Breaking Bad. The study of change, of transformation. Of lives in flux. But then there’s death, isn’t there? Waiting quietly, striking out to claim Hank and Gus and Crazy Eight and all the rest.
Death spared Walt for a long time. It spared Jesse. It spared the show. But it’s all about to end next week. Now we reap what we’ve sown. “Granite State” does what all truly great penultimate episodes do: it describes in vivid strokes the terror of “goodbye.”
We are not afraid of death, really…but of being alive right before it.
Remember last week, when Jesse stared at those birds before squeezing his eyes shut, readying himself for the click of the trigger? It was hard to even conceptualize the direction this great masterpiece could take us after last week’s punishing, all-stops-pulled “Ozymandias.” But “Granite State” sidesteps our expectations and clocks us right in the heart by taking a very unusual tone, very different from the timbre of Breaking Bad, and very brave. It’s a slow story, isolating small human notes from the entire journey and magnifying each of them with love, to remind us that BB is not supposed to entertain us, but show us every awesome and ugly side of human nature.
Take Walt and the money, for example. We’ve seen his Heisenberg fortune in various forms, from luxury cars to vacuum-sealed bags covered in crawlspace dust. In a sense, we always knew that money had a certain kind of supernatural hold on Walt; his naked ambition led back to protecting that big pile of paper, time and time again. But once Walt is left alone and anonymous and dying, with only his barrel for company, we suddenly see the money for what it really is.The scenes revolving around that cash are sparing in their dialogue and painstakingly generous with time and visual detail. To watch him crouch over that barrel, to handle those bills with shaking hands, to try too late and so desperately to finally use it for good, hurts like a bitch. The money’s as alive as its owner, nourished by Walt’s need for power and validation. In the end, the money is a powerful expression of Walt’s raw spiritual want.
But I digress. Let me take it chronologically. Because in “Granite State,” pacing is everything.
First, we get to see WHERE THE RED VAN GOES. What a red-letter day for BB fans (kind of like the day we finally saw White Walkers on Game of Thrones: “I’m so satisfied, but fuck this is escalating quickly”). Act I of this episode is all about the gritty process of changing identities. We finally get to meet the “disappearer,” played by none other than genius character actor Robert Forster! Gilligan is a total whiz at choosing just the right people to play these small but pivotal roles, and Forster really grounds the episode. He’s tough and professional, not unsympathetic but also not unrealistic.
As The Disappearer says, Saul and Walt are two extremely “hot” clients, especially the former meth kingpin. Their chances as anonymous country-dwellin’ folk are still slim at best, and TD makes no bones about it. TD’s attitude reinforces that kind of vivid, hysterically normal pre-death reality I was talking about earlier; it’s all business to him, and the quiet cool with which he conducts his tasks like Photoshopping new drivers licenses seems almost absurd in the face of the truths he’s stating. “There’s a nation-wide manhunt for you,” he reminds Walt. What must it feel like for Walt to hear those calmly spoken words, hiding underground amidst the chaos?
I really enjoyed Bob Odenkirk’s brief screen time as Saul, as I always do. His silliness always relaxes that familiar BB vice grip for a needed moment. Like TD, he’s a realistic guy. He knows he’s weak and he’d just as soon “manage a Cinnabon outside Omaha” then face decades in prison. And what a telling conversation this is, as Walt attempts to browbeat Saul into organizing a hit on Uncle Jack and his crew:
Saul’s done doing Walt’s bidding; there’s no power struggle between these two nobodies now, and the point is hammered home as Walt collapses in a fit of bloody coughing. “It’s over,” says Saul. Finally now, he speaks without a trace of his weaselly swagger. He’s already started imagining himself in that Cinnabon uniform. I’m such a glutton for Goodman that I hope we get one last glimpse of the bastard in our final episode, but if not, this was a logical ending point for the character. Saul is a survivor above all, a cockroach. He knows he’ll never be as fearsome or clever as Walt, but at least he’ll be sane. And alive.
Then we move on to Skyler. These days she’s got a touch of the Jesse Pinkman Dead Eye. I’d call it Pink Eye, but I’m just too classy for that kind of thing.
Walt tried to throw her a bone with the whole “IT WAS MY FAULT, YOU STUPID BITCH” phone tirade last week, but the Feds aren’t convinced. If Sky can’t come up with some kind of clue about Walt’s whereabouts, she is royally effed. No money, no family, no dignity, no one to blame but herself. What a sad position she’s in. We fans like to spotlight Jesse as the prime example of a Walter White victim, but as we watch this steely woman crumble under the weight of karma meant for her husband, it’s hard not to see total tragedy in the way Walt used and abused his marriage.
In fact, like Walt, Skyler’s fatal flaw has been her intelligence and her pride. Once she recovered from the shock, the idea of supporting a lucrative criminal enterprise started to seem dangerous in the sexy way. Remember how turned on she was by the “money laundering” Wikipedia article? Or the exhaustive planning she put into their gambling alibi? Somewhere along the way, the Heisenberg myth sucked her in, too. She learned she was also capable of amazing duplicity. Nothing feels more thrilling and potent than telling a good lie.
