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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Why is the Handmaid's Tale claimed as feminist, when it's deeply ambivalent about the movement?

The scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream - these feel like digs at second-wave feminists.

In a recent piece for the New York Times, Margaret Atwood tackled the question of whether or not her 1985 work The Handmaid’s Tale ought to be considered a feminist novel:

"If you mean an ideological tract in which all women are angels and/or so victimized they are incapable of moral choice, no. If you mean a novel in which women are human beings — with all the variety of character and behavior that implies — and are also interesting and important, and what happens to them is crucial to the theme, structure and plot of the book, then yes."

On the face of it, this seems a reasonable answer. It all depends on what one means by “feminist”. And yet, I can’t help thinking: if that’s the case, are those really our only two options?

Do we have to choose between a feminism which accords women no moral agency and one which merely tells that women are people, too? Certainly if it’s the latter, then Atwood is right that “many books are ‘feminist’”. The trouble is, I’m not sure such a definition gets us very far.

For instance, last week the cast of Hulu’s television adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale caused controversy by appearing to suggest that the story was not feminist at all. In truth what was said did not deviate significantly from Atwood’s earlier comments. “It’s a human story,” claimed Elizabeth Moss, the actress who plays Offred, “because women’s rights are human rights.”

While it’s difficult to argue with that – unless one genuinely believes that women are not human – it’s a statement that grates, not least because it has an air of apology about it. What is really being emphasised here, and in Atwood’s earlier definition? The humanity of women, or the applicability of women’s stories to those humans who actually matter, that is, the men? 

It’s not always clear, which highlights a double-bind feminists often find ourselves in when discussing not just women’s art, but our politics, spaces and experiences. Regardless of whether or not we choose to universalise – “it’s just human experience!” – or to specify – “it’s a female-only issue!” –  there’s always a way for us to end up losing. We’re either erasing or essentialising; either we’re absorbed into the male default or accused of complicity in our own marginalisation.

The Handmaid’s Tale is a rich, brilliant novel, not least because there is no clear moral path one can negotiate through it. This is one of the reasons why I’ve found the impulse of some to treat it as a warning or call to action in the face of current threats to women’s rights both simplistic and inaccurate. The book contains an ambivalence towards women who might be described as feminists which often spills over into outright hostility or blame. This may be part of what is meant by treating women, feminists among them, as human beings, but we therefore need to take care in treating this as any kind of template for a politics of our own.

 “Yes,” writes Atwood in her New York Times piece, “[women] will gladly take positions of power over other women, even — and, possibly, especially — in systems in which women as a whole have scant power.” Yet there are no men in Gilead who rival Serena Joy, Aunt Lydia or even Janine in their grotesqueness. In contrast to them, the Commander seems almost endearing with his scrabble and his old magazines. Certain details – the scapegoating of the anti-porn movement, Offred’s longing for hand cream, the butter used as moisturiser – feel almost clumsy, deliberate digs at what Atwood has called “that initial phase of feminism when you weren’t supposed to wear frocks and lipstick”. It seems ironic to me, at a time when the loudest voices of protest against real-life surrogacy are those of radical, rather than liberal, feminists, that The Handmaid’s Tale’s own depiction of radicals as pro-natalist or extremist has not prompted a more nuanced reception of any purported message.

Yet this isn’t to discount the value of Atwood’s work to feminists exploring issues such as reproductive exploitation, faith and sexual agency. If one accords the novel the same respect one might accord a work that focuses on human experience which happens to be male, then it ceases to be a matter of whether one is able to say “look, women are people!” (of course we are) or “look, the baddies here are the same ones we’re facing now!” (they’re not, at least not quite). Hypothetical futures, in which gender relations are reimagined, expand our own understanding of our space in this world, as women in the here and now.

All too often, to count as human, women must consent to have their femaleness – that thing that makes them other – disregarded. The same is not true for men in relation to maleness. There’s no need to stress the universal applicability of men’s stories; it will already be assumed. By contrast, women are expected to file down all the rough edges in order to make their stories fit into a template created by and for men. It’s either that or remain on the outside looking in. Either women must have no individual narrative or we must have no specificity.

Where is the third option, the one where our own experiences get to reshape what being human actually means? Where our relationship with power is seen as something other than a diluted version of men’s?

I think it could be all around us, in the stories we tell. We just need to piece it together, in a space that is neither outside nor in, neither feminist nor apologetically neutral, but both female and human at once.  

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

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