The End of an Era: A Guide to Mad Men’s Final Season

Whether or not you’re ready for Mad Men to end (you’re not), tonight is the premiere of Season 7B: the second half of episodes comprising the show’s last season. They have the potential to be some of the best aired on television, period – and you know me, I’m not usually prone to histrionics. Here to debrief you on this once-in-a-lifetime cultural phenomenon is myself: public Mad Men debater, obsessive, and recent rewatcher of Season 7A. Let’s ride this zeitgeist together. Do you want some ice in that?

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Different TV shows call for different modes of analysis and enjoyment. You have to set your mind at a certain frequency in order to really GET a show (this is why I had such a hard time on Sunday nights in 2013 – very difficult to shotgun Breaking Bad followed by The Real Housewives of New Jersey). The thing that I find most groundbreaking and mesmerizing about Mad Men is that it operates on many more levels than the average TV narrative – even The Sopranos, to which it’s historically been compared most often. Like SopranosMad Men is a series of complex interweaving character studies. They’re both period pieces. They’re about male anti-heroes. And they’re epic poems – full of rich allegories and cultural callbacks.

But there’s something very special about Mad Men that really differentiates it and makes it so of-the-moment: it’s art about making art. It’s more meta than any television drama that’s come before it, with perhaps the exception of Six Feet Under. But while SFU only occasionally touched on the creative process, Mad Men‘s an ode to it (and if it’s taught us anything, it’s that advertising is the most romantic and important creative outlet there is). It’s an excavation of the creative mind and the human impulse to weave and consume fiction.

I think it’s an extraordinarily special piece of work – and I really mean piece of work. It takes a metric fuckton of brainpower to absorb Mad Men in all its glory. So let’s reset our minds to Season 7A. Here’s a review of where the last half-season’s going to pick up:

Themes to keep in mind…

The first half of Season 7 took us in a (blessedly) new direction from a strange, frightening, and often aimless 6th season. 7 had a few core themes that sewed it together and began to steer the show into its final harbor.

  • Sentimentality. From Bert Cooper’s touching musical farewell to Peggy’s Burger Chef epiphany about family, the show played up what has always been one of its greatest strengths. The ad work, and the characters, were at their best when they spoke from the heart, and Don and Peggy’s strained relationship was seemingly resolved with one tender slow dance. 7 started off sad and ended up kind of triumphantly sappy. Mad Men believes in love.
  • Cycles of change. Back in Season 4, a man from Heinz told Don that “food is cyclical: there’s a time for beans and there’s a time for ketchup.” In Mad Men, there’s a time for dreams and a time for fuck-ups. Season 7 has deeply explored the way we helplessly repeat ourselves (i.e. Don blowing up his marriage to Megan in the same spectacularly slow, coolly cruel way he did Betty) and also how the mistakes of the old echo in the lives of the young (Sally is now, psychologically, a frightening composite of Betty and Don). Talk about a carousel.
  • Time. Probably the most crucial theme of the entire show. Mad Men is a hyperreal depiction of aging, learning, growing, and dying – for everyone, not just Don. From the commonplace time jumps to the more recent aesthetic markers of Season 7 (Pete Campbell’s bitterly receding hairline) it’s clear that this last season will deal with the inevitable march. Death is this show’s sexiest and most interesting recurring bedfellow.

Where are they now?

In case you haven’t caught up (even though Season 7A is now on Netflix, FYI), here’s where we left the primary players and various bit characters.

