‘Breaking Bad,’ the final season: A watching brief

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Starlee Kine

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Each week, Starlee Kine writes about the latest episode of "Breaking Bad." This is the fourth installment. Earlier: What Walter White wants.

“You did what you had to do to protect your family, and I’m sorry, that doesn’t make you a bad person. It makes you a human being.”

So says Walter White to his wife as she desperately tries to take responsibility for his actions. The inner justifications that play on a loop in his head are suddenly coming out of his mouth. It’s like when you plug your iPod into a speaker and fill the room with sounds that normally only you can hear.

Walt’s a monster, but what made him one did start from a human place. His pride was injured, his masculinity challenged. The density of this show’s structure, its tightly confined world, causes overlapping patterns to emerge.

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Take Marie and Hank on their way to Walt’s sad birthday dinner. Marie has so far managed to keep the secret of Skyler’s affair from presumably the one person it would matter to, Hank (I’m guessing she told her therapist, Dave, all about it). In marriage time, a few days is an eternity. Little by little she lets key bits of information fall out: “It involves infidelity, that’s all I’m going to say.” (It isn't all.)

The scene is shot in way that makes it look like Marie’s driving a space pod but really, what they’re both inside is a bubble. They just have no idea what’s really going on. The ramifications of Walt’s ego have penetrated their lives in huge ways, such as the bullets that nearly paralyzed Hank, but there are all these small ways too. Marie is so distracted by the secret Walt strategically fed her that she can’t properly praise her husband for a promotion he took mainly for her benefit. It’s like Walt said, secrets create barriers between people.

Klepto Marie has her busybody, O.C.D.-Splenda-packet-opening moments, but I really got the impression that she was sincerely struggling not to let the cat out of the bag. There’s a selflessness in her desire to not embarrass Skyler or Walt, a love for her family. Then Hank says he knew it all along: “Sorry babe, I was way ahead of you on this one.” With that some primal pride in Marie stirs and Skyler’s reputation is once again compromised in order to redirect the tide of a conversation. It reminded me of a drunken Walt not being able to allow Hank to go on believing Gale was Heisenberg, even though it was in his best interest to do so.

Marie could’ve saved her sister’s reputation by allowing Hank to think that he had the right man, but she couldn’t stomach the idea of being unjustly bested by him. Or of his thinking Skyler had been one-upped by dweeby Walt.

Having an affair shouldn’t count as a victory but then again, neither should setting off a pipe-bomb in an old-age home. In "Breaking Bad," so much of the tension comes from the sense of constant competition. Rarely though is it a race to be the best. It’s all about being the shrewdest, most cutthroat (literally in the case of Gus and Victor), of having the last word. Walt Jr. wishes his dad a happy birthday but it comes before a congratulations to his uncle. While Walt sits back, so pleased with himself for providing a means for speed to his disabled son, Hank yells out, “Slow down,” followed by an off-screen last word (“never!”) from Jr.

I almost never think parties on television shows or movies work because they’re always full of fake friends and colleagues who you will never see again or at least not until the next party. In the "Breaking Bad" pilot, Walt is thrown a surprise party by Skyler and it’s filled with those kinds guests. It gets a pass, though, because the birthday benchmark device is such a great one and also, that pilot is the best. Plus it’s not hard to imagine who might have been at a pre-cancer Walter White gathering. Fellow teachers, neighbors, parents of Walt Jr.’s friends. What is much harder to figure out is how Walt can address the voids in his new world. How does he go about assembling a lifestyle from scratch that befits a high-ranking drug kingpin, all while staying on the down-low and maintaining a double life as a middle-class suburban dad?

Gus was able to do it because he didn’t have the same desperate need to be acknowledged and validated that Walt has. Gus was in the Stringer Bell class of murderous criminals. He took his legitimate business as seriously as he took his illegitimate one and understood the importance of being an influential part of the community at large. He was golfing with Germans and attending barbecues with Hank’s boss. He got off on the whole hiding in plain sight thing, sure, but he thought highly enough of himself that it was enough for just he to know.

The same does not apply to Walter White. He’s embarrassed over being seen as just the owner of a car wash and he resents authority too much to contribute to the police department. His only friend is a man he can never introduce to his family.

