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.

Nicola Snothum / Millenium Images
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The end of solitude: in a hyperconnected world, are we losing the art of being alone?

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. 

Michael Harris is a Canadian writer who lives in a big city and whose life is defined and circumscribed, as so many Western lives are now, by digital technologies. He finds it hard to leave his phone at home in case he misses anything. He worries about his social media reputation. He uses apps and plays games, and relies on the internet hive mind to tell him which films to watch or where to eat. Here is what happens when he goes on holiday to Paris:

Disembarking from the train from London, I invited a friendly app to guide me to a hotel near the Pompidou . . . The next morning, Yelp guided me towards a charming café in the Marais. There, wizard-like, I held my phone over the menu and waited for Google Translate to melt the words into English. When the waiter arrived, I spoke into my phone and had it repeat my words to the grinning garçon in a soft, robotic French. Later, at the Louvre, I allowed a Nintendo-sponsored guidance system to track my steps up the centuries-old Daru staircase as I squinted confusedly at its glowing blue you-are-here dot . . .

Terrifying, isn’t it? Well, I thought so as I read it, and Harris thought so afterwards. It was situations like this, during which he realised that his life was controlled, confined and monitored by distancing technologies, that led him to wonder whether solitude – the act and the art of being alone – was in danger of disappearing.

Harris has an intuition that being alone with ourselves, paying attention to inner silence and being able to experience outer silence, is an essential part of being human. He can remember how it felt to do this, before the internet brought its social anxiety and addiction into his life. “I began to remember,” he writes, “a calm separateness, a sureness I once could live inside for an easy hour at a time.”

What happens when that calm separateness is destroyed by the internet of everything, by big-city living, by the relentless compulsion to be with others, in touch, all the time? Plenty of people know the answer already, or would do if they were paying attention to the question. Nearly half of all Americans, Harris tells us, now sleep with their smartphones on their bedside table, and 80 per cent are on their phone within 15 minutes of waking up. Three-quarters of adults use social networking sites regularly. But this is peanuts compared to the galloping development of the so-called Internet of Things. Within the next few years, anything from 30 to 50 billion objects, from cars to shirts to bottles of shampoo, will be connected to the net. The internet will be all around you, whether you want it or not, and you will be caught in its mesh like a fly. It’s not called the web for nothing.

I may not be the ideal reader for this book. By page 20, after a few more facts of this sort, I had already found myself scrawling “Kill everyone!” in the margins. This is not really the author’s fault. I often start behaving like this whenever I’m forced to read a list of ways in which digital technology is wrecking human existence. There are lots of lists like this around at the moment, because the galloping, thoughtless, ongoing rush to connect everything to the web has overcome our society like a disease. Did you know that cows are now connected to the internet? On page 20, Harris tells us that some Swiss dairy cows, sim cards implanted in their necks, send text messages to their farmers when they are on heat and ready to be inseminated. If this doesn’t bring out your inner Unabomber, you’re probably beyond help. Or maybe I am.

What is the problem here? Why does this bother me, and why does it bother Harris? The answer is that all of these things intrude upon, and threaten to destroy, something ancient and hard to define, which is also the source of much of our creativity and the essence of our humanity. “Solitude,” Harris writes, “is a resource.” He likens it to an ecological niche, within which grow new ideas, an understanding of the self and therefore an understanding of others.

The book is full of examples of the genius that springs from silent and solitary moments. Beethoven, Dostoevsky, Kafka, Einstein, Newton – all developed their ideas and approach by withdrawing from the crowd. Peter Higgs, the Nobel ­Prizewinner who discovered the Higgs boson particle, did his best work in peace and solitude in the 1960s. He suggests that what he did then would be impossible today, because it is now virtually impossible to find such solitude in the field of science.

Collaboration, not individuality, is fetishised today, in business as in science and the arts, but Harris warns that collaboration often results in conformism. In the company of others, most of us succumb to pressure to go with the crowd. Alone, we have more chance to be thoughtful, to see differently, to enter a place where we feel free from the mob to moderate our unique experience of the world. Without solitude, he writes, genius – which ultimately springs from different ways of thinking and seeing – becomes impossible. If Thoreau’s cabin in the woods had had wifi, we would never have got Walden.

Yet it is not only geniuses who have a problem: ordinary minds like yours and mine are threatened by the hypersocial nature of always-on urbanity. A ­civilisation can be judged by the quality of its daydreams, Harris suggests. Who daydreams now? Instead of staring out of the window on a train, heads are buried in smartphones, or wired to the audio of a streaming film. Instead of idling at the bus stop, people are loading up entertainment: mobile games from King, the maker of Candy Crush, were played by 1.6 billion times every day in the first quarter of 2015 alone.