  • Don is back as SC&P’s de facto head of creative, after a demeaning season of writing coupons for his replacement Lou Avery (and a hurt, vengeful Peggy, who memorably served as his direct superior for most of 7A). He briefly struggled with a relapse of his ever-latent alcoholism, connected with the collapse of his bicoastal sham of a marriage – and a long struggle to rebuild his professional relationships after the infamous Hershey Pitch of Season 6. Don found his groove by the end of 7A, his creative zest sparked by the emotionally overwhelming moon landing of 1969, shown in the finale. This half-season humbled him greatly, and his Wild West iconoclasm of earlier seasons has given way to a practicality and a Dick-Whitman-like commitment to hard work. He now seems to fully support Peggy as the heir apparent to his crown, and in a show of maturity, agrees readily to a deal that will make SC&P a subsidiary of their long-hovering rival agency McCann.
  • Peggy spent a lot of 7A fighting Lou Avery’s poor leadership of the SC&P creative team. She’s now Copy Chief and thisclose to pushing out one of the Creative Directors – my money’s on Ted, considering that the half-season ended with Don convincing a very reluctant Ted to keep his job. Peggy also struggled with a lot of working-woman insecurities, exemplified by her attachment to her young neighbor Julio and her tearful admission to Don that her single, childless status makes her wonder “what she did wrong.” I’m not a huge fan of this trope with Peggy, but whatever. This is a recap. Peggy is otherwise starting Season 7B with sizeable power and confidence: she absolutely murdered the Burger Chef pitch, with a performance that evoked Don’s classic conference room magnetism. The show is beginning to figure out that Peggy’s journey towards finding her voice has less to do with the novelty of her female perspective in a male-dominated workplace, than with the fact that she’s simply a genius.
  • Roger took a bit of a backseat this season, offering his usual workplace wit without much growth or character development. He experimented with free love (it was 1969, after all) and spent a confusing, sad 24 hours with his lost daughter at a commune upstate. His most notable role was as office peacemaker, arranging for Don’s return to SC&P and eventually brokering the deal to join McCann and eliminate his rival partner Jim Cutler. Bert’s death hit him hard. It’s my belief that he and Joan will be endgame in 7B.
  • Joan continued to soar to new heights in her relatively new position as partner. She’s a little older and wiser and has largely outgrown the corporate missteps that plagued her after she sexed her way into the job (as evidenced by a quick scene in which she mistakes a financial expert’s proposition for a, well, proposition). She spares no love for Don, angered by his disregard for the consequences of his actions, which constantly “cost [her] money.” Thrillingly, Joan completely transitions out of her role as office manager towards the end of 7A, handing off the job and the awkwardly placed cubicle to Don’s secretary Dawn. She’s essentially the new Lane now. Personally, however, Joan’s starting to exhibit a hard edge and a panic in her romantic life – she turns down a desperate marriage proposal from her Gay BFF Bob Benson. In one of her most beautiful and vulnerable moments on the show, Joan declares: “I want love…and I’d rather die hoping that happens than make some kind of arrangement.” Seriously. Joan and Roger are endgame.
  • Pete spent most of 7A finding inappropriate places to sex up his smokin’ real-estate-agent girlfriend, a perk of his lucrative work as SC&P’s dedicated LA account man. He’s evolving into an ever-savvier, ever-seedier character: he now sports a deep tan, a growing bald spot, and a lascivious twinkle in his eye. In my opinion, Pete has experienced very few narrative missteps throughout the entire show – his evolution into a rich sad sack has been steady, sure, and blackly humorous.
  • Megan is (hopefully) beginning to be phased out of the main narrative, as of the conclusion of 7A. We left her at an uncertain moment in her acting career – not starving but not even close to famous – and she’s visibly hardened as a result of the slow but inevitable decline of her marriage to Don. A mechanical threesome involving her actress friend, and a jealous rebuff of Don’s niece Stephanie, were not nearly enough to salvage the wreck of romantic idealism that the two of them created. Megan is not a mystery anymore, nor is she a fantasy or a blank creative canvas. She’s a girl who’s had a very rude awakening, and has been left to muck through it alone in the Hollywood Hills.
  • Betty and Henry are useless. I’m sorry, but they are. It’s not really Mad Men‘s fault, when there are so many more interesting characters and places to be than Senator’s Manor. Betty is still a terrible mother, keeping the Season 5 weight off but plagued by food issues. Although she occasionally chafes at her role as Henry’s gorgeous Stepford political wife, she’s still as well-adjusted as we’ve ever seen her.
  • Sally has grown into a beautiful cipher, the mutant superhuman you’d expect when you combine two slightly sociopathic and very attractive parents. Her jaw-dropping teenage debut in 7A – all short skirts and cynical, morbid digs at her mother – was coupled with a welcome character evolution, separate from her relationship with Don. We spent a lot of time with Sally at boarding school and at home, getting some fascinating insights into the cultural and sociopolitical uncertainty that molded baby boomers (what Sally is destined to be). More and more, she has been presented as the embodiment of the passage of time, indicating that her role in 7B will be crucial and probably disturbing. She’s very much in the throes of darkness and budding sexuality.
  • SC&P players like Harry, Jim Cutler, and Ginsberg had a lot of great spotlights in 7A. The season saw the introduction of an office computer, a huge and humming behemoth that many employees interpreted as a harbinger of doom and the automated destruction of creativity. The computer drove all three men to distraction: Harry used it as leverage to change the face of SC&P’s media division; Cutler drove it as a wedge between himself and the rest of the partners; Ginsberg tipped over the edge with his latent mental illness and made the computer his enemy. Ginsberg’s descent into madness was frightening and poignant, concluding with him handcuffed to a hospital cot, being wheeled out of the workplace that fostered his talent and broke his spirit. At least he managed to coin “Free The Nipple” before his departure.

Moving forward…

So yeah, I’m pretty goddamn excited for 7B. There was so much going on in 7A, and yet it retained the tightness and emotional immediacy that had really made Mad Men great in the first place. The show has returned to its groove with a vengeance, and Matthew Weiner’s writing and direction has been reassuringly confident so far.

Can we expect lots of twists and turns in 7B? Methinks…yes and no. Based on old flame Midge’s very satisfying episode arc in Season 4, and Paul Kinsey’s surprising return (as a Hare Krishna monk!) in Season 5, I’d put my money on one or two more familiar faces showing up for Mad Men‘s swan song. Like I said, Mad Men is both a narrative and a meta-narrative, and the theme of sentimentality includes you and me as viewers. I almost don’t want to jinx the return of Sal Romano, but it’s a callback that I’m really hoping for and that would delight all of us, a small nod to the more buttoned-up and quietly poignant days of the show.

But Mad Men (to quote Paul Kinsey/T.S. Eliot) will end not with a bang, but a whimper. It’s a show that, for all its abrupt and disorienting time jumps, and philosophical flourishes, and weirdness – moves at the speed of life. The best things in life are free, and simple. Laughter. Sorrow. Love. Hate. And so on. Mad Men‘s legacy was transforming the soulless – the advertising industry – into the very vessel and medium of the soul.  It began as a stylish drama, but has evolved into a genre-less manifesto, a kind of microcosmic portrait on the modern condition. Season 7B will have things to say about capitalism, but it will also tell us about the feeling of watching ourselves decay. Mad Men is a snowglobe, and when we look into it, we see confused normal people who don’t know they’re beautiful, and crucial, and indelible. Whatever happens in Season 7B…we are going to feel it, and so much of it.

