Throughout the second half of Breaking Bad‘s final season, I will be contributing to a roundtable discussion at The Other Journal‘s Mediation blog. With permission, I’m mirroring my contributions here so that you can enjoy them in this space. But be sure to head over to Mediation and join the conversation there as well!
Heisenberg is back.
The midway return (not “premiere”) episode of Season 5 makes this abundantly clear from the opening sequence. Skateboarders session concrete, which becomes a pool as the shot pans out, and then, of course, the Whites’ pool as it pans out even further. The house is different, vacant, boarded up, almost looking condemned. When Walter White drives up and gets out of his car, we remember the premiere episode of this season which aired over a year ago: because now, as then, Walter has hair and a beard and an automatic weapon in the trunk.
We are still speculating about what all this means, as it is obviously a glimpse of the future. But one thing is clear: this is Heisenberg we are watching onscreen. And if we were unsure, it’s tagged right there in spraypaint on his bedroom wall as he crouches to retrieve the infamous ricin (what will he use it for next?) from behind the outlet.
This episode was a truly satisfying return, with at least two edge-of-our-seats scenes, both occurring “in the present” before there is beard growth and ricin retrieval. Many have pontificated about the downward spiral of Walter’s increasingly abhorrent choices and how, in some way, these speak to the propensity of the human condition toward a snowballing sort of depravity if the circumstances are applying just enough pressure, or if the temptations are just that alluring. Thus, we think, Wow – I could totally see myself making the same unethical choice as Walter in a similar situation! Scary! or something along those lines. And while I believe this may be a decent interpretation of Walter’s trajectory over the course of these four and a half seasons, it is a superficial one. And tonight’s two big scenes get at the reason why.
In the first, we find Walter rushing to Jesse’s apartment to stop him from sending his share of the meth business – five million dollars – to the unsuspecting families of Mike Ehrmantraut and Drew Sharp. These recipients may be able to trace the money back to the source or give the authorities some way of doing the same, and that is unacceptable to Walt. As we have seen him do so many times, he begins to weave in and out of soft and strong words to his former protégé, using empathy and scolding interchangeably to play on Jesse’s obvious unbearable guilt and vulnerable emotional state.
Assuring Jesse that Mike is alive and well and can take care of his own family, Walt urges: “I need you to believe me.” And then, to assuage Jesse’s guilt, “The past is the past. Nothing can change what we’ve done.”
Both of these are lies.
As is Walter’s bald-faced attempt to deny the direct accusation of his brother-in-law Hank Schrader in the second big (and final) scene. The first half of season 5 ended with that breathtaking discovery of the hardcover Leaves of Grass in the Whites’ bathroom, with the telling dedication from Gale (“To my other favorite W.W.”). Who could forget Hank’s face before the cut to black? Picking up at that moment, this episode gives us a Hank who is first suffering a panic attack, followed by a manic home-based reopening of the Gus Fring case files, and then a frightened and furious showdown with Walter right there in his own garage.
Of course, Walt first denies everything outright, despite the evidence. Then, when Hank only grows more fierce, Walt leverages his resurgent cancer, telling Hank that he’ll be dead in six months anyway. Hank rebuffs both of these attempts, with a visceral kind of righteous indignation.
Then he says, “I don’t even know you, Walt. I don’t know who I’m talking to.”
Walter replies, “If that’s true, if you don’t know who I am, maybe your best course would be to tread lightly.”
What I am interested to explore as this second half of season 5 continues is not how Walter has sadly slipped into the Heisenberg state as an example of the way we all may fall into sin as morally corruptible human beings, but rather how the root of everything we see in Walter’s life now is the Lie – capital “L” – that he became long ago. We know this at least stretches back to when he left Gray Matter Technologies just before his partners became rich, and the obsessive disappointment that came to dominate his perspective after that. We also know that it manifests now as the inability to discern who the “real” Walt is – his lies are so convincing on both sides because they are only symptoms of the deeper Lie. This is no superficial series of unfortunate choices, choices that can then be left in the past and moved on from. No, this is the outworking of a deep and hideous flaw.
Thus, my belief is that Walter is not a good man gone bad, as the title of the show implies, but that, ironically, his badness goes down deep and back far. There is a borderline sociopathic core. It oppresses Jesse, who at least laments his own badness. It repulses Hank, who is driven toward goodness. But it is the Lie that defines Walter’s existence.
Yes, Heisenberg is back.
And the truth is, he’s been there all along.
So, what did you think of Sunday’s big return episode?