Breaking Bad Returns: Is This Show Even About Walter White Anymore?
Our roundtable discusses "Blood Money," the first episode in the AMC show's final half-season.
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.
Heller: "In a year, a year and a half, once we've cooked through this methylamine and made our money, there will be plenty of time for soul searching."
—Walter White, "Buyout"
"You need to stop focusing on the darkness behind you. The past is the past. … Now that's over. You're out, and so am I."
—Walter White, "Blood Money"
This is how the end begins. Walter White, perhaps the most villainous character a television show has ever dared us to root for, is standing in front of his long-abandoned Albuquerque home. This is the same man who nearly shot himself in the New Mexico desert two years earlier; who became a murderous drug lord named Heisenberg; who made his fortune cooking methamphetamine; who finally quit the meth business and retired. Where is Skyler? Where are the kids? We don't know, and I suspect we won't find out until Breaking Bad reaches its final conclusion later this year.
But I know I loved this episode, “Blood Money.” The tension, the humor, the stellar performances, everything. Returning to Breaking Bad after a yearlong absence is like switching from green tea to cappuccino. The show is remarkably entertaining, despite the dark story it tells. Can you think of any other show that manages to play so many different notes, so consistently? In one scene, we watch Hank stumble out of a bathroom looking about a decade older than he did when he walked in; in another, we listen to Badger describe his dream episode of Star Trek. (Which, ew.)
These are all notes I've grown to expect from Breaking Bad. What I didn't expect, though, was how "Blood Money" framed the upcoming season in dueling terms of redemption. Walt seems to think that he can die a good man simply by ignoring his past sins. Jesse, on the other hand, wants to atone for what he's done. Their fortunes—their blood money—have become extensions of the way they view what they've done. Walt is a monster because he's rationalized it all. Jesse is doomed because he comprehends it. My hunch is that neither will be redeemed—Breaking Bad has always punished those who do bad things—but the contrast nonetheless adds a philosophical wrinkle to their show's central relationship. Do you guys agree?
That said, Vince Gilligan tipped his hand as to where Walt is headed—and not just because of that flash-forward sequence. "Blood Money" put Walt in three situations that demonstrate his waning strength as an intimidator and manipulator. When Lydia comes to the car wash to beg for help, he's not the one who scares her away. When he lies to Jesse about Mike's whereabouts, his former partner doesn't seem to believe a word he says. When Hank pins him against a wall, both literally and figuratively, neither Walt's silver tongue nor Heisenberg's attitude appear to save him. It's the beginning of his end.
For four-and-a-half seasons, we've watched Walter White manufacture poison. For almost as long, we've suspected he is made of a much more potent kind. But now, the people around him are finally building up a tolerance—and I'm thrilled to see what happens next. Spencer, what did you think of the episode?
Kornhaber: Here’s what has me thrilled: This no longer feels like a show about Walter White. You’re right, Chris, that this episode was all about our antihero’s loosening grip—both on the surety that he and his family can finally “live ordinary, decent lives,” and on the narrative of Breaking Bad itself.
This is now a show about Hank Schrader, apparently aged, as you say, about a decade by the realization of who his brother-in-law is and what has to be done. It’s about Jesse Pinkman, struggling for his soul. It’s about Skyler White, aching for normalcy.
Walter’s still in the picture, but I, at least, have lost all rooting interest in him. It's a relief. “I don’t even know who I’m talking to,” Hank says in the episode’s oh-shit-it’s-actually-happening climax, but the audience feels the opposite: By this point, we know exactly who Walter White is, and he’s insufferable. That scene of him cajoling Jesse—calling him “son,” flipping through a catalog of hollow arguments and outright lies to keep his former partner quiet—discomfited as much as any of the show’s bloody confrontations ever have. This is a man so deep into double talk he barely offers the pretense of caring whether what he says is actually true: “Jesse, I need you to believe this.”
Bryan Cranston directed the episode, which, given his character’s trajectory, might explain why so much of it was staged like a horror film—long scenes of not much happening (the camera closing in on the bathroom door; Jesse slowly chucking cash out windows; Walt searching for Leaves of Grass) as the soundtrack’s industrial drones swelled. The surface-level horror, of course, comes from Walt’s dread at being found out, not to mention the cancer’s return. But the deeper dread comes from reminders of the potential repercussions on the other characters: the flash forward to the empty house, Skyler’s visible concern that her family's new stability could be shattered, the prospect of Jesse’s gnawing shame ending up as the least of his punishments.
