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.

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Mind-reader, lover and crazed zealot – why the enigmatic power of Rasputin endures

As Douglas Smith wisely surmises in his new book, trying to separate the mythology of Rasputin from the man himself is nearly impossible.

The first would-be murderer to land a blow on Grigory Rasputin was a peasant woman named Khioniya Guseva, whose nose had been eaten away by a disease (not syphilis, she told her interrogators emphatically) and who had been a devotee of Rasputin’s rival Iliodor, the self-styled “Mad Monk”. In June 1914 Guseva pursued Rasputin through Pokrovskoye, the Siberian village that was his home, and stabbed him with a 15-inch dagger.

Rasputin recovered. From thenceforward, though, death dogged him. As confidant and adviser to the tsar and tsarina of Russia, he was detested by monarchists and revolutionaries alike. By the time he was killed, two and a half years later, myriad plots had been hatched against his life. The minister of the interior had tried sending him on a pilgrimage accompanied by a priest: the priest had instructions to throw Rasputin from a moving train. A colonel in the secret services planned to lure him into a car with promises to introduce him to a woman, then drive to an isolated spot and strangle him. His madeira (Raputin’s fav­ourite drink) was to be poisoned. Peasants were bribed to lead him into ambushes. A strange lady turned up at his flat (as strange ladies often did) and showed him a revolver: she had brought it to kill him with, she told him, but had changed her mind after gazing into his eyes. No wonder that by the time Prince Felix Yusupov invited him to come by night to the cellar beneath the Yusupov Palace Rasputin was suspicious and fearful, and had all but given up the noisy, night-long parties he used to enjoy.

His legend has been recounted many times. The peasant who became an all-­powerful figure at the Romanov court. His priapic sexuality and his rumoured affair with Tsarina Alexandra. His “burning” eyes. His ability to hypnotise and beguile. His gift for healing, which miraculously preserved the life of the haemophiliac heir, Tsarevich Alexei. His devilish influence over the imperial couple that led them into repeated mistakes, eventually precipitating the 1917 revolution. His debauchery. His supernatural power, which obliged his murderers to kill him not once, but thrice – with poisoned pink cakes, with gunshots at point-blank range and eventually by drowning him. All of this, everybody who knows anything about Russian history, and many who do not, have heard. Douglas Smith retells the story, pruning it of absurdities, greatly expanding it, and demonstrating how very much more complicated it is than the legend would have us believe.

Rasputin’s public career began in his thirties, when he arrived in St Petersburg in 1905. Smith’s account of his life before his debut in the city is the most fascinating part of this book. It describes a world of isolated peasant communities with few books (in 1900 only about 4 per cent of Siberia’s inhabitants could read) but many holy men. This is the world of Dostoevsky’s Brothers Karamazov: violent, physically harsh, but spiritually ecstatic.

At the age of 28, Rasputin – married with children, still living with his father and helping to farm the family’s smallholding – left home to become a pilgrim. This was not an egregious decision. According to Smith, there were “about a million” pilgrims criss-crossing Russia at the time, walking barefoot, begging for food and lodging, trudging towards the holiest monasteries or seeking out revered starets, or church “elders”.

Rasputin would be away from home for years at a time. He would walk 30 miles a day. For three years he wore fetters, as many pilgrims did. After he laid them aside he went for six months without changing his clothes. He was often hungry, either because he could get no food, or because he was fasting. He was repeatedly robbed by bandits. But, for all his tribulations, on his return he would tell his children that he had seen marvels – cathedrals with golden cupolas and wild forests. He became part of a network of priests and visionaries which spanned the vast empire. He talked with everyone he met on the road, acquiring a knowledge of the narod, the Russian people, that its rulers never had. Smith’s account of his wandering years conjures up a richness of experience that makes the way the nobility later sneered at the “illiterate peasant”, the “nobody” who had got hold of their tsarina, seem indicative not of Rasputin’s shortcomings, but of their own.

In 1905 Rasputin was in the Tatar city of Kazan, drinking tea with a famed healer called Father Gavril. He told Gavril that he intended to walk on to St Petersburg, still hundreds of miles to the west. Gavril said nothing, but thought: “You’ll lose your way in Petersburg.” Rasputin, who already had a reputation as a mind-reader, responded as though he had heard, saying that God would protect him.

He was not the first holy man to be feted in the capital. Four years before he arrived in St Petersburg a French “sage” called Monsieur Philippe was holding séances in the city, and had soon “enraptured” the royal family. Nicholas and Alexandra prayed with Philippe and sat up until the small hours listening to him talk. They called him by the sobriquet they would soon give Rasputin, “Our Friend”, and they counted on him to guide the tsar in crucial talks with Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany. Eventually Nicholas was prevailed upon to send him away, but other starets or “holy fools” succeeded Philippe at court (including Mitya “the Nasal Voice”, whose speech impediment made his words incomprehensible but who was nonetheless credited as a prophet). Rasputin may have been exceptionally charismatic – someone who met him soon after his arrival in the city described him as “a burning torch” – but, as one of his sponsors in high society said, “our Holy Russia abounds in saints” and the ruling class was just as enthralled by them as were the peasantry.