Starting tonight, let’s start living like there’s no tomorrow. Because there isn’t one.

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Breaking Bad S05E16: “Felina”

Guess I got what I deserved
Kept you waiting there too long my love
All that time without a word
Didn’t know you’d think that I’d forget, or I’d regret

The special love I have for you,
My baby blue.

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What we just watched was not a finale. I mean, Breaking Bad is still over and we’ll still have to struggle to rediscover meaning in our lives, but last night’s end-of-the-line “Felina” was not a finale. No, this was one of the rarest final episodes you’ve seen on television, befitting of BB‘s iconoclastic and violently inventive legacy. An epilogue: slow and heavy. It’s a beautiful, gut-punching, elegant hour, and it’s not letting you leave without scars so deep they’ll never heal.

We already had our finale, you see. Vince Gilligan wasn’t kidding when he called third-to-last “Ozymandias” the best episode they’ve ever done. There was your classic BB: the unrelenting tension, the action, consequences raining down on the innocents like hailfire, a Walt/Jesse showdown, and Hank’s terrifically crushing death. But after it all came crashing down, we had the sad, post-apocalyptic “Granite State” to punish us for our vicious fun. This is the GENIUS of Breaking Bad. Action and reaction. Vince Gilligan knows that silence often speaks loudest. And when it all ends, you’re going to lie down as Walter White does, in a dark room full of meth vapors and irredeemable sins, all fucking alone.

Ah, the rewards of watching this show. They’re myriad and they feel a lot like torture, but trust me. They’re rewards.

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Personally, I feel the principle theme carrying “Felina” is divine retribution. Which is a really weird thing to say about Breaking Bad, especially since last week I went onnn and onnnnnn about how logically grounded this story is. But this show has also always been hyperrealist, kind of like “you just can’t make this stuff up”, underpinning feasible plot with crazy strokes of luck and weird coincidences. Season 2’s plane crash stunned a lot of us at the time, because it just felt so on-the-nose and Butterfly Effect-ish, but now I’m thinking it wasn’t such an odd thing to happen in this universe after all. Someone is watching over Walter White. For a long time, it was a dark force; a deal with the devil. Now in this final hour, good must be rewarded with good and things MUST work out. Walt is ready to repent.

You can feel this just from the opening scene, in the cold confines of a stolen car in New Hampshire. We’re not sure exactly where Walt’s going, but it’s clear the journey will be his last. Heisenberg can’t live inside that waxy skin and pair of shaking hands. This is just Walter Hartwell White, a man with cancer that’s metastasized far past his body. Without that porkpie hat and its trappings of ego, he now feels the weight and panic of mortality more than ever. You see how he prays?

“Get me home. Just get me home. I’ll do the rest.”

When have you ever seen him send up a plea like that? And I can understand his extra bit of faith here, but it was that shot of the car keys that really convinced me that “Felina” was going to be about something more than human consequences. He doesn’t find them in the glove compartment, or under the seat. So he looks upward.

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One tug on the visor, and we watch as the keys fall into his hand. A magnificent bit of cinematography and a subtle moment of deus ex machina that lets us know that more is at work than an evil genius and a machine gun. Wow. I really do get the chills even watching that gif.

Next stop on Walt’s journey is the Denny’s from Season 5, Episode 1, “Live Free or Die.” We last saw him there arranging bacon for Mr. Lambert’s birthday; now we get a longer look at exactly what kind of shenanigans a dying charlatan gets up to during a routine pit stop. Great moment after he makes that sneaky phone call to find out Gretchen and Elliott’s address, where he leaves his watch on the phone booth. Ouch. Jesse gave Walt that watch back in “Fifty One,” so I presumed this portended terrible things for the chained-up protege. However, I watched Vince Gilligan and the cast get interviewed after the show, and he BRILLIANTLY addressed that moment. In fact, that scene was inserted to cover the continuity error of Walt not wearing the watch back in “Live Free” – but, as Vince says, it can also be interpreted as Walt shedding another layer of baggage related to his now-former life as Heisenberg. Another small marker of the off-the-cuff perfection that marks Breaking Bad.

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I’m going to be honest. I thought the Walt/Gretchen/Elliott scene was a bit of a misstep. Now, in BB, missteps are so minute they might have been made by ants, but still, I wasn’t sure they got the tone exactly right. Of course, it was essential to return to those two, as they feed the hottest fires of Walt’s self-loathing, allergy to failure, and misguided ambition. I thought it was a great decision not to have Walt murder them, as expected, but to reveal them as a surprise conduit for Walt’s dirty money.

The plot was all there, and fitting, but I found the execution a little heavy-handed. I did gasp when those lasers appeared, but my anxiety gave way to a snort with Walt’s next line: “I hired the two best hitmen west of the Mississippi.” Really? And then all those other threats, delivered with such bravado: “If you do not do this, a kind of…countdown will begin.” “Don’t worry, Beautiful People. Now you have a chance to make it right.” I’m sorry, I didn’t realize I sat on the remote. Are we watching 24 here? There’s no need for those kind of theatrics.