And love meant something much more real to Gus than it does to Walt. When the man Gus thought of as a brother was murdered, he embarked on a much longer game of revenge than Walt would ever be capable of.

Walt’s loved ones are only used to either justify or enable his power-hungry rise to the top.

When Jesse’s girlfriend Jane choked to death right in front of Walt, he was wracked with guilt. He sent Jesse to a center to detox. While in the clutches of a drugged-out, sleep deprived stupor, he apologized to Jesse for what he’d done. And yet last week we saw Walter blithely manipulate Jesse into breaking up with his new girlfriend, a girl who obviously brought him the most happiness he’d felt since Jane.

After Skyler jumps into the pool, it is all Walt can do to get through the conversation with Hank and Marie (which Marie began by at first trying to game him into believing she hadn’t said anything to Hank). Bryan Cranston’s face in that scene was incredible. That classic bored skyward glance as Marie assured him “these things happen in a marriage.” I wouldn’t have been surprised if he’d just nodded off.

In the pre-credit teaser with Benny the mechanic, Walt’s making that look a lot. He can’t believe that after everything that’s happened he’s going to be sitting behind the Aztec’s wheel again. “I’ll bet you’ll get another 200,000 miles out of her,” says Benny. There’s been a lot of that this season, indications that in a practical sense everyone’s back exactly where they started (except Jesse, who's ahead), only now it’s worse because of how much blood has been spilled. Walt’s worked so hard to stay alive, to win all the rounds, and for what? Again, the handiness of those birthday bookends really helps hammer this in. Even without the year he’s had, Walt would probably have been sighing in that mechanic's parking lot at the thought of turning 51 and having nothing to show for it. Even the balance for the Aztec’s repairs comes to zero. Nothing owed, nothing gained.

Then he catches sight of Heisenberg’s hat, sitting on the Aztec’s passenger seat, and it reminds him of the man he both is and most likes being. I actually found the shot of Heisenberg’s reflection in the rear view mirror a little too—I don’t know, John Turturro in Secret Window. I much preferred the moment back at the house, when Marie brings up taking the kids for a little while and then slowly you watch as Heisenberg comes and sits down in plain sight, right at the White’s kitchen table. “Marie, this idea,” asks Heisenberg, “was it yours?”

There is nothing that perks Walt up like scheming. Everything else is just a way of making time pass. Feigning decency has become his day job. Or maybe it always was. That speech he made at the pool, his back turned to Skyler who was teetering on the edge, reminded me of the one that he gave in the hospital cafeteria after Hank had been shot.

“Remember how scared we were. I didn’t want to act like it but I was terrified,” said Walt. “I never wanted to be stuck in traffic so bad in my life. At least I was with my family. I had that.”

The speech was pivotal in that it caused Skyler to soften toward him and end things with Ted Beneke, even though her moments with Ted were the only time she felt any peace. At the time, I was just as sold on Walt’s contrition as she was.

Then last night, after the microwaved roast chicken has been eaten and the probably store-bought chocolate cake partaken of, Walt’s again in a storytelling kind of mood. He starts reminiscing about when he first got diagnosed, the day after his birthday the year before.

“So many dark days. I did not want to get any treatment. I think I was too scared or too angry, I don’t know. I just wanted to quit. You guys, you got me through it somehow.”

He talks about being so sick he just wanted to lie against the bathroom tiles because they were cool, but now all the story beats feel so manufactured and creepy. It’s when he’s being casual that he’s at his most dangerous. “Honey remember that first week of chemo?” It made me think that the hospital speech must have come from a false place too. It did, after all, earn him some much needed points. Back then, it seemed like he only got those because for once he was being honest, but now it seems like the opposite must have been true.

Once again, into the pool drops wreckage caused by Walt’s deeds. This time it’s Skyler who is falling. Now she is the one doing the scheming. But even though it’s all part of her plan to get the children out of the house, didn’t her face look serene when she was floating under the water? That shot of Walt coming to her “rescue,” that quick edit, I know was supposed to remind me of all sorts of horror movies, but really, the first thing that came to mind was Pepé Le Pew. You know, when the cat with the painted tail manages to get away for a second before Pepé drags her back, still whispering sweet nothings, convinced as ever that she’s into him too?

