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Monday
Oct102011

« In Which We Witness The Victory of Walter White »

Dig Two Graves

by ELISABETH DONNELLY

Breaking Bad
creator Vince Gilligan

It's horrifying to imagine that you're born, live a life, and then go back into the ground, simply forgotten. Humans naturally want to imagine that their life has some importance. Being a maverick or a wild card is appealing, since it means that you matter. You want to be the one who knocks. But life has a funny way of messing with you, changing up the circumstances so that you're suddenly faced with who you are under the most boring and dire of situations. An unblinking red dot, the camera-eye of Gus's surveilance, has been on Breaking Bad's Walter White all season long as he tries to make meth and somehow counteract what has already been set in motion his inevitable death.

Plot on Breaking Bad is a gorgeous, cruel thing. Decisions and consequences fold in on each other like a house of cards' inevitable fall. The squeeze has been placed on every character Walter and his estranged wife Skyler, his paralyzed DEA brother-in-law Hank and wife Marie, his partner Jesse Pinkman, the meth kingpin of the southwest, Gus Fring, his right-hand man Mike, even former Mexican Cartel kingpin Hector Salamanca, now festering in a nursing home, helpless, save for the bell he uses to communicate 'yes' or 'no'. The squeeze has been less of a thing to Walt's son Walt Jr., who mostly showed up for breakfast, and, quite possibly, in the very last scene where Walter White retains a little bit of vulnerability and feeling in a world that's pushing him to the edge of humanity.


Walt may be convinced of his own power "I am the one who knocks!" he bellowed to his estranged wife Skyler, asserting himself in the face of her doubts but is Walt really the one who knocks? The cruel, brilliant twist to this season had Walt besting his boss Gus Fring in one chess move after another. He made Jesse execute the other meth cook, dear departed Gale, so that Jesse and Walt would be indispensable. And yet, upping Gus that one time brought Walt no peace. He's just another drone, a cog in the machine, laboring under the watchful red dot of a surveilance camera, making meth day in and day out until he dies.

Convinced that Gus is going to kill him any chance he gets, Walt has been bent on revenge. And crucially, in his mind, it is vengeance, and it is justified. Walt is a volatile force: emotional, irrational, dangerous, given to blustering speeches full of hubris, and while he spins, we get to know some of what drives Gus Fring.

The Chicken Man makes revenge look good. Whether in the premiere episode, "Box Cutter", where he methodically sliced an underling's throat, blood spurting out, to send a message to Walt, Jesse, and Mike, or when he journeyed to Mexico, pulling off puking with elegance as he took down the entire Mexican cartel, Gus executes his plans gracefully. He strides through a hail of bullets because he's not going to get hit. He is the exact opposite of fluttering, flailing Walter White, and even though he's a bad man, he retains some sympathy.

Gus is a thorough, meticulous boss. His whole grasp for meth power was motivated by the murder of his very first chemist, his hermano, his probable lover. Revenge for the shocking, pointless murder of a loved one is an understandable thing. Who knows how many bright chemistry students have gotten scholarships from Los Pollos Hermanos as a result?

Walter White, on the other hand, is the sweaty, sniveling underling nobody wants to be, given to speeches full of empty bombast and generally pissing people off this season. What is his motivation? Does he want to live, does he chafe at being a company man under Los Pollos Hermanos? Back at nearly season one levels of impotence, Walt squirms miserably, stuck in a mouse trap, trying to get his power back but bested by Gus in most operations. He can't even win at home, where Skyler has become his partner in money laundering, dangling reconciliation like a carrot, but mostly screwing up his plans with the newbie criminal's first mistake: half measures. (Example A: Rest in peace, Ted Beneke.)

Walt is so far from human he can't even see the misery that Jesse went through in murdering Gale. When Jesse gets under Gus's thumb and learns how to be a company man, Walt responds with, "It's all about me!" It was easy to root for him when his newfound meth career had a motivation he was doing it for his family, to pay for Walt Jr.'s medical bills, for the life of baby Holly. But when as a narcissistic, ego-centric man turning in on himself, convinced of his death, the protagonist became something else.

