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 Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

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Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism