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."
I kept thinking about that quote while I watched "Granite State." Walt is the same insofar as he's still convinced he deserves more—but that doesn't mean he hasn't changed. We've seen him as the milquetoast suburban patriarch, the absurd rendition of a drug lord, and all sorts of variations in between. While arrogance tied those personas together, we've never seen anyone like Mr. Lambert. Last week, I predicted that New Hampshire would be his hell, but I never imagined he'd have such a frail existence. Mr. Lambert is a sad man, doomed to die alone in a log cabin in the middle of the woods. He is literally a fragment of himself, too skeletal to even keep his wedding ring on his finger. If Heisenberg is Walt's inner demon unleashed, this is his shriveled soul.
That's why so many of Walt's scenes in "Granite State" startled me. When Walt tried to intimidate Saul, just as he reared up for one of his patented growls, he collapsed in a coughing fit. (And with that, Albuquerque's slimiest lawyer exited stage right, headed for an Omaha-area Cinnabon.) Walt has no schemes left. He has no solution. Even that ridiculous porkpie hat wasn't enough to pull Heisenberg out into the harsh light of New England winter. Instead, after the cancer wrestled his once-dominant persona back down, Mr. Lambert wheezed: "Tomorrow… tomorrow." He was wrong. The black-hatted menace did not return.
So, who is the man we see at the end of the episode? Not Heisenberg. That sort of bravado can't survive against cancer. It's not Walter White, either. His own son told him to die. Mr. Lambert would have walked back to his cabin, ready for the end. No, the person who walked out of that bar is new. He's the distillation of everything broken and dangerous about the ones who came before him—and he's desperate. If chemistry is the study of change, this is the final stage of the man who turned into a monster, catalyzed by the unexpected return of an old grudge. The only question left is, who will this monster bring down before he falls?
Gould: From the beginning, if not from inception, Breaking Bad has made a central metaphor of chemistry. That will be plain to anyone who's watched the show, or even for that matter to anyone who's seen the title sequence. (Bromine is number 35 on the periodic table; barium is 56.) I've always taken this to be an organizing metaphor for the story itself. But after seeing "Granite State," and reading how you're processing Walt's last-act actions and reactions, Spencer and Chris, I'm starting to wonder if there's not something oblique, and maybe in a way misdirecting, about the whole role this metaphor has been playing.
It hasn't occurred to me before, but: Chemistry might not be Breaking Bad's metaphor for life; it might just be Walt's. As you point out, Chris, back in Season 1, Walt gives his class a textbook definition of the subject, but then substitutes in how he "prefers" to see it: not as the study of matter but as the study of change. Chemistry is something that Walt respects and out of his respect has mastered. It's something he can do. He can change.
No, he doesn't necessarily think this way early on, but he wants to think this way. He wants to be something other than what he's become. He wants to be more. He is just waiting for the right catalyst. That's what he never had before: the right catalyst. Working with people who didn't understand or respect him, rejecting them for it, being forced into what he clearly believes is the lowly station of a high-school science teacher: none of this gave Walt the opportunity to catalyze, to become something as great as he was capable of becoming.
But maybe this is all the metaphorical stuff of a big lie dominating Walt's life. Maybe Walt became Heisenberg as much as anything because he could never really change. He could never really get over the resentment and wounded pride and self-loathing that, for whatever reason, had been quietly consuming him for years before we ever knew him. He could never grow up. Maybe manufacturing meth just represented a freak opportunity for Walt to act on his frustrated ambition without changing what he most needed to change, without overcoming what he most needed to overcome. Maybe Walt admires chemistry because it represents what he can't do.
I don't know, but I think it's conspicuous that the kind of change that chemistry represents is entirely amoral. That's a Walter White optic on life, not, I think, a Vince Gilligan optic.
I'm talking myself into agreeing with Spencer here. But I don't really expect the chemistry metaphor to play only one role in Breaking Bad. And I don't really expect an ending that implies only one interpretation of Walter White -- or Heisenberg, or now, to Chris's observations, Mr. Lambert. So for now I'll just keep wondering what that M60 is for.
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