The End of the Empire – BREAKING BAD SPOILER ALERT!!!!

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If you’re a fan of Breaking Bad, it’s been a roller coaster ride over the last six weeks. It seems like a lifetime ago, emotionally and literally, that we met Lydia, that we witnessed a great train robbery, that an indisposed Hank took a bathroom break from a happy family barbecue and in his quest for better reading material than last month’s Redbook, discovered a powder keg of a man rested neatly below the surface of his milquetoast brother-in-law, tucked in like so many button-down shirts.

The last two weeks represented perhaps the two extremes of Breaking Bad, save for a third end of the spectrum whereby series creator Vince Gilligan allows for moments of levity and wit that it turns out we need in order to preserve our sanity while watching this brilliant sweater unravel into a thousand gnarly strands. Two weeks ago, “Ozymandias” gave us barely a second to breathe and collect ourselves before the next heart-stopping moment lurched forward to grab us by the throat; Sunday’s “Granite State”, the nickname of New Hampshire, home of Mr. Lambert, slowed the pace down to a level of deliberation to which Heisenberg had us previously accustomed. And yet, for the pace of the episode, perhaps a welcome respite to some that were still tense from the events of the previous week, “Granite State” represented a special and unique brand of horror that had been unseen in some time.

“Granite State” unfolded almost unbearably (in a good way). This could be because we knew horror was imminent; you don’t get this deep into a show like Breaking Bad, into its penultimate chapter, without something awful happening. However, in “Ozymandias”, the rapidity with which Hank and Gomie were executed, and the brevity with which Walt’s world finally imploded before making the call for a vacuum repair, almost made those events feel unimportant due to the deliberation of Sunday’s show. It’s as if a slow pace made the events Sunday night feel heavier, but really, this shouldn’t be so – Vince Gilligan has merely discovered two distinct ways to blow our minds and pitch our hearts into our stomachs.

“Granite State” begins with the van of the vacuum repair man pulling into his shop, his newest charge exiting with a pair of suitcases. Bonus points to anyone that guessed that it would be Saul Goodman leaving the van, about to start a fresh life in Nebraska as just another “douche bag with a job and three pairs of Dockers”. His bunk-mate is Walter White; still in seclusion as the fixer figures out the next steps for his “hottest client” to date. Walter tries to negotiate with Saul, needing names of hitmen in order to exact a final revenge over Uncle Jack and his neo-Nazi brethren that killed Hank and separated him from a fortune nearing $70 million in cash. When Saul refuses this entreaty, Walt tries once more to frighten the squirrely lawyer into submission by busting out some Heisenberg, alas, to no avail; the cancer that birthed Heisenberg but is now killing him doubles Walt over in a frenzy of soggy coughs. This time, it’s Saul Goodman that has the final word – “it’s over”.

Jesse Pinkman is a man that has been broken over and over, barely given an opportunity to pick up what pieces remain before being shattered again. This time, Jesse is feted with ice cream in his subterranean cage for his best meth cook to date as a slave – 96% – before he makes his escape. I was tense as ever watching Jesse hang one-armed from the bars, his grunts full of desperation. He made it out though, and for a second we were teased into believing that Jesse would make it out of the Nazi compound in which he was imprisoned. We even invited the idea that Jesse’s freedom would mean he’d go out in search of Walt and/or Saul – and failing both, as both men had been disappeared –  Skyler and Flynn, if only because we want desperately for Jesse to live. Perhaps he’d even run to Andrea’s house and collect her and Brock and go AWOL – to Alaska, perhaps; he’d be living with his demons, sure, but at least he’d be living. Of course, this isn’t to be. Jesse is caught as he’s seconds from freedom; for me, this elicited memories of “The Great Escape”, where the exit hole from the tunnel is only a few yards short of where it needs to be, dooming the mission almost entirely.  The next scene shows the boyish face and cold, dead eyes of Todd as he rings on Andrea’s doorbell. He informs her that Jesse is okay, and is actually here with him. He uses her hope of seeing her former beau alive and well to shoot her in the head, as casually as ever (and probably with less difficulty than when he picked out the 16-year-old-on-a-first-date outfit he wore for his meeting with Lydia earlier in the episode). It’s at this moment that the episode, it’s pace slow and dramatic and deceptive, truly rips us a new one. There are few “innocents” that died at the hands of the making of the Heisenberg Empire – Gale Boetticher, Drew Sharp and Hank Schrader also earning spots on that list, at least in my eyes. I felt similarly when Drew took the bullet from Todd – his only mistake was being in the wrong place at the wrong time, as many young adventurous boys are wont to do. Andrea’s only crime was accepting kindness from a man that wanted to be better but lacked the conviction to follow through. Just like that, after an empty promise from Todd about this being “nothing personal” – eerily similar to Jesse’s statement to Gale before gunning him down – she disappeared in a spray of red mist, without even a bang (Todd’s gun was silenced). It was unfair – not just for Andrea or her son Brock (another child about to be traumatized in the wake of Walter White), but for Jesse. Upon seeing her die while tied up in a car, blood on the window from him pounding his head into the glass in a desperate attempt to warn someone, anyone, about what was about to unfold, Jesse is again destroyed. His howls are those of a man in an eternal hell from which there is no escape – the howls of a man for which death would now be the kindest respite – you almost get the impression he has lived too long for it to be kind. Really, we should hate Vince Gilligan for continually inflicting pain after pain upon Jesse when it’s Walt that deserves that type of punishment, not his protege. But, Gilligan isn’t cruel for no reason – everything happens for a reason. There must be a reason for the annihilation of Jesse’s soul; who knows what i might be. It wasn’t until “Ozymandias” that Walter experienced loss for the first time – first Hank, and then with the rejection of Skyler and Flynn. Jesse has experienced loss for the entire run of the show; everyone close to him has died, all in the name of the great Heisenberg. Ironically, it was the death of Drew Sharp, a stranger to Jesse, that truly pushed him back down into the spiral after his gargantuan efforts into climbing out of it after the deaths of Jane and Gale. His descent into depression was exacerbated by Mike’s death, perhaps the only one to truly care about Jesse’s welfare. Despite what we may think though, and more importantly, despite what we might hope, it appears that Jesse still has pieces left in him to be killed. Part of me wants him to live and come out on the other side of the fire when the show ends its run, and part of me wants him to find the peace that I sincerely doubt he can find if he survives. In Breaking Bad, living isn’t winning – Jesse and Walt both might wind up worse off if they do live. It’s the worst kind of Catch-22.

The episode ends with the once mighty Heisenberg receiving frontier chemotherapy, a stack of old newspapers and a box of stronger glasses than those he’s already wearing. He realizes, after paying his fixer $10,000 for an hour of pity company while his chemo futilely drips into his bloodstream, that even with a barrel of $11 million sitting only feet away from him, there is no guarantee his family won’t be living on food-stamps and charity for the rest of their days. His legacy, once his motivation and pride once family and inheritance became too-diminutive targets,  was in jeopardy. He finds a way to get his family a little bit of his fortune, 1% or so, but a phone call to his son (done insultingly by invoking the boy’s beloved Aunt Marie, assumed to be a widow at the hands of his father) is met with astonishment. Flynn – no longer Walter Junior, not even a little bit – tells his father to drop dead, Walt incoherently mumbling about how this all “can’t be for nothing” as his son yells at him. If riding in a dark propane truck 2,200 miles across the country into the snowy isolation of New Hampshire didn’t do it, his son’s anger over the death of his uncle surely made Walt realize that he has lost the very people for which he first cooked meth. It was for them that he blew up a drug dealer’s lair, that he garroted a young man with a bike lock, that he let a girl choke to death on her own vomit. It was for them that he bankrupted his soul and walked into shadows from which he can’t possibly emerge. It was for them that he risked everything. And now, he’s lost them.

The final moments of “Granite State” shows Walt at his nadir; he follows up the call to Flynn with one to the DEA in which he lets the phone hang off the hook like a pendulum, presumably for the call to be traced. He’s giving himself up, lacking anything or anyone to fight for. However, this changes when his old business partners at Gray Matter, Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz, pop up on the television set with Charlie Rose and reduce Walt’s contribution to their multi-billion dollar enterprise by only coming up with the “name” of Gray Matter. As the episode draws to a close with police infiltrating the bar in which Walt was previously sipping on a neat Scotch, his glass sits on the bar, barely touched; Heisenberg has pushed Walter White aside for one last kick at the can – that’s what happens when you poke the bear. He knows his destiny lies not in a small cabin in New Hampshire (where the channel he’d get the best reception for is from Montreal), but in the barren swaths of Albuquerque in which a meek chemistry teacher had churned out a 9-figure meth empire in less than two years. The music selection, as per usual on this show, was perfect – an elaborated version of the opening credits sequence – perfectly setting up what is to come this Sunday.

I can’t wait.

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