Breaking Bad series 5, episode 9: Ordinary, decent lives

The beginning of the end for Walter White, and Breaking Bad, is here.

WARNING: This blog is for people currently watching Breaking Bad series 5, part 2. It contains spoilers.

Near the beginning of the fifth and final series of AMC’s Breaking Bad, Mike Ehrmantraut, a one-time “cleaner” and PI, refuses the offer of a partnership in the soon-to-be-resurrected methamphetamine business of a former high school chemistry teacher turned pathological monster. “You are a time bomb - tick, tick, ticking,” he tells Walter White, who has just become the last meth cook standing in an open market. “And I have no intention of being around for the boom.”

The second half of the final series has just kicked off on Netflix, lighting the charges that will lead us to the programme’s conclusion. In eight weeks' time we will have witnessed a 46 and a half hour moral drama set to join the pay-per-view television hall of fame alongside the Sopranos, The Wire and a handful of others. Watching the show produces a unique, churning discomfort, as we try to reconcile our feelings for the pitiable Walter White (and even our attraction to his sublime alter ego “Heisenberg”), with the acts he goes on to commit. Audiences often comment on shifting the red line beyond which Walter ceases to be a loveable, if pathetic, science geek and family man, and becomes a megalomaniacal drug lord in a pork pie hat and sunglasses.

Walter outside his house in the episode prologue. Photograph: AMC.

“Blood Money” begins in the same chronological moment as the series overall. It is Walter’s 52nd birthday and he has just bought himself a machine gun. He has also let his hair grow back. After retrieving the talismanic ricin vial from behind the socket in his now derelict home, he is spotted by his next-door neighbour. “Hi Carol,” Walt says. Carol shrieks and drops her groceries, confirming what we had already fairly assumed: Walter is now a fugitive, with no alternative to work with but a hail of bullets. Creator Vincent Gilligan did promise “Mr Chips to Scarface” after all.

After the credits we are back to where episode 8 left off, as Hank (Dean Norris) finally emerges from the longest crap in television history. He emerges into the full horror of his oversight. The DEA’s finest is now aware that his brother-in-law is the legendary meth cook Heisenberg, though it takes for him to accept it. He painstakingly lines up Gale Boetticher’s handwriting in the copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass from Walter’s bathroom with the lab notes taken from Gale’s flat. After another appearance from Carol (“Hi Carol!”) Hank has a panic attack and crashes into somebody’s painted wooden fence. It’s all a bit much for the poor guy.

Meanwhile Skyler (Anna Gunn) and Walt have made a full-time occupation of laundering the many millions Walt earned from his über-pure crystale. Repeatedly in this episode Walt attempts to assert the normality of his affairs - “Have an A1 day” he chirps at customers in the car wash where he once earned extra cash after school - but past darknesses refuse to stay in the past. Into the car wash walks Lydia Rodarte-Quayle (Laura Fraser), to whom Walt bestowed the business after his wife convinced him it was time to quit. She complains that the product’s quality has dropped to 60 per cent, but is chased off the property by a ferocious Skyler White - showing a little Heisenberg of her own. Let’s hope there’s more of that to come.

Hank provides us with a handy little montage of misdemeanours as he collates the evidence against Walt in his garage: Tuco’s body, lab equipment, CCTV footage, photographs of Hector Salamanca and Chow. While our (anti) hero goes about his life, his former partner and surrogate son Jesse (Aaron Paul) tells crooked lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) that he wants to give away his “blood money”. He is, as before, wracked with guilt. After the inane ramblings of former slinger Badger drive him from his house, he tells Saul to give $2million to the parents of the Drew Sharp (the boy who died after the methylamine train heist) and $2million to Mike’s granddaughter Kaylee Ehrmantraut.

Better call Saul - or, this time, maybe not. Barn door open! Photograph: AMC.

When Walt hears about this, the camera pulls back to reveal that he is having chemotherapy. The cancer is back. Last week Breaking Bad enthusiasts at the Telegraph published their predictions for the second half of the final series of the show. One of the ideas that intrigued me most was Benjamin Secher’s suggestion that “there are only two reasons to give a character the exact same name as his father: one is to suggest that the boy will inevitably following his dad’s footsteps (and if the series had a softer centre, it would end with junior taking the helm of Walter’s crystal meth empire); the other is to set-up a scene of mistaken identity.” Could Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte) suffer for the sins of his father? The old familiar sickness in my guts returned on reading Catherine Gee’s litany of possible deaths:

Three things will happen. Walter’s cancer will return, baby Holly will die and Hank will kill Walter. Unless Walter kills Hank. Or unless Jesse kills Hank to protect Walter. Or maybe Junior will kill Hank AND Jesse to protect Walter. Or Ted Beneke will make a dramatic return to become Hank’s star witness – and then will kill Walter.

Half of these ideas seem unlikely, but none are impossible. Ever since the pilot I had been convinced that the cancer would kill Walt, and that his actions would have been in vain - that is what a tragedy requires. But then his crimes escalated beyond anything I had imagined. The point at which Walter watched Jesse’s girlfriend choke to death on her own vomit was probably the point at which I decided a splutter and fall would be too good for Walt. Gilligan has spoken of his desire for judgement, for cosmic realignment, in making the series. The fear now is that Walter has tainted the family he claimed to be acting to save, and that they too must pay the price.

