Monday, August 12, 2013

Breaking Bad Season 5, Episode 9, “Blood Money”

Breaking Bad show runner Vince Gilligan is smiling upon me, as he has granted the wish I made in my write-up of the half-season finale last year: I wanted to be able to see Hank’s extended reaction to his discovery of the book of Walt Whitman poetry upon leaving the bathroom. And indeed, this last half-season (almost) begins with that exact scene. Hank lumbers out of the bathroom, book of poetry in hand, his face a mix of shock and disbelief. He quickly makes up an excuse to get him and Marie out of the White household, and on the drive home, the shock and disbelief in his face becomes a mixture of disgust, humiliation, fear, and rage. It’s a nicely played scene by Dean Norris, who did great work throughout what ended up being a good Hank episode in general.

Hank’s discovery forces him to wrestle with the conflicting emotions that arise from his solving the Heisenberg case in the worst way possible. His excitement at getting a big break is irredeemably tainted by his devastation over discovering that Heisenberg is Walt, not only because it means the destruction of his extended family, but also because it is a betrayal by someone with whom he thought he was close, and the revelation of a blind spot he never knew he had. For someone who rightly prides himself on his extraordinary intuitive powers, Hank’s failure to spot that Heisenberg was right in front of him all along is incredibly humiliating, and potentially ruining (after all, his former boss was fired once the truth about Gus was revealed). It’s a horrific emotional cocktail, one that Dean Norris plays very well throughout the episode, as Hank works back through everything he knows about the Heisenberg case now with the hypothesis that Walt is Heisenberg. I particularly enjoyed Hank’s comparison of the handwriting in the book of poetry to that of the note in the case files: he seems frantic to find discrepancies in the characters, and is crestfallen to see that they are the same. This same mix of emotions is also evident when he stares off into space prior to having the case files delivered to his garage, as well as when he and Walt finally confront one another.

I’m very glad the show did not further delay the confrontation between Walt and Hank, because that confrontation is electric, and even better, it’s entirely a product of Walt and Hank each being true to character (or multiple personae, in Walt’s case). Neither of these two can let niggling, little details go; Hank is tenacious, and Walt is a control freak. We saw as much from Walt last summer: the entire first episode of this final season dealt with Walt cleaning up the evidence of his involvement with Gus. In last night’s episode, Walt notices the Whitman book is missing from the bathroom, and he connects it with Hank suddenly feeling ill at the dinner party. It’s enough to get the wheels of suspicion turning in Walt’s head, and leads him to finding a tracker attached to his car (evidently placed by the DEA after Hank connected the dots). Walt suspects Hank is on to him, which leads to their confrontation in Hanks’ garage. Walt goes there to feel out Hank, and sure enough, Hank is far from his usual talkative, blustery self. His reticence arouses Walt’s suspicions further, but Walt – true to his nature – has to be sure, so in a last ditch effort to get Hank to tip his hand, he asks Hank about the tracker. It works, and that mixture of emotions Hank has been experiencing throughout the episode explodes from him in the form of a haymaker to Walt’s face, followed by Hank angrily listing off all of the things Walt has done to Hank and to others to cover up his role as Heisenberg. It’s an extremely cathartic and wildly exciting moment.

Walt maintains his plausible deniability here – he accuses Hank of making “wild accusations” and swears he’s only runs a car wash – but he comes very close to dropping nearly all pretenses. For instance, when he asks Hank about the tracker, he says it looks just like the one they used to track Gus Fring, and doesn’t even bother to pretend that he can’t recall Gus’s name. Granted, it’s not outside the realm of plausibility that Walt would remember Gus’s name so well, given that Gus probably generated headlines when he was revealed as the king of a meth empire. But hesitating over Gus’s name is certainly something Walt would normally do, in order to better sell the doddering family man image that has fooled Hank for so long. Here, Walt doesn’t even bother. After Hank punches him and starts listing the things Walt has done, Walt does not act shocked or confused, or put much effort into denying that he knows what Hank is talking about, outside of halfheartedly saying he doesn’t know where this is coming from. Both of them know this isn’t true, and Walt knows he will not be able to bully Hank into grudgingly accepting Walt’s lies, like he so often has with Jesse or Skyler. Instead, he tries to convince Hank that he’s not worth pursuing.

First he tells him to think about their families, and then that he’s as good as dead anyway: his cancer has returned, and he has about six months to live. Hank responds to this news by saying, “Good. Rot, you son of a bitch,” and Walt calmly replies, “I’m sorry you feel that way.” His response is a strange mixture of Heisenberg and the doddering family man: Walt maintains a veneer of politeness in the face of what would upset a normal person. It’s as though Walt is oscillating back and forth between maintaining the pretense of the family man, and fully embracing the person he has become. Nowhere is this clearer than in the episode’s final line of dialogue: with a touch of fear in his voice, Hank tells Walt that he doesn’t know who Walt is anymore, and Walt’s response is simultaneously emotionally heartfelt and threateningly determined: “If that’s true, if you don’t know who I am, then maybe your best course would be to tread lightly.” It’s chilling end to a fantastic scene, and a great episode, one that sets up the plot to move into uncharted territory next week.