The Jesse stuff, in particular, just wrecks me. You’re correct, Chris, that Breaking Bad is about poison, but it’s also about false exteriors. Every major character carries a hidden side: The milquetoast cooks meth, the swaggering cop privately sobs, the devoted sister shoplifts, the devoted wife cooks books, and the hit man's just a doting grandpa. The only character whose true nature remains murky is Jesse, and that’s because Jesse himself doesn’t know who he is. His exterior is burnout idiot, his interior is… what? His desire to disburse his money is partly a vain attempt at absolution, but it’s also part of an identity crisis—he’s tried being a rich playboy, and it hasn’t worked. Remember how hopeful Jesse was when Gus Fring said he “saw something” in him? More than anything, I’m rooting for Jesse to self-actualize, to find what that something is.
Maybe it will involve killing Walter. A big part of me hopes so. But that outcome has been fan theory No. 1 regarding the show’s conclusion for a while, which probably means Vince Gilligan won’t go for it. Similarly, tonight’s opening glimpse of Walter’s weapons stockpiling sees the writing team for the zillionth time telegraphing that this will all end in a Scarface-style blowout (Gilligan’s original pitch, remember, was “from Mr. Chips to Scarface,” and Walters Sr. and Jr. were recently seen reacquainting themselves with Al Pacino’s little friend)—an outcome so obvious that it’ll only be allowed to happen in some unimaginably counterintuitive way, if at all.
It’s probably best not to speculate what happens next. I certainly didn’t expect the first episode back to pull a Homeland Season 2 move and sprint to the confrontation between law enforcer and secret lawbreaker. That garage scene, though, rocked. Both the writers and Dean Norris nailed the portrayal of how deeply Hank’s been shaken. Never before has there been a tense social situation that the DEA cop wouldn’t defuse with babble and bad jokes, but tonight, faced with small talk from a monster, he could only muster a few variants on “Ehhh… you know.” He then threw the punch that viewers have wanted to throw for at least two seasons, Walt wheedled as only Walt can, and Heinsenberg revealed himself with a not-so-veiled threat: tread lightly. In that instant, Cranston looked truly mournful, which makes sense: The dream of the “ordinary, decent” life has died. Not that anyone but him expected it to survive.
Gould: Good observations. I agree, Chris, that, however this final season ends, the show seems now to be driving Walt and Jesse toward two different kinds of failure. Maybe Jesse ends up killing Walt, maybe not. But it's hard to imagine either of them coming out of this as anything other than wrecked (whether or not also dead).
Maybe, just the same, Jesse's state of being is now, as Spencer suggests, more obscure than Walt's. But the show has, I think, always considered their two very different stories of corruption equally important—and has always emphasized the interplay between those two stories: Walt's acute degeneration from bitterness and self-loathing into more-and-more lethal monstrosity, and Jesse's sad stumbling from insecurity and heartbreak into more-and-more crippling guilt.
I guess I'm not sure how or why we should think Breaking Bad is no longer a show about Walter White, though. Perhaps that's right. Or perhaps it's more that the show has finally, deliberately, unsparingly dropped the idea of Walter White (per Chris, "perhaps the most villainous character a television show has ever dared us to root for") as antihero?
Either way, I like the thought that the show is now about Hank—or alternatively, that it now lets us know it's always been more about Hank than it let on. From the beginning, from the time it started drawing us into Walt's story and inviting us to identify with him as a protagonist, the show let us think of Hank in the way Hank presented himself outwardly: as a crass wag, an unreflective soldier in the drug war, and a fool who couldn't see Walt for the criminal he is.
Four-and-a-half seasons later, how superior to Hank does anyone out there in TV Land really feel? It was always easy for us to see what Hank couldn't; the writers showed us every week, after all, and kept it from him. He had to do the detective work. But the more we saw him do it, the more brilliant he showed himself to be at it. And the more we got to know Hank as a person—through his panic attacks, through his depression—the more complex he appeared. (Not to say, the more badass: Hank's thwarting of the cartel twins' attack on him in Season 3—that scene alone was one of the best thrillers I've ever witnessed on television.)
Meanwhile, we were the ones being captivated by Walt and his story. We were the ones identifying with him, however haltingly. When the detective who finally figured Walt out stands face-to-face with him at the end of tonight's episode, that detective knows exactly what he's looking at—just as he knew, the whole time, what he was looking for. He just didn't know that it was Walt. Hank's unsentimental clarity of perception now is the other side of his mournful claim not to know Walt anymore—and cues the menacing irony in Walt's response: "If you don't know who I am, then maybe your best course would be to tread lightly."