t imagine the show’s meticulous writers didn’t expect some people would think that. Later, when the second half of the episode switches to Jesse’s POV, we learn that Hank did in fact intervene (aren’t you proud at me for not gloating about my insanely brilliant prediction last week?), but that the CD was just a cocaine-snorting surface. So the viewer’s left untangling a whole web of false impressions.
I could keep listing moments like that, but what’s important is how those moments echoed what the characters were going through. Marie’s therapy session—the event bisecting the episode—got at the shared emotions most plainly: the confusion, the feeling of betrayal, the futile sense that all could somehow still be set right. “We all lead double lives to some extent, right?” asks the analyst, echoing the theme that defined Breaking Bad’s early seasons. “Not like him,” Marie says, and later, “If I hadn't been such an idiotic stupid idiot, I could have, we could have …” She doesn’t finish, because there’s nothing—she couldn’t have done anything, because she didn’t understand what was happening.
The interplay among knowledge, choice, and inevitability has kicked off the show’s central rivalry now. Walt, unable to see the depths of Jesse’s anger, believes he can patch things up with a chat. Jesse, unable to see the depth of Walt’s affection for him (artificially constructed as it may be to foster Walt’s illusion of himself as still human), believes he’s in a kill-or-be-killed situation. Walt mistakes an abandoned gas can for a change of heart; Jesse mistakes a random bald guy (Breaking Bad’s go-to phenotype of menace) for a hit man. It’s this cosmically fated ignorance that has driven us toward tragedy as surely as it did in Romeo and Juliet or Oedipus Rex. That’s why, halfway through the final stretch of episodes, the ending promises to be bleaker than ever.