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Breaking Bad #515: "Granite State"

I understand last night's Emmy Awards telecast included some sort of Breaking Bad-related interpretive dance. All I can say is, if you were watching the Emmys instead of Breaking Bad, it serves you right. (I also heard that BB finally won the Emmy for best drama series. Well, duh.)

Here's a Twitter joke that both made me laugh and filled me with now-familiar dread:

Not quite. But close. Let's discuss the details after the jump....

I expected to pick up with Walt en route to his new life in New Hampshire in this episode, but who knew we'd be running into Saul on the run as well? I suppose it shouldn't be a surprise -- obviously, if Walt's been exposed, Saul is in big trouble as well. But Saul has always seemed so invincible -- so cheerfully amoral and therefore unaffected by the moral undertow that has been dragging Walt and Jesse and all the rest to darker and darker places. I remember commenting at the beginning of season 5A how unsettling it was to see Saul looking shaken. (My exact words: "I forgot to mention how striking, and troubling, it is to see Saul so rattled. It makes Walt's hubris seem even more dangerous. When Saul starts telling you you're doing something dumb, you listen! Remember what happened with Ted!") I haven't gotten used to it yet. Even his comb-over is out of place! Bob Odenkirk's performance is perfect, as usual, still finding ways to inject some comedy into the grimness without sacrificing the overall tone. The way he grimaced just as the shutter clicked for his driver's-license photo was wonderful. (I don't know what to think about the planned spin-off Better Call Saul, but my gut response to more of Odenkirk in this role is Yes, please.)

Similiarly, Saul walking out on Walt, as he did in this episode, seems like a very bad omen. The mighty Heisenberg is on his knees; he can't even get through a threat without a coughing fit. And yet Walt continues to refuse sound advice from disinterested but highly competent professional criminals who can see the writing on the wall: see also Ehrmantraut, Mike, and now the vacuum-repair-shop guy.

One of the things that sets this show apart is how well the writers handle exposition and other chores. (That also means it's important as well as rewarding to pay close attention, which makes it all the more bizarre that AMC keeps trying to convince viewers to check out their two-screen-experience baloney.) So, for example, in this episode they skipped ahead to Walt's two-month visit from his caretaker, clueing us in to the time jump with the details of their conversation -- Walt had obviously given the vacuum guy a shopping list, for example, one that included glasses and newspapers -- where a lesser script would just have Walt say, "I've been living in this cabin for two months now!" Their conversation included a lot of information, like how Skyler has been living since Walt left, but still felt natural and dramatic: Walt's experience receiving that information is as important for us to take in as the information itself. He made millions to support his family, and now she's leaving the baby with a neighbor so she can work as a taxi dispatcher? Ouch.

I did not expect to return to the little matter of Gray Matter, and if Walt had stayed put in his woodland cabin, we never would have. But there were Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz on Charlie Rose, triggering one last flare-up of Walt's fatal flaw: his pride. Way back in season one, that pride prevented him from accepting the Schwartzes' generous offer to pay for Walt's medical treatment. Accepting that offer would have ended the story. What we're seeing in these last episodes are the very ugly consequences of Walt's having decided that the story should go on. I thought of that season-one fork in the road when, after watching that interview, Walt decided not to give himself up after all -- and I also remembered the moment when Walt, drunk and resentful, goaded Hank to keep looking for Heisenberg because he couldn't stand to see the late Gale Boetticher get all the credit.

Alan Sepinwall has some good insights along those lines, and also about Jesse's plight. These final episodes continue to feel like a punishment, though I don't mean that as a criticism. The murder of Andrea was not "satisfying," in the sense of something I wanted to see, a loose end I wanted them to tie up. It was awful. But it makes sense, too.

