Monday, September 23, 2013

Breaking Bad Season 5, Episode 15, “Granite State”

I thought last week’s episode went about as far as Breaking Bad would go in destroying the lives of its characters, but the penultimate episode has proven me wrong, as this week, things fall to pieces even further: Walt must flee New Mexico and hide out in a cabin in New Hampshire; he loses what little connection he thought might still remain between himself and his family, as well as what little pride he had left in his accomplishments, and he also inadvertently invites into Skyler's life the threat of danger that so terrorized her when she first began to learn about Walt’s life as a meth cook.

 Let’s deal with the last of these developments first. Contrary to Walt’s hypothetical scenario in his “I am the one who knocks” speech, when real danger finally comes to the White door, it does not knock, but silently sneaks in through the back, and waits threateningly by their infant’s crib. In an incredibly chilling scene, Todd gently warns Skyler not to talk to the police about the black-haired lady she once saw at the car wash (i.e., Lydia, whom Skyler clearly hadn’t thought of since she first saw her). This scene puts Todd’s sociopathic nature to its creepiest and most unsettling use yet. His “boy next door” demeanor and placid voice are disturbing enough when juxtaposed with his casual brutality, but when you throw in a black ski mask to cover up his face, he becomes truly menacing.

Lydia certainly put Todd and the Aryans up to this little home invasion endeavor; she’s nothing if not paranoid, and she takes advantage of Todd’s affection for her, trying to get him to kill Skyler to keep her from talking. Ah, the things young Todd will do for love. Luckily for Skyler, Todd doesn’t want to kill unless he has to. When Todd tells Lydia about his encounter with Skyler, his desire to please her is almost palpable (he’s like a homicidal puppy), but Lydia’s disappointment and frustration over Todd’s gentle approach almost matches her perpetual anxiety. With this scene, most of the pieces of the flashforward at the start of the season have finally fallen into place: the machine gun is certainly meant for the Aryans (Walt nearly says as much in the scene where he tries to plan his revenge with Saul), and now Walt has the motivation to use the ricin on Lydia (I can envision Walt somehow learning about the threat to Skyler and piecing together that it must have come from Lydia).

As for Walt himself, when Robert Forster’s unnamed fixer character describes the terms of his continued assistance to Walt, it becomes clear that Walt is just as much imprisoned in the tiny New Hampshire cabin as he would be were he to fall into federal custody. The only difference is that he has better scenery, and the continued hope that somehow he’ll be able to get Skyler and Walt Jr. his remaining barrel of money. Walt’s restlessness is apparent immediately, both in his agitation over the terms Forster sets (or rather, the good advice he provides), and in Walt’s impulse to head into town, Heisenberg hat on his head and pockets full of cash, as soon as Forster departs. However, for the first time in a long time, he has second thoughts. He stops on the verge of leaving his new hideaway, and thinks the better of it, promising to himself that he’ll go tomorrow.

Thus it is somewhat surprising that we next see Walt approach the gate not to leave, but to eagerly welcome Forster’s monthly visit after many months have passed. Nowhere is it clearer that this cabin has become Walt’s prison than when he offers Forster $10,000 to stay for a few hours, a twinge of desperation in his voice. Here Walt also begins to realize that his goal of getting his money to Skyler and Walt Jr. is fading. Both Saul and Forster have drilled into Walt the impossibility of Walt remaining free should he contact his family (or appear in public), thus Walt’s only contact with the world is Forster, who is under no obligation to help Walt achieve this goal. Walt is essentially stuck in yet another impossible situation, one he finally seems overcome by.

Walt thinks he’s arrived at a solution by using Walt Jr.'s friend Lewis as an intermediary, but Walt doesn't realize that the logistics of getting the money to his family is a small problem compared to the difficulty of getting them to accept it at all. He manages to get Walt Jr. on the phone (in a nice bit of subterfuge on Walt’s part – he calls Walt Jr.’s school and has a bar patron pose as Marie), and does his best to explain himself and his plan, but with Hank dead, his usual rationalizations sound as hollow as we've long known them to be, and Walt Jr. wants none of it. When Walt realizes Walt Jr. won’t accept the money, Walt is defeated, and when Walt Jr. concludes the conversation by wishing that Walt would “just die already,” Walt breaks. Despondent, he calls the Albuquerque DEA and waits for his impending arrest. His greatest fears have been realized: it has all been for nothing, or less than nothing, because now his family is far worse off than they would have been had he never started cooking meth in the first place.

