I did this. I did it alone.
I am beginning to wonder if I have the emotional stamina to make it through the final two episodes. Whew! So that is how a meth empire ends: “Round the decay/Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Hank is dead and buried in an anonymous grave – and poor Gomez with him! Jesse has been sold into slavery to torturous Todd who is turning out to be one of the most depraved characters on the show, with his banal evil. Walt’s family is bereft of Walt, of hope, of future peace. And Walt is, as he has long wanted to be, alone with the crumbling ruins of his empire. What struck me most in the episode is the sense of inevitability. Starting with the brilliant opening scene, which somehow managed to make cooking meth in the desert with a high school drop out seem like the root of innocence, a clear visual (causal?) line was drawn from that early moment to the shoot out of the present. No matter how much Walt wanted to keep the stink of the cook out of his clothes or the violence of the trade away from his family, from that first moment in the desert, the white supremacist meth heads were gunning for him in the future [and can I just digress to say how brilliant it was to watch Walt practicing his lies?]. Of course, that is not entirely true. We know how many decisions, small and large, propelled Walt to that moment in the desert. We know how many times he could have gotten out earlier. And how much he embraced the evil he is finally having to face himself. But in as much as this episode was about Walt losing control, it was also about the forces he set in motion coming back, beyond his control, to destroy him. So maybe what I felt as inevitability is just a viciously bleak vision of “you reap what you sow.” If Walt’s greatest fault is his need to control everything, his downfall will be losing control at exactly the moments it matters most: the destruction of his family and rejection by his family.
How about that final phone call, though? There we saw a broken Walt pulling out his incredible acting skills again to try and exert control one last time to save Skyler. Watching Skyler’s face as she realizes what Walt is doing was a reminder just how well those two know each other. That plus his willingness to give up $80 million to save Hank suggests that “family” is more than just a ruse for Walt. Or at least it did for me. What about for the rest of you?
Do you think there will be therapy sessions available for avid viewers once the finale airs?
Well, I know I’ll need some therapy! When Walt made a run for it with Holly, I screamed out loud and had to leave the room to collect myself during the commercial break!
Yet while I found the episode to be fantastically fun television viewing, I’m a little concerned by the move the show is making. Are we really going to try to redeem Walt in these last few episodes? I flew along with the emotions of the events – aching with Walt as he fell to the ground watching Hank die, even sympathizing with him as he made that final phone call. But both moves re-humanize the monster we’ve come to love to hate. While it makes for good tv, I don’t actually believe Walt would give up his $80m to save Hank’s life, and while I might believe he’d sacrifice himself to save Skylar in the end – or at least try to do so; I think it’s going to be a bit more complicated to get her off the hook when push actually comes to shove – I don’t find it to be as compelling storytelling.
I guess I expected the story to end in a more devastating way – something more like Jesse being sold into slavery…I mean, that’s awful!! But in the end, I didn’t think the show would bow to the redemptive narrative arc of storytelling. I thought it would remain bleak and awful, and I was fully intrigued to see that play out. I’ve always found Walt’s delusion that he’s doing all this for his family to be the most interesting part of the show – if, in the end, he gets to tell himself he is doing it all for family, if we allow him – and us! – that delusion, then I’ll be sorely disappointed.
So, brilliant as it was to watch, if only intellectually I suppose I’m disappointed by that final speech. I’m disappointed that Walt will receive even a moment of redemption – not because I want to see him punished for the evil he’s created, but because I wanted to know what that kind of a story would look like.
ps: I now think Walt Jr. won’t die because his utter rejection of Walt by calling the police seems to serve the purpose (though unsatisfyingly so) his death would have achieved. I just think the death would have been a better story…the police call seemed to pull that punch to me.
Thanks for getting things started with such interesting posts. I tend to agree with you, Natalie, that I don’t at all like where the show seems to be going (by my lights, the flash forwards are Walt aiming to get revenge on the neo-Nazis, which is frankly cartoonish…is the idea of these concluding episodes to give Walt an enemy that will make us sympathetic to him? And is that enemy really going to be Nazis?) But I disagree with you Natalie about Walt Jr…I never thought that him dying would have made a good story, although it would have given the series a certain sort of logic (as we have discussed before). (And in case this sounds like I’m just dismissing the view, my reasons for feeling uncomfortable with such a scenario are that it leads us too far afield of what this show excels at and what I take to be its chief strength: exploring the psychology and evolution of a banal, suburban psychopathology). I think the best ‘story’ would be to see Walt end up in some variation of Jesse’s position: perhaps more as a kingpin, and even in charge, but reflexively aware of his losses, cognizant of the fact that he has no option but continue to be the king, and at the same time somehow addicted to being on top. That would lend the Walt character a deep psychological arc, one that would make sense (at least in my eyes) of the psychological economy of the show.