I mean, I get it. Breaking Bad is a Western; always was, and in this finale, the genre has to sing. I mean, even last episode, Saul appealed to Walt by painting a picture of “John Dillinger” walking through an Albuquerque prison. The episode title, as well as the throwback to Marty Robbins in the opening shots, drives home the point that you are supposed to see Walt as a modern outlaw, trapped by his past and dying with style. But why did that feel so wrong in this scene? I think that’s a point I’ll re-approach later. Put a pin in that.

Anyway, we get the home-run punchline of the season shortly afterward, with Badger and Skinny Pete revealed as the gunslingers with naught but skullcaps and laser pointers. Perfectly executed bit of comedy to even out the tension – something we’ve come to expect and love from BB. God, I love Skinny Pete’s line here: “The whole thing is kinda shady. Like…morality-wise.” Out of the mouths of babes. I’ll be sad to see these two go.

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There’s a short respite between this and the final stretch of the episode, when Walt goes home to pay Skyler one last visit. First, more cinematography kudos on that absolutely stunning reveal of Walt behind the beam in Skyler’s kitchen. He’s a bit of a ghost these days, isn’t he? Materializing everywhere he couldn’t possibly be, haunting those he loves and those who once loved him. This scene is a complete knockout. So many tears. As Marty Robbins’ “Feleena” tells us, once you’ve done your killing you gotta go on home to your sweetheart.

Anna Gunn again proves how indispensable she was to this series. Her vulnerability during that phone conversation with Marie becomes immediately offset by Walt’s presence, revealing that Sky’s still got it: she is a marvelous actress when she needs to be. By all rights, Skyler should be completely broken by now. But she’s more of a lone cowboy than Walt at this point, defending the ruins of her homestead with a cloud of cigarette smoke framing her steely features. Look at the state he left her in. Look at this marriage. It is so poignant to watch them together, to watch Gunn’s face struggle to hold composure as Walt finally, finally tells her the truth:

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What a terrible and crushing relief for Skyler, to hear those words. Too late, of course. I think it’s clear that she never really stopped loving Walt, but she made her peace with the fact that that sweet husband of hers had died long ago. It must have been unbearable to see him climb out of the rubble of Heisenberg and briefly see him again in those glassy hazel eyes. This relationship has layers I’ll be puzzling out for years to come. Quite satisfying to see it end on this note, with such cruel resignation.

Okay, everybody. You ready? Because after that family visit, “Felina” begins its bloody, elegaic swan song.

No finale is complete without a callback to beginnings, to the hopes and dreams that fueled the story and drove it ever-forward. My nomination for the most unexpected, chilling and perfect moment of this episode is Jesse’s box scene, providing us an ESSENTIAL reminder of exactly how integral he is to Breaking Bad. Remember Vince Gilligan’s one-word clue for this episode? “Woodworking”? If you didn’t shiver and grab for the tissues here, you are an unforgivable monster.

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Christ, did I get some feels. That’s Jesse in high school – not quite the chemistry class flashback we were all holding out for, but in fact, something even better. Killer choice of callback.

As Aaron Paul so touchingly observed post-“Felina”, Jesse is an artist. He is bright, and he seeks out pleasure he can make and touch and feel. He lives to create and is forever offering parts of himself to others, straining to connect: his meth, his box, his heart. Recall the first time he praised Mr. White’s Blue Sky meth in wonderment: “This is art.” Not a science, but a beautiful creation he desperately wished to be a part of. He wanted an A+ and he wanted to excel. In the end, they both might have mastered the process, but it was that gorgeous and deadly final product, a sheet of azure glass, that made them dream harder and drove them both mad.

From “Kafkaesque,” Season 3:

Jesse: My project for his class was to make this wooden box. So I wanted to get the thing done as fast as possible. I figured I could cut classes for the rest of the semester and he couldn’t flunk me as long as I, you know, made the thing. So I finished it in a couple days. And it looked pretty lame, but it worked. You know, for putting stuff in or whatnot. So when I showed it to Mr. Pike for my grade, he looked at it and said: “Is that the best you can do?” At first I thought to myself “Hell yeah, bitch. Now give me a D and shut up so I can go blaze one with my boys.” I don’t know. Maybe it was the way he said it, but…it was like he wasn’t exactly saying it sucked. He was just asking me honestly, “Is that all you got?” And for some reason, I thought to myself: “Yeah, man, I can do better.” So I started from scratch. I made another, then another. And by the end of the semester, by like box number five, I had built this thing. You should have seen it. It was insane. I mean, I built it out of Peruvian walnut with inlaid zebrawood. It was fitted with pegs, no screws. I sanded it for days, until it was smooth as glass. Then I rubbed all the wood with tung oil so it was rich and dark. It even smelled good. You know, you put nose in it and breathed in, it was…it was perfect.

Group Leader: What happened to the box?

Jesse: I…I gave it to my mom.

Group Leader: Nice. You know what I’m gonna say, don’t you? It’s never too late. They have art co-ops that offer classes, adult extension program at the University…

Jesse: You know what? I didn’t give the box to my mom. I traded it for an ounce of weed.

Jesse just picked the wrong project. The wrong teacher. Mr. White and his product weren’t anywhere near a source of redemption, but this kid couldn’t figure that out fast enough. He was too eager for love. Too easily beaten and chained. A problem dog who was never, ever going to get that bone.

