Monday, September 23, 2013

What I Watch: Breaking Bad 5.15 - "Granite State"

If "Ozymandias" felt like being creamed by a runaway Pontiac Aztec, then "Granite State" was the equivalent of Peter Gould (the writer AND director of this episode) backing that car over us, grinding our guts into the pavement. I fully expect the finale will feature Mister Gilligan himself stepping out of the vehicle and putting a bullet in our collective brain pans.

Last week dealt with the immediate impact of Walt's choices. But this penultimate episode of BREAKING BAD was more about the long-lasting and lingering effects of what Walt has done....those consequential echoes that either literally or figuratively continue to imprison Jesse and Skyler. And fittingly enough, it is Walt's own skewed perception of his "lasting impact" that will lead him back to Albuquerque.

Walt Is Mad (cough cough)

Walt is in full-on rage mode. He's compartmentalized the recent horrors he's essentially responsible for (the death of Hank and Gomez, the betrayal by his surrogate son Jesse, and the deeper cutting betrayal and loss of his actual family), reducing it all to wanting revenge on the Jack Welker and the Neo-Nazi gang for their betrayal -- stealing his money. One could say there's no honor among thieves, especially those who brandish swastika tattoos all over their bodies.

Walt's bloodlust is countered by some solid points from Nebraska-bound Saul. True, Walt's phone call may eventually lead to a mistrial for Skyler, but that's many months from now. In the meantime, she will be forever linked to the meth-manufacturing murderer Heisenberg.  Which means she loses the car wash, loses the house, their assets are frozen and good luck getting a decent job. But since Walt is likely to eventually succumb to the cancer, why not give himself up?  That's the best chance to completely exonerate Skyler, and it's also what can finally "free his family".

And at this point, going down that road may even feed into Walt's ever-present ego problems and his need for acknowledgement, for respect, for significance. Remember, this is the man who couldn't stand the idea that Hank thought that Gale was Heisenberg. Saul even picks at that scab by saying that Walt could be the "Dillinger of the Metropolitan Detention Center".

But in one the ever-present running themes of the series, Walt has tunnel vision that's further blinded by emotion. And while he's slotted away all the family tragedies, it always comes back to the money. As Jesse said, that was the way to get to Walt, and his consistent self-denial of his culpability in everything else leaves those remaining six barrels of money as his sole focus. Interesting that Walt's most common way of disposing of his enemies also involved barrels -- only those filled with acid, not money.

However, Walt's impulse to once again act upon his anger is restrained by both his failing health (which affords Saul the opportunity to finally sever their relationship) and his limiting circumstances (he's in no position to be dialing up hit squads -- or anybody, for that matter). Walt has been neutered, and even with millions at his disposal, he's as powerless as he was when he first learned he had the big "C".

Jesse is Smart...Wait, Maybe Not-So Smart

Jesse gets his inner MacGyver (or is it his inner Walter White) going when he uses a paper clip to pick the multiple handcuff locks. Of course, I wondered if Jesse discreetly took the photo from the lab during one of the cooks? Maybe Todd would have let him have the picture of Andrea & Brock, but certainly not the paper clip. Jesse stacks his folded up paper-thin mattress and his piss bucket, and after exhibiting an America's Got Talent-worthy sense of balance -- he leaps and grabs the grating. Slides the bolt and he's kid.

...or is he? After hiding in the shadows for all of ten seconds, he then breaks for the barbed wire fence (instead of discreetly checking out the entire perimeter) while running past a camera (which one can assume is in working order, or else why show it at all). So OF COURSE his escape is going to be short-lived. Dumb

And then he eggs on his captors, declaring he'd rather die than ever cook again. Meaning he's already forgotten that photo he was clutching in his hand earlier that evening. The one thing that the Neo-Nazis were using to compel him to work for them. He forgot about the safety of Andrea and Brock. Double dumb. Remember, he's already witnessed Todd coldly execute an innocent child, so why would he ever think the threat against Andrea and her son would be an empty one?

One cannot deny that every tragic death does ultimately lead back to Walt, but this is one that didn't have to happen. It may be a notion most of us won't want to admit, but despite the fact it was the Dead-Eyed Opie that pulled the trigger, the lion's share of blame actually lands on Mister Pinkman's shoulders.

Todd and the Ladies

This may have been the best work by Jesse Plemons (Todd) on the series to date. Witness:

~His prideful smile while watching Jesse Pinkman recount his murder of Drew Sharpe is nothing short of chillingly creepy. 

~His "aw shucks" embarrassment when his Uncle Jack chides him for his crush on Lydia as well as his noticeable ire when Jack continues to insult her. 

~His treatment of Jesse like a pet, rewarding him with ice cream (Stephen Colbert shout-out with "Americone Dream").

~His taking the scary meter up a few notches by threatening Skyler and the insinuation that her family is at risk as well

~His schoolboy crush when he meets Lydia. Unlike Mike, he totally goes along with the "sitting back to back in a public place" plan that ever-skittish Lydia prefers.

~And finally, his cold, flat, "this isn't personal" execution of Andrea. 

