Breaking Bad series 5, episode 13: Don't skimp on family, that's what I always say

Low on dialogue, heavy on artillery.

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

Last night’s episode of Breaking Bad was light on dialogue, heavy on artillery. In the prologue Lydia whines about the colour of the crystal meth Todd is cooking. “Blue is our brand,” she explains. After she leaves the rusty hanger where the Nazis - I’m just going to call them Nazis – have been busy getting their product up to 76 per cent purity (“That dude who looked like Wolverine, he couldn’t even crack 70”), Todd reminds us of his creepy, adolescent chivalry from “Buried” and rubs his thumb against the lipstick marks Lydia has left on her mug of tea. Yikes. Todd then receives the call from Walt that closed last week’s episode, asking for his uncle’s help: “Just one target, not currently in jail: Jesse Pinkman.”

Hank and Gomie rail at Jessie – “Timmy Dipshit” – but are intrigued by his plan to corner Walt where he really lives. First they fake Jesse’s death using a packet of gooey supermarket meat and trick Huell into thinking Walt’s been on a killing spree, and that he’s next. Using the bare information they have they trick Walt into revealing the location of his buried barrels of cash. Cue a very green-screen road race out to To’hajiilee, the Indian reservation where Walt and Jesse first cooked and where the White family treasure is buried, along with a series of dopey confessions from Walt: “Remember when I ran over those gang bangers!” etc. etc.

"You're the guy off our billboard!" Photograph: AMC.

Meanwhile Walter Jr is learning the family business, taking cash and telling people to have an A1 day. There is a priceless moment when Saul approaches the counter, battered, swollen and deflated, and Walter Jr is overwhelmed by celebrity. “You’re the guy on our billboard!” he shrieks. “Better call Saul,” Goodman obliges. Just at that moment Walter – I think purely for the comedy value – appears at the door and looks utterly flabbergasted. Saul, as ever, makes a classy exit: “Don’t drink and drive kid, but if you do, call me…”

Walter’s plan to have Jesse killed shows just how corrupted his definition of “family” has become. “Jesse is like family to me,” he says, explaining to Todd’s uncle Jack that he wants a quick and painless hit. (Great response from Jack: “Don’t skimp on family, that’s what I always say.”) Walt attempts to lure Jesse by showing up and Andrea and Brock’s house, but Hank intercepts the phonecall and puts a stop to the plan: “Nice try, asshole.”

To'hajiilee - not Breaking Bad's equivalent of yippee-ki-yay but an Indian reservation. Photograph: AMC.

The final ten minutes of the episode became a protracted showdown, first between Hank, Gomie, Jesse and Walt, then between the four of them and the Nazis, who show up despite Walt’s telling them not to come. Hank’s phone call to Marie was a klaxon call to herald his demise, but I’m not so sure... After some of the worst misses in television history, nobody has been hit and everything is to play for. I thought at least Gomie would have taken one to the shoulder, but the bullets keep flying, and Walt and Jesse are caught in the firing line.

Next week: "Ozymandias".

Walt makes an appearance at breakfast - and is rightly treated with suspicion by Brock. Photograph: AMC.

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

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The Underground Railroad is a novel which offers hope for the very strong of heart

Whitehead’s prize-winning novel of slavery in America is his finest work yet.

30 DOLLARS REWARD will be given to any person who will deliver to me, or confine in any gaol in the state so that I can get her again, a likely yellow NEGRO GIRL 18 years of age who ran away nine months past. She is an artfully lively girl and will, no doubt, attempt to pass as a free person, but has a noticeable scar on her elbow, occasioned by a burn.

 

“Want ads” for runaway slaves serve as section breaks throughout Colson Whitehead’s searing novel The Underground Rail­road, which takes a familiar story – concerning the manifold injustices of American slavery – and brings it to terrible, terrifying new life. Whitehead does so by revealing, in close view, just how brutal and businesslike were efforts to ignore, obscure and destroy the dignity and humanity of so many men and women for so very long.

The novel begins with an auction:

 

Onlookers chewed fresh oysters and hot corn as the auctioneers shouted into the air. The slaves stood naked on the platform. There was a bidding war over a group of Ashanti studs, those Africans of renowned industry and musculature, and the foreman of a limestone quarry bought a bunch of pickaninnies in an astounding bargain.

 

Thereafter we learn that “A young buck from strong tribal stock got customers into a froth”, that “A slave girl squeezing out pups was like a mint, money that bred money”, and that a mother “maintained a reserve of maternal feeling after the loss of her five children – three dead before they could walk and the others sold off when they were old enough to carry water and grab weeds around the great house”.

Finally – and this is still just in the opening pages of the novel – we discover, through the eyes of a young woman named Cora, what happens when any of these persons resists living as purchased property: “She had seen men hung from trees and left for buzzards and crows. Women carved open to the bones with the cat-o’-nine-tails. Bodies alive and dead roasted on pyres. Feet cut off to prevent escape and hands cut off to prevent theft.”

Whether in spite or because of these consequences – and mindful, even haunted by the knowledge, that her mother managed to escape her own bondage – Cora decides to join a fellow slave named Caesar in running away. In Whitehead’s treatment, a metaphor for the secret network of support that helped black slaves reach the free (or at least freer) American north and Canada becomes an actual makeshift train that travels underground, which Cora and Caesar ride across the South. They are in constant peril, relieved by passing periods of respite: sleeping in a bed for the first time, learning to read and write, and even coming into a small amount of money, which, Cora soon discovers, “was new and unpredictable and liked to go where it pleased”.

Throughout their escape, they are pursued by a vicious slave-catcher called Ridgeway, who is motivated by far more than merely financial reward: “Charging through the dark, branches lashing his face, stumps sending him ass over elbow before he got up again. In the chase his blood sang and glowed.” Ridgeway, Cora and their respective others meet throughout the novel, their positions of advantage and opportunity revolving in ways that make for flat-out suspenseful reading. Many others are grievously harmed in the meantime, as they move through a small-town, 19th-century American world of crafty and hypocritical politesse and ritualised violence. The violence is never rendered more awfully than in the festive, Friday-night lynching sessions that take place at a picturesque park which Cora watches from an attic refuge.

The Underground Railroad, awarded the American National Book Award for Fiction last month, is Whitehead’s sixth novel. Following the more playful novel of manners Sag Harbor and Zone One, a zombie romp, it is his most ambitious and accomplished book since the Pulitzer-nominated John Henry Days of 2001. In fact, the lack of literary showiness – vividly presenting the rudely built underground railway and the hard lives of those riding it – makes The Underground Railroad perhaps his finest work. Although the repeated encounters between Cora and Ridgeway across such a sprawling set will strain the credulity of anyone save a diehard Victor Hugo fan, Whitehead is a confident enough writer to let their lines of escape, pursuit and capture braid and break apart again and again, building to an exciting and rending conclusion. It is one that offers hope for the very strong of heart. 

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