I couldn't help thinking of Jesse when we saw Walt self-administering chemo -- shooting up in an effort to save himself rather than destroy himself. Not only does it seem very unlikely that Walt will be redeemed as Peter Nixon hopes; I'm beginning to regret that Jesse made it out of that depression-and-addiction experience alive. It's no fun to watch him suffer (and suffer, and suffer), and it doesn't seem like there's any way out. Not for him, anyway. For us: just one more episode! Any last predictions to make?

About the Author

Mollie Wilson O'Reilly is an editor at large and columnist at Commonweal.



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I'll be begin by thanking you, Mollie, for these weekly posts about BB.  They've become a regular part of my Monday morning-work avoidance strategies that I'll miss after BB is gone.  (Thank goodness dotCommonweal still remains otherwise....)

I sort of hope Walt won't fire a shot next week, that his dream of vengeance or his narcissistic need for recognition collapses in on itself.  His final defeat seems mostly likely to me as though it will (and, should) come at his own hands, through his own weakness, from his cancer.  Certainly I thought last night that he seemed far sicker in NH than he appeared in the flashforwards when we saw him back in ABQ.  Can a man who needs Ensure to put on weight handle such a powerful weapon?

A grace from what happened with Andrea is that, perhaps, the show can end on Jesse's reunion with Brock--a reaffirmation of family after so much has been done to break family in Jesse's and Walt's worlds.  Next week's episode title, "Felina," not only anagrammizes "Finale" but refers also to a little cat.  Who has 9 lives?  Who will land on his feet?  Maybe only Jesse deserves to.  Maybe he will become the father that the biblical allusion in his name suggests.

I'm embarrassed to have been surrprised to see Gretchen and Elliott back, that it snuck up on me.  Much as you say about how they handle exposition, I've always admired the spare way that the writers gave us just enough backstory to help us infer why Walt's life was the way it was when we met him.  His pique had ruined him once already in his life.  Whatever happened years before with the Schwartzes has hung silently and loomingly over the action of the whole show.  Of course we come back to it!

Final thought--I fear for the Saul Goodman spinoff.  TV so rarely goes back to the well...well, well.  But the creators in an interview have said they have an unusual premise to 'subvert expectations.'  Maybe it's like a memory play.  Saul and Kuby have opened a Cinnabon outside Omaha.  Saul gives legal advice to customers, and they reminisce about old times.  No--actually, that sounds terrible too.  I guess I just can't see it. 

I loved what Alan Sepinwall said about the "Granite State" title. Few TV shows have titles as fraught w meaning as Breaking Bad- another reason I'll miss it.

When the whole Gretchen thing came on TV my first reaction was disappointment that they were spending even a minute of the penultimate episode on something that hasn't been on viewers' radar screens for several seasons. But these writers do keep you guessing, don't they? The Twitterverse can predict all week long what we are going to see, but I bet no one predicted the return of Gray Matter as a crucial part of wrapping things up. Hope the twist it provides next week will be satisfying; I'm sure it will be unexpected.

I was also very disappointed Lydia got any screen time whatsoever- time that we could have spent with Hewell. (sp?) Is he still in that hotel room? 

There is a very Stanley Fish "Surprised by Sin" element to these final episodes that I have found incredibly uncomfortable (if also incredibly satisfying). Here we were, rooting for Walt all this time, wanting him to beat the bad guys-- and all the while, right in front of our eyes, he had become the devil. 

The horrible inevitability of these last episodes-- of course Hank can't survive, of course Andrea can't survive, of course Jesse can't miraculously escape-- is indicting us all for having been on the side of the bad guy all this time. We all broke bad.

(and here I thought I could never thought I'd use my English degree jargon on a TV show.)

