“Breaking Bad” is a mid-life crisis gone terribly, disastrously wrong. Walter White, a middling brainiac who sold his share in the Next Big Thing too early, receives what he thinks is a death sentence in the form of a cancer diagnosis. That diagnosis grants him freedom from the fear of living out a life he doesn’t hate, but merely tolerates. Most mid-life crises blossom from a sense of failure. Walt’s grows from a sense of crushing mediocrity. Walter White is not a workday teacher turned ruthless kingpin; he was a ruthless kingpin trapped in a high school classroom. Over four-plus seasons, Walt has evolved into his true self: A maniacal man not in the money or drug business, but “in the empire business.” As he tries, for the sake of his family, to extricate from the web he has spun, his brother-in-law finally suspects Walt for the spider he is. Welcome to the last eight episodes of “Breaking Bad.” Bitch.
Even drug dealers suffer the effects of low-quality outsourcing. Walt has sold the drug business (for a cut of the profits) to Lydia, who has hired her own cooks to fulfill orders overseas. Quality drops without the master chef in kitchen and Lydia confronts Walt at his money laundering car wash.[ref]Walt, I think genuinely, wants to improve and expand the car wash. Perhaps he is beginning to accept this as his new life.[/ref] Skyler, much-maligned (and wrongly so) by the audience, steps up to defend both Walt and his business. This is the same Skyler that confessed she was waiting for Walt’s cancer to come back, finally closing the black hole Walt opened when he started cooking meth. For the first time since . . . jeez, since season one, Walt’s life has edged off the precipice of complete horror. But not for long. We learn at the end of the episode that Walt’s cancer is back.
If there’s one true victim (that isn’t dead) in “Breaking Bad,” it is Jesse Pinkman. He signed up to make some extra scratch with this former chemistry teacher and ended up a murderer, fugitive, and trapped in a sulking nightmare. Children have often reflected Jesse’s innocence back onto him. First, his girlfriend’s little brother ends up dead, a victim of drug dealers (who, of course, sling Walt and Jesse’s product). Then, her son ends up in the hospital, poisoned by Walt, who convinces Jesse it was drug lord Gus Fring. Finally, during a train robbery, a hired worker shoots a little boy in the head after the kid accidentally stumbles upon them. Jesse is closer in age to those kids than he is to Walt. So it makes sense that he tries to give his five million dollar cut to Mike’s granddaughter and the young boy’s family. He is desperately trying to balance out his own moral scales. Once full of virility, Jesse is now a broken man (a boy, really), his soul having cracked in half, leaving him despondent.
Walt intervenes in Jesse’s little charity venture, though. After Jesse, barely able to speak, tells Walt he doesn’t want his “blood money,” Walt lies straight to his face that Mike is alive and well and there is no need to give the granddaughter any cash. “I need you to believe this,” Walt says, and Walt does. After Lydia, Jesse is the only real loose end. Walt must convince Jesse to take his money and shut up. Jesse relents for now. Later he ends up, his heart haunted with the things he has done and seen, sleeping in his own car outside a bar. Awoken by a homeless man (whom he hooks up with mad scratch), he drives around like a paperboy turned Robin Hood, slinging stacks of cash into random yards. The money hangs like an albatross for Jesse, pulling him even further into himself.
Walt continues to tie up loose ends as he, almost nonchalantly, extricates himself from the drug lord business. Charging up the ranks of New Mexico’s drug racket, Walt discovered how good he was at this. He orchestrated double crosses, side deals, and kept himself alive. Here he lies to Jesse again and again with such sincerity it seems that perhaps the old saying is true: You can take the drug kingpin out of the game, but you can’t take the game out of the drug kingpin. Walt has irreversibly transformed, as if waking up in a Kafka story and, instead of recoiling with horror at his new form, swells with pride.
The confrontation between Hank and Walt is as juicy as ever. Hank, through a hellish year, has spilled blood for the chance to catch Heisenberg. Where he came off as aloof and a blowhard in Season 1, Hank has proven his diligence and competence. Remember that, to him, Walt is the nerdiest, goofiest pushover he knows. It is inconceivable to him that Walt would even know about meth, much less orchestrate the murder of 10 prisoners in order to keep producing it. So when Hank says, “I don’t even know who I’m taking to,” he means it, almost literally. Walt and Heisenberg are two totally different creatures to Hank, even when he realizes they are the same person. If this man, his brother-in-law, standing in the garage is Heisenberg, then who the fuck is Walter White?
The episode begins with a flash forward[ref]I miss “Lost.”[/ref] of Walt in full Unabomber regalia. He breaks into his own bombed-out house to recover the ricin capsule, the most enduring Chekov’s gun in television this side of Pete Campbell’s office. He catches a glimpse in a shattered mirror and sees fractal slices of his bearded countenance. But who does he see? Heisenberg? Or Walter White? Don’t believe anyone who tells you this episode foreshadowed Walt’s ultimate fate. His cancer is back, but he’s beaten it before. And he’s “dealt with” people far more menacing than Hank.