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From antihero to villain: 'Breaking Bad' #506

Another week, another chance for me to recommend something Emily Nussbaum wrote in the New Yorker: this time it's an essay on the way Breaking Bad keeps us watching as it goes into ever darker territory, and specifically how "Breaking Bad has always put children in danger, to the point that it's practically the show's trademark." (We were discussing that theme a bit here in the comments on last week's episode.) Nussbaum's explication of the "Mr. Chips-to-Scarface" trajectory is particularly relevant this week, I think:

Were deep in the Scarface stage; the hero of the show is now its villain. There are only ten episodes left, eight of them due next summer, a welcome deadline that has allowed Gilligan to shape his ending without the vamping that mars so many multi-season dramas. But, even if his show ends brilliantly, he's already told us that it wont end well.

And on that note, this week's episode...

I think last night was the night I finally stopped rooting for Walter White. Up to now I've had some sympathy left for him, but now, as Nussbaum wrote, he seems fully the villain. Maybe it was the faux-sympathetic way he rationalized the murder of the spider-collecting boy, counseling Jesse not to beat himself up about it. Or the way he whistled as he worked once that chore was over. Or maybe it was the way he manipulated both Skyler and Jesse by inviting Jesse to dinner, calling Skyler's bluff (if the kids are out of the house, why not bring "business" home?) and making Jesse feel guilty about refusing Walt his drug-kingpin fun. But by the final scenes of the episode, when Walt was cuffed to the radiator, I realized I was no longer cheering for him. I was interested in his plight, but not emotionally invested. I didn't want him to get free.

Since I had considered the possibility last week, I was pleased (and horrified, of course) to see that the show did pick up right where it left off last week, presenting us--and Walt, and the others--with the grim aftermath of the murder and disposal of the evidence. I loved Jesse's attempts to make smalltalk at the Whites', and Skyler's massive punchbowl of wine. I very much enjoyed the scene where baby Holly chewed happily on her mom's bracelet as Skyler and Marie talked, though I must admit I was mostly just watching the baby (wondering, did they plan this, or just go with it? And do they have to stop shooting a lot because the babies keep pulling off their hats?). And Todd's keeping the spider: was that a souvenir? Shudder. Your reactions?

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Although Walt's transmogrification is complete, Vince Gilligan continues to reveal aspects of Walt's personality and past that shed light on his motivations. The scene in which Jesse tries to convince Walt to take the buyout is brilliantly calculated to stem, if only momentarily, the tide of nausea that Walt now routinely induces in viewers. We finally learn the details of his departure from Gray Matter, the company that he and two fellow grad students founded. We know from Season 1 that the company is extremely successful and that one its founders won a Nobel prize. The company, from which Walt took an early (and probably forced) $5,000 buyout, is now worth $2.1 billion.So, no more buyouts for Walt. No more being bullied into submission. No more being a passive victim of events. Walt is committed to building an empire (didn't he look regal in that easy chair?) comparable to Gray Matter and regaining the recognition and billions that he timidly let slip away years before.The scene adds yet another layer to our understanding of Walt, and I, for one, suspended my my judgment of him just long enough to let that layer settle.Can't wait to see how Walt handles the unsuspecting buyers of the methylamine in the next episode.

Another strong episode. Except the cliffhanger, which was the lamest of the series.

Could Walt be a tragic hero in the Aristotelian sense -- a man with great ability but also a moral flaw that proves his undoing? If so, doesn't it do something that The Godfather and The Sopranos didn't do. (My TV service has stopped presenting this channel, boo hoo.)

Jim, I had a different reaction to the Gray Matter revelation. The last time it came up I remember feeling sorry for Walt (was it season 1 when they went to that painful party?). I was sure he'd been done wrong by his former partners. But this time I found myself thinking Walt must have done something awful -- now that we've seen what he's really made of.

Thanks for recommending the Nussbaum piece, Mollie. Consider me no longer a Walt-enabler. He's lost me. I also hope to see Hank come out on top.