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.

Photo: LYNSEY ADDARIO
Show Hide image

What Happened reveals Hillary Clinton as a smart thinker – unlike the man who beat her

Those asking why she blames everyone but herself for Donald Trump clearly haven't read the book.

Hillary Clinton is smug, entitled, dislikeable, hawkish, boring. She was unable to beat a terrible Republican presidential candidate. Why doesn’t she just shut up and sod off? Bernie would have won, you know. Sexism? There’s no sexism in opposing someone who left Libya a mess and voted for the Iraq War. Also, she had slaves.

This is a small sample of the reactions I’ve had since tweeting that I was reading Clinton’s memoir of the 2016 campaign. This is one of those books that comes enveloped in a raincloud of received opinion. We knew the right hated Clinton – they’ve spent three decades furious that she wanted to keep her maiden name and trying to implicate her in a murder, without ever quite deciding which of those two crimes was worse. But the populist candidacy of Bernie Sanders provoked a wave of backlash from the left, too. You now find people who would happily go to sleep in a nest made out of copies of Manufacturing Consent mouthing hoary Fox News talking points against her.

One of the recurrent strains of left-wing criticism is that Clinton should apologise for losing to Trump – or perhaps even for thinking that she could beat him in the first place. Why does she blame everyone but herself?

Perhaps these people haven’t read the book, because it’s full of admissions of error. Using a private email server was a “boneheaded mistake”; there was a “fundamental mismatch” between her managerial approach to politics and the mood of the country; giving speeches to Wall Street is “on me”; millions of people “just didn’t like me… there’s no getting round it”.

Ultimately, though, she argues that it was a “campaign that had both great strengths and real weaknesses – just like every campaign in history”. This appears to be what has infuriated people, and it’s hard not to detect a tinge of sexist ageism (bore off, grandma, your time has passed). Those who demand only grovelling from the book clearly don’t care about finding lessons for future candidates: if the problem was Hillary and Hillary alone, that’s solved. She’s not running in 2020.

Clinton marshals a respectable battalion of defences. Historically, it is very unusual for an American political party to win three elections in a row. The Democrats (like Labour in Britain) have longstanding problems with white working-class voters outside the big cities. Facebook was flooded with fake news, such as the story that the Pope had endorsed Trump. And besides, Clinton did win three million more votes than her Republican rival.

Added to which, it is now hard to deny that Russia interfered heavily in the US election, with Trump’s approval – “Russia, if you’re listening, I hope you’re able to find the 30,000 emails that are missing,” he told a press conference in July 2016 – and perhaps even with the active collusion of his campaign. The next Democratic candidate will have to reckon with all this.

The election outcome would have been different if just 40,000 voters in three key swing states had flipped, so there are dozens of potential culprits for Clinton’s loss. But perhaps one of the reasons that many in the US media have been so hostile to the book is that it paints them as such villains. Even now, it is common to hear that Clinton “didn’t have an economic message”, when a better criticism is that no one got to hear it.

In their mission not to be accused of “elite bias”, the media desperately hunted for bad things to say about Clinton, when none of her offences came close to the gravity of a totally unqualified, unstable man with no government experience going on a year-long bender of saying mad shit and boasting about sexual assault. In both the primary against Sanders and the general election, she was treated as the obvious next president, and held to a different standard. (Incidentally, there is surprisingly little criticism of Sanders in here; she credits him with helping to write her policy platform.)

The book is at its best when it reflects on gender, a subject which has interested Clinton for decades. She calculates that she spent 600 hours during the campaign having her hair and make-up done, as “the few times I’ve gone out in public without make-up, it’s made the news”. She writes about the women she met who were excited to vote for a female president for the first time. She mentions the Facebook group Pantsuit Nation, where 3.8 million people cheered on her candidacy. (Tellingly, the group was invite-only.)

Yet Clinton was never allowed to be a trailblazer in the way that Barack Obama was. That must be attributed to the belief, common on the left and right, that whiteness and wealth cancel out any discrimination that a woman might otherwise suffer: pure sexism doesn’t exist.

The narrative of the US election is that Clinton was deeply unpopular, and while that’s true, so was Trump. But where were the interviews with the 94 per cent of African-American women who voted for her, compared with the tales of white rage in Appalachia? “The press coverage and political analysis since the election has taken as a given that ‘real America’ is full of middle-aged white men who wear hard hats and work on assembly lines – or did until Obama ruined everything,” she writes.

Clinton faces the uncomfortable fact that whites who feel a sense of “loss” are more attracted by Trump’s message than Americans with objectively worse material conditions who feel life might get better. That is an opportunity for the left, and a challenge: many of those Trump voters aren’t opposed to benefits per se, just the idea they might go to the undeserving. Universal healthcare will be a hard sell if it is deemed to be exploited by, say, undocumented immigrants.

Yes, What Happened is occasionally ridiculous. There’s a section on “alternate nostril breathing” as a relaxation technique that a kinder editor would have cut. The frequent references to her Methodism will seem strange to a British audience. The inspirational stories of the people she meets on the campaign trail can feel a little schmaltzy. But it reveals its author as a prodigious reader, a smart thinker and a crafter of entire sentences. Unlike the man who beat her. 

What Happened
Hillary Clinton
Simon & Schuster, 494pp, £20

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left