8 Episodes to go. Almost another 12 months to wait for them. That’s a nasty gap for any show. For one that traffics in tightly-wound tension as brazenly as Breaking Bad? Tantamount to torture.
Few shows have embraced change so thoroughly as Breaking Bad. It’s remarkable to see how far Walter White has come over these past five seasons. Who could have imagined that the sad sack in his underwear crying into a cheap camcorder in the series’ opening minutes would hold court over a meth empire? Vince Gilligan and his crew didn’t just grow a gangster in that scorching Albuquerque sun – they made Walt’s criminal rise and moral collapse as believable as it has been compelling.
And they did it by creating a series that transformed along with its protagonist. For all his wildly accruing body count – check out this chart! – Walt remains unmistakably our protagonist. Our sympathies may have long sought solace with Jesse, Hank or Skyler, but Walt still holds court. When Walt was a gifted bumbler, saddled with a burn-out partner, Breaking Bad moved deceptively like a comedy. Now, the only laughs to be had are over acidic dinners pitch black enough to make Edward Albee squirm. This used to be a show where we could laugh at Walter White. Five seasons later, we’ve been taught to fear him.
For its first three seasons, Breaking Bad played along according to a relatively simple structure – their meth business gets Walt and Jesse into dire trouble. Said trouble (assassins? DEA bust? Real estate agents?) leaves the duo with only a few options – a) Death b) Coming Clean or c) Escaping via some ingenious, morally compromising maneuver. And every time, in every madly escalating situation, the characters and the writers found a way to invoke option c). But with every new solution, even as they tried to kick themselves free, Walt and Jesse buried themselves further in the mire (even if the mud became a little more tinted with gold flakes).
With every new conflict, a theme was rammed home both to Walt and to us; to survive in this game (let alone to prosper), he would have to embrace the darker pieces of himself. To quote another cable tv empire-builder, “you can’t be half a gangster”. Or, better yet, there’s Mike’s stunning monologue in the penultimate episode of Season 3;
“The moral of the story is I chose a half measure when I should have gone all the way. I’ll never make that mistake again. No more half measures, Walter.”
This admonition forecast the whole arc of Season 4. In place of the expected series of close-calls and daring escapades, last season saw Walt stagnating. It was not so much the story of Walt’s battle with Gus (until the last moment, Gus always had the upper hand), as Walt’s final triumph over the parts of himself that would hesitate to poison a child and set off a bomb in a nursing home in the name of victory. Walt embraced a full measure, and was ‘rewarded’.
This season marked the most radical shift in Breaking Bad‘s storytelling. After four seasons of throwing obstacles at Walter White – obstacles that spawned more obstacles, a meth-feuled Hydra – Vince Gilligan let Walt create them himself. After four seasons of dragging Walt further into the gangland swamp, he finally offered Walt an easy out.
And Walter White said no.
The death of Gus Fring offered Walt a clean break; instead, he chose to rebuild. The buyout offer gave Walt a way out of the game with a tidy $5 million dollar profit; he swatted it away like an offensive pittance. Jesse may have seen the harm caused to yet another child (one of Breaking Bad‘s most consistent motifs) as a moral reckoning, but Walt could go on whistling.
In episode after episode, the crazy schemes and close calls haven’t arisen from the old do-or-die necessity, but from Walt himself. No one was hunting Walt now, no one was chasing him, no one had him cornered in an RV or in an underground meth lab. In the face of other options, Walt insists on the Vamos Pest operation, the methlaymene train heist and the new deal with Declan. Mike, Walt realises far too late, didn’t need to die.
Walt doesn’t know it yet, but it’s too late for him too. We already know where this is going. We know that, on his 52nd Birthday, Walter will be under a false name, alone, gulping pills and seeking solace in an enormous machine gun. For all that has changed, Breaking Bad has never lost its fascination with processes – with the “how?” Throughout the season I’ve been torn over whether that flash-forward in the opener was a misstep, but now I’m convinced it was a masterstroke. In the face of Walt’s disquieting successes, that scene in Denny’s has hovered, a reminder that we’re in for tragedy, not triumph. The process we’re waiting to see played out, in excruciating detail, is “how does Walt fall?”
The final episode this year, ‘Gliding Over All’, re-introduced us to a Walt, post-time jump, with a storage locker filled with uncounted cash and the promise of regaining his family, contemplating finally taking an out. The reason for his change of heart is a character question I don’t need answered just yet – had the meth business become a bloodless bore, was the cash tower at last enough to staunch his Gray Matter wounds, or was there a new cancer prognosis? But, as Hank reached for an old book of poetry on the loo, it was clear that after eight episodes of second chances, we’re ready for the downhill plunge.
That feels about right. For all the murder and mayhem, Breaking Bad has always been an intensely moral show, tracking the consequences of every false step with an unforgiving eye. And Walt sure has a lot of blood on the ledger by now. This season has stripped away all the excuses and rationalisations we may have once used to justify our protagonist. We’ll go on watching, but we can never pretend he had no other choice. I can dream of a happy ending for Jesse, Hank, Walter Jr and even Saul, but I just want to see the look on Walt’s face when those glued on wings begin to slip.
It’s strange when you think about it – Walt is now the unchallenged villain of his own series. And that twists us back to the dichotomy at the heart of Breaking Bad – is Walter White a good man transformed by circumstances and poor choices into a sociopath, or did the meth business only unlock latent properties within this mild neighbourhood chemistry teacher? Neither philosophy – nurture or nature – can be wholly satisfying, and neither conclusion is all that comforting.
If Walt was always a monster, what does that suggest about what lies behind every other bland middle class suburban mask? “He was somebody else completely,” muttered Hank’s boss of Gustavo Fring. “Right in front of me. Right under my nose.” And if we have indeed seen a complete transformation, then what does that suggest about how vulnerable our values and principles are to a little downward pressure? Walter White has always reminded me of Noah Cross’ chilling ruminations at the end of Chinatown;
“Most people never have to face the fact that at the right time and the right place, they’re capable of anything.”
It’s going to be a long, difficult wait for the final batch of episodes. Given the show’s own willingness to evolve, it’s hard to predict what Breaking Bad will look like when it returns. All I know is, it will be cast in the image of its protagonist – assured, ambitious, and no doubt a little terrifying.
First Published 12 September 2012 at We Professional Liars