Breaking Bad series 5, episode 14: Fifty shades of grey matter

The temperature reduces to a wheezing, purgatorial thaw, in the penultimate episode of Breaking Bad.

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

In the penultimate episode of Breaking Bad, the photographic palette has shifted from the pine interiors, yellow sands and cloudless blue skies of New Mexico to the sodden browns, dotted whites and stony greys of the “Granite State”: New Hampshire. The change in colour says a great deal about the function of the episode. Walter is a fugitive, visibly emaciated by the cancer darkening his lungs, who by the end of the episode has been living in a cabin for at least two months. After the breakneck pacing of “Ozymandias”, life, for Walter at least, has reduced with the temperature to a wheezing thaw. There is a great deal of waiting in this episode: for Walter’s deliverance, for chemotherapy, for the DEA’s next move. The pure whiteness of the snowy lane that leads up to Walter's compound only adds to the second-to-last episode’s purgatorial feel.

We are treated (surely?) to our last scenes with Saul Goodman. Walter’s former lawyer speaks on our behalf when he delightedly notes that his “extractor” Ed (Robert Forster) does indeed run a business selling suction-based cleaning products: Best Quality Vacuum. “I figured the vacuum repair was a term of art!” Goodman dozily exclaims. When we first see Walter, it is on a colourless TV screen. He stomps up and down the stone-walled holding pen where Ed’s clients wait to be reborn into their new lives, whacking the light fixture above him like an animal in captivity. When they are reunited, Saul advises Walt to hand himself in, but Walt has other plans: he wants to kill Jack and his Nazi buddies, and get the money back for his family (or to satisfy his ego – the two have become light and dark shades of the same project). “Then and only then am I through,” he says, before lapsing into a coughing fit – our signal that his illness is advancing. Meanwhile Todd Alquist convinces his uncle not to kill Jesse in exchange for mo’ money and the ever-logical Lydia’s attention. “The heart wants what it wants,” Jack concludes, feeling a little more stoical than usual.

Way down in the hole: Jesse Pinkman. Photograph: Ursula Coyote/AMC.

Todd and Lydia sit back to back and discuss the 96 per cent purity Todd has been producing with Pinkman’s help, following a genuinely horrifying scene in which the Nazis, clad in black balaclavas, break into the White household and threaten Skyler not to talk to the authorities about Lydia. Once again we see that Walter has been unable to protect his family: the house has been violated, his surrogate son Jesse is captive in a hole in the ground, and soon Walter Jr will refuse to accept his father’s money even when he offers it. I like the idea that Todd has become Walt’s unwanted child, with Lydia as his deadly bride: they make a “good team”, assuming that cold, rational and effortlessly calculating are the qualities that make an ideal couple. Perhaps they will succeed in the marketplace where Walter failed – though, as with the Nazis, whose destruction may well provide the only solace in what is shaping up to be a pretty grim finale, I rather hope not.

“Mr Lambert” is living in a Thoreauvian cabin on an Indian reservation in New Hampshire. His only visitor is Ed, who brings him newspapers from Alburquerque and whom he pays $10,000 to sit and play cards with him for an hour. This is torture for Walt: in many senses it is as if he is already dead and is being forced to look over life as he left it (Sklyer is working part-time at a taxi dispatch office, leaving baby Holly with the neighbour and Finn with his pal Louis). Heisenberg appears to have retired, leaving the dying Walter White to his fate. When Walter dons his pork pie hat and heads out for a ramble, he doesn’t venture beyond the compound gate. It is only after he is rejected by his son, takes Saul’s advice to give himself in, and just so happens to catch Gretchen and Elliot Schwartz on Charlie Rose (I used to find it exciting when famous TV presenters popped up in the fictional universe, now it seems a little over-done). Rose accuses them of attempting to purify themselves of Walt’s influence on their company Grey Matter Technologies by investing in drug abuse treatment centres in the south west. As we well know, nothing stirs Walt’s envy better than others taking credit for his work (recall him telling Hank that Gale Boetticher's operation was that of a mere “amateur”), and he disappears before local police arrive to raid the bar.

Pine barrels: Mr Lambert arrives in New Hampshire. Photograph: Ursula Coyote/AMC.

Last week I received some heat in the comments for seeing malice in Walt’s now infamous phone call. The Huffington Post’s TV critic Mo Ryan wrote brilliantly that while the phone call was intended to get Skyler off the hook (another Pyrrhic victory there), nothing Walt says is ever straightforward, as was made clear in this week’s episode when he began howling about his family and his money. Surely his “family”, by now, is synonymous with his Heisenbergian empire? Emily Nussbaum has a thesis about “bad fans”: those who refuse to accept Walter’s guilt, and project all evil onto Skyler and others. I think it’s perfectly possible to see some light in Walter – if, for no other reason than Bryan Cranston is just so engaging onscreen. Cranston himself, in Tad Friend’s profile of him for the New Yorker, said that while Gilligan had long given up on Walt, he felt he could only continue by maintaining some sympathy with the character to the very end.