Walt is back in chemotherapy. Photograph: AMC.

In a throwback to episode 8, but also to the first series, Walt throws up in the toilet as a result of his cancer treatment. He notices his Leaves of Grass is gone. Walter has always been an incredible liar - he lies so well he can convince himself of almost anything. To begin with he lies to inflate the demon Heisenberg, to scare off the competition and satisfy his ego. Later he lies to deny it. He tells Jesse that they are both “out” (sound familiar Mr Corleone?) and that they can “try to live ordinary, decent lives”, before lying through his teeth, again and again, about his not having killed Mike.

Still, Jesse goes on a philanthropic spree, throwing large bundles of cash into front gardens, cacti and down drains, trying to atone like a junkie Lady Macbeth. This creeping episode reaches its crescendo when Walter, paranoid about his lost Whitman, finds a tracking device stuck to the bottom of his car. The next day he drives to Hank’s, is alarmed by his suspicious behaviour, and confronts him about it. Hank lowers the garage door and clocks Walter, splitting his temple wide open.

At first Walter seems to concede his guilt, not begging, but negotiating with Hank: “You and I both know I would never see the inside of a jail cell. I am a dying man who runs a car wash. My right hand to God that is all that I am. What’s the point?” But this, as was the case at the end of series 3, is a perfect collision of the two Walters: Mr White and Heisenberg. Even though he has, after 55 episodes, finally been rumbled, it is Hank who looks truly washed out, shocked and afraid. He asks Walter to bring over Skyler and the kids, so they can “talk” - which Walter refuses. They are now his hostages. 

“I don’t know who you are,” Hank whispers at the end of the episode. “I don’t even know who I’m talking to.”

Heisenberg responds: “If that’s true, if you don’t know who I am, maybe your best course would be to tread lightly.”

I'll be blogging after each of the final eight episodes of Breaking Bad. If you want to follow the series, bookmark this page.

On his 52nd birthday, Walter returns to the family home, deserted and tagged.

Philip Maughan is a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

JESSICA NELSON/MOMENT OPEN
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The fisher bird that unites levity with strength

We think the planet's fish are rightfully ours. But the brown pelican is known to snatch fish from other birds in mid-air.

If ever there was a time when I was unaccountably happy, it was the day I first saw the Pacific. I had just started working at an office near San Jose and, three days in to my first week, a colleague drove me south and west on a back road that seemed to run for hours through dense stands of Douglas fir and redwood, not stopping till we were just shy of the coast, the firs giving way to wind-sculpted specimens of California cypress and Monterey pine.

Here we parked and walked the rest of the way, coming over a rise and finally gazing out over the water. The Pacific. The idea of it had been part of my mental furniture since childhood, though I didn’t really know why, and what I saw both confirmed and confounded the image I had of that great ocean. But the thing that struck me most, the true source of my unaccountable happiness, was a long flight of brown pelicans drifting along the waterline, just ten yards from the shore, more elegant than I could have imagined from having seen pictures and captive specimens in zoos. This is not surprising, as what makes the brown pelican so elegant is how it moves, whether diving from astonishing heights in pursuit of fish or, as on this first encounter, hastening slowly along a beach in groups of thirty or forty, head back, wings tipped up slightly, with an air of ease that would give the term “laid back” a whole new definition.

The brown pelican: it’s a slightly misleading name, as the predominant colour varies from cocoa-brown to near-grey, while the breast is white and the head is brushed with a pale citrus tone, rather like the gannet, to which it is related. The birds breed on rocky islands off the Central American coast and travel north to hunt. In recent years, concern has been voiced for the species’ long-term safety: first, because of an observable thinning of the eggs, probably caused by pesticides, and second because, as recently as 2014, there was an alarming and inexplicable drop in the birthrate, which some observers attributed to huge fish-kills caused by Fukushima.

On an everyday level, though, pelicans, like cormorants and other coastal dwellers, have to be protected from those among the human population who think that all the fish in the ocean are, by some God-given right, unaccountably ours.

But none of this was in my mind that day, as I stood on that white beach and watched as flight after flight of pelicans sailed by. Out over the water, the sun sparkled yet the sea was almost still, in some places, so the bodies of the passing birds reflected in the water whenever they dipped low in their flight. What did come to mind was a phrase from Marianne Moore’s poem about another member of the Pelecaniformes family – the “frigate pelican”, or frigate bird, which she describes as “uniting levity with strength”. It’s as good a description of grace as I know.

Yet grace takes many forms, from the absolute economy with which an old tango dancer clothes her unquenched passion at a Buenos Aires milonga to Jürgen Schult’s world-record discus throw at Neubrandenburg in 1986, and we have to learn from birds such
as the pelican what we mean by “levity”, and “strength”.

How else to do that, other than by closely observing how the natural world really operates, rather than how we think it does? Later, in her poem about the frigate bird (an accomplished flier and an even more accomplished thief, known to pluck fish from another bird’s grasp in mid-air), Moore extends that notion of levity: “Festina lente. Be gay/civilly? How so?” and adds a quote from the Bhagavadgita that, to my mind, gets to the heart of the matter: “If I do well I am blessed/whether any bless me or not . . .” The lesson we learn from the noble order of Pelecaniformes is exactly this: of the many prizes we may try for, grace transcends all.

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times