For the final season of Breaking Bad, CaPC writers will look at some of the most important themes and moments from each Sunday’s episode. Breaking Bad Broken Down is a dialogue about one of our favorite shows. This week, Alan Noble, Nick Olson, and Drew Dixon look at episode 9, Season 5, “Blood Money.”
At this point, we know the show going to be a tragedy, right? So the question for me is: Will anyone come out redeemed? Is that even possible at this point?
Jesse’s tremendous sense of hopeless guilt reminds me of the final dialogue at the end of Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, when the main character, Judah, who has gotten away with murder, tells Allen’s character about a “play” he’d like to write, which is just a pretense to tell his own story without actually confessing to a crime:
And after the awful deed is done, he finds that he’s plagued by deep-rooted guilt. Little sparks of his religious background, which he’d rejected, are suddenly stirred up. He hears his father’s voice. He imagines that God is watching his every move. Suddenly, it’s not an empty universe at all, but a just and moral one, and he’s violated it. Now, he’s panic-stricken. He’s on the verge of a mental collapse, an inch away from confessing the whole thing to the police. And then one morning, he awakens. The sun is shining, his family is around him and mysteriously, the crisis has lifted. He takes his family on a vacation to Europe and as the months pass, he finds he’s not punished. In fact, he prospers. The killing gets attributed to another person — a drifter who has a number of other murders to his credit, so I mean, what the hell? One more doesn’t even matter. Now he’s scott-free. His life is completely back to normal.
Of course, Allen is playing with the image of the guilt-ridden criminal from Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The idea of the Russian’s novel is that there is redemption, and guilt–true guilt–may drive us to redemption because we live in a moral universe. The idea of Allen’s film is that we don’t live in a moral universe, and so if we can get away with the crime and lose our sense of guilt, then it’s okay.
Jesse’s character is more like Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov; his sense of true moral guilt utterly undoes him, so that his very existence is loath to him.
So, what’s left for him? Can he redeem himself? And, will he?
Walt on the other hand is like Allen’s Judah. In the beginning, there was guilt. Tremendous guilt. But it ended. And now, every single time he appears to be human (like when he brought up his cancer to Hank, only to threaten him a moment later), it turns out to be a feign, a power play.
I guess that’s my next question. What is Walt even doing anymore? If he really only has a few months to live, why is it worth fighting so hard for? In the beginning he wanted to care for his family, but do we think that’s even a motive any more?
I don’t know if BREAKING BAD is going to be a tragedy finally, but the show’s advertising tagline—“all bad things must come to an end”—sure seems to be in the early stages of coming to fruition in this episode. Probably my favorite part of the episode’s initial flash forward is when we see Walt, having returned to his vacant, taped off home, wave hello to his neighbor, Carol. Her response is to drop her bag of groceries in shock. And then after the commercial break when we return to the present timeline, we get a humorous, replicated scene of Walt offering a friendly hello to Carol that she returns warmly. It’s confirmation that Walt isn’t just going to be on the run—he’s going to be exposed as Heisenberg. Gilligan has said that he wants to believe Heaven exists, but that he can’t not believe that Hell exists, and that’s a telling statement which certainly defines the show.
So you’re right, in this episode—titled “Blood Money”—it seems as if Walt and Jesse are going to pay for their sins. Walt and Jesse, though, are in two completely different places. Walt embodies the sense in which to “break bad” is to go care free and “not give a sh*t.” As you say, Alan, Walt has a callousness about him that is part of what makes him unrecognizable to Hank in the end of the episode. Jesse, though, is racked with guilt, and desires to atone for his sins—to “pay” for them in the most literal way. The scene when Jesse, while ominous music plays, is driving down the street tossing money out of his car window into people’s yards, is chillingly memorable. And it’s such an intentional contrast set before Walt’s encounter with Hank. So if a question remains about who might be redeemed, it might be specifically a question about whether the show sees a qualitative difference in Jesse’s and Walt’s responses to their past together. Clearly, it does. But what will that mean for how the show ends for each of them? I know this is a bit of reiteration of your point, Alan, but I think it’s an important contrast highlighted in the end of the episode.
With all of this in mind, my favorite shot in the entire episode is when Walt goes to Jesse’s apartment with the money that Jesse tried to give away to victims’ families. They’re both sitting on Jesse’s couch, but the camera has Jesse’s distressed face very clearly in the foreground with Walt’s blurry face behind him. At this precise moment, Walt says to Jesse, “You need to stop focusing on the darkness behind you.” Walt’s trying to get Jesse to take his perspective of living as if the past doesn’t matter. For Breaking Bad, though, that’s the cardinal sin. Our choices do matter.
And so when Walt says to Hank in the garage that he has cancer and so he has only a few months to live, and so “what’s the point?”, that is the point. Walt doesn’t think that what he’s done ultimately matters in any final sense. But the structure of Breaking Bad’s unfolding drama has always suggested otherwise.
Walt’s lasting, primary motive—to win—seems to be still in play for him. There’s probably a sense in that last scene in which he relishes telling Hank to “tread lightly” far more than anything he’s doing in retirement at the car wash. But the return of his cancer seems to me to be a real foil to his motive. Before he was a cancerous man with nothing to lose so he might as well get money for his family on his terms. Now that he can’t hide behind the pretense of securing his family, his true motive—and its ultimate futility—is being laid bare.
Initially, when I saw Walt going back to chemo therapy, I was angry. I don’t want Walt to die of cancer before he is found out and brought to justice. Walt spiraled so deeply into self worship in the most recent episodes that I just couldn’t stomach him getting some kind of easy out. But the opening sequence of the show, as Nick pointed out, tells us that he is going to be found out. In the flash forward scene, Walt also has a full head of hair–which could simply mean that he finished his chemo therapy or it could mean that he is lying about his cancer returning. If anything is clear at this point, it is that we shouldn’t trust anything that Walt says.
Walt has been given over to his own passions. He is powerfully wicked, capable of doing anything to protect his own interests. I agree with Nick, “what is in it for Walt” has very little to do with his family. I think Hank is right when he tells Walt, “you don’t give a shit about your family.” There was a time when it was much more complicated but Walt has been in it for himself for sometime now.
Walt can be brought to justice, but it won’t come easily. My suspicion is that Jesse will finally see Walt for who he truly is and will play a part in bringing down the great Heisenberg. Perhaps that is how Jesse will make peace with his past?
I think we are in store for a “very bad” ending. I must admit that I was surprised to see Hank and Walt have it out so early in the final episodes. Both characters are obsessive, meticulous, and controlling. I think one of the most interesting moments in the episode was when Hank crashed his car on the way home from the White’s house, because it showed us, in a very personal way, the collateral damage of Walt’s descent into the drug business. If anything is clear from this first episode, it is that things cannot end well for Walt. Whether its cancer or the law or some other drug Lord, Walt’s past is going to catch up to him. The question I am interested in is who will be lost along the way.