Breaking Bad Recap: Dead to Rights

As last night’s episode ended abruptly amidst a firefight between the family Todd and the DEA (i.e., Gomez and Schrader), my mind immediately went back to the future.

To bearded Walt.

You know, Walt at the diner in episode one of this season. Walt with the automatic weapons in the trunk. Walt at the start of this second half of season five – episode nine – entering the abandoned White residence, retrieving the ricin.

These glimpses of the future help to inform our perspective on the present, especially as the great Revelation, the Apocalypse of Walt, has now begun to unfold. In a way, we at least know a little bit about how the story ends. Namely, it does not end in handcuffs in the back of Hank’s SUV because, well, Walt is still bald and goateed.

And it does not end the way Hank, in last night’s intense episode (is any episode not intense?), thought it would, with a phone call to Marie and a vindicated declaration: “Honey, I got him. Dead to rights.”

My conversation partner, Zac, is correct in pointing out the possibility that Walt may have experienced a moment of redemption in this episode when he called off the strike in the desert, but that the mechanisms of his madness are already too far gone, gears grinding away, to stop on a dime. But I would add to Zac’s perspective a futuristic reminder: the Walt we see may not be the actual Walt, even when he seems to be acting authentically. Because the Revelation is not over. It is the bearded Walt who will show us the truth. Yes, Walt is indeed a “lying, evil scumbag” as Jesse so viscerally summarizes in his epic phone call, but the real tragedy and what, I believe, will prevent this from being a story of redemption for Walter White is the degree to which he continues to be a lying evil scumbag to himself.

The star of last night’s episode, however, was not really Walter at all. If, as I surmise, the grand narrative of Breaking Bad will really end up being about Jesse Pinkman, episode thirteen was undoubtedly all about…Todd Alquist. Todd is, of course, played by Jesse Plemons, known most for his role as Landry on another beloved TV series, Friday Night Lights. And he plays Todd with the same kind of innocence and earnest as Landry except that Todd just so happens to be dedicated to the family business of killing, hustling, and all around thuggery. And he’s dedicated to his future as the heir apparent to the legendary Heisenberg.

The episode opens with Todd in a new meth lab completing a cook as his uncles and Lydia, from the Madrigal megacorporation, look on. The purity of the cook is up from the previous operation, you know, now that the previous operation has been sufficiently cleansed. It’s getting better. But Todd’s work is still not good enough for Lydia’s discerning customers in Europe. And, it’s not blue. And that’s not acceptable because, “Blue is our brand.”

The significance of Todd in this final Revelation is precisely that he is the yang to Jesse Pinkman’s yin. He, like Jesse, is in awe of Walter, relating to him as something of a father figure or at least hero. And, like Jesse, he is committed to perfecting the art of the cook as Heisenberg’s devoted apprentice. But, where the two part ways is precisely in how they reflect the essence of Walter White. Jesse could admire and imitate Walt only so far before his maturing psyche began to reveal a deep-rooted conscience that vomited up all of the manipulation, deception, and deathdealing, essentially ripping his soul in two and forcing him to side with the good (or die trying). Last night, Jesse demonstrated his departure from the Way of Heisenberg in stark relief, venting months of pain and anger back onto his abuser during that epic phone call, setting the trap for his abuser’s capture. But Todd remains the devoted servant, his own mild manner housing the same sinister interior as his master.

And even in Walt’s moment of redemption, calling off the strike on Jesse because his Brother-in-law Hank arrived at the scene, Todd knew better.

Todd is the mirror image of Walter White, without the self-deception and hypocrisy.

And he represents a terrifying vision in this great Revelation.

Am I too hard on Walt? Is there something redeemable here, even if it is not realized in the final three episodes of Vince Gilligan’s magnum opus? Perhaps, but it’s not likely.

Indeed, as Walter raced to the scene of the “seven barrels worth” of money buried in the desert, alternatively growling and begging on the phone with Jesse, we got a glimpse of just how far gone this character truly is. So much so that not even Jesse can get him right, still thinking he’s just a “greedy asshole.”

No, Jesse.

It’s so much worse than that.

What did you think of Sunday’s episode?

About Zach Hoag

Zach J. Hoag is a writer and missional minister from notoriously non-religious New England. He blogs here at Patheos and HuffPost Religion. His book, Nothing but the Blood: The Gospel According to Dexter, released in 2012. Most importantly he binge-watches TV dramas and plays in the snow with his family.

Find him on Twitter & Facebook!

