‘Breaking Bad,’ the final season: The long game

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The great train robbery. ()
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Starlee Kine

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Each week, Starlee Kine writes about the latest episode of "Breaking Bad." Earlier: A watching brief.

Until the final 10 seconds of this week’s episode, I was convinced that the new guy was working undercover.

Then he took out his gun and proved himself to be the most ruthless criminal we’ve seen yet.

To understand, in any way, Walt’s progression from victim to oppressor, you need to have been watching "Breaking Bad" from the beginning.

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Like the broken plate Walt reassembles all the way back in the first season, each new horrible act played a role in bringing us to where we are today. But there’s another aspect that results from watching a show like this so closely for so long. You become aware of its rhythms and rules. While you rarely can predict what will happen, you do begin to anticipate what won’t.

A friend of mine asked me last week whether I thought Hank already suspected Walt of being Heisenberg, but the show just isn’t letting me think about it yet. I answered with confident "No." 

While I think there are moments when Hank’s gut tells him something isn’t right, like when his boss gave the whole "right under his nose" speech about Gus, I don’t believe that Hank knows anything more than he’s been shown to know. After four seasons, I’ve come to understand that that just isn’t this show’s style. Even though its final scenes are often game changers, it’s not because they’re full of unexpected twists. Rather they’re payoffs to carefully laid plans that have been in the works all season—or else, as was the case this week, they’re punchlines to bitter ironies.

Even when it was revealed that it was Walt and not Gus who poisoned Brock, all the information you needed had been embedded in the episode before. We’d seen Walt’s spinning gun stop and point at the Lily of the Valley potted plant. We saw both Jesse and Skyler try to call Walt and found them unable to get hold of him; during those scenes, we also didn’t see any scenes with him, which left us with several unaccounted for hours. In the the week before the season finale, many online commenters predicted that Walt was gaming Jesse—and one Vulture commenter even correctly called it about the plant. The clues might have been difficult and required a level of botanical familiarity outside most people’s comfort zone, but they were there.

So part of the game of "Breaking Bad" is remembering that we are playing too. Last week, I watched Lydia fumble with the fuse box, as though she were being confronted with it for the first time; and yet I still found myself halfheartedly filling in my own explanation instead of accepting that the show was telling me something. We the viewers were shown a moment in time that the other characters weren’t, and that never happens by accident.

In the case of Lydia it’s still a matter of trust. Just because she’s proven to have told the truth once doesn’t mean she’s in the clear. It could be a set-up for an even bigger sting. The fact that we only see the back of her laptop in the scene where she calls the gang (we don’t know if she’s now reporting to Walt or Mike) to relay the train’s coordinates could be read as a clue, or a calculated misdirect.

Earlier, Mike tells Lydia to call Hank and read the script she’s been given. He tells her that if she panics or screams or breaks down in tears (“Remember how you like to do that?”) he’ll shoot her in the head. She’s not this episode’s fake crier, though. That’s Walt, who sits sobbing in Hank’s office until the second the office door clicks.

I know that this is partly a plot device, but for a man who seems to no longer care about anyone but himself, he is proving to be an expert in human nature—as long as it helps him to bring off a scheme.

This particular plan was contingent on Hank becoming uncomfortable at the sight of Walt breaking down, enough so that he might flee the room, which means Walt would’ve had to anticipate his brother-in-law’s reaction, and manipulate it.

Walt’s been alternating between his two worlds long enough that he seems to be on autopilot when it comes to playing the emasculated husband. He slips into the role easily.

Whereas in the past, Walt might’ve flinched when Hank assumed he took his coffee with cream and two sugars (while Hank takes his black, the show makes sure to show us, even going so far to have him pull his cup closer to his chair) now that Walt’s merely acting, he’s grateful for any extra character-establishing prop.

Hank and Marie still have the kids. Walt Jr. is back to being called Flynn. Like father, like son, he is playing at double life, lite. When Flynn too tries to storm back into his home after having been booted out, a knock on the door from Walt puts an end to that plan.

Now that Hank and Marie are playing the role of his parents, Flynn’s giving them the requisite teenage attitude. He scoffs at the idea of watching Heat with his uncle. What once represented freedom now feels like the same daily grind.

The movie, Heat, if you’ll remember, ends with a long-anticipated showdown between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro. At the time, they were both cinematic powerhouses and yet had never shared the screen: they were both in Godfather II but never in the same scene or even time period or country.

De Niro’s classy career thief ends up being taken down by Pacino’s cop, after he tries to pull off just one more heist. I always thought a better ending would’ve been that De Niro got to live but had to leave the woman he loved behind. I could feel the influence of Hollywood’s sanctimonious spirit all over that final scene, the one that said the bad guys could be as cool as we wanted as long as they didn’t actually win in the end.