In the last couple of episodes we have seen Jesse beaten, enslaved and now, forced to endure the Mafioso-style execution of Andrea, the second woman he has loved and lost. “Remember, there’s still the kid,” Jack warns him. It is impossible not to pity Jesse (and Andrea, and Brock) in this scene. It is clear that if Walter is teetering on the edge of the abyss, Jesse is already in hell. The narratological stars are aligning for a Jesse survival, but who really can tell? Ross Douthat has listed a good number of reasons why he underserving of our sympathies. When asked about the final episode of Breaking Bad, “Felina”, after the Emmys on Sunday evening, Anna Gunn said: “It’s mind-blowing. I think people will be frozen in their chairs staring at the TV after. It’s apocalyptical.” Judgement, it seems, is nigh.

Read last week's blog here.

Jesse Pinkman - blameless victim? Photograph: Frank Ockenfels/AMC.

Philip Maughan is Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

SAMUEL COURTAULD TRUST
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The monochrome set

In Pieter Bruegel’s hands, even black and white paintings can be full of colour.

Grisailles – monochrome images usually painted in shades of grey and white – have a long tradition. Early examples appeared in the 14th century as miniatures or manuscript illuminations and then later on the outside of the folding panels of altarpieces, where they imitated sepulchre statues and offered a stark contrast to the bright colour of the paintings inside. With their minimal palette, grisailles also offered painters a chance both to show off their skill and to add their bit to the age-old artistic debate about paragone: which was superior – sculpture, with its ability to show a figure in three dimensions, or painting, with its powers of illusion? By pretending to be sculpture, grisailles could better it.

The first artist to paint grisailles as independent works for private enjoyment and contemplation was the Netherlander Pieter Bruegel the Elder (circa 1525-69), whose folk scenes of peasants carousing or of hunters in a snowy landscape have long been staples of art’s quotidian, earthy strand. Only about 40 works by him are now known and of those, just three are grisailles (not a term he would have recognised; he referred to the pictures simply as “painted in black and white”). This trio of survivors has been reunited for the first time, at the Courtauld Gallery, with an accompanying selection of copies and engravings – a mere ten pictures in all – for a fascinating one-room exhibition.

The grisailles show a deeper and more intellectual artist than the sometimes slapstick figure who would dress as a peasant in order to gatecrash weddings in the Brabant countryside and record the drunken and playful goings-on in his pictures. They reflect the position of the Low Countries in Bruegel’s time, caught between the Catholicism of their Spanish overlords and the emerging Protestantism that had been sparked by Martin Luther only eight years before Bruegel’s birth. These tensions soon erupted in the Eighty Years War.

Of the three paintings, two show religious subjects – The Death of the Virgin (1562-65) and Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (1565) – and one is a scene that would have been familiar in the streets around him, Three Soldiers (1568). This last, lent by the Frick Collection in New York, shows a drummer, a piper and a standard-bearer in the elaborately slashed uniforms of German Landsknechte mercenaries. Such groupings featured often in German prints and Bruegel’s small picture is a clever visual game: painting could imitate not only sculpture, but prints, too. What’s more, the gorgeously coloured uniforms (mercenaries were exempt from the sumptuary laws that restricted clothing to sedate colours) could be shown to be just as arresting even in black and white.

If this is a painting about painting, the ­religious works have, it seems, added layers of meaning – although it is always difficult with Bruegel to work out what that meaning is and how personal it might be. The Courtauld’s Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery shows Jesus stooping in front of the Pharisees and saving the accused woman from stoning by writing in the dust, “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.” That he spells out the words in Dutch rather than Hebrew, which was more usual in other images of the scene (and which he uses on the tunic of one of the learned men observing the mute play), suggests that this picture – a plea for clemency – was intended to serve as a call for religious tolerance amid mounting sectarian antagonism. While the gaping faces of the onlookers recall those of Hieronymus Bosch, the flickering calligraphic touches and passages of great delicacy are all his own.

The picture stayed with Bruegel until his death, so it had a personal meaning for him; more than 20 copies were subsequently made. Included in the exhibition are the copies painted by his sons, Jan and Pieter the Younger (a coloured version), as well as the earliest known print after it, from 1579, by Pieter Perret, which shows some of the detail in the crowd around the central figures that has been lost in the discoloured panel.

If the sombre tones of grisaille are suited to the pared-down faith advocated by Luther, the death of the Virgin was a familiar topic in Catholic and Orthodox iconography. Bruegel’s picture, from Upton House in Warwickshire, depicts an episode that doesn’t actually appear in the Bible. A group of Apostles and mourners has gathered around the Virgin’s bed, the scene lit by the heavenly light emanating from the dying woman and the five flames from the candles and the hearth that correspond to the five wounds suffered by her son on the cross. Domestic items litter the room – a slice of orange, slippers, a dozing cat – and there is a sleeping attendant, unaware of the miracle of Assumption that will shortly unfold. Here is a moving nocturne in which the mysteries of religion emerge from and disappear back into the shadows.

While Bruegel’s peasant works display a delight in physical pleasure, these three bravura works, painted for humanist connoisseurs and for himself, portray the sober, spiritual concerns that come to the fore once the last drop has been drunk. 

The exhibition runs until 8 May. For more details, go to: courtauld.ac.uk

Michael Prodger is an Assistant Editor at the New Statesman. He is an art historian, Senior Research Fellow at the University of Buckingham, and a former literary editor.

This article first appeared in the 11 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle