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.

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The world has entered a new Cold War – what went wrong?

Peter Conradi’s Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War traces the accumulation of distrust between the West and Russia.

In March 1992 an alarmist “secret” memo written by Richard Nixon found its way on to the front page of the New York Times. “The hot-button issue of the 1950s was, ‘Who lost China?’ If Yeltsin goes down, the question ‘Who lost Russia?’ will be an infinitely more devastating issue in the 1990s,” the former US president wrote.

Nixon’s point was well made. At that time, Boris Yeltsin, who had acted as the wrecking ball of the Soviet Union, was desperately struggling to hold the splintering new Russian Federation together. An empire, a political system, an ideology and a planned economy had all been shattered in a matter of weeks. Western diplomats in Moscow feared that millions of starving people might flood out of the former Soviet Union and that the country’s vast nuclear arsenal might be left unguarded. Yet the West seemed incapable of rising to the scale of the historic challenge, providing only meagre – and often misguided – support to Yeltsin. Between 1993 and 1999, US aid to Russia amounted to no more than $2.50 per person. The Marshall Plan II it was not.

Even so, and rather remarkably, Russia was not “lost” during the 1990s. Yeltsin succeeded in stumbling through the decade, creating at least some semblance of a democracy and a market economy. Truly it was a case of “Armageddon averted”, as the historian Stephen Kotkin put it.

It seems hard to remember now, but for many Russians 1991 was a moment of liberation for them as much as it was for those in the Soviet Union’s other 14 republics. The Westernising strand of Russian thought briefly flourished. “Democratic Russia should and will be just as natural an ally of the democratic nations of the West as the totalitarian Soviet Union was a natural opponent of the West,” the country’s first foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, proclaimed.

When Vladimir Putin emerged on the political scene in Moscow in 1999 he, too, made much of his Westernising outlook. When my editor and I went to interview him as prime minister, there was a portrait of Tsar Peter the Great, who had founded Putin’s home city of St Petersburg as Russia’s window on the West, hanging proudly on his office wall. President Putin, as he soon became, was strongly supportive of Washington following al-Qaeda’s attacks on the United States in 2001. “In the name of Russia, I want to say to the American people – we are with you,” he declared. Russian generals instructed their US counterparts in the lessons they had learned from their doomed intervention in Afghanistan.

Yet the sediment of distrust between the West and Russia accumulated steadily. The expansion of Nato to former countries of the Warsaw Pact, the bombing of Serbia, the invasion of Iraq and the West’s support for the “colour” revolutions in Georgia and Ukraine had all antagonised Moscow. But Putin’s increasing authoritarianism, hyperactive espionage and propaganda activities abroad drove the West away, as did his interventionism in Georgia and Ukraine.

Given the arc of Russian history, it was not surprising that the pendulum swung back so decisively towards the country’s Slavophiles. As a veteran foreign reporter for the Sunday Times and former Moscow correspondent, Peter Conradi is a cool-headed and even-handed guide to the past 25 years of Western-Russian relations. So much of what is written about Russia today is warped by polemics, displaying either an absurd naivety about the nature of Putin’s regime or a near-phobic hostility towards the country. It is refreshing to read so well-written and dispassionate an account – even if Conradi breaks little new ground.

The book concludes with the election of Donald Trump and the possibility of a new rapprochement between Washington and Moscow. Trump and Putin are indulging in a bizarre, if not grotesque, bromance. But as both men adhere to a zero-sum view of the world, it seems unlikely that their flirtation will lead to consummation.

For his part, Conradi does not hold out much hope for a fundamental realignment in Russia’s outlook. “Looking back another 25 years from now, it will doubtless be the Westward-looking Russia of the Yeltsin years that is seen as the aberration and the assertive, self-assured Putin era that is the norm,” he writes.

But the author gives the final word to the US diplomat George Kennan, a perpetual source of wisdom on all things Russian. “Of one thing we may be sure: no great and enduring change in the spirit and practice of Russia will ever come about primarily through foreign inspiration or advice,” Kennan wrote in 1951. “To be genuine, to be enduring, and to be worth the hopeful welcome of other peoples such a change would have to flow from the initiatives and efforts of the Russians themselves.”

Perhaps it is fanciful to believe that Russia has ever been “lost” to the West, because it has never been fully “won”.

John Thornhill is a former Moscow bureau chief for the Financial Times

Peter Conradi appears at the Cambridge Literary Festival, in association with the NS, on 23 April. cambridgeliteraryfestival.com

Who Lost Russia? How the World Entered a New Cold War by Peter Conradi is published by One World (384pp, £18.99​)

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