And now here she is, right before the end, reaping and reaping. Psycho Todd terrifies the hell out of her in baby Holly’s room, ensuring that she never speaks about Uncle Jack or Madrigal’s involvement in this whole thing. Nazis in the house, family shredded, everything gone. Stare at it. It’s another horrible thing you need to see before the end.
That scene with Todd, amongst MANY in “Granite State,” really shows us what kind of a sociopath we’re dealing with. Todd is actually the opposite of Walt in many ways: where Walt debates murder and is loathe to pull a trigger himself, Todd will pop a cap between bites of breakfast. Where Walt avoids relationships, Todd trots up with a friendly smile. He’s a creature of childlike pleasure and malice. I doubt Skyler will ever forget those big dark beguiling eyes behind the ski mask.
His innocent affection for Lydia is so unnerving against his casual disregard for human life. When Todd first showed up on Breaking Bad, you could smell trouble. No one is that simple, right? Well, Todd and the Nazi crew make it simple. Insane people peddle hard drugs. Cruel killers perpetrate these crimes, and it’s the dregs of humankind that benefit from empires like Heisenbergs. Did you enjoy all the action-adventure? Sweet. Because this is where it got you. This is who wins at meth contests. Not two cool cats in hazmat suits, but a bunch of soulless swastika-tattooed weirdos. If you chose to enjoy this show all the way through, you’ve got to accept its inevitable consequences. More last-minute epiphanies for you, death row viewer.
Speaking of people who feel like they’re condemned:
Can we all agree that (at least until next week), this episode marked the climax of Jesse’s story? What a horrific, beautiful, and nail-biting arc for my favorite lil’ homie.
At the commencement of “Granite State,” still a prisoner of Uncle Jack, Todd, and friends, it would appear that Jesse has checked out. The endless physical/mental torture and the shock of Walt’s poison-tipped arrow – “I watched Jane die” – are amongst the worst things this character has ever been put through. But the beauty of Breaking Bad is that your favorites sometimes zig when you think they’re going to zag, and when they do, it’s dazzling.
Some of us might be too jaded to remember a time when Jesse’s calling card was his boyish ingenuity. He began a slacker and ended a tragic hero, but in the middle he was a fucking clever little problem-solver. MAGNETS, BITCH! When between a rock and a hard place, this character always, always chooses to fight to live. It’s that inexhaustible flame that makes us root for him so hard. Is it crazy to try and use a paper clip, buckets, and sheer upper-arm strength to escape a Nazi-guarded hole? Yeah. So crazy it just might work.
Dear Aaron Paul,
1. You do your own stunts and that shit was fucking harrowing. I love you.
2. You infuse Jesse with such an unexpected scrappy nobility. I love you.
3. The “bitch” you spit at the lock made me so happy. I finally realize what you were talking about. I love you.
(YES. NOW I FINALLY KNOW.)
Anyway, it all goes to shit again. Obviously. Poor kid! He gets caught, and not even his moxie could save him from yet another terrible blow. We all knew it was going to happen. Andrea (and Brock) were Jesse’s last ties to a soul, to a happy ending. Despite all the crap he’s gone through, this character has not yet lost his innate empathy or loyalty. Plus, Andrea means twice as much to him now that he’s haunted by visions of the last girlfriend he put into a murdery situation. Talk about reaping what you sow.
Aaron Paul, in the behind-the-scenes for this episode, commented that after witnessing Andrea’s death, Jesse is finally “totally vacant.” I take this to mean that the character now has a blank emotional slate. Jesse’s baggage has hindered him in the past, bogging him down with guilt or pain or anger and preventing him from doing what needs to get done. And that included rebelling against the man who stole his life. Now that he’s truly lost the last good thing that he loves, it’s my feeling that Jesse can only now become a revenge machine. It’s a sad thought, considering how much complexity he lends the show as its unexpected moral center, but I suppose it’s the only way he would be able to possibly kill Walt. That’s pretty much the last “good” thing we can hope for Jesse. This is Breaking Bad. No one climbs out of the rubble unless they’re bleeding from some place or another. If Jesse’s going to EVER come out on top, he probably won’t be able to enjoy the victory.
Alright, alright. Last stretch, and then the sermon shall conclude.
A different kind of desert. He comes from the land of the ice and snow, where the regrets howl and the cancer blows.
The New Hampshire scenes in this episode are crucial and lend it that feeling of strange gravitas. This is top Penultimate Episode game, putting our protagonist somewhere only temporarily quiet and safe, giving him that last moment to breathe. Watching “Granite State,” I was reminded of the mother of all second-to-last episodes, The Sopranos‘ “Blue Comet.” I remember Tony in that abandoned safe house, surrounded by the few friends who hadn’t died during that hour, and yet utterly alone. The look on his face as he cradled that rifle in bed echoes Walt here; shut down, overwhelmed with loss, maniacally determined to succeed somehow when it was clear the avalanche had already begun.