Walt and Skyler’s fight mirrored the ones he used to have with Jesse, not even so long ago. That magic she talked about, a lot of it has to do with his ability to convince his opponent that he’s smarter than they. Jesse still believes that Walt is a good man, someone worth protecting. He tells her that Jesse changed his mind about him and so will she, but I think that particular game ended with Skyler the same day he beat Gus. She blows smoke in his face hoping to trigger the cancer, like a little kid who's cobbled together just enough facts about the physical world to assemble a plan out of cereal-box trivia.

I’ve had problems with Skyler’s storyline before but I thought she came into her own last night. I always liked how all three of the women of this show were given their own games to play, ranging from Marie’s little power struggle with Hank all the way to Lydia’s murderous scheme to get out of her deal with Mike. Mike blames sexism for his not having killed Lydia (which I thought was his way of reiterating “No more half measures”) but it’s just as sexist not to let the women characters be as underhanded as the men.

Jittery new Lydia is so interesting to watch. She doesn’t act anything like the other people on this show. Mike’s transition from minor character to main was seamless. His ethics, his bald head, his choice of eating establishments. With Lydia, there are a lot of unanswered questions the blanks of which are not so easy to fill in. I’m definitely using pencil on her backstory, not pen. She’s the loose thread on Heisenberg’s hat, the kind that if left undealt with could cause everything to unravel.

I'm with Mike: I do think it was she who attached the surveillance device to the bottom of that barrel, although then there’s the issue of the breakers. Why is she having such a hard time with them while trying to let her new fixer, who turns out to be Jesse, into the warehouse undetected? Wouldn’t she have had to cut the breakers to turn the cameras off to plant the device, too? I suppose her old fixer could've done it, before he was picked up by the D.E.A.

But really any official monitoring died with Gus, along with any sort of functional check-and-balance system. Jesse says the decision whether to kill Lydia is a “voting thing” but that’s only because he’s always hated the idea of premeditated killing. Even though Walt answers when Jesse asks for his vote, his actions lately indicate Walt has no interest in democracy. But just because Gus is gone, doesn’t mean our guys aren’t being watched. Perhaps it’s more akin to that moment when Lydia switched off the breaker.

A few episodes ago I found it suspicious when one of the guys from Vamonos Pest Control (Jesse Plemons, the actor, played Landry Clarke on "Friday Night Lights," so he's just Landry to me) warned about the nanny-cam in one of the houses but said he'd shut it off. As with a cough, you don’t throw lines like that in for nothing. (I thought I heard another cough from Walt last night too, in voice-over, when he was competing with Walt Jr. over who was a better driver.) If Landry is working undercover, he doesn’t know about the meth because Hank definitely isn’t onto Walt yet (that’s coming soon, though, I can feel it; I predict a Hank-heavy episode next week).

The first thing I thought of when I saw Jesse’s watch at the end of the episode was that there was a bug planted inside, but that was more an instinct than anything based on logic. The show would have to do an awful lot of convoluted explaining to convince us that Jesse’s been turned and that’s just not the "Breaking Bad" style.

Then again, this was the most meta-episode I’ve ever seen. Benny’s insistence on the Aztec being a good car. Marie calling the silent infant, Holly, the easiest baby that was ever born and also saying that it feels like longer than a year has passed since Walt was diagnosed. The close-up of Jr.’s breakfast plate. These are all observations and jokes made by the viewers over the years, and I’m wondering if now that we’re nearing the end, the show has become more conscious of its own loose ends that it still needs to tie up. This happened with "Lost" in its final season: its creators actively reading the online comments about the show and then scrambling to answer as many questions as they could before their time was up. Not that I am comparing the elegant tapestry that is "Breaking Bad" with the endearing hand-knit potholder that was that show.

Last season, we kept hearing dings in elevators and doorbells until we arrived at the one that blew up Gus. As we near the final episode, it seems that this season is all about the ticking. With each tick of the second-hand of Walt’s timepiece, a different metaphor could be checked off. Figurative time bomb. Literal time bomb. Number of exhales by Skyler until she sets off Walt’s cancer.

Sometimes a watch is just a watch. One that’s sitting on a nightstand in front of a light plate that conceals an object that is definitely not just a cigarette.

Photos by Ursula Coyote/AMC except where otherwise indicated.