I've said before that BREAKING BAD constantly reminds us that nothing is as it seems and things are rarely black and white (the "Grey Matter" name of the corporation has always stood as a metaphor for the series as a whole).  However, Todd and his Uncle Jack are about the closest we get to the dark abyss of "black" since Tuco, and at least he was demonstrably insane and often in a drug-induced frenzy. 

My friend/producer said to me this to me last night, and it rings truer than Uncle Tio's bell: 

How do you make us root for a villain? By giving us a worse villain. 

So how can anyone possible ever root for Walter White? By making HIS antagonists even worse. It's no accident that Uncle Jack and his crew all have prominently featured swastika tattoos, as that is universally recognized as THE symbol of evil.

Walt is Sad (cough cough)

The months go by, and Walt's now sporting the Unibomber look we saw in those flash forwards. But his existence has been a lonely and sad one.  Outside of the bundles of newspapers and family updates that Robert Forster* brings, Walt has no connection to the outside world. No TV, no phone, no internet, nothing.

*I realize that as of yet, the character that Robert Forster plays is unlisted on IMDB. I was told that Gilligan has been referring to him as "The Disappearer", and perhaps I'll use that term on the two podcasts later tonight and tomorrow (more on that later).  I originally referred to him as 'The Mini-Van Man", but that makes little sense after the first few minutes of the episode. He's not exactly "The Wolf" or "The Cleaner" (though working out of a "Best Vacuum Service" front makes that last one somewhat appropriate). Anyway, back to Walt...

Still, this is the life Walt has chosen instead of giving up, even if he is still a prisoner. He hasn't given up on living just yet, as he continues to receive chemo treatments administered by Forster. But how effective getting such treatments on a monthly basis as opposed to weekly -- I suspect this is only delaying the inevitable. Walt's diminishing health is made clear not just due to his coughing jags or his weight loss, but by what he says to Forster after pleading with him to stay for just two hours (and Forster cruelly negotiates him down to just one hour)

"One of these days, when you come up here...I'll be dead. 
My money over there -- what happens to it then? 
What if I ask you to give it to my family? Would you do it?"

Even if he hasn't quite given up. he has accepted the fact that due to the circumstances (unable to get regular medical treatment), he IS going to be beaten by cancer after all.

But when he he finally makes his way to a local town bar and contacts Flynn, the last light in Walt's decayed soul is then snuffed out. His son not only rejects him, but wishes he were dead. Walt's scheme, an ill conceived salve of a $100,000 care package -- is rendered pointless. And that's when he truly gives up. He calls the Albuquerque DEA office, identifies himself, and leaves the receiver dangling as he sits down at the bar for one last drink...

Walt is Mad Again

And here we're beaned by the curveball we never saw coming, even as it harkens all the way back to Season One. In fact, it's tethered to the events that began the rotting of Walt's soul long before that ill-fated medical diagnosis.  When the metaphoric cancer in Walt's life first metastasized: Grey Matter.

As he watches the Charlie Rose interview with Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz, Walt's pride and ego don't just take a Pinkman-esque beating; every accomplishment, every aspect of his legacy good and bad is dissected and made to seem trivial and unimportant. His contribution to the creation of Grey Matter was nothing but helping to come up with the name. He's just a criminal whose product is still being produced without him, and he's seen as little more than a sad, sweet little schmuck who gave into his baser urges and broke bad.

As this goes on, Walt's long empty tank of rage (like the very tanker he was hidden inside when transported to New Hampshire) is finally refueled. The dormant side of his nature truly rises once again. Several months ago, it was only but a glimmer when he put on the infamous hat. But this proves that "clothes don't make the man (or in this case, "Heisenberg")" -- we're responsible for our own decisions and those consequences.  

Mere moments after telling his son things happened that he never intended -- the time has finally passed for reaping what he has sown. His life, his legacy -- adding up to nothing?  That's more than simply pride and ego, it's the need to have mattered ("Grey Matter"-ed). 

And for what I believe is the first time in all 61 episodes, the actual Breaking Bad "theme" is used in the show, as the final shot is accompanied by those familiar twanging guitar chords. From an unfinished drink to unfinished business...

Up until this episode, we have been speculating as to why Walt returns to Albuquerque. Was it revenge, was it for his family, was it for the money, was it for Jesse...was it for something else entirely? Turns out we were all right and we were all wrong. Walt's not returning for any ONE specific reason.   

Now, it's all about settling scores. 

PS: Some of you may know that I've been a featured guest on the Breaking Geek podcast. It's a fairly free-spirited, occasionally ribald and always entertaining conversational podcast with the gang from Geek Girl Soup. We've been recording Tuesday nights, and they're usually available to feed your ears the next day. You can find them here:

However...I am ALSO going to be co-hosting a LIVE Breaking Bad podcast with Jack (of the Jay & Jack Podcasting Empire) for the next two Monday nights starting at 9 PM Eastern Standard Time. 

Not only will you get the full recap that I've largely abandoned in these blogs, but there should be some LIVE-ly discussion, especially when we open it up to the listeners to call in with comments, questions and whatever heck else they wanna say (but without cursing). Here's a link with the information on how to access that podcast tonight and next Monday as well:

That's all for this week. Until next time, be good, even if BREAKING BAD is better!

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