Kathryn, I think you’re ‘dead to rights’ with your analysis of the relation between the opening flashback and the rest of the episode, and as a gimmick, it works incredibly well. It’s hard to know what to make of Walt’s reliance on family (something I’ve been quite puzzled by, but also quite certain is important): I think generally when Walt invokes ‘family’ as a reason, it means something like: I don’t have any conventional basis for what I’m about to do (say, no institutional, legal, or other authority), but I nonetheless think that it needs to be done…but it’s also not a pure egoism because it purports to be more than that. At the same time, it’s not pure hypocrisy, because Walt seems–at moments–really to believe what he is saying.
All of this leads me to ask–and surely this is deserving of a post of its own, but I can’t help myself any longer (as I keep neglecting to write said post)–what sort of ‘evil’ character is Walt? I’ve been trying to figure out if there are figures from history or literature that he is comparable to, and I haven’t been able to come up with one (which, again, I think, is a tribute to this show’s sophistication). Surveying some of the philosophical options, we have the idea of a ‘radical evil’ where the idea (at least according to Kant) is that this is an evil where one prioritizes self-love (which can take a variety of forms) to the detriment of moral laws and we have Arendt’s notion of ‘banal evil’ which is roughly the idea of a non-reflective, non-thinking consciousness. From literature, we have examples like Richard III or Iago (to whom Walt might come closest), who essentially are villains for the sake of villainy. What’s interesting about Walt is that I do think a lot of his psychopathology is driven by suburbia (boredom) and science (say, something like the extreme positivistic view of science or what Horkheimer and Adorno called the ‘dialectic of enlightenment’, reason destroying itself). I’m almost tempted to call Walt’s brand of evil, ‘Rameau’s evil’ after Hegel’s appropriation of Diderot’s Rameau’s Nephew, a character who is like a hypocrite in that he believes whatever is convenient at the moment, but who is unlike the hypocrite in that he really does believe what he believes at any given moment. Equally apt (and probably with a better ring) is to call it ‘pragmatic evil,’ easily adapting to the times.
What do y’all think?
Thanks for starting such a great conversation, and sorry being so inconsistent in joining lately! I’m with the rest of the universe in finding this episode devastating. I don’t know that I fully agree with you two, though, Martin and Natalie – I’m not sure I feel a writerly misstep here, though you two make a good case for your reading. Of course, if the show were to try to pull out a redemption narrative, then yeah, I think I would have a problem with it too, but I feel, like Kathryn, that the moral logic of the show is too inexorable and inevitable – but less “you reap what you sow” and more “what poor gods we do make” (I’ll come back to that).
I had a recent Facebook conversation with someone who’s just starting the show, and she rightly pointed out that this is not a story, as is often assumed, about a good man pushed to extremes. It’s about someone who, at some level, has always been a lying sociopath, tied in with the Napoleon complex of the small man compensating for a lifetime of perceived slights. And if Walt’s central fault is his need to control everything (again agreeing with Kathryn), then that means he’s fundamentally someone who lies to himself to maintain his illusion of control – witness the “no one is buying Walt’s B.S. but himself” episode a few weeks ago. This is foreshadowed brilliantly by the flashback (which was a typically amazing piece of direction by Rian Johnson, who has been responsible for some of the show’s finest moments) where Walt practices his lies to Skyler, but then goes to completely forget he’s standing in the desert pantsless as he talks about baby names with his wife. This is why I think Walt’s efforts to preserve his family make sense – trying to save Hank or get Skyler off the hook didn’t come from purely altruistic, or rather kinship-loyalty, motivations (though those are certainly there at some level), but rather from his need to maintain the lie, told preeminently to himself, that all of this is for the sake of his family, and he can fix the situation. Only the person who is, as Hank nailed it, the smartest person you know but too stupid to realize when the die are cast in a desert standoff, could manage the cognitive dissonance of not wanting Hank to die, but also to outmaneuver him in legal terms. So I’m not convinced the show is trying to pull off a redemption arc, though I’ll be first in line to be disappointed if it does.
Which brings me to Martin’s question: what kind of evil is Walt? I think I mentioned this a few weeks ago, but I think we have to look back to Greek tragedy for the right antecedent to Breaking Bad. Walt’s basic fault is hubris, the vain desire for glory and honor, the inevitable result of which is the fall into shame, necessitating a tragic end. In a “reap what you sow” moral universe, we would have room for some kind of redemption; but this seems to me the story of someone who would take his seat among the gods, only to find what poor gods mortals make. Hence, Ozymandias.
And Hank, R.I.P.