If you’ve ever wondered at the behaviour of those lines of people at the train station or in the street or in the café, heads buried in their phones like zombies, unable or unwilling to look up, Harris confirms your worst fears. The developers of apps and games and social media sites are dedicated to trapping us in what are called ludic loops. These are short cycles of repeated actions which feed our brain’s desire for reward. Every point you score, every candy you crush, every retweet you get gives your brain a dopamine hit that keeps you coming back for more. You’re not having a bit of harmless fun: you are an addict. A tech corporation has taken your solitude and monetised it. It’s not the game that is being played – it’s you.

So, what is to be done about all this? That’s the multibillion-dollar question, but it is one the book cannot answer. Harris spends many pages putting together a case for the importance of solitude and examining the forces that splinter it today. Yet he also seems torn in determining how much of it he wants and can cope with. He can see the damage being done by the always-on world but he lives in the heart of it, all his friends are part of it, and he doesn’t want to stray too far away. He understands the value of being alone but doesn’t like it much, or want to experience it too often. He’ll stop checking his Twitter analytics but he won’t close down his account.

At the end of the book, Harris retreats, Thoreau-like, to a cabin in the woods for a week. As I read this brief last chapter, I found myself wishing it was the first, that he had spent more time in the cabin, that he had been starker and more exploratory, that he had gone further. Who will write a Walden for the Internet Age? This book is thick with fact and argument and some fine writing, but there is a depth that the author seems afraid to plumb. Perhaps he is afraid of what he might find down there.

In the end, Solitude feels a bit like an amiable cop-out. After 200 pages of increasingly disturbing facts about the impact of technology and crowded city living on everything from our reading habits to our ability to form friendships, and after warning us on the very last page that we risk making “an Easter Island of the mind”, the author goes back home to Vancouver, tells his boyfriend that he missed him, and then . . . well, then what? We don’t know. The book just ends. We are left with the impression that the pile-up of evidence leads to a conclusion too vast for the author, and perhaps his readers, to take in, because to do that would be to challenge everything.

In this, Solitude mirrors the structure of many other books of its type: the Non-Fiction Warning Book (NFWB), we might call it. It takes a subject – disappearing childhood; disappearing solitude; disappearing wilderness; disappearing anything, there’s so much to choose from – trots us through several hundred pages of anecdotes, science,
interviews and stories, all of which build up to the inescapable conclusion that everything is screwed . . . and then pulls back. It’s like being teased by an expert hustler. Yes, technology is undermining our sense of self and creating havoc for our relationships with others, but the solution is not to stop using it, just to moderate it. Yes, overcrowded cities are destroying our minds and Planet Earth, but the solution is not to get out of the cities: it’s to moderate them in some way, somehow.

Moderation is always the demand of the NFWB, aimed as it is at mainstream readers who would like things to get better but who don’t really want to change much – or don’t know how to. This is not to condemn Harris, or his argument: most of us don’t want to change much or know how to. What books of this kind are dealing with is the problem of modernity, which is intractable and not open to moderation. Have a week away from your screen if you like, but the theft of human freedom by the machine will continue without you. The poet Robinson Jeffers once wrote about sitting on a mountain and looking down on the lights of a city, and being put in mind of a purse seine net, in which sardines swim unwittingly into a giant bag, which is then drawn tightly around them. “I thought, We have geared the machines and locked all together into interdependence; we have built the great cities; now/There is no escape,” he wrote. “The circle is closed, and the net/Is being hauled in.”

Under the circumstances – and these are our circumstances – the only honest conclusion to draw is that the problem, which is caused primarily by the technological direction of our society, is going to get worse. There is no credible scenario in which we can continue in the same direction and not see the problem of solitude, or lack of it, continue to deepen.

Knowing this, how can Harris just go home after a week away, drop off his bag and settle back into his hyperconnected city life? Does he not have a duty to rebel, and to tell us to rebel? Perhaps. The problem for this author is our shared problem, however, at a time in history when the dystopian predictions of Brave New World are already looking antiquated. Even if Harris wanted to rebel, he wouldn’t know how, because none of us would. Short of a collapse so severe that the electricity goes off permanently, there is no escape from what the tech corporations and their tame hive mind have planned for us. The circle is closed, and the net is being hauled in. May as well play another round of Candy Crush while we wait to be dragged up on to the deck. 

Paul Kingsnorth's latest book, “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist” (Faber & Faber)

This article first appeared in the 20 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, May's gamble

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