However, he’s pulled back from this edge of despair when his pride – his most consistent trait – once again reasserts itself. He catches his former Gray Matter partners Elliot and Gretchen Schwartz talking about him in an interview with Charlie Rose.* Naturally, the Schwartzes are trying to distance their company from Walt as much as possible, rankling Walt's pride. He grows increasingly tense as the interview progresses, but the key moment is when Charlie asks Gretchen if Walt is still out there, and Gretchen replies, “I can’t speak to this ‘Heisenberg’ that people refer to, but whatever he became, the sweet, kind, brilliant man that we once knew long ago, he’s gone.” As Walt hears this, a realization washes over his face, and his jaw becomes set in determination. The Schwartzes are right; the man they knew is gone: his family is ruined, his relationship with them damaged beyond all repair, and all of
his efforts at providing for them have amounted to nothing. All that remains is the part of him that successfully waged wars with other gangsters, that concocted ingenious escapes from one impossible situation after another, and that took pride in his craft and his empire. In other words, only Heisenberg remains, and as he told Skyler on the phone last week, he still has some things to do. Watch out Jack, Todd, and Lydia. Heisenberg is coming for you.

*I enjoy it when television shows or films tangentially incorporate non-fictional characters into their worlds. It is very effective at making me think about what a story would look like to an outsider who hasn’t spent a lot of time following the principal characters. 

UPDATE: Alan Sepinwall offers a compelling and moderately different interpretation of what the show has to say about Heisenberg and those who would glorify him in his review of this week's episode: Heisenberg is the clownish fantasy of a sickly man, one who offers no escape from the harsh realities laid bare in this week's episode. I mostly agree with him, except for the way the episode ends. If this episode were truly meant as a reality check for those who would glorify Heisenberg, then it is difficult to reconcile it ending by building up anticipation over Walt unleashing furious vengeance on those who have wronged him (which is precisely the kind of response I think this final scene is designed to solicit, aided in no small part by the music). Perhaps it's a matter of Breaking Bad having its cake and eating it too.

As powerful as the scenes with Walt and Skyler were this week, the most powerful, shocking, and emotionally brutal part of this episode concerns Jesse. Like Walt, Jesse is not content to go quietly into the night, so he stages an escape attempt. When he’s caught, he lets his anger and frustration get the best of him, and he shouts at the Aryans to kill him because he’s never going to cook for them again. Essentially, Jesse calls Todd’s bluff about Andrea and Brock. Unfortunately, Todd was not bluffing. What follows is the most wrenching and difficult part of the episode, and quite possibly the entire series: Todd goes to Andrea’s house, lures her out with the promise of seeing Jesse, and then shoots her in the back of the head, all while Jesse, bound and gagged, watches from a truck parked down the street.

One reason this scene is so powerful and horrifying is that it is one of the few times we’ve seen Walt or Jesse’s actions directly destroy the life of an innocent, well-developed character. Of course, Walt and Jesse have had many previous victims, but in each of these cases there have been mitigating circumstances that have insulated both viewers and Walt and Jesse from the horror of their actions. This insulation is missing from Andrea’s death. The most obvious antecedents are Jane’s father and the plane passengers who died in the midair collision caused by his distraction over Jane’s death. However, these events are only indirectly related to Walt’s actions. True, if Walt saves Jane, the accident never happens, but Walt is a step removed from their deaths, and a midair collision is hardly a consequence Walt could have foreseen. This is not the case with Andrea; Jesse could have easily prevented her murder if he had only taken Todd’s threat more seriously, or hadn’t lost his temper.

Other obvious antecedents for “innocent lives ruined” are the hundreds of thousands of people who have consumed Walt and Jesse’s meth. However, much like the plane passengers, these victims are off-screen abstractions rather than moderately developed characters like Andrea. She hasn’t been an important character on the show since Gus died, but at one point, she and Brock were the best things about Jesse’s life, and they served an important function in keeping Jesse a sympathetic character. Additionally, many of Walt and Jesse’s customers likely chose to use meth in the first place, and thus are somewhat complicit in their own presumed ruination. Again, this is not the case for Andrea. She’s stayed clean, and is doing her best to provide a good life for her son, not realizing the danger her association with Jesse has placed her in.

And of course, Hank and Marie are also Walt's victims, but at least they had some agency in their fates. Hank chose not to go to the DEA without hard evidence, just like he chose to call Marie first after he arrested Walt, rather than first requesting DEA backup. Their fates are tragic, but they chose to play chess with Walt, whereas Andrea didn’t even realize she was a pawn in his game. Something similar could be said of all of the other people Jesse and Walt have either killed or had others kill: each had some complicity in Walt and Jesse’s affairs, and knew, to varying degrees, what they were getting themselves into (even Jane, whose last encounter with Walt prior to her overdose involved her blackmailing him). Unlike all of these characters, Andrea had no agency in her death, and would have tried to get as far away from Jesse as possible had she known the extent of his compromised morality.

Finally, this scene is also so powerful because of Aaron Paul’s magnificent performance. Jesse has always been a kind and empathic character. One of the reasons he distanced himself from Andrea and Brock in the first place was to protect them. So to have inadvertently caused her death is doubly painful for him, and his sorrow and rage have a primal intensity to them. This scene is as marvelous in its execution as it is awful in its emotional impact, and is one of the most powerful moments in the entire series. Just like how Walt has been shattered by the events of the past two episodes, so too has Jesse had his worst fears realized. Walt’s path to the end of the series is rather clear, but Jesse remains a final wild card; nothing we’ve seen in the flashforward has hinted at the role he’ll play in the series finale. I can’t wait to find out, and to enjoy the conclusion of this fantastic series.