Jesse retains some heart, even when he's ping ponging between a variety of potential father figures: from his mentor, Walt, who's saved his life numerous times, to gruff uber-company man Mike, as he learns how to be an even more vital cog in Gus's operation. After a downward spiral where he turned his brand new house into a terrifying drug den with bleating methheads, he got cleaned up and became useful, convinced of his value in Gus's world. By the time he saved Gus and Mike, hustling them to a makeshift, creepily white medical tent somewhere in Mexico, he was valuable. And he still ended up using some of his ridiculous drug world riches to send out support to his girlfriend, Andrea, and her young son Brock. He managed to put other people first, in a way that Walt simply could not.

And what does Walt get, as a result of his paranoia? He ends up in his coffin-like crawl space, laughing a laugh of chilling madness and mania, with far less money and power then he thought. Did he rise, Heisenberg-like, out of the ashes? Quite possibly.

The penultimate episode, "End Times," left us with a cliffhanger Andrea's son, Brock, is in the hospital and poisoned. Jesse is missing his ricin cigarette. Jesse accuses Walt, Walt blames, Jesse talks to Gus, who has enough Spidey-sense to avoid the car bomb on his crappy car, planted by Walt. It was the question: what really happened? Did Gus poison the kid? If he did, why would tell Jesse to come back when he's ready? Did Walt do it? Would Walt poison a kid?

Genuine questions, the sort of questions that make a week's worth of waiting for an episode delicious torture, and last night's finale "Face Off" knocked them down like a bowling ball. Jesse's suggestion of ricin poisoning put him in the hands of the police in front of where Walt sat in a hospital waiting room with a bomb in his child's diaper bag. Because Jesse has been detained by the police, he calls Saul Goodman, his lawyer. When Saul talks to Walt, he tells him about Gus's one point of pride and weakness the still-alive Hector "Tio" Salamanca, rotting in a nursing home, visited only by Gus, who delights in informing him of the many members of his family who he has killed.

Which gives Walt his chance. Playing on Gus's pride, his very insistence that he must be the one to torture Tio, he conspires with the old man to take him out. The bomb in the diaper bag is attached to Tio's wheelchair. Gus is lured to the nursing home, a vial of poison at the ready. He wears his best blue sportscoat and takes the long walk into Casa Tranquila like a man about to face a reckoning. What reckoning it is, he doesn't know.

When he comes out of the room after the explosion, he is as dapper as ever, perfect posture, straightening his tie. Then the camera circles around him, in an Oh Shit! reveal, and he collapses. Goodbye forever, Gus. May nobody step on your Air Jordans in Chicken-Man Heaven, and may your dick ever be hard in a cruel and harsh world, be it Bed-Stuy or Albuquerque.

For his part, Walt has broken crazy. He has broken evil. He has learned what it takes to be a good boss convince someone to do something for you, to improve your means. Never actually do the job yourself as was proven all season long, Walt couldn't kill Gus directly. He and Jesse reunite to take out the 8 million dollar meth lab in a cool-guy explosion, and then Walt has his moment of initial kingpindom. He calls his wife to tell her the news. Standing on the top of a parking lot, surveying the land, he talks with Jesse. Brock will survive; the culprit was Lilly of the Valley berries. The very plant sitting in Walt's backyard next to his swimming pool of doom. Vince Gilligan has turned his protagonist into the antagonist, and he's subverted audience expectations in a way that feels nearly radical within the constraints of genre-driven television. Walter White has won.

Elisabeth Donnelly is the senior contributor to This Recording. She tumbls here and twitters here. You can find an archive of her writing on This Recording here. She last wrote in these pages about Nicholas Winding Refn's Drive.

"Broken" - Katie Stelmanis (mp3)

"You'll Fall" - Katie Stelmanis (mp3)

"Steady" - Katie Stelmanis (mp3)

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