Breaking Bad: Inertia

I am officially putty in Vince Gilligan’s hand.

I had finally given up on Walter White (Bryan Cranston). I had accepted the fact that I was witnessing the unraveling of a man’s humanity; the defraying of his soul. I had given up on redemption and wholeness and settled in to watch evil become evil. On some level, I had started to lose interest. The nuance and tension was dissipating as Walt became more and more of a monster. But I was also too bought into the story to really give it up.

Then he spoke the two words I’d been waiting for, hoping for, yet – after four and half seasons – had given up on hearing: “I’m out.” 

“Gliding Over All,” the 8th episode of season 5, was brilliantly written. It contained the best montage clip Breaking Bad has yet to display: a month’s worth of making meth comprised into mere moments of seamless transitions. Beautifully synchronized scenes. Business as usual. “Crystal Blue Persuasion.”

At the end of it? We enter a storage unit with a huge stockpile of money. More money than anyone could spend in ten lifetimes, let alone launder in one. And with Skylar (Anna Gunn), we ask ourselves: Walt, why are you still doing this? Please tell me how much is enough?

Apparently enough came as soon as the problem solving stopped. As soon as mastery, control, and routine had begun. As soon as Jesse (Aaron Paul) isn’t around to question him. (Remember Todd’s (Jesse Plemons) response when Walt says he doesn’t want to talk about Mike’s death? “OK,” Todd says. That’s it.) Enough is as soon as Mike (Jonathan Banks) isn’t around to challenge him and as soon as Walt is able to pick up right where Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) had left off.

It’s as soon as Walt attains the smooth stability of his meth-making empire that he steps out. It was the quest, not the destination that he was after. The challenge and thrill of adventure, risk, and creative problem solving. The collaboration of working with a team. The sense of purpose and of worth that comes from living into your potential. Am I really that different? Aren’t these the same things that I want? That I live my life striving for?

All of a sudden, I’m back to rooting for Walt. I believe he’s finished making meth. He’s out and he means it. The story doesn’t make sense otherwise. Walt, as a human being, doesn’t make sense otherwise. And I don’t think we make sense if a large part of us doesn’t want to jump on board as soon as the current starts to shift towards good.

Yet, does that justify, excuse, or negate the consequences of the last year? Can Walt just sidestep the full impact and weight of his actions? Can he “dust himself off and start all over again?” 

An object in motion remains in motion (and an object at rest remains at rest) until acted on by an outside force. This is the scientific definition of inertia. It’s also why Walt says he and Jesse hung on to their old, beat-up RV.

What’s kept Walt going? What force will it take to stop him? And what will that sort of collision look like when it happens?

We’ll have to wait until next summer to see how creator, Vince Gilligan, addresses these questions to conclude the Breaking Bad series. There are only eight episodes left for Hank (Dean Norris) to catch up to whatever remnants of his trail Walt has left behind. How many degrees separate Walt (Jesse, Skylar, and Saul) from Gale’s death? Fring’s death? Jane’s? From the ricin? Or the little boy on the bike? What about Mike? And Tuco?

A lot of questions remain. The tactical questions of inquiry, discovery, and punishment. But also those moral questions that once again hang in the balance: Who is to blame for what? When did the line of bad get crossed? Can repentance outweigh consequences? Should we get another chance?

It’s easy to punish what we deem as truly bad. But what if we don’t know? Or, more likely, when we aren’t totally sure? What happens and who decides then?

I’m glad Breaking Bad isn’t quite finished. I’m also nervous to see what new kinds of bad get broken as we uncover our answers to these questions. Something tells me the second half of season 5 may be more painful to watch – a different, more self-implicating, kind of pain – than what we’ve been exposed to thus far.


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