3:55 pm Jul. 16, 20123
Each Monday, Starlee Kine will write about the previous night's episode of "Breaking Bad." This is the first installment.
After so many months gone, we return in the future.
Walter White is eating breakfast in a Denny’s, just like at the start of last season. Only then he had Jesse Pinkman with him, the two of them in their matching Kenny Rogers T-shirts, after having gambled their lives and won.
Now Walt is alone, and on his apparent birthday, too. He snaps the bacon on his plate in half as though he is breaking its neck and then arranges it into the number fifty two over his eggs and hash browns. It looks a little like an atomic bomb going off, which could signify many things; the short fuse that is Walt’s temper when his pride has been bruised; the cancer that may be again spreading through his lungs; the machine gun he’s about to exchange an envelope full of cash for.
Right before he does, though, he takes a moment to continue chatting with his waitress. She mentions a trip she once took back east, to a town outside Boston, Swampscott (“I want to say I liked it”) and Walt looks lost in his thoughts as he nods and says, “Great science museum.”
And with that line, we are reminded of the man we started out on this trip with, also on his birthday. That one was his fiftieth and since about a year passed between the series premiere and the season four finale, that means that either this Blade Runner Denny’s world is either happening another year after that … or Walt’s alias, Mr. Lambert, has a different birthday from his.
The gun dealer is played by character actor Jim Beaver who, judging from the way the internet freaked out over his cameo, I’m assuming is pretty beloved. I’ve never seen "Deadwood" or "Justified" so factor this into your reading of my critical assessment if you like; but judging from the way Walt tells the dealer that the gun is never leaving town, it seems he’s not feeling great about being alive at all and is intending to remedy that problem very soon.
Signing onto "Breaking Bad" can feel being on Adderall, both in the way it makes your heart feel like it’s going to burst out of your chest and also because it’s all about the extended release. If the show is, as Vince Gilligan has said from the beginning, the story of a Mr. Chips becoming a Scarface, Walt will be dead by the end of the show. The game is now figuring out how this will happen and whether his death will be a literal or moral one; the reference to the ambiguous final Sopranos diner scene at this Denny's, as he notices a man enter the restaurant out of the corner of his eye, did not feel accidental.
Scarface was shot in the back and even if he isn’t literally felled by Jesse, I anticipate some sort of final betrayal from Walt’s impressionable prodigy. I know that in the history of filmed entertainment there has never been an accidental cough and so all indications are that Walt’s cancer is back.
Walt’s cough and those pills, chugged in haste in the Denny's bathroom after the gun dealer leaves him there, seemed too overt for this show, at least this early on in the beginning of the end; but one thing is for sure, it won’t be Walt’s disease that brings him down.
Last season he told Walt Jr. about his father, who died of Huntington’s disease. His only memory of him is of the rattling sound his breath made: “There was nothing in it,” he tells his son. “I don’t want that to be the memory you have of me when I’m gone.”
He was referring to the weakened state he was in while under the influence of painkillers and booze, but he might as well have been talking about the cancer too. Walt Jr. tells him, “Remembering you that way wouldn’t be so bad. The bad way to remember you is the way you’ve been this whole last year. At least last night you were real.”
For Walt, though, the real, most true version of himself is Heisenberg. He’d rather have his son remember him as powerful kingpin, who backed down to no one and did what he had to, to provide for his family on his own terms. He’s clearly not happy to hear Walt Jr. go on, a bit later, about how his brother-in-law D.E.A. agent Hank is an even bigger hero now that Gus is dead, and Hank's theories vindicated. It’s the sort of remark that could wind up with Albuquerque burned to the ground.
Walt’s real self is represented less in the science museum line then in what he does as he leaves the diner. Under the plate he leaves behind, the food almost untouched, he slips a hundred-dollar bill, despite her having told him his breakfast was on the house. This seemed to me to be not an act of generosity but of bravado. Walter White has never been one to react maturely to the offer of a free anything. As far as I’m concerned, that waitress has a speck or two of blood on her hands for whatever happens next. It also raises the question of why he showed her his ID, proving it was his birthday, if he hadn't intended to accept the free meal. I think it was a combination of wanting a little morning fix of risk taking and, as always, wanting to be acknowledged and seen even when it’s not really him. Once again he’s in the position of not being able to come out and say who he is or take credit for all the things he’s done.
Then we are back where we last left off. Skyler is on the phone with Walt, looking terrified as Walt tells her, “I won.” Walt busies himself around the house disposing of evidence. This show is so good at addressing loose ends and Walt remembered the Lily of the Valley plant at the same instant I thought of it too (although the way Saul presented the ricin cigarette was a little too wrapping-up for me.) His cleaning up the kitchen harkened to the early days of the show, all those scenes with him and Jesse setting up their D.I.Y. lab. I never thought that bathtub acid scene would seem almost carefree in comparison to what he’s dealing with now. He only manages to take one gulp of his bourbon before he remembers another, bigger problem: That lab surveillance camera that he loathed, because of its telltale heart aspect—it always made him feel watched and judged, though it was also ultimately his only way of getting Gus’ attention.