Breaking Bad series 5, episode 11: The last nail in the coffin

I need a new dust filter for my Hoover MaxExtract PressurePro model 60 - can you help me with that?

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

Ah, bank holiday Monday. What better way to spend a lazy day at the end of summer than to the close the curtains and sip coffee while two dear old friends set off on the path towards mutual annihilation. For once, I was able to watch Breaking Bad as soon as it was uploaded to Netflix, at the generally office-bound hour of 10am. The episode, “Confessions”, began calmly, rolling with a detached prologue, the relevance of which was not immediately clear.

Todd Alquist (Jesse Plemons) calls “Mr White” - for reasons that aren’t obvious, approval maybe, or perhaps professional necessity? - to tell him that he has regained control of the meth business, and will cook again now that Declan (Louis Ferreira) is well on his way to Belize. So to speak. In a diner (where else), he tells his uncle Jack and his supremacist buddy the dramatic story of the methylamine train heist - minus the part where he shot and killed Drew Sharp, who saw it all, and whose tarantula he stole. After Jack wipes blood from his heavy boots, the three of them drive into New Mexico with the methylamine tank attached to the back of a pick-up truck.

Back in the interrogation room, Jesse wakes from his moral stupor when Hank reveals that he knows his brother-in-law is Heisenberg. There is a camera in the corner, which Hank turns off, before asking Jesse to inform on his former partner. “Eat me,” Jesse replies, but Hank knows something is up. “Happy people usually don’t go around throwing millions of dollars away”. Saul Goodman bursts in and reminds the two detectives in charge of Hank's previous dealings with Mr Pinkman. “He knocked the poor kid unconscious the last time the two of them were alone together”. Hank hobbles out of the room, and Saul calls after him, “Hey Rocky, keep your dukes up!” He explains to Jesse that the situation has “gone nuclear” before we cut to Walt in his bedroom, instructing Saul to bail Jesse out, whatever the cost.

Walter Jr (RJ Mitte) makes his first appearance of series 5 part two, and is convinced by his father to stay away from his aunt Marie’s house after Walt reveals that his cancer has come back. The young lad is distraught. Breaking Bad has always managed to blend high drama with a backdrop so familiar and kitsch as to almost be embarrassing (think the naff pine decor in Walt and Skyler's bedroom). As the Schraders and Whites come together to discuss next steps, a chipper young servitor named Trent breaks up the discussion to offer them beverages, water and home-made guacamole. Walt makes a second appeal for Hank to drop the investigation: to simply let him die in his own time, to which Marie buts in with the helpful suggestion that he do them all a favour and just kill himself. The entire conversation takes place through gritted teeth. Without ordering a thing (poor Trent will probably have his paltry wages docked), they part ways, but not before Walt hands Hank a DVD.

“We make it right here at the table!” - Trent. Image: AMC.

As the Schraders growled at Walt and Skyler's plea for leniency, I couldn't help but thinking: “C’mon Walt, show a little Heisenberg”. I needn’t have worried. Walt’s “confession” is not, as we were led to expect, a bargaining tool intended to inspire mercy in Hank. It is a threat. In front of the camera (nobody is liable to forget that Breaking Bad began with a similarly-worded admission), Walt explains that he is wrapped up in a drug empire, but that Hank Schrader, a man with both the connections, the know-how, and the perfect alibi, was the mastermind behind it all. Walt even manages to cry. His mention of $177,000 in medical bills provides the final piece of incriminating detail - “the last nail in the coffin” - that will make it impossible for him to prosecute without Pinkman.

Speak of the devil. Out in the desert - “Jesus, it’s always the desert” - Saul and Jesse wait for Walter to pay them a visit. A tarantula crawls towards Jesse's feet: a reminder of Todd’s crimes, and the creeping, manipulative power Walter seems to exert over the both of them. After Walt suggests Jesse make use of Saul’s relocation expert, Jesse breaks down into tears and tells him to “quit with the concerned father bullshit.” He tells Walt to ask him straightforwardly, as a favour, or even a warning, before the two embrace and we are left unsure whether Walter really cares for Jesse, or is simply relieved to be getting his way.

What happens in the desert, stays in the desert. Image: AMC.

Saul makes the call: “I need a new dust filter for my Hoover MaxExtract PressurePro model 60 - can you help me with that?” At the car wash Walter stands in the darkness and announces to Skyler “It worked and we’re fine”, before we cut to Hank looking pensive at the DEA office. One of the qualities of the show that always surprises me is the way it makes you root for everyone, and hope that they win out, while simultaneously making clear that nobody can win, and that sooner or later they all must suffer. In the process of arranging Jesse’s departure (to Alaska, he suggests), Saul and Huell swipe Jesse’s weed so as not to jeopardise things when the professional arrives to pick him up. Looking at the packet of wilmington cigarettes in his hand, a whiskery Jesse figures out that if Huell could swipe his dope baggy, he could easily have switched out the packet with the ricin in, covering for Walter after he poisoned Brock. In the episode's final moments father and surrogate son reach for their weapons: Walt retrieves a gun stored in the A1 vending machine, Jesse a canister of gasoline. Is this how Walt’s house is destroyed? we wonder. Is the house even empty?

Three extra things:

Walt Jr’s reappearance reminded me of this.

The Hoover MaxExtract 60 PressurePro Carpet Deep Cleaner is getting some interesting reviews on Amazon.

Charlie Brooker talks to Vincent Gilligan at the Edinburgh Book Festival.

Jesse and Walter take a hard look at the "concerned father" complex. Image: AMC.

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

Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear