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 a freelance writer in Berlin and a former Assistant Editor at the New Statesman.

Davide Restivo at Wikimedia Commons
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Scientists have finally said it: alcohol causes cancer

Enough of "linked" and "attributable": a new paper concludes that alcohol directly causes seven types of cancer.

I don't blame you if you switch off completely at the words "causes cancer". If you pay attention to certain publications, everything from sunbeds, to fish, to not getting enough sun, can all cause cancer. But this time, it's worth listening.

The journal Addiction has published a paper that makes a simple, yet startling, claim: 

"Evidence can support the judgement that alcohol causes cancer of the oropharynx [part of the throat], larynx, oesophagus, liver, colon, rectum and [female] breast"

So what's especially significant about this? 

First, scientists, unlike journalists, are very wary of the word "causes". It's hard to ever prove that one action directly led to another, rather than that both happened to occur within the same scenario. And yet Jennie Connor, author of the paper and professor in the Preventive and Social Medicine department at the University of Otago, New Zealand, has taken the leap.

Second, alcohol not only causes cancer of one kind – the evidence supports the claim that it causes cancer at seven different sites in our bodies. There was weaker evidence that it may also cause skin, prostate and pancreatic cancer, while the link between mouth cancers and alcohol consumption was the strongest. 

What did we know about alcohol and cancer before?

Many, many studies have "linked" cancer to alcohol, or argued that some cases may be "attributable" to alcohol consumption. 

This paper loooks back over a decade's worth of research into alcohol and cancer, and Connor concludes that all this evidence, taken together, proves that alcohol "increases the incidence of [cancer] in the population".

However, as Connor notes in her paper, "alcohol’s causal role is perceived to be more complex than tobacco's", partly because we still don't know exactly how alcohol causes cancer at these sites. Yet she argues that the evidence alone is enough to prove the cause, even if we don't know exactly how the "biologial mechanisms" work. 

Does this mean that drinking = cancer, then?

No. A causal link doesn't mean one thing always leads to the other. Also, cancer in these seven sites was shown to have what's called a "dose-response" relationship, which means the more you drink, the more you increase your chances of cancer.

On the bright side, scientists have also found that if you stop drinking altogether, you can reduce your chances back down again.

Are moderate drinkers off the hook?

Nope. Rather devastatingly, Connor notes that moderate drinkers bear a "considerable" portion of the cancer risk, and that targeting only heavy drinkers with alcohol risk reduction campaigns would have "limited" impact. 

What does this mean for public health? 

This is the tricky bit. In the paper, Connor points out that, given what we know about lung cancer and tobacco, the general advice is simply not to smoke. Now, a strong link proven over years of research may suggest the same about drinking, an activity society views as a bit risky but generally harmless.

Yet in 2012, it's estimated that alcohol-attributable cancers killed half a million people, which made up 5.8 per cent of cancer deaths worldwide. As we better understand the links between the two, it's possible that this proportion may turn out to be a lot higher. 

As she was doing the research, Connor commented:

"We've grown up with thinking cancer is very mysterious, we don't know what causes it and it's frightening, so to think that something as ordinary as drinking is associated with cancer I think is quite difficult."

What do we do now?

Drink less. The one semi-silver lining in the study is that the quantity of alcohol you consume has a real bearing on your risk of developing these cancers. 

On a wider scale, it looks like we need to recalibrate society's perspective on drinking. Drug campaigners have long pointed out that alcohol, while legal, is one of the most toxic and harmful drugs available  an argument that this study will bolster.

In January, England's chief medical officer Sally Davies introduced some of the strictest guidelines on alcohol consumption in the world, and later shocked a parliamentary hearing by saying that drinking could cause breast cancer.

"I would like people to take their choice knowing the issues," she told the hearing, "And do as I do when I reach for my glass of wine and think... do I want to raise my risk of breast cancer?"

Now, it's beginning to look like she was ahead of the curve. 

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.