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.
Still, I don't believe Heisenberg is more "authentic" than Walt. Heisenberg is less a person than a persona, the explosive aftermath of an arrogant man's pent-up aggression. Walt is persona too, shaped by the mediocre social norms of a vanishing middle-class lifestyle. Those three scenes you mentioned illustrate this spectrum of personality: he's a bumbling suburbanite to Skyler; he's a manipulative pretender to Jesse; he's an ingenious criminal mastermind to Hank. Looking for the true man behind all of these acts is beside the point. We don't need to remember his name. We've seen his truth. We know his evil.
Let's talk about the most significant part of "Confessions" -- the end of the episode. While Jesse was standing on the side of the highway, waiting for a minivan to whisk him away to his new life, he noticed Huell had lifted his weed out of his pocket. Then, he realized how he "lost" the ricin cigarette way back when. He knows how it happened, he knows Walt made it happen, and he wants revenge.
Here's my question: Was the discovery believable? When this season began, Vince Gilligan's script explained away the ricin cigarette question with an exchange in Saul's office--"I put my ass on the line for you. Huell, too. [...] He could've easily busted this in two and killed everyone in the office, but do I complain? No."--and after that, it seemed like the show wouldn't revisit such an incredible answer to a plot hole. Now they're doubling-down with Huell's sticky fingers? I bet a lot of people won't like it.
I'm not one of them. Breaking Bad won my faith a long time ago, so I'm happy to mount a defense about Jesse's revelation. For me, it all comes down to execution: "Confessions" didn't drop the big reveal without warning. This episode works toward it with a pair of scenes that preemptively explain how Jesse fits the pieces together. He's suspicious and angry when he meets Walt in the desert. He's on the verge of a breakdown when Saul convinces him to leave Albuquerque. Is it really all that surprising he'd jump to such an outrageous conclusion under those circumstances? The logic behind his deduction is questionable because his state of mind is questionable.
At the risk of not discussing the rest of the episode--Walt's "confession" video! Todd's phone call! Tableside guacamole!--I'd like to see if you agree, Spencer. Did you believe it?
Kornhaber: Actually, at first, I didn't believe it. Those closing few minutes, terrifying and kinetic as they were, for me came with a nagging sense of, Oh, come on. Jesse making the sudden connection between the pot pickpocketing and the ricin cigarette scanned as a TV-show implausibility of the worst kind: not merely a cosmic coincidence--that would have been fine, Breaking Bad thrives on cosmic coincidence--but the short-circuiting of a character's internal workings for plot convenience.
But thinking about it more... I was wrong. It makes sense. First of all, realizing that you've been conned--no matter how small the swindle--disorients profoundly. Reaching into your pocket expecting something, only to find it was lifted without your detection, is exactly the sort of thing that gets you thinking about all the times in your past when items have disappeared from your person. Aaron Paul played the slow-dawning epiphany well; you could see him silently making a series of mental connections, each one more horrifying than the last.
More importantly, though, the writers have earned this twist. Basically, Jesse has spent the entirety of this half season stewing with the knowledge that his involvement with Walter White has wrecked his life. Tonight's episode opened with Hank probing Jesse's victimhood at the hands of Heisenberg; that exquisitely suspenseful scene in the desert showed just how much Jesse feels--rightly--he's Walt's pawn. So it's not only that Jesse's agitated. It's that he's never been more alive to Walt's monstrousness and manipulation.
But there's been another Oh, come on nagging at me this half season. The extent to which Hank has allowed himself to be outmaneuvered by Walt is, if not implausible per se, certainly dispiriting. Confronting before gathering enough evidence; coming on too strong when interviewing Skyler; keeping suspicions from the DEA against all logic--these aren't the actions of the "brilliant," "badass" detective we'd come to admire. Marie served as viewer proxy talking to Hank tonight, with Betsy Brandt nailing the Cassandra-like desperation of trying to counsel someone who, to borrow a Saulism, is "immune to good advice."