The series always had to end with Walt and Jesse. See, I had a prediction. Not that Jesse would kill Walt – too neat, too revenge-y – but that Jesse would kill Walt Jr. For all their parallels, the two had never met, and I felt that the surrogate son murdering the real son would finally prove to Walt, and us, just how far the pendulum had swung. And while that didn’t happen, we did all realize how far outside Walt’s immediate orbit his children lie, and how close Jesse always is in comparison. His last moments were spent rescuing that poor child he once flunked.

Of course, at first Walt’s still on his revenge game, even when it comes to Jesse. When he rolls up in that Nazi camp with a pocketful of sunshine (that’s a euphemism for trunkful of machine gun) he’s ready to take Jesse down with those swastika-wearin’ Hank-killin’ chain-smokin’ basterds. But the sight of Jesse, haunted and thin and topped with a head of matted six-month prison hair, does something to Walt. That paternal instinct, the partner instinct, that we know has been so warped for so long, returns in a way he probably can’t muster for his real son even if he tried. Suddenly, it all seems to make sense to Walt. This is the kind of legacy King Ozymandias leaves: a broken prince in rags and chains. He’s fucked it all up, but he’s going to do one last good thing before death takes him.

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While the bullets empty into his enemies, Walt protects Jesse. Finally. And, of course, in one of the most fitting moments of all, he takes a stray ricochet to the stomach, which would undoubtedly have hit the kid instead. It’s far past loyalty with these two, but damn does it feel good to watch Mr. White take a bullet for Jesse.

It’s. About. Time. Jesse has always been Walt’s pain, externalized. What our cold antagonist could not feel, our protagonist could, and did. The endless fear, doubt, pain, even flesh wounds endured by Jesse make him a Jesus-y representation of the human horrors wrought by Walt over so many years. Jesse is basically walking scar tissue, and his status as a garbage dump for trauma does not escape him. It is cruel justice, cruel and right, that he should finally be shielded by the corporeal body of Mr. White, who finally gets the bullet to the gut that he’s been dodging all along.

Of course, our problem dog also deserves one more revenge bite. Todd HAD to go, and of course we all shrieked in savage delight when we heard that graphic neck-crunch:

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OH, SNAP!

And another hugely significant moment here, when Uncle Jack thinks he can still turn this uber-shitty situation in his favor. Money is Heisenberg’s Achilles heel, right? 80 fucking million dollars and there’s no way he walks away. But Uncle Jack doesn’t know that he’s no longer dealing with Heisenberg. Heisenberg’s gone. He’s talking to a walking dead man with scores to settle and zero to lose.

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After that, it’s all Walt and Jesse. Last moments. Love this scene where Walt essentially asks the freed Jesse to kill him. He assumes Jesse wants revenge, regardless of the fact that Walt just saved him last-minute. He knows it’s never going to be enough, and this debt will never be repaid, and Jesse’s probably going to bleed a little bit forever as a result of his association with Mr. White. But he thinks that Jesse killing him might offer some small comfort.

Again, he’s wrong about Jesse’s instinct for destruction. An artist is not interested in decay, but growth. Transformation. He never had a taste for vengeance. Probably because, almost always, he was never gaining vengeance for himself, but for Walt. He is so fucking over being someone else’s tool:

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That’s right, bitch.

Before he goes out with a bang, Walt makes one last phone call to Lydia, to helpfully let her know that he laced her precious Stevia with the ricin. Many people predicted that the poison was meant for her specifically, but I have to admit I never thought it’d go that way. It makes sense, though. She never wanted to get her hands dirty with the fallout of the Madrigal criminal enterprise. Walt’s making sure everybody meets their appropriate end. For Lydia, it’s going to happen alone, afraid, and with a weak little humidifier.

For Breaking Badit’s never gotten better than these last moments with our two gunslingers:

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Can you DEAL?! God, how many multitudes were contained in those looks? At this point, who’s won? Who’s lost? Does it matter more that Walt watched Jane die, or saved Jesse at the last moment? Will he shoot himself? Was there ever any love here, any hate? Are they the same? Does it matter anymore? Jesse may be raw and confused and angry and ruined, but he’s in control. This is a goodbye, said by two pairs of eyes, each on their own terms. An “acknowledgement” seems like too gentle a word for the look that passes between these two lost souls. Watch them leave a piece of themselves, right there on that concrete, a gulf between.

And finally *gulp sob* FINALLY, Jesse gets away.

If Aaron Paul does not win an Emmy for this stretch of episodes, especially this finale, this moment, I’m going to have to drive a heavy trunk to next year’s Emmys (to all law enforcement: I am merely being facetious BUT AM I?). When he busts out of that Nazi compound, engines roaring, the freedom is so overwhelming he can only cry and laugh and scream. He’s free. He’s escaped the vice grip of Mr. White, and there’s no words for these feelings. Did you not feel the goosebumps rise during this joyful, tortured howl?

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That shot reminded me of the ending frame of Oldboy, when the hero finally finds happiness, but he’s so irreparably drained and damaged by its cost that his face freezes in a rictus, a horrifying combination of ecstasy and agony. Who knows where Jesse can go from here? I want to believe that his spirit is indomitable, that he will find some place, some small place, where he can finally inhale clean air and build a life. But much as the viewers, Jesse will carry the burden of Mr. White, of Breaking Bad, for the rest of his life. Like I said, there are scars we can’t see. Jesse has a long way to drive before the sun ever breaks again. Bless you, baby.