Other thoughts:

- Great casting of Robert Forster as Saul’s fixer/person-disappearance expert. Not only was his understated, weary performance a pleasure, but it nicely complimented both Walt’s initial restlessness, and then his desperate loneliness.

- The episode begins with a nice surprise when Saul, not Walt, exits Forster’s minivan. I guess Saul simply knew too much, and was too close to Walt’s business to face the pressures the DEA would have exerted on him.

- When the Aryans have a viewing party for Jesse’s confession, the first part of it that we hear is Jesse describing how he murdered Gale. Murdering Gale was one of Jesse’s most transformative moments in the run of the series, his first real turn toward the darkness Walt had already embraced, and that would continue to consume Jesse more and more as the series progressed. So of course, the Aryans talk over it and make fun of Jesse for being so emotional about it. There isn’t much more the show can do to further increase our hatred of them, is there?

- “The heart wants what the heart wants.” Jack is a sentimentalist, ultimately.

- Just prior to the scene between Walt and Saul, we see Forster’s character talking on the phone, asking questions about the thickness of some unknown object made of “mild steel.” Then he responds to an inaudible question by saying, “No, this would be cash.” Only retrospectively does it become apparent that he’s negotiating for the purchase of the tanker that he will later use to transport Walt to New Hampshire. Some subtle storytelling here.

- I also enjoyed the scene between Walt and Saul. It performs two nice plot functions: not only does it provide a means of airing Walt’s options (and for Walt to resolutely refuse to go quietly into the night), but Saul also provides a nice summary of exactly what kind of pressure the DEA is going to put on Skyler (and how difficult it will be for Walt to contact her), so that we needn’t bother with a firsthand account of Skyler learning about her predicament, which would doubtlessly take a lot longer than Saul’s summary. Saul gives us the plot logistics, and then the show provides the emotional payoff by concentrating Skyler’s anxiety and fear into a powerful moment of subjectivity, when she zones out while being harangued by the DEA. It’s nice moment of narrative efficiency.

- As soon as Walt is out from under the thumb of the Aryans, he instantly begins plotting how to exact revenge on them, spouting familiar phrases like “my life’s work,” “my family,” and “my money.” Walt is nothing if not consistent.

- The scene where the Todd and Aryans sneak into the White household and threaten Skyler is suitably chilling, but I was a bit nonplussed by its coming nearly on the heels of the scene where Saul stresses the impossibility of Walt attempting to contact Skyler. Would it really be so impossible if the DEA’s security detail is so lax that they miss three people dressed like burglars sneaking into the back of the house? Or rather, why is the DEA’s security suddenly so lax if Walt is public enemy number one at the moment? This seemed like a bit of a contrivance to me. It was one of the few off notes in an otherwise amazing episode.

- This was truly a showcase episode for Todd. In addition to the scenes where he threatens Skyler and murders Andrea, he also gets a number of nice moments in his scene with Lydia: when she walks into the coffee shop for their meeting, he has a look on his face that smacks of eager anticipation. I can practically see his heart thumping in his chest. He’s also dressed up nicely for her. He just oozes small town charm when he’s not threatening to kill and/or killing people. He also does a terrible job of keeping up the pretense that he and Lydia aren’t talking to one another when she sits behind him; he routinely looks over his shoulder to speaks with her (even resting his head on his bicep when he entices her with the 92% purity of his latest cook, in a sort of funhouse-mirror version of flirtation). He’s just as thrown by Lydia’s stupid attempts at discretion as Walt and Mike were when they met with her, except Todd’s too smitten with her to push the point. She has him wrapped around her finger. She knows it too: Note that she uses relationship terms to describe her decision to cease business with Todd in the wake of his failure to kill Skyler. She tells him, “We’re going to have to take a break.”

- I was impressed by Aaron Paul’s athleticism in performing Jesse’s escape from his prison. No cheating through editing here; Paul legitimately balanced atop a folded mattress, blanket, and bucket, and then successfully jumped and grabbed the bars of his grated ceiling.

- Walt’s conversation with Walt Jr. was great. I particularly liked Walt’s whispered plea, “It can’t all be for nothing. Please.” It is perhaps the saddest moment for Walt in an episode filled sad moments.

- Nice touch: we see Walt react after Gretchen tells Charlie Rose that the Walt she knew is gone, but when the police arrive to arrest him, he has literally vanished from the bar.

- I loved the incorporation of the more elaborate rendition of the show’s opening credit music into the episode’s final scene. Breaking Bad’s music has always been a very strong point, much like the show’s cinematography.

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