But as with Jesse's logical leap, I have to admit the show roots Hank's missteps in the character's psychology. We've long known Hank to be paralyzingly anxious about how he's perceived; it shouldn't surprise, then, the prospect of career-wrecking humiliation keeps him from acting prudently. What's more, the Heisenberg revelation has clearly devastated him emotionally, and as we've seen time and again (remember the dive-bar fight?), Hank has only ever maintained a tenuous grasp over his tidal emotions.
At Garduño's (a real place! They're advertising tableside guac on their homepage!), we once again saw Dean Norris reshape Hank's old mannerisms to demonstrate what a pressure-cooker of rage and confusion he's become. Marie was even scarier, delivering a suicide proposition born of cold logic and unspeakable hurt. But the Schraders came to the table as the disadvantaged negotiating party, still reeling from shocking truths that no longer faze the Whites. John, I have nothing to add to your astute diagnoses of "Walt" as the less-real version of the man who lives at 308 Negra Arroyo Lane other than to add this scene to the evidence pile. Walt, affecting the innocent-nobody persona right down to his starched white collar, served up a patently infuriating spectacle of condescension and cognitive dissonance. "Can you stop with the bullshit?" Hank spits--to which the answer forevermore will be "no" whenever it's Walt and not Heisenberg speaking.
The reckoning seems near, though. At this point, we can see Breaking Bad encircling Walter with three agents of retribution for three kinds of transgression. The first agent is the Schraders, with Hank almost neglecting his role as enforcer of law to instead be a warrior for family. When Walt mentions the word "right" at the dinner table, Hank's outrage is at the personal-level irony: "Lying to your son and to all of us, is that right?" He and Marie are motivated not by the specific awfulness of Walt's actions but by the broader awfulness of how deeply, recklessly, and callously Walt deceived and endangered the people closest to him--a willingness to betray never made more explicit than by that chilling/genius confession tape.
The second avenger, we now know, is Jesse Pinkman, acting on behalf of the innocents Walt has harmed. Tonight it became clear Jesse knew Mike's fate, but the killing of a killer--as lovely and hilarious a killer as Mike was--isn't enough to turn him against Walt. A child's poisoning, though, is too much. As with Hank, personal wounds are in the combustible mix here, but then again Jesse has long been disproportionately wounded whenever Heisenberg's actions tramples an innocent: Jane, Drew Sharp, etc. It's fitting, then, that Jesse's retribution would be against Walt's home, a symbol of all Walt has sought to protect.
With that final (sensational) gas-can scene, the show wants us to suspect that we've witnessed the event that leads to the devastation that had befallen the White residence in the "Blood Money" flash-forward. And perhaps we did--the next installment may well open with Jesse lighting a match and spray-painting "HEISENBERG" in the living room. If I may indulge in some fruitless, likely-to-be-embarrassing speculation, though: Remember that scene tonight when Hank responds to Gomez by calling DEA agents off Jesse's tail? It ends with Hank canceling an appointment and leaving the office. Might he have gone to stake out Saul's himself, and then follow Jesse? Might we be in for a last-minute intervention from Hank, who suddenly finds a more-willing ally in Heisenberg's apoplectic ex-partner?
Here's a safer prediction: Todd, his neo-Nazi friends, and Lydia will somehow constitute the third horseman of Walter White's apocalypse. (Actually, now that I'm using the cliché, let's throw cancer in and say that there are four horsemen.) They, after all, embody the satanic bargain Walt long ago struck. When he allied with the life-destroying force that is the drug trade, he allied with evil. As this episode's Tarantino-esque cold open reminded for the zillionth time in Breaking Bad's run, evil can look pretty banal--smiling at diner waitresses, grooming itself in bathroom mirrors, trading back slaps in parking lots. But it also reminded that, despite Skyler's earnest assurances to Hank and Marie tonight, the evil that Walter invited into his life is not safely in the past.
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