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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Defining The Defenders: the long history of the superhero team-up

Netflix's new show draws on an established traditon of bringing together disparate characters.

Today Marvel’s The Defenders dropped worldwide. It’s the culmination of Marvel Studios’ interlinked series for Netflix, and all episodes will be available simultaneously as is the streaming services’ wont.

The Defenders, and the Netflix series that have preceded it, seem modelled on how the Marvel Cinematic Universe films have worked in multiplexes. At least superficially. Characters get their own solo films/series, which become increasingly interlinked over time, before all featuring together in an onscreen ‘team up’. Here, they combine against a threat greater than any they could plausibly win against on their own, sparring and generating alliances, friendships and even enmities in the process.

This structure, of course, is Marvel’s film and TV projects aping their source material. Marvel’s comics, and superhero comics more generally, have long relished the "team up" and the "super team". The use of this approach by Marvel’s other media ventures is intuitively right, allowing the mass audience for film and television to experience one of the specific pleasures of how superhero comics work in the characters’ new medium.

The concept of the super team goes back a long way. The Justice Society of America, from Marvel’s Distinguished Competition, is usually considered the first. They debuted in All-Star Comics #3 (1940) and the team consisted of the Flash (the Jay Garrick version, Flash TV fans), Green Lantern, Hawkman, and now lesser known characters like Hour-Man, the Sandman (not the Neil Gaiman one), the Atom, The Spectre and Doctor Fate. Within a few issues Wonder Woman would join: as secretary. Because it was the 1940s.

What’s interesting about this initial super team is that half of these characters were published by All-American Comics (who actually published All-Star) and half by DC Comics themselves, making this an inter-company crossover. (The companies would later merge). It also used to be claimed as the first example of characters created separately, and with no intention of them being connected, interacting. It isn’t. There are countless examples in the pulp fictions of the late nineteenth century, but the claim stood for so long because it felt right that the original super team should be the source of such meta-fictional innovation.

The Defenders were created much later in comics history and first appeared in 1971’s Marvel Feature #1. The team, though, had its origins in the "Titans Three" an informal grouping of heroes who appeared in a three part story serialised across Doctor Strange #183 (November 1969), Sub-Mariner #22 (February 1970), and The Incredible Hulk #126 (April 1970).

All three of those comics were written by Roy Thomas. Caught on the hop by the sudden cancellation of Doctor Strange (#183 was the final issue), he wrapped up ongoing plotlines from the cancelled comic in other series he scripted, bringing the now title-less Strange into those other series in the process. A couple more appearances of the group together followed, before the team was formally named in the aforementioned Marvel Feature #1.

Dr Strange. The Sub-Mariner. The Incredible Hulk. It’s quite likely that anyone reading this who is only familiar with the publicity for Netflix’s The Defenders would be surprised by that roster of headline characters. (And that’s assuming they’re even familiar with Namor the Sub-Mariner, a character of 1939 vintage who has not yet reached the MCU.) This is a radically different group to Daredevil, Jessica Jones (a character not even created until the 21st century), Luke Cage and Iron Fist, the stars of the current TV series. None of the telly team are characters a Marvel zombie would associate with The Defenders, although Iron Fist has been a very occasional member of the team’s roster, as has Luke Cage. (In which context, it’s unfortunate that Iron Fist has been the least liked of Netflix’s series, with a mere 17 per cent approval on Rotten Tomatoes.)

The complete absence of all three of the original Defenders from its television incarnation could be seen as an odd decision. Neither Benedict Cumberbatch’s Steven Strange nor Mark Ruffalo’s Bruce Banner are expected to turn up, even for cameos. Marvel Studios has policed a strict division between its Netflix series and its cinematic outings, despite announcing them as being set in the same "continuity". The fourth "classic" Defender is even less likely to turn up. The Silver Surfer (who joined the team in 1972, less than a year after it was formed) is, due to some bad deal making in the 90s, off limits to the MCU. His film rights sit with Fox, who utilised him in the rightly all but forgotten Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer (2007). 

One of the reasonably consistent features of previous incarnations of The Defenders is that the characters have generally faced mystical threats. They first teamed up to fight monsters from HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, and generally their antagonists have operated on that kind of scale. With Stephen Strange in the gang, that makes sense. You don’t need the sorcerer supreme to take out organised crime. But organised crime is largely what you’d expect Daredevil, Luke Cage, Jessica Jones and Iron Fist to take on, especially based on the Netflix versions of the characters. All four are "street-level" heroes, operating in New York, interacting with characters like murderous vigilante The Punisher and Kingpin of Crime Wilson Fisk. Perhaps splitting the difference, their team up series will see them take on The Hand. This is a ninja organisation, with mystical origins, that is nevertheless involved in organised crime and can be presented, as it has been so far for Netflix, within the context of crime stories.

Marvel’s Chief Creative Officer Joe Quesada has defended The Defenders being The Defenders by pointing out that the original team are largely unknown outside comics fandom, and their name means nothing to the public at large. (Although they have, of course, heard of all three of its constituent members.) Of course, for some this might sensible provoke the question "Why use it then?" What is this series called The Defenders at all?

The (original) Defenders were seen as a "non-team", a phrase occasionally used in the pages of their appearances. There was something deconstructive about this kind of team up. It was the pairing of characters who were unsuited to working, even to appearing, together and who would really rather not. (They had, after all, been brought together in the first place simply because Roy Thomas happened to write their separate titles.) The stories told with the group in some ways challenged and confronted the cliches of the decades old form that had begun back in All-Star Comics #3.

The line-up, and tone, of Netflix’s Defenders more resembles that of another, deliberately slightly interrogative non-team, that of the short-lived Marvel Knights book of 2000-2001. This did share The Defenders somewhat abstract definition of "team", featuring characters who didn’t like each other and didn’t want to work together, albeit without any mystical element to how they were brought together. Marvel Knights was also, in theory, the flagship of the line of the same name, at the time edited by... Joe Quesada. Hmm.

In recent years, Marvel have frequently cheerfully remodelled their comics - the original medium for almost all their characters - in order to incorporate changes and innovations pioneered as part of their film and television projects. Remixing their characters and the way they are grouped together in response to the success of their screen empire. The Guardians of the Galaxy, for example, have become more prominent in the comics, while characters whose film rights lie with film companies other than Marvel’s own, such as the aforementioned Fantastic Four, have been pushed to the margins. Accordingly, this August sees the launch of a new The Defenders title, featuring the lineup of characters from the television series.

Some loyal comics readers see this a case of the tail wagging the dog. Others might like to take notice of the metaphor used by comics writer Grant Morrison in his 2011 book SuperGods: Our World In The Age Of The Superhero. There, Morrison argued that comic books, while the medium in which these characters were created, was essentially the discarded booster section of the rocket in which they had been fired into the public consciousness, reaching vastly greater audiences in the process. 

“That’s not The Defenders,” commented a friend of mine on seeing a publicity photograph for the series a few weeks ago. It is now, mate. It is now.