BREAKING BAD: “Granite State”

Last week, creator Vince Gilligan said that “Ozymandias” was “the best episode we ever had or will ever have.” While that might be a red flag to some about next week’s grand finale, it absolutely signaled the piece-moving, comedown episode we had last night. I didn’t love it, but it was necessary.

It can’t all be for nothing!

-Walt

“Granite State” saw our characters completely trapped: Walt, stuck in a New Hampshire cabin with nothing to keep him company except monthly visits from his vacuum repairman/fixer and two DVD copies of Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium; Skyler, the DEA’s only lead in their nationwide manhunt and due for a court date of her own; poor Jesse, literally trapped in a cage as Satan’s imp Todd tortures him for all eternity.

Let’s back up. It turns out that Saul is also hitching a ride out of this mess, with the fixer (Robert Foster, with a weary professionalism Mike Ehrmantraut would have appreciated) sending him to Nebraska, never to return. But before he can go, he has to spend an uncomfortable couple of days with Walt, whose extrication is naturally much more complicated.  Saul advises him to stay and save his family from the legal circus they’re about to endure, but Walt insists that “it’s not over,” and tries to bully Saul into coming with him, an old Heisenberg intimidation tactic aborted this time by a coughing spell. Heisenberg is gone, and only the dying shell of Walter White remains. Saul, presumably, exits the show forever.

One long, dark, horribly bumpy ride to New Hampshire later, Walt spills out of the fixer’s propane tank into a bright snowscape. His new home, a cabin with no phone, internet, or cable (but it does have a wood stove–he can cook on it!) is completely isolated; he is unable to leave or else risk capture. With his cancer back, he soon becomes emaciated, tying his too-large wedding ring around his neck, forever a symbol of the family he destroyed in order to “save” it.  Is this how Walt wants to finish out his life? Even without the flash-forwards that began the season, we know him well enough to know the answer is no.

Judging by the press clippings he greedily collects in his monthly delivery, Walter White is the most wanted man in America. Skyler is back to using her maiden name of Lambert in order to distance herself from her husband, but ironically, Walt’s new last name is also Lambert. Walt is so desperate for connection that he offers the fixer $10,000 to stay a couple hours with him, but only gets one.  They play cards. Walt, self-administering his treatment, is unable to deal. He is completely powerless, and completely alone.

Jesse, meanwhile, descends into a deeper circle of Hell. Handcuffed and chained, he cooks for Todd and achieves a purity of 92% — Heisenberg level.  To protect Lydia and his deal with her, Todd and a few of Uncle Jack’s minions (clad in black ski masks) ninja their way into the White house–and Holly’s room–scaring Skyler into never mentioning Lydia to the police.  Once is awful enough, but this won’t be the only time a child’s life is threatened.

There’s a feeling here of so many decisions that we cheered (or agonized over) being meaningless; the triumphant and cathartic arc of Jesse spilling EVERYTHING to Hank ends simply with laughter: Uncle Jack and his Nazi buddies, having acquired the disc from the Schrader home, gleefully make fun of Jesse’s confession. I wished at the time that the show had shown us more of it, that I wanted to hear Jesse tell his story, and the show gives me my wish in the worst possible way. Jack wants to kill Jesse outright for “ratting out” Todd in the murder of Drew Sharp, but Todd–AGAIN–convinces Jack to keep Jesse around, and Jack finally realizes why: Lydia. “The heart wants what the heart wants,” Jack observes, amused.

Last week I called Todd the most icily sociopathic character on this show, and nothing last night disproves that.  Jesse, not knowing that Todd just saved his life again, swipes a paperclip to use to break out. For a chunk of this episode we think we’re setting up for a thrilling escape and (finally!) something good, but we should know better. Jesse can leave the cage, but not the compound. And to send a message, Andrea is brutally murdered by Todd on her doorstep, in front of his eyes.

It’s here I realize the show has done something fascinating and impossible: made me root for Walt again. Not for him to escape justice, but to get his revenge on Uncle Jack’s gang. Hank, Gomie, and Andrea deserve at least that much. Jesse wishes fervently for his own death but can’t even get that; his anguished face, his utter despair, is the last thing we see before we flash ahead an undisclosed amount of time. It’s absolutely brutal.

Walt still has his barrel of cash, and thinks he has figured out a way to get money to his family by sending it to Flynn’s best friend. He leaves the safety of the cabin with his box, and reaches Flynn by phone at school, but Flynn is having none of it. R.J. Mitte has his finest moment yet on the series, tearing into the father he wishes was dead and refusing to hear any explanations or apologies. The last link has been severed, and everything Walt has done, however justified in his mind, has been for nothing. It’s the most dreadful outcome he can fathom, and he resolves himself to finally turn himself in and just end it.

Until.

Flipping through the channels on the bar TV, he sees a Charlie Rose interview with his old partner at Grey Matter, Elliot Schwarz, and his wife Gretchen. When asked if their new drug treatment initiative is a bald whitewashing of their former association with Walt, they distance themselves from him even further, claiming that all he did was help come up with the company name, that he is nothing, no one, and the Walter White they did know died years ago as far as they’re concerned.

This breaks through the scar covering Walt’s deepest wound, and we realize he still has one thing left after all: his pride. His terrible, petulant, soul-destroying pride. The police arrive, but he’s already gone. Gone back to the ABQ.  Because if there’s one thing Walt can’t stand–I mean really can’t stand–it’s people not properly recognizing his legacy…and now there will be a reckoning.

 

Extra Thoughts:

  • Composer Dave Porter has couple standout moments in this episode: bringing back the old “Heisenberg Theme” with the re-appearace of the porkpie hat (which, unfortunately for Walt, isn’t the right hat for New Hampshire cold), and swelling the main credits theme into the final shot. It’s a not-so-subtle reminder of the time back when we thought Walt was “cool,” and how things have changed.
  • Jesse Plemons was on fire tonight, from his coldly ruthless interrogation of Skyler, to his puppy-dog wheedling of Lydia, to his “kind-hearted” rewarding of Jesse with a batch of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. What’s the significance of it being Stephen Colbert’s flavor, “Ameri-cone Dream?”
  • Marie only appears in one scene, in the moments before her place is found ransacked by the Nazis, but you can’t imagine she’s sticking around New Mexico long. No one deserves a fresh start like she does.
  • Why New Hampshire? That seems like a ridiculously long round-trip for the fixer, especially when he could just put a bullet in Walt’s head and take his barrel if he felt like it. Montana might be a better choice, if all you need is the isolation. John Mayer has a ranch he’s only pretending to use.
  • Next week, it all ends. A lot of questions to answer, like the intended uses of the machine gun and ricin, what becomes of Jesse (can he survive, at this point? Will Walt end up rescuing him and letting him go?), and the ultimate fate of Walt. Vince Gilligan says that Walt ends things “more or less on his terms,” which to me has to mean either his death or surrender.  Walt had his chance to live free, and gave it up.  Either way, all I hope is that the show stick the landing, and not leave us completely in a place of despair. All this trauma needs to mean something.
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