The eye of the storm. Barricaded in that cabin, with only a visit from The Disappearer once a month. It’s hard not to feel sorry for Walt, with only his wall-ful of newspaper clippings, a wood-burning stove, and his rapidly metastasizing cancer. Things have come full circle in so many ways.
When we met Walter White, he was a meek man with ugly resentments brewing under the surface. Like so many of us, he had internalized his greatest failures and shellacked them over with a pleasant personality and an average lifestyle. He missed out on the million-dollar profits of Grey Matter and that knowledge ate at him in places so deep that no one could see. Cancer had been eating away at him before he ever received that diagnosis. When he finally saw death approach, freedom and glory suddenly didn’t seem so out of reach. Now or never. Don’t you recall being a little bit inspired, pumping your fists, waiting for this man to claim life before life claimed him?
But as we all slowly realized, the persona of Heisenberg was a different kind of cancer indeed. His megalomania, ruthlessness, and virility so filled Walt that it became difficult to catch glimpses of the sad small man underneath. Once in awhile, he was there: fainting on a bathroom floor, breathing a sigh of relief upon seeing Jesse open his door, holding his baby daughter. But the Walt we once knew has been so warped and corrupted beyond recognition that once the kingpin facade is gone, all we have is a malformed shell. He’s a bit Voldemort-ish. Hiding shards of his soul away in eight barrels. Destroy the Horcruxes and what do you get? A pitiable monster without a nose. I mean, heart. A wasted body who can’t even keep his wedding ring on a skeletal finger.
You know who else knows that Walt is mostly dead already? Walt Jr.
RJ Mitte impressed me again this week, with this really hard-to-watch scene. Last week, he was a child frightened by the destruction of his entire world and belief system. This week, he’s a refugee, completely traumatized. When Walt emerges from hiding for one brief dangerous moment to call his son, all he’s hoping for is one shred of affection. He wants to be the dad, saving his family with yet another box of money. “I wanted to give you so much more,” he sobs. “But this is all I could do.”
Even clueless, sweet Junior knows that the money was the problem in the first place. Who IS this man? Who is this murderer who mails $100,000 while his family is languishing in a field of death and shame? The boy has to cut the cord. And he does, brutally. When that phone slams down, it really is all over.
I found most of Walt’s time in the cabin extremely hard to watch. I can’t stop thinking about the long scene in which The Disappearer comes to administer chemotherapy, neutral-faced and dutiful. This is literally THE LAST PERSON ON EARTH who will speak to Walt. No words of comfort, just news and weather. “One day, when you come up here, I’ll be dead,” the patient whispers as the low winter sun creeps through the window (see what I did there?). And it’s not TD’s job to sympathize, or care, or give Walt peace of mind about the money’s fate.
Back to the money. Here’s another way it manifests as the scariest and most depressing character on Breaking Bad. It’s no longer a guarantee of security and power; now, in this last hour, it’s a currency of human connection and Walt is running out of it.
He’s always been a talker and a schemer, nourishing himself with intelligent conversation that affirms that yes, Walter White, you are still here and smart and important. TD has no interest in feeding Walt’s ego, though, and even less in being his friend. Walt literally has to pay him to stay in the room. At this point, I was crouched all fetal-like with wet eyes, crushed by the enormous sadness of this moment. This is how it all ends, Ozymandias. An empire turned to dust, and no one to behold it.
“Granite State” concludes on a bit of a cliffhanger, with Walt calling the police and allowing them to trace the call to his location. Obviously a distracting maneuver, as we know that he’ll eventually return to his former home to tie up loose ends. Those ends include Uncle Jack and crew, to be sure, but now it appears without a doubt that he’ll have Jesse and his family to reckon with. But there’s no anticipation or excitement here. “Granite State” took care of that. Now there is only dread. No matter if you walk or run or stay perfectly still, death has come. The only thing Walt can choose now is how he meets his end.
– Breaking Bad won the Emmy last night for Outstanding Drama Series! And Anna Gunn won for Best Supporting Actress! Because we’re talking about Season 4 and not this season, I’m willing to forgive the fact that Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul were ROBBED (although the fact that Jeff Daniels bested Cranston was pret-ty hard to swallow). Please enjoy this adorable cast photo:
– In the finale, I’d like to have a couple of things addressed. First of all, is the whole Jane thing going to figure into Jesse’s denouement, or was Andrea’s death supposed to wrap that up into a more workable bundle of general girl angst? Also, so much speculation about Skyler’s death, and maybe the children’s – do we think that this episode made that more or less likely? And what about Marie?!
– On a personal note, it’s going to be devastating not to write about this show every week. These blog posts provide me so much catharsis. When you love television with all the glands normally reserved for human love, facing a finale like this can feel pretty shitty. Let us all share in the misery before the lights go out.
Comment below and let’s talk. I’ll give you another ten thousand dollars.