We knew it was bound to happen: DEA super-narc Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) would stumble on evidence that would identify Walter White (Bryan Cranston) as the ever elusive crystal meth shadow kingpin, Heisenberg. What we didn’t know, however, is that he’d espy that evidence while taking a shit. And that, fair readers, is why Breaking Bad is one of the greatest shows ever created.
In spite of its intended banality, the closing scene couldn’t have been less devastating under any other circumstance. What helped propel its intensity, of course, were the faux moments of “normalcy” that preceded Hank’s discovery of Gale’s copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in the bathroom (more on that later).
Following an unexpected hairpin-turn in Walt’s Pinky and the Brain mission to take over the methylamine world, Skyler’s (Anna Gun) eye-opening success in convincing Walt that enough-was-enough at the storage unit seemingly brought her hubby antihero to “break good,” as it were. Walt’s resolve to slink back into the role of the Everyman (a secret stash of unimaginable wealth hidden in said storage unit) seemed rushed. Before this episode (“Gliding Over All”), Walt exemplified the dehumanized empty-shell-of-a-man that would logically result from the ranks of a lucrative drug empire (on behalf of the carcasses of other former kingpins, mind you — Gustavo Fring [Giancarlo Esposito] of season 4 being the final stop-gap).
One would be remiss to blindly accept that Walt’s proven bloodlust for power and control would in the span of the next episode deliquesce into the sun-blanched dream of living a quiet, suburban life with his family — almost by way of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder reducing all the near-death traumas he experienced throughout seasons 1 – 4 to the bigness of a bad dream.
As real and gritty as Breaking Bad looks and feels, Walt’s character is everything but the true threshold for what ordinary men are capable of withstanding. At the very least, he’s the quintessential candidate for PTSD. Vince Gilligan (the show’s creator) could have devoted a little more time rebuilding Walt’s inner former self, one that suffered the psychosomatic consequences of violent acts. Notice how our antihero’s ambitions came to a Godfather-esque peak when he ordered multiple hits on his rivals in separate prisons in the span of two or so minutes. An operation of this scale would be impossible to execute as flawlessly as it transpired on-screen, but it was a stylistic pleasure to behold nonetheless, unexpectedly (albeit pleasantly) paired to Nat King Cole’s “Pick Yourself Up.”
Obviously, I’m biased — but one salient concession to this last episode’s requisite suspension-of-disbelief is Gilligan and Co.’s self-referential writing style; particularly akin to Skyler’s storage-unit speech. Breaking Bad, as a quasi-sentient entity, recognizes its own massive success, as a narrative and as a sobering analysis of the modern, workaday human condition. Appropriately, Gilligan would rather exit the building amidst hosannas instead of rotten tomatoes, tying up the loose ends before Breaking Bad devolves into predictable, clichéd, stretchy mush, which is what often happens to any major TV series that breaches the 5-season mark (cough, Lost, cough). Justifying unbelievable scenarios to lengthen the story and exploit fan loyalty in exchange for ratings.
When is enough enough? Season 5 is enough. In fact, don’t take it from me, take it from Gilligan himself, via AMCTV.com’s blog:
[… ] I myself am very sad at the thought of the series ending. This is lightning in a bottle, and as tough as it is to say goodbye to one another and to say goodbye to the fans and lose this week-in and week-out job that has been the best, most exciting, most satisfying moment in my career thus far — and may turn out to be the highlight of my career period — I hate the thought of the show peaking in quality and then going into some sort of long, slow, inexorable slide into mediocrity. I would rather risk going out a little too soon than going out a moment too late. Having said that, I think we’ve got the right number of episodes at 62 episodes of TV. And I just couldn’t feel any luckier than I feel having had the opportunity to do the show and have it work out better than I ever saw it in my wildest dreams.
Smart man, yes? Sometimes, fans appreciate what you don’t do — which is to belabor a premise. Here, Gilligan recognizes that Walt’s progressive dearth of humanity is (by law of balances) commensurate with the moral concessions a man must make to inherit the throne of the meth underworld.
Breaking Bad‘s key strengths almost always lie in the viewers’ secret, reptilian brain desire for Walt to get away with it. On a civilian level, Walt’s soul-condemning actions from season 3’s finale (Walt ordering Jesse to kill Gale [David Costabile]) to season 5’s semi-season finale (Walt’s prison massacre; Walt killing Mike [Jonathan Banks]; Walt’s apathetic response to the boy’s murder during the train heist) disgusts us — but let’s be honest with ourselves, we’re rooting for the bad guy here. As cerebral as it all is, we (in tandem) feel each episode on a curiously visceral level, at the pit of our collective stomach, wondering precisely when Hank will unmask Heisenberg as Walter White (“W.W.”). As Gilligan asserted above, this discovery happened at a good time in the series, before its “inexorable slide into mediocrity.”
And … it happened on the toilet, which is (again) brilliant. Just ponder your greatest epiphanies. Don’t they often happen while you’re taking a shower? Taking a pee? Driving? Doing something absolutely mundane? Consider the moments that framed Hank’s sphincter-cinching adumbration. We see Walt Jr. playing with his baby sibling. Poolside, we see Walt, Skyler, Hank, and Marie (Betsy Brandt) passing the time in blase conversation. Here, the sound design takes a peculiar, diagetic turn. Notice how the boom mic focuses on no one in particular. There are two sets of conversations occurring (one between Walt and Hank, and another between Skyler and Marie), and neither conversation takes precedence (in terms of decibels).
In the background, we hear a song playing from a radio; Walt appears to be mentioning Hank’s mineral rock collection from a previous season (while Hank was bedridden). What they’re talking about is of little consequence. The scene is much less about what the characters are saying and much more about the fantasy the dynamic is painting: an impossible utopia. Knowing Breaking Bad‘s penchant for never leaving well-enough alone, the tranquil picture this scene is teasing is crushed by the unspoken dread that something will — in a few short moments — be amiss.
This is almost meta-Hitchcockian, because not only are the characters unaware of what dastardly reality might transpire, we are too. Our inner romantic burns to vindicate the warm smiles on Walt and Skyler’s faces, as they cautiously flirt with the semblance of better times ahead (making Heisenberg the Zodiac Killer of the crystal meth business); while our inner realist demands that Walt be punished for his sins.
Of course, we’d lose all respect for Breaking Bad if the entire series ended here. This show’s unprecedented success lies in its fine balance between the former (romance) and the latter (realism), constantly pitting these inner demons at odds, which is precisely why even the “quiet” moments in the show generate a great deal of anxiety. Still, like any good yarn, it eventually unravels. Next year’s conclusive season will undoubtedly prove to be Walt’s purgatory (and perhaps our own, as viewers). As this season’s opener intimated: Walt is on the run. Love him or hate him, our eyes just can’t turn away.