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.
It may seem self-evident to say that an aspiring drug kingpin who says he's in the "empire business" is interested in making a lot of money. Currency certainly defines each of Walter's relationships, from the hypothetical $130 million with which he unsuccessfully attempts to bribe Jesse, to the money laundering that has turned his marriage with Skyler into an unpleasant business partnership, and even his problematic relationship with Walter Jr., which Walter attempted to fix by buying him a car. It's why Walter is befuddled when new recruit Todd waves away his earnings, saying, "We can talk money once I get this right"—if it's not about money, what is it about?
But Walter's interest in money isn't about actual value anymore; it's the validation that the money represents. In "Buyout," Walter tells Jesse about his decision to sell his stake in science firm Gray Matter, the company he helped found, for $5,000—a company that's currently worth $2.16 billion, as Walter, of course, knows. Taken at face value, this revelation is a little trite. Walter's greediness is rooted in the legitimate hundreds of millions he lost by selling his shares in the company too early, and his illegitimate meth business is a subconscious attempt to make those millions back. But in the full context of the series, it tells us something about Walter that Breaking Bad has only hinted at before: that the point at which Walter had the capacity to "break bad" happened long before the series began. In chemistry terms, cancer was merely the catalyst for Walter's transformation; all the elements that have since turned him into a monster were already in place.
Breaking Bad airs its midseason finale on Sunday, but even halfway through the final season, everything about Walter's so-called "business" has changed. Walter's old lab partner quit the business, and his new lab partner is so motivated that he shot a child to prove he was a go-getter. Walter picked up a new distributor at the bargain-basement price of 35 percent, and dispatched an old one who refused to say "thank you." If Walter's ultimate goal is the empire business, he seems to be well on his way. With his new deal with Declan, Walter's blue meth is continuing to spread across the American southwest, and as his influence grows, so does his misplaced sense of self-worth.
But the audience knows better. The fifth season opened with a flash-forward of Walter's grim, solitary 52nd birthday party in a Denny's, where he pops some pills before illegally purchasing a massive gun. As she goads him into accepting a complimentary birthday meal, the diner's waitress tells Walter that "free is always good." But free isn't an option on Breaking Bad, for Walter or any of the people trapped in his web. And in the end, no matter how many partners he loses or fires or kills—and no matter how smugly he insists that he's Heisenberg—Walter is stuck with Walter.
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