And then we return to Walt in our last few minutes. Where it all begins and ends.

He doesn’t share this moment with Jesse, with his baby daughter, or son, or wife, or any human, really. For all he’s done, Walter White doesn’t deserve a companion in death, and to be honest, I don’t think he’d want one. As Walt dies, he’s alone with his masterpiece: the most perfect chemistry set he’s ever created. This 99.2% meth is his life’s work – not the money or the empire. He knows that know, and he caresses the metal like the cheek of his most precious darling. This is what makes me feel for Walter White, suddenly and intensely. Just a man and his work of art. A legacy that burns in a million glass bowls, and a dream that literally turns only to smoke in the end. Wow.

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So, before I conclude, I want to come back to that whole “divine balance” thing, and the tone issues I had with small parts of “Felina.” I think I have something substantial to say. I have that twitchy feeling in my typing fingers.

Walt’s able to die satisfied here, because his last and best-laid plans worked. He made it back to New Mexico. He exacted revenge against Uncle Jack and his crew. He slipped Lydia the ricin. He evaded the police entirely.

But how did that work exactly? Doesn’t it beggar explanation that all this stuff went off without a hitch? Walter’s had inspired plans before, but most times, he found a wrench in the works. He had ricin for Tuco, but Jesse had to go and tell him that it tasted like chili powder. Hank found the laundry, so Walt had to drive into full-speed traffic. Gretchen showed up to expose his insurance scam to Skyler. Baby Holly wanted her mama after all. Life isn’t a Western. It’s not a spy novel, or a thriller. Breaking Bad is beautifully choreographed, but it’s grounded in practical reality, and Walt often had to improvise when his plots were thwarted by logistics and coincidence.

Not so in “Felina.” It’s my belief that because Walt finally chose to Break Good, so did fate. Karma stopped raining fire on him (and Jesse) once his intentions were pure and he acted as Walter White would, the way he was always meant to be. The keys dropped out of the sky.

This is why I preferred “Felina” in its expansive, philosophical moments. Stuff like that Elliott/Gretchen scene was a necessary bit of fan service, to remind us of the suspense and thrilling action that hooked us all in the beginning. I suppose it felt kind of nice to see Walt as a badass again, after the humbling emptiness of “Granite State.” But I didn’t need that. Breaking Bad can end as a fantasy where Walt goes all Scarface and we cheer…or as a reality where an old man dies all alone with only science for company.

Action and reaction. Whether it’s something as small as swatting a stray fly in the lab, or something as big as setting Jesse free forever, every move will garner consequences for Walter White. So his ending, you see, cannot categorically be happy or sad, but right and just. This episode, this genius piece of television, works because it pulls most of its punches. A show and not a tell. Cold, unforgiving, gorgeously rendered chemistry, is “Felina.” A teacher’s lecture is fleeting, but the image of a bright red flame, conjured by matter and set aglow by change, is indelible. And all bad things must come to an end.

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Some last words:

– I am really going to miss writing these reviews. I’m sure I’ll write more about Breaking Bad in the future, but it’ll never be the same. That’s the way it has to be, and it feels good. Thank you from the bottom of my heart if you’ve been reading. These words are my wooden box.

– Huell is still in that hotel room.

Here are some photos from my own finale party, complete with Blue Methoritas and Pollos Hermanos chicken. An awesome night, and being around people probably helped my grief process.

– Also a video of my Hector Salamanca impression.

– Better Call Saul…you got a big hat to fill. I’ll be excited to see how that pans out.

– As always, I welcome your thoughts in the comments, where we can all hold one another as we’re riddled with emotional bullets. We did it, guys.

Breaking Bad S05E15: Granite State

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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.

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(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.

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Ugh. 😦

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Errant thoughts:

– 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:
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– 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.

Breaking Bad S05E14: “Ozymandias”

“This is your fault. This is what comes of your disrespect. I warned you for a solid year. You cross me, there will be consequences. What part of that didn’t you understand?”

Last Sunday, I was talking to my friend who does not watch Breaking Bad (kind of an oxymoron. He’s on thin ice). “Why does it make people so insane?” he asked. Actually he asked “Why does it make you so insane?” but I changed the names here to protect the innocent.

I didn’t bother to correct “insane” to a gentler descriptor like “selectively unstable.” How could I make an outsider understand why I felt these events and these characters so deeply? I said, “Because it’s real.”

The plausibility kills me. This world in which actions garner consequences and no one may exit the way they came. Breaking Bad is as pure and dangerous as Blue Sky meth; at near 100% integrity, it’s guaranteed to move a much greater volume of feels than I’m used to. “Ozymandias” was a killer, wasn’t it? I took the pulse of the Internet for awhile after its airing and was just delighted by the outpouring of intelligent discussion and fan passion. Every week it gets better and worse, and this episode is one of the top ever produced. I don’t get tired of saying it: Thank you, Vince Gilligan, thank you, writers, thank you, cast, for loving your creation the way it should be loved.

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So. Foregrounded in my discussion of constructed realities, the rules of fiction-physics, and crime and punishment is the brutal death of Hank Schrader.

It happened in the first 15 minutes of “Ozymandias.” Where the Nazi vs. DEA gunfight left off last week, Hank’s doom seemed inevitable. Skinhead ringleader Uncle Jack is a pragmatist with a mean streak and his gun is trained on a lone agent, bleeding leg, no backup. Walt tries to save his brother-in-law by offering up his entire buried $80 million: a desperately human gesture that proves to be too much, too late.