  • http://www.faithmeetsworld.com/ Rob Grayson

    I’ve just finished watching and am still reeling from it. What has amazed me about this final season is that the writers have not once shied away from taking the least obvious and most surprising plot options. I never thought they would have Walt come face to face with Hank in the first episode. It was a brilliant move. And now they’ve done it again. I was all ready for Hank and Gomez to spend the final four episodes chasing Walt down, but no: once again the writers have deftly sidestepped my expectations and ratcheted up the tension. They are experts at keeping the viewer guessing while remaining absolutely faithful to the characters.
    To your question: “Am I too hard on Walt? Is there something redeemable here?” No, I don’t think you’re too hard on him. I think you nailed it by contrasting him with Todd and pointing out that the person Walt is telling the biggest lies to is himself. Heck, even as he’s arranging to have Jesse put down like a dog, he’s telling the hired killers that Jesse is family and mustn’t be allowed to suffer. I think this allows him to rationalise Jesse’s planned death as being necessary, almost as though Walk is actually doing against his will, purely because he has to. He’s gone so far down the rabbit hole that there’s no turning back now. And, as we see at the end of this episode, when he tries to call a halt, the events he’s already set in motion have gathered so much momentum that he can’t stop them. So what he thought he was controlling is now controlling him.
    The biggest testament I can give to this show is that, after five and three quarter seasons, it just keeps on getting better.

  • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

    Rob Grayson Can you believe how good it’s getting? I am seriously still in awe. And THIS: “And, as we see at the end of this episode, when he tries to call a halt, the events he’s already set in motion have gathered so much momentum that he can’t stop them. So what he thought he was controlling is now controlling him.” Spot on bro. Sunday can’t come soon enough!!

  • http://www.faithmeetsworld.com/ Rob Grayson

    zachhoag The funny thing is that you wouldn’t expect the show to be that good. Here in the UK it’s relatively unknown (I think only the first season was carried by a relatively minor cable/satellite channel). But when I try to explain to friends why I watch it and why it’s so good, we are generally met with incredulous stares and total incomprehension. A guy with lung cancer who goes into the meth-cooking business to provide for his family and ends up caught up in a web of deceit and danger? Sounds crazily implausible. I haven’t managed to persuade anyone outside of my family to watch it. The genius of BB is that it takes a relatively fantastic storyline and uses it to tell a bigger story about very human themes that we’re all intimately familiar with: ego, deception, self-preservation, manipulation, justice and redemption (we hope).

  • http://www.faithmeetsworld.com/ Rob Grayson

    zachhoag I was thinking some more about this when I was awake in the middle of the night…
    I know your posts on Breaking Bad and the ensuing discussions haven’t been overtly theological, but we are talking about deeply theological (and deeply human) questions like sin and redemption. So as I lay there thinking about your question of whether Walt is irredeemably bad, I had something of an epiphany.
    So far my answer to that question has been yes, Walt has gone over the line and there is now no way back for him. His avowed, demonstrated badness puts him beyond the pale. But Jesse is different: he hasn’t done nearly as many bad things as Walt, and his orientation has for a long time been one of wanting to escape from the life he’s led and the person he’s become – one might even say to repent. And so because we can see good in him, we feel he is still redeemable and we root for him to find redemption.
    In summary, we see Walt as irredeemably bad because of everything he’s said and done; and we see Jesse as deserving of redemption because of everything he’s said and done. In this view – which is, after all, the natural and normal view of how the world works – both Walt and Jesse’s redemption is entirely in their own hands. Ultimately, it’s their own actions that condemn or save them.
    Thank goodness this is not how God chooses to relate to us! If my redemption were even 0.001% reliant on me having an ounce of consistent goodness to bring to the table, I would be irredeemably lost. We all would. But God is the one who is in the redeeming business, and He redeems entirely at His own initiative and His own expense. There is nothing we can bring to the table that makes us any more or less deserving of the redemption He offers. We don’t deserve it; it’s all a gift.
    So from God’s perspective, Walt can absolutely be redeemed. In fact, redemption has already been provided and placed on the table for him, all wrapped up with a pretty ribbon around it. All he has to do is take it, free, gratis and for nothing. No different from Jesse, Skyler, Saul and even the “good guys” like Hank. Everyone’s invited to the party. That’s the message of grace: everyone’s invited, no exceptions.
    In this sense, Breaking Bad gives great insight into a central aspect of the human condition – what Philip Yancey calls “ungrace”: we naturally view the world through a lens of merit and demerit, performance, and retributive justice. What’s surprising to me (hence why this felt like an epiphany) is how, even after following Jesus for 28 years, I still default to this view. And if I default to this view when considering the characters in a TV show, you can be sure I default to it when I look at the people I encounter and share life with in the real world. Grace still feels so unnatural.
    Sorry for the long comment. Perhaps I should have made this into a blog post instead. Perhaps I will…

  • http://zhoag.com/ zachhoag

    Rob Grayson zachhoag definitely blog about it! I am taking a slightly more holistic approach to seeing the way gospel interacts with the Walt narrative. IOW, while I agree he could be redeemed (by God, if God were playing an overt role in this narrative), my sense is that the storyline is communicating more about the degradation of our humanity that occurs when we persistently deceive ourselves. In this sense, Walter is too forgone, IMO.

  • http://www.faithmeetsworld.com/ Rob Grayson

    zachhoag Thanks, Zach. Yeah, I get the holistic way you’re approaching it and I like it a lot. As I said, what really struck me was how conditioned I am to thinking about mercy, justice, redemption etc. in purely human terms, even though I have myself received mercy and grace that is much more abundant.
    That this much discussion should come out of a TV show just underlines how great a show it is :)


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