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: The Walking Dead has new company on AMC’s roster: Breaking Bad is now a post-apocalyptic thriller.
It’s now clear that last week’s episode portrayed the destruction of Breaking Bad as we’ve known it. After all, the show always subsisted on the threat that its two worlds—the mundane reality of suburban family life and the dangerous crime culture of the drug trade—might collide. In “Ozymandias,” they finally did, and the relatable setting that is the White residence became a scene of horror and pain that most viewers, thankfully, can only recognize from nightmares. So Breaking Bad A-bombed its central dynamic with two episodes left: Time to invent a new show.
That might explain why “Granite State” felt a bit like something out of a Cormac McCarthy novel. It’s nuclear winter for Breaking Bad. (How jarring to see snow, no?) The scattered characters now huddle in a reshaped landscape ruled by a roaming gang of murdering savages. You could even see the episode as a succession of personal hells: literally and figuratively submerged prisons like Jesse's dungeon, the vacuum guy’s basement, the propane-tank truck, and the cabin; agonizing punishments like Skyler facing a baby nursery invaded by black-masked killers, Jesse witnessing Andrea’s shooting, and Walter stumbling upon the Charlie Rose-assisted dismantling of his legacy. The characters are weakened, injured, and dispirited. Even Saul can barely smile for a photo.
The only figure gaining strength and screen time is Todd, throwing into relief the humanity of the rest of Breaking Bad’s players. Everyone else suffers the consequences of the things they’ve done; Todd, meanwhile, self-satisfyingly offers his slave a scoop of AmeriCone Dream, tells an unsuspecting woman her death is “nothing personal,” and calls the threatening of an infant’s life a job done “good.” Stuff like this is why Breaking Bad just won the best drama Emmy last night: With Todd, Jesse Plemons and the show’s writers have given frightening physical form to the lie Walter disastrously told himself—that terrible actions need not have terrible consequences.
Walter, of course, still maintains his delusions. Saul’s rejection of the order to go to New Hampshire provided one of the few “thank God” moments we’ve had in a while; Walt seemed entirely blind to the fact that he was asking a man who’s life he’d ruined to go ruin his life some more. But more stupefying was that whole box-o’-money bid. Walt knows from newspaper clippings that Skyler’s in trouble and that his phone call did not, in fact, exonerate her. But he still insists on sending cash that would put her at even greater risk if she were to spend it instead of handing it over to the cops. As Saul tells him, there’s just no way Skyler, Walter Jr., or Holly are getting any of what Walt calls his “life’s work.” When he’s finally made to accept that fact, he’ll truly be ruined.
And for a brief moment, after hearing his son wish his death, Walt is ruined. He calls the DEA and orders a whiskey—per Saul again, it’s over. But then the Breaking Bad’s cosmic hand reaches down and forces him to look upon Gretchen and Elliott erasing his identity as the co-founder of their billions-dollar corporation while the blue meth he invented earns money for someone else. The old resentment and hubris we witnessed long ago, when he rejected a clean way to pay for his medical bills, sends him out of that bar—and, my reckless guess is, to a violent, largely futile vindication bid in the finale. So I’m wondering, not for the first time, whether it’s wrong to think of Breaking Bad as the story of one man’s change. His universe might have collapsed, but Walter White remains the same as he ever was. Right?
Heller: I don't think it's quite that clear-cut. If we want to understand the transformation of Walter White, we only need to look at the choices he's made. Despite what Walt’s defenders say, Breaking Bad is not the story of a man who would do anything for his family, as many great critics have reminded us. It's the tragedy of a selfish egomaniac's love affair with himself.
Walt turned down a former business partner's generous offer to pay for his cancer treatment. He continued to cook meth well after he promised himself he would stop. He manipulated his (new) business partner, poisoned a child, and murdered people to strengthen his position as a drug kingpin. He made alliances with neo-Nazis. He blackmailed his brother-in-law. He left his wife to fend for herself against a massive criminal investigation. And all for what? For his family? To ensure his children will inherit a barrel full of cash? No. Walt made these choices because he resents the life he built. He wants to be a different kind of person. "Chemistry is the study of matter," he said, way back in the pilot episode. "But I prefer to see it as the study of change."