Just like that, the money and the man are gone. Jack puts it bluntly: “There’s no scenario where this guy lives.” Setup; payoff. Hank gets one last moment of badassery to remind us what a goddamn solid man we had:

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And then a shot to the head. Curtains on Hank. A really beautifully written character, a meditation on masculinity and goodness and the backbone as a man’s Achilles heel. Dean Norris shall sleep on a bed of Emmys before the year is out. And these were some of his last words: “You’re the smartest guy I ever met. But you’re too stupid to realize he made up his mind 10 minutes ago.” When the word “stupid” (a stock insult for egghead Walt) ricochets back at him, it comes from the family he’d hoped his cunning would always protect. Sad justice.

Hank’s death precipitates the tailspin Walt enters during the entirety of “Ozymandias.” His first victim is Jesse, an easy target after his betrayal last week and the fact that he’s always been a stand-in for family. In his grief, Walt does Walt; he lashes out at anyone who’s ever cared for him, because their love defies logic and pokes holes in his rotten resolve. He wastes no time in pointing out Jesse’s hiding place to Jack and his crew, and looks on emotionlessly as Hank’s killers cock a handgun to the kid’s head.

At this point, the connection between our protagonists has been effectively severed. Another slow clap for Aaron Paul, who had me bawling with Jesse’s terror and hopelessness. Particularly quiet, disturbing shot here as he fixes his eyes on two birds and internalizes the image before his death.

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I really do not think I could have handled it, had Jesse actually been murdered in cold blood at this moment. I was prepared for it, you see – like I said, BB goes there when it could very well go there. Since we know this episode is all about crumbling empires – have you read the poem “Ozymandias”? – the death of literally every living human in a 47-mile radius of Albuquerque seemed possible and imminent.

There was also another little death here, and that’s the part of Jesse’s heart in which Jane has always lived. Her overdose in Season 2 had far-reaching repercussions, the most significant of which was the tumorous growth of Jesse’s guilt/self-hatred complex that made him so malleable for Walt’s use. We all wondered when the real details of her death would come out, and how that knowledge would break Jesse or spur him to action. It was horrifying – and again, painfully realistic – that this truth was delivered not by way of an errant clue, or a mistake, but deliberately. From Walt’s mouth. With measurement and  venom.

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Hook. Line. And years later…Sinker. It will be interesting to see how Jesse deals with this information. And trust; he’ll deal with it.

After this bomb, Jesse was saved at the last moment by Todd “Meth Damon,” who helpfully suggests that the Nazis beat some DEA-related facts out of Jesse before offing him. Plus, Todd still really needs an after-school tutor to figure out how to make Blue Sky above 74% purity. It really blows for Jesse, and I hate to say it, but thank god. He’s brutally beaten and chained to a meth lab, but there’s an escape here. Maybe. Just maybe. Hang in there, babe.

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(Can you believe makeup and closeup shots like this? Not as graphic as AMC-mate The Walking Dead, but somehow more frightening, again, because of how realistic these injuries are).

So while all of this is going on, the suburban set is still a few steps behind as usual. Heartbreakingly, Marie has newfound resolve after Hank’s (last) phone call to her, and she marches over to the car wash to force Skyler to cooperate with the investigation. And this – finally! – means telling Walt Jr. everything. Obviously there’s a layer of subtextual melancholy here. Everyone thinks a big nightmare is beginning, with Hank jailing Walt. But they don’t know that a new personal hell has begun, where Hank is dead and Walt still has the reins. They still think the hardest thing they’ll have to deal with right now is letting in Walt Jr. on all the secrets. He is really not about to have an A-1 day.

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I really love that gif. *save for forever reuse*

I did not care for parts of RJ Mitte’s performance in this scene. I think mostly the writing for Walt Jr. is to blame; the character is chronically underwritten. This really isn’t a show flaw, since the sweet teenager with crutches and a winning smile is supposed to be an oblivious foil for BB‘s overarcing misery. But the kid is annoying, repeating “This is bullshit!” and “It can’t be true!” Dude. Nut up. Get a grip. But at the same time, it’s hard for me to eyeroll at Walt Jr., because he is so endearingly simple and he really does look like a cornered kitten at this moment. I should have known his innocent shock would foreshadow family drama later.

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Back to our Devil with Brown Pants On. Jack leaves Walt with a single money barrel – nothing to sneeze at, it’s still 10 million dollars. He rolls the thing across miles of desert, buys a truck from a wary Native American, and speeds home to whisk his family away. Explanations later. Fleeing the state NOW.

Alas for Walt, an idyllic road trip is not to be. When he arrives home, he encounters a freshly traumatized Junior, a frayed Skyler, and a sobbing Holly (but she’s a baby, they’re just sensitive). It comes out pretty quick that Hank is dead. How else would a crazed former chemistry teacher be wandering free with a drumful of $100 bills and the name of an identity-forger in his pocket? Skyler incorrectly assumes that Walt has murdered Hank; she’s wrong this time, but in a larger sense she is of course dead-on. She reaches a breaking point here; she just cannot have Walt fucking with her kids and her soul anymore, and her husband just killed the only source of normal human justice she could ever turn to. With the death of Hank, another death, more death, the White marriage.