We were actually trying to manage our disappointment that we (presumably) wouldn't be hearing more about Gray Matter over here, and then bam, there it was. (Well, I noticed Jessica Hecht's name in the opening credits, so actually that was the point when I said "Hey wow they're bringing back Gretchen after all" -- but I was thinking flashback.) Remember that we learned at some point in season 5A -- "Buyout," #506, thank you internet -- that Walt's REAL motivation is getting what he thinks he's owed after being (in his view) cheated out of the fame and fortune Gray Matter would have provided. He took a buyout, the circumstances of which are still unclear, and he's been stewing over it ever since. (I didn't mention it in that writeup, but my colleague Jim did in the comments.) Since that episode I've been hoping to learn what Walt DID to get himself thrown out. The implication seemed to be that it was something pretty awful -- that, as this take puts it, the "big secret" of Breaking Bad is that "Walter White was always a bad guy." I was -- am? -- hoping for all the details.

IS Huell out of captivity yet? We can only wonder.

Huell was in a DEA safehouse being watched by agents who Hank hadn't clued in to his investigation. Once the rest of the DEA became aware of the case, they probably began to interogate Huell, which is probably what lead Saul to run away a few days after Walt. He could normally use privilege to shield himself, but Huell could provide evidence that he was a criminal lawyer, as Jesse put it so long ago.

I was very happy that Grey Matter was part of what triggered Walt's return. Many people have focused on the mention of blue meth being on the market and reaching Europe, which told him that he was replaceable and that Jesse (the most likely person to replace him) was still alive. I think the public dismissal of his contribution to Grey Matter was more relevant. From the beginning of the series, his festering resentment of being pushed out of Grey Matter has been a core motivation that trumped even his desire to provide for his family.

Ross Douthat compares the iniquities of Jesse and Walt.  He raises the question:  Why should anyone root for Jesse over Walt?  Or should one?  (Answer in 200 words or less.)


Walt goes all out full Heisenberg on Todd and his uncle's gang. Gets the money secured and suggests to Jesse that he flee but take the money and support his family and Brock. Jesse can get the redemption that I think he deserves. Walt, for his part, will use turn himself in and use the ricin on himself.

I root for Jesse because Jesse needed a strong father figure in his life and Walt provided that. And, I think, Walt did love Jesse although he directed him in ways that were self serving (watching his girlfriend overdose, orchestrating the break up between Brock's mother and Jesse). Of course the first relationship of Jesse's wasn't exactly wholesome or good for him but the second one was positive. Walt was a mentor for him in many ways and Jesse needs to select the good parts and discard the negative. 

At Walt's age, it is not just about securing money, it is about legacy and carrying on. At that age, many men feel the need to teach the younger generations important life lessons and to mentor younger people. Walt cannot do that with his own son so that leaves Jesse.

For its part, the show leaves us with a legacy of mature art; complicated characters as all of us our in our own lives. A mixture of sin and grace. The vehicles of grace are sometimes themselves not clean. 

In Greek tragedy the tragic hero is never redeemed -- he can't be because he chooses to act according to an intrinsic flaw or some mistaken judgment,  and having chosen badly he necessarily fails.  Eventually he does see his mistake, but it is too late.   But in the Christian view of life, Christ's redemption of all people and the grace He makes available to all can ultimately save even the worst of humans if not for this life then for the next one.  But there must be grace of some sort to make the individual understand his failure, and he must choose to receive the grace which makes repentance possible.

As Christians we recognize that Walt is a moral monster, yet there are parts of him that are decent and we hope that in the end he will be saved somehow.  But how?  He's not a religious man.  What sort of goodness is there in his life at this point that is itself innocent enough to somehow inspire him to reverse course?  His children are the only innocents in his life.  Will they, or at least Holly (who still loves him) somehow force him to confront the fact that his own choices have turned him into a monster, and will he somehow see that he must repent?

But maybe this is not a Christian tragedy but a Greek one.  Sigh. 

I found myself thinking that the best outcome for Jesse wouldn't be survival, but a noble death. After Andrea's murder I find it hard to imagine any future life for Jesse that wouldn't be one of misery and self-torment. Of course, the writers of BB have an amazing way of twisting the plot so that what I've thought must happen ends up not needing to happen at all.

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