In "Breaking Bad," the good guys are few and so the showdowns have mostly been reserved for the criminals. Walt and Lydia had been due for one for a while. They’re from similar worlds, at least compared to the ones that Jesse and Mike come from. Lydia is living a double life, although her reasons for doing so feel much more pure: money. Even though it hasn’t been explicitly spelled out, we’ve glimpsed her glass-walled high-floor condo home, her distaste for cheap diner fare, her daughter who she surely is intending to send to a private pre-school.

Despite their similarities, though, when Lydia talks openly about her fear of her daughter ending up in a group home instead, Walt doesn’t seem to relate at all. The only thing on his mind is making more meth, getting back on a schedule, finally setting his ascent to power into motion.

Walt used to be the one who was good at coming up with alternative solutions. Remember the early days of Tuco, when Walt would waltz in with his bags of science tricks? He gained power through smoke and mirrors, not actual violence. Now it’s Jesse with all the ideas. He disengages like a child whose parents are bickering, goes deep into his head, maybe replays old episodes of television shows he loves and then reemerges with one sensible plan after another.

Which means that Walt’s only leverage (and Jesse’s weakness) is his ability to act more ruthless than anyone. And even there, he is lagging. In the season premiere, we already learned that Lydia was capable of committing murder without guilt, something that neither Walt nor Jesse have ever been able to do. That automatically elevates her ahead of them, power-wise, if she can manage to stay alive long enough. With her, it might simply be a class issue. We’ve already seen how she treats her nanny. Those men on Mike’s list, Mike himself, the engineers driving the train, they’re all just the expendable working-class masses to her.

I loved the men who were cast as those engineers. Even the brusquer of the two you would never wish dead. It was such a lighthearted and yet action-paced sequence that even though in retrospect this seems foolish, I allowed myself to just enjoy watching it. It’s rare that one of our guys' plans get pulled off without a hitch, and there certainly was enough suspense for one hour.

The casting of "Friday Night Light" Landry had a lot to do with this episode, too, I’m thinking. I suspect this was even a bit intentional. In the same way that the show is attuned to how aware we are of the rules that have been established for plot and character, Gilligan had to understand, at least somewhat, the sense of well-being the actor, Jesse Plemons, would instill in us. Watching the way teacher-father Walt spoke with him early on made me fear for Landry, in a way I never did with, say, any of Jesse’s deadbeat friends who I’ve “known” for much longer.

In the scene between Skyler and Walt, a ticking clock can be heard in the background. I’m pretty sure it’s not in any other scenes. The fact that it’s happening in the White household makes those ticks feel like telltale heartbeats as well. (Don't forget the ticking clock at the end of the last episode.)

Wall-to-wall carpeting may be good at absorbing sound but it’s Skyler who's absorbing Walt’s many secrets and picking up on all the right clues. “Out burying bodies?” she asks Walt. “Robbing a train,” he answers back.

It seems risky to let her in on so much, about as reckless as a small-business owner walking around with such a flash timepiece on his wrist. All indications are pointing to time running out, and since this show has such a fondness for the sudden, short warning (Hank’s given one minute before the twins show up; Lydia’s given a 30-second heads-up, twice; we, the viewers, are given 10 seconds to process that things are much darker than we realized) it feels it might happen faster than we realized. The inevitability that we’ve been bracing for all season, both in terms of the show ending but also Walt going down, came in the form of that little boy crumbling to the ground. Another kid on a bike shot to death, only this time it’s a result of everyone trying their hardest to do their least worst.

Just like with the magnets, Walt pushes the course of events a little too far. It was a nifty trick to have him shouting out that they had only collected 300 gallons, then flash to the meter that read over 900. Once again Walt sets into motion a chain of events that led to an innocent’s death. Even though an argument can be made that that kid was standing there for a long while, it was still Walt who insisted that they had to get the methylamine in the first place. Walt couldn’t have masterminded a more direct way to hurt Jesse than the death of a child, and because it wasn’t his actual gun that fired the bullet, Jesse will still continue to seek comfort from the very man who has destroyed him. And blame himself, since the train robbery was his idea.

One more thought I had while watching this week and this one upset me. If Walt’s cancer is back, which, you know, cough cough: what if that means that this act we’ve been watching him do runs even deeper? What if he is just pretending to be a monster so that he both manages to make enough money to provide for his family once he’s gone and also so they won’t miss him? Since this is obviously the most unsatisfying note I could imagine this show ending on, I’m going to choose to embrace fully the tempo of this week’s theme and trust it won’t be the case.