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.

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High explosive, damp squibs: the history of bombing raids

Governing from the Skies by Thomas Hippler examines the changing role of aerial bombing.

Bombing from the air is about a hundred years old. As a strategic option, it eroded the distinction between combatants and non-combatants: it was, Thomas Hippler argues in his thought-provoking history of the bombing century, the quintessential weapon of total war. Civilian populations supported war efforts in myriad ways, and so, total-war theorists argued, they were a legitimate object of attack. Bombing might bring about the collapse of the enemy’s war economy, or create a sociopolitical crisis so severe that the bombed government would give up. Despite efforts to protect non-combatants under international law, civilian immunity has been and continues to be little more than an ideal.

Hippler is less concerned with the military side of bombing, and has little to say about the development of air technology, which, some would insist, has defined the nature and limits of bombing. His concern is with the political dividends that bombing was supposed to yield by undermining social cohesion and/or the general willingness to continue a war.

The model for this political conception of bombing was the colonial air policing practised principally by the British between the world wars. Hippler observes that the willingness to use air power to compel rebel “tribesmen” in Afghanistan, Iraq and Africa to cease insurgency became the paradigm for later large-scale campaigns during the Second World War, and has been reinvented in the age of asymmetric warfare against non-state insurgencies: once again in Iraq and Afghanistan – and, indeed, anywhere that a drone can reach.

The problem, as Hippler knows, is that this type of bombing does not work. A century of trying to find the right aerial platform and armament, from the German Gotha bombers of 1917 to the unmanned missile carriers of today, has not delivered the political and strategic promise that air-power theorists hoped for. Air power is at its best when it is either acting as an ancillary to surface forces or engaged in air-to-air combat. The Israeli strike against Arab air forces at the start of the 1967 war was a classic example of the efficient military use of air power. In the Second World War, the millions of bombs dropped on Europe produced no social upheaval, but the US ­decision to engage in all-out aerial counterattack in 1944 destroyed the Luftwaffe and opened the way to the destruction of Germany’s large and powerful ground forces.

The prophet of bombing as the means to a quick, decisive solution in modern war was the Italian strategist Giulio Douhet, whose intellectual biography Hippler has written. Douhet’s treatise The Command of the Air (1921) is often cited as the founding text of modern air power. He believed that a more humane way to wage war was to use overwhelming strength in the air to eliminate the enemy’s air force, and then drop bombs and chemical weapons in a devastating attack on enemy cities. The result would be immediate capitulation, avoiding another meat-grinder such as the First World War. The modern nation, he argued, was at its most fragile in the teeming industrial cities; social cohesion would collapse following a bombing campaign and any government, if it survived, would have to sue for peace.

It has to be said that these views were hardly original to Douhet. British airmen had formed similar views of aerial power’s potential in 1917-18, and although the generation that commanded the British bomber offensive of 1940-45 knew very little of his thinking, they tried to put into practice what could be described as a Douhetian strategy. But Douhet and the British strategists were wrong. Achieving rapid command of the air was extremely difficult, as the Battle of Britain showed. Bombing did not create the conditions for social collapse and political capitulation (despite colossal human losses and widespread urban destruction) either in Britain, Germany and Japan, or later in Korea and Vietnam. If Douhet’s theory were to work at all, it would be under conditions of a sudden nuclear exchange.

Hippler is on surer ground with the continuity in colonial and post-colonial low-­intensity conflicts. Modern asymmetric warfare, usually against non-state opponents, bears little relation to the total-war school of thinking, but it is, as Hippler stresses, the new strategy of choice in conflicts. Here too, evidently, there are limits to the bombing thesis. For all the air effort put into the conflict against Isis in Syria and Iraq, it is the slow advance on the ground that has proved all-important.

The most extraordinary paradox at the heart of Hippler’s analysis is the way that most bombing has been carried out by Britain and the United States, two countries that have long claimed the moral high ground. It might be expected that these states would have respected civilian immunity more than others, yet in the Second World War alone they killed roughly 900,000 civilians from the air.

The moral relativism of democratic states over the century is compounded of claims to military necessity, an emphasis on technological innovation and demonisation of the enemy. For all the anxieties being aired about militant Islam, the new Russian nationalism and the potential power of China, it is the United States and Britain that need to be watched most closely.

Richard Overy’s books include “The Bombing War: Europe (1939-1945)” (Penguin)

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