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This is a phenomenal moment for Skyler’s character, and thereafter she takes a good deal of focus in the episode. I was just thrilled. I have always had a slight feminist issue with BB, not because I felt Skyler was a bad character but because her interior life was given such short shrift. The women on this show simply do not see center stage all that much. But this was an awesome opportunity for the audience to see that Skyler has hurt and anguish and a dizzying strength, a beautiful resolve. An intense capacity for hate. She has many reasons to slash at Walt with a butcher knife, and her impulse to protect Walt Jr. from his manic criminal father is married to her deep lust for revenge when she brandishes that weapon. A SUPER fight!

And I had to eat my hat when I watched Walt Jr. come between them to back up his mom and eventually call the cops on Walt. Poor Junior is just working with the facts he has, and when he sees his father wrestle for the knife, he knows the man for whom he built that stupid website is long since dead. Mitte is really excellent in this scene. Watching him struggle with the adults and slam a shield-like arm into the couch across Skyler’s chest was just heartbreaking. Look what you’ve done, Heisy! You happy? The pathetic way he backs off, mumbling, “We’re a family…” I swear to god I smelled a thousand onions being chopped. So sad.

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The rest of “Ozymandias” covers Walt’s short-lived flight away from the city – with baby Holly in tow! She’s the last symbol of total innocence now in Walt’s life., and it makes sense that he would abduct her as a lasting memento of the man he used to be. She doesn’t know Heisenberg, she barely knew Hank, and maybe they could start anew, father and daughter. May I call your attention to a throwaway Walt Jr. quote from the aforementioned www.savewalterwhite.com?

And every day that goes by is one less day I’ll have with him. And I don’t want to tell my little sister about my dad.  I want her to know him for herself.

Well, nobody wants that anymore. Holly definitely doesn’t, anyway. Walt can coo to her all he wants in a gas station bathroom, but she’ll still cry “Mama, mama.” Who’s he fooling? He can’t take a baby on the lam, and Skyler doesn’t deserve that.

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This sets the stage for another wrenching scene in “Ozymandias,” where wrenching is kind of the baseline. In the cool evening, Walt calls Skyler at home, where she waits on the line surrounded by police. Walt knows this, even as she tells him they’re alone on the phone. He levies a tirade at her, rising in pitch and hysteria, beating home the point that she’s clueless and she deserves every indignity and wound she gets. Why? Because she didn’t listen. Because she betrayed him by getting others involved. Because she’s a “stupid bitch.”

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Now, at first I was like, yo, this is it. He’s completely black-hearted now. This is the height of his un-sympathy. But then it dawned on me…

Walt knows the authorities are listening in, and he’s performing. This is probably Heisy’s greatest and most necessary put-on. Read these lines closely:

Walt: You never believed in me. You were never grateful for anything I did for this family. Oh Walt, Walt, you have to stop! You have to stop this! It’s immoral, it’s illegal, someone might get hurt. You’re always whining and complaining about how I make my money, just dragging me down, while I do everything. And now, now you tell my son what I do? After I’ve told you, and told you to keep your damn mouth shut? You stupid bitch! How dare you?

Skyler: I’m sorry.

Walt: You have no right to discuss anything about what I do. What the hell do you know about it, anyway? Nothing! I built this. Me. Me alone. Nobody else!

He implies there’s no blame for Skyler and paints her as a victim, not a partner. It’s the kindest thing he’s done for his wife in years. She understands the nuances of the move. Walt rounds off his last spate of good deeds by confirming Hank’s death and dropping off teary-eyed baby Holly at a fire station. This next part of the journey is his alone to walk. With a decaying cancer-ridden body and a black heart full of misdeeds. A red van to nowhere. A trail of blood.

Two episodes left.

Idle notes:

– I nearly cried at the opening flashback. So bittersweet. A random and portentious moment on that small plot of desert in To’hajiilee, when Walt and Jesse were still two bumbling amateurs in underwear and a do-rag. The rewind makeup wasn’t great, but it didn’t matter. It felt real. The repartee (“You’re an idiot.” “Dick”), Jesse’s karate, Walt’s careful rehearsal of his small-scale lies. The nostalgia really hurt. And nice touch with Walt mentioning that he’d pick up a pizza. Never again will our culture look at pizza and roofs the same way. And this beautiful narrative technique-ing:
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– This episode was directed by Rian Johnson, most well-known for directing Looper and many of Breaking Bad‘s standout episodes. His style is just perfect for this episode, with so many gorgeous landscape sweeps and telling closeups. So many small touches that stagger in their photographic genius and kinetic energy.
tumblr_mt79o9D3MY1s5ky44o1_500Also, nice Looper Easter Egg in the fire department scene, where the volunteer who discovers baby Holly is none other than Kid Blue! I guess he becomes Jeff Daniels sometime after his noble career as a New Mexico lawman.

– The episode was also co-written by Vince “Fuck You” Gilligan and Moira Walley-Beckett, who is responsible for many of the same standout episodes directed by Johnson – including the perennial subtext-drenched classic “The Fly.” This all points to a Walt/Jesse showdown of epic proportions. You know which other episode Walley-Beckett wrote?

– “Problem Dog.” The same one that trots across this episode right before the credits roll. Jesse ain’t down and out just yet.
photoYeah, I took that one with my phone, off the TV. It’s plan B, after raiding the internet for as many same-night pics and GIFs as I can find.

So? Phew! Comment! Let’s be together in this dark time.