Of course, other things happened this week as well. The episode opens with a return to the unspecified time in the future that we glimpsed at the start of the first half of the season, where Walt has a shaggy beard and a full head of hair. This time, however, there are more hints as to what has happened between now and then. Walt returns to his and Skyler’s home, which has been fenced off, boarded up, and vandalized outside and inside: the interior looks like a derelict crack house minus the furniture; “Heisenberg” has been spray-painted on the living room wall, and the empty pool in the yard is now being used as a skater park. It becomes clear – even before the other events of the episode transpire – that Hank followed up on his lead and that Walt’s identity as Heisenberg has become public knowledge. It’s a moderately haunting scene, considering that even though Walt has sometimes had difficulty keeping his family man and Heisenberg personae separate throughout these five seasons (as when Jesse held a gun to Walt’s head in the living room), he’s still done a good job of maintaining the façade of a “normal” household. Seeing that house in almost post-apocalyptic ruin reinforces the irrevocability of whatever transpires over the course of these final episodes.

As for Jesse, he keeps trying to do the right thing by giving away his $5 million cut of the methylamine (which he sees as “blood money”), but runs into resistance from Walt, who tries to browbeat Jesse into keeping the money. Walt’s play here seems to be to not to have Jesse do anything incriminating with the money, but also to convince Jesse that Mike’s still alive and well somewhere. Walt’s need for Jesse to believe him probably stems from at least two different motivations. He calls Jesse “son” in this scene, and it seems equal parts genuine and a put-on. There’s probably some truth to Walt seeing Jesse as a surrogate son, considering all they’ve been through. Moreover, Mike also served as a father figure for Jesse, so it makes sense that Walt doesn’t want Jesse to think that Walt's responsible for the death of Jesse's other role model. At the same time though, his calling Jesse “son” is also a manipulative ploy, one to get Jesse to go along with Walt’s wishes (as is the case with most of their interactions). Walt needs Jesse to trust him, lest Walt really need to look over his shoulder, thus Walt’s adamancy in this scene. Jesse’s right when he says that Walt does not leave loose ends, and despite calling Jesse son, it could be that Walt does not trust Jesse enough to feel comfortable having Jesse know the truth about Mike. Regardless, by this point, Jesse knows how Walt operates, and he can barely contain his incredulity over Walt’s story, even though in the end he begrudgingly tells Walt he accepts it (even if he really doesn’t). I'm curious to see what role Jesse ends up playing over these final episodes.

Other thoughts:

- As haunting as most of that first scene might be, a bit of levity is injected at the end, when Walt is spotted by his neighbor, Carol, who is stricken with terror at the sight of him, and Walt blandly greets her with, “Hello, Carol.” Clearly this is a scene from the last episode of the series; unless Walt kidnaps or murders Carol, she's going to call the police, thus whatever Walt's goal is at this point in the future, it's probably not very long term. (This scene is also nicely paralleled later in the episode, when family man Walt greets Carol after saying goodbye to Hank and Marie). 

- Nice stylistic touch: when Hank gets into his car near the start of the episode, Walt’s hand quickly juts into frame to stop Hank’s door from closing. The framing makes it startling, and by extension somewhat threatening, even though it’s ultimately an innocuous gesture: Walt is the picture of kindly concern, holding little Holly and asking Hank if he’s okay to drive. The startle effect does a good job of conveying some of Hank’s subjectivity now that he has suspicions about Walt: even Walt’s innocuous gestures make Hank jumpy. Subsequently, we’ll actually get access to his subjectivity as the sound distorts during the drive home.

- Even Skyler’s able to scare Lydia. Lydia: skittish boob unto death, it seems. Anyone want to place bets on how, exactly, she’s going to die? Or who will kill her?

- Speaking of Lydia, she wants Walt to come back and give some lessons on meth cooking to improve their product. Perhaps the widespread revelation that Walt is Heisenberg is not a product of Hank’s pursuit, but of Walt’s inability to extricate himself from Lydia and the meth business. It would certainly help to explain the machine gun in the trunk of Walt’s car.

- The opening scene reminds us once again of that vial of ricin Walt has stashed away. That thing has become Chekov’s ricin – we’re all just waiting to see who it will be used on.

- Nice touch: when Hank emerges from the bathroom, the sounds of the rest of the family are muted until he opens the glass door to the patio, at which point the first discernible dialogue is Marie telling Walt in jest, “You are the devil.”

- Walt’s all about efficiency. Now that he’s out of the meth business, rather than trying to perfect the purest cook, instead he’s thinking of ways to maximize the car wash’s air freshener sales.

- Badger is always good for some comic relief. I enjoyed his Star Trek script.

- Lest Walt’s powers of intuition seem supernatural, he almost goes back into the house prior to checking his car for the GPS tracker. It’s almost too much, even for him.

- Jesse’s solution to his money problem is inspired: give it away by distributing it like a paperboy.

- Bryan Crantson is fantastic in the final scene. Prior to the altercation, close-ups repeatedly feature Walt when Hank is turned away from him, and each time, there’s pointed calculation in Walt’s eyes as he weighs Hank’s behavior. It's an extremely subtle change in expression.

1 comment:

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