So, what was it about Rasputin? The eyes certainly – there are numerous references in contemporary descriptions to his “compelling”, “mesmeric”, “brilliant” eyes, their “strange phosphorescent light” and the way they stared, as though penetrating another’s mind. There were also his skills as a performer. He would talk eloquently and for hours. Smith quotes some striking accounts of Rasputin at prayer. For him, prayer was not a matter of closed eyes and folded hands and silent communion with God. It was a performance. He vibrated like a taut bow-string. He turned his face towards heaven and then, “with great speed, he would begin to cross himself and bow”.

He was all dynamic energy. He was unpredictable and frightening. His conversation could be bantering and light but then he would turn on someone standing on the fringe of a party and, as though he had read her mind, begin to scold her for having sinful thoughts. Then there was the erotic charge. In this compendious and exhaustively researched book, Smith debunks dozens of untrue stories about his subject, yet there is no denying Rasputin’s propensity for stroking and kissing women he barely knew and (once he was sufficiently celebrated for this to become easy for him) leading them into his bedroom and making love to them while people in the next room continued to drink their tea, pretending not to hear the thumps and moans. He was “so full of love”, he said, that he could not help caressing all those around him. Alternatively, he claimed (and many of his devotees accepted) that his sexual activity was designed to help his female followers overcome their carnal passions: he used sex to free them from sex. Smith treats this belief as being probably sincerely held – if almost comically self-justifying.

By the end of his life pretty well everyone in Russia believed that Rasputin was having an affair with the empress Alexandra. Everyone, that is, except for Alexandra and her husband. She wrote to Rasputin that it was only when she was leaning on his shoulder that she felt at peace; still, she could see nothing improper in their relationship. Tsar Nicholas, coming home late at night, as he frequently did, to find his wife closeted alone with Rasputin, reacted only with delight that “Our Friend” had blessed them with a visit. Rasputin was accused of “magnetism” – of using a form of hypnotism to dominate others. Whether or not he deliberately did so, he certainly had a magnetic personality.

Yet all these attributes are those of an individual. One of the important themes of Smith’s book is that, remarkable though Rasputin may have been, he could not on his own have brought down the tsarist autocracy, as his murderers thought he had, or saved it, as the tsarina believed he could. He was seen as the heretic who was shaking the foundations of the Orthodox Church, as the corrupter who had rendered the monarchy untenable, as the Satanic sower of discord who broke the ancient and sacred ties that bound the narod to the tsar. He was seen as a peace lover who, as one of his many biographers wrote in 1964, was the “only man in Russia capable of averting” the First World War. Rasputin himself said that it was only his continued existence that kept the tsar on the throne.

When Rasputin’s assassins dumped his body in the Neva, his mourning devotees took pailfuls of water from the icy river, as though his corpse had made it holy, while all over Russia his enemies rejoiced. His murderers – Prince Yusupov, Grand Duke Dmitry and the rest – were hailed as the heroes who had saved the Romanov regime and redeemed Holy Russia. But nothing changed. Two months after Rasputin’s mauled and frozen body was dragged from beneath the ice, the revolution began. The tsar abdicated, and the joke went around that now the royal flag was no longer flying over the imperial palace, but only a pair of Rasputin’s trousers.

Early on in the process of planning his book, Smith writes, he wisely decided that to confine himself to the facts would be absurdly self-limiting. “To separate Rasputin from his mythology, I came to realise, was to completely misunderstand him.” In 1916 an astute observer of Russian politics noted in his diary that: “What really matters is not what sort of influence Grishka [Rasputin] has on the emperor, but what sort of influence the people think he has” (my italics). It’s true, and Smith agrees. “The most important truth about Rasputin,” he writes, “was the one Russians carried around in their heads.”

Smith, accordingly, gives us a plethora of rumours and canards. Over and over again in this book he tells a sensational story, full of salacious or politically complex detail and drawn from an authoritative-sounding contemporary source, only to show in the next paragraph that the story cannot possibly be true. As a result, we get an admirably encyclopaedic account of the fantasy life of early-20th-century Russians, as well as a multifaceted image of the Rasputin of their imagination. We do sometimes, though, get bogged down in the mass of material – factual or fictional – being offered us. This book will be invaluable to all subsequent writers on the subject, but general readers may wish, as I did, that Smith had at times allowed himself a clarifying generalisation rather than piling case history upon unreliable memoir upon clutch of mutually contradictory reports. This is a richly illuminating book, but it is not a lucid one.

At its centre is Rasputin, and for all the multiplicity of contemporary descriptions, and for all Smith’s laudable scholarship, he remains an area of darkness. By the time he came to fame he was no longer illiterate, but his own writings are opaque and incoherent. It is hard to read the man between the lines. Photographs (there are some haunting examples in here) seem to tell us more, but they are enigmatic.

Just occasionally, in this great, rambling edifice of a book, we glimpse him, as though far off down an endless corridor: a young seeker, vibrating with energy and self-mortifying religious fervour; a charismatic celebrity, already talking as he strides into a salon in the shirt an empress has embroidered for him; a hunted man walking home, tailed by a posse of secret agents, and drinking himself into a stupor as he awaits the attack he knew was bound to come.

And yet, for the most part, despite Douglas Smith’s herculean efforts, the man remains inscrutable. “What is Rasputin?” asked the Russian journal the Astrakhan Leaflet in 1914. “Rasputin is a nothing. Rasputin is an empty place. A hole!”

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s books include “The Pike: Gabriele d’Annunzio – Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War” (Fourth Estate)

Rasputin by Douglas Smith is published by Macmillan (817pp, £25)

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage