‘Breaking Bad’ Open Thread: White Hats and Black Hats

This episode contains spoilers through the season finale of Breaking Bad.

If there was any doubt going into this episode about whether Breaking Bad is a horror show or not, that seems to be decisively settled. But I suspect questions will linger about whether the decision to put one of the most shocking scenes I’ve ever seen in a television show, of Gus Fring’s destroyed face after Walt and Don Salamanca conspire to destroy him in a suicide bombing, made the show better. And while we have one hell of a fifth season set up in the final scene revelation that it was Walt, not Gus, and not the cruelty of fate, that landed Brock in the hospital, that Walt has become the moral equivalent of the man he turned into a pulp, it’s hard for me to imagine a series finale that would be more powerful than the sequences that ended the fourth season of this show.

But back to the episode itself. Much of what happened between the end of the last episode, which left Walter on a roof, stranded and in fear of his life after failing to kill Gus, felt like fancy and sometimes amusing clockwork, which essentially it was. There are a lot of strong moments embedded in it, though. First, Jesse is taken in for questioning by the Albuquerque Police Department, who are vastly curious to know how a kid with Jesse’s education and criminal record can pinpoint the drug that appears to be killing his girlfriend’s son. “I don’t know. I must have seen it on House or something,” Jesse tells them in the first of several callouts to other shows, a reminder that these characters live in our world, rather than a fantasy where we’re safe from them. “Sometimes, your brain just makes these connections.”

Then, there’s the moment when Walt has to deal with Saul’s deeply annoyed secretary to get Saul over to jail to take care of Jesse. It’s nice to see someone who knows Walt for what he is, completely and without reservation, judging him for us, and taking him for all he’s worth in the matter of the door repair. “You’re a pain in my ass, you know that?” she tells him. “You’re the reason I have to go on unemployment for God knows how long, then goes on to take him for $25,000, a price she moves up to after Walt starts sputtering about reputable vendors. Walt is dangerous, and getting more so, but he’s still enough of a scared little rat to buy off people who know where his price point is. And I also liked the moment later when, recruiting Don Salamanca, Walt has to hide from Gus’s henchman outside Don Salamanca’s window, a position from which he’s almost given when when the elderly lady next door starts to loudly flirt with Walt through her window.

But I would have loved to see, in flashbacks or otherwise, Walter talking Don Salamanca into committing the suicide bombing that kills Gus. It’s a shocking act, even considering the depth of Don Salamanca’s hatred and his quality of life, and it’s a real test of Walt’s capability in evil. It’s one thing to do tremendously dreadful things, and it’s another to get people to do tremendously evil things for you, and I think the show would actually be interesting if it spent more time exploring the latter dynamic. At the end of this episode, Walt comforts Jesse, telling him that for sure Gus had to be killed, but he hasn’t actually had to talk Jesse into anything here: Jesse is not involved in the plan for the final killing, and in fact, is totally surprised by the sight of Walt with that .38. Vince Gilligan says, in a quite interesting interview with Maureen Ryan at Aol that:

There’s something about the Darth Vaders of fiction and the J.R. Ewings and all the various villains throughout history and novels and in movies and television, there’s something about them — if they’re bold and courageous and they go forward with courage and they live by their own rules and they’re smart and cunning, we somehow we don’t necessarily sympathize with them as much as we have grudging respect for them. And I think at a certain point Walt probably falls under that category, where we’re not on board with his methods so much as we respect his intelligence for continually getting himself out of these jams that he finds himself in…I don’t have any particular political or philosophical axe to grind, but …I’d like to believe that there is a right and wrong in this universe that we live in, and that good is rewarded and that bad is punished. I sound a little simplistic when I say that, but who loves the thought of the Hitlers and the Pol Pots of the world getting away with it, as it were — not being punished for their deeds? Like I said, I’d rather live in a world in which that [punishment] happened, not to say that it exists.

And I’d like to see Walt at true capacity. Because leaving off-screen him talking an old man into killing himself for him, leaving off-screen him poisoning a child, makes it just a little bit easier to fall on the sympathy side with Walter White, denies him a bit more of the trial the show is for him, means we are slightly less inclined to mete out full judgement.

So what’s going to happen next season? In my ideal world, Mike, angry about Gus’s death, would investigate it, find out the sequence of events behind it, and eventually work with Jesse to bring Walt down (perhaps as Hank is reaching similar conclusions)—only to have Walt beat them by dying of cancer before they can kill him cleanly. I remain convinced that Walt’s cancer is back, even if the show hasn’t addressed that, and having him die from it, while also at least having provided Skyler with the income to buy a business that sustains her would be true closure to the story that began four seasons ago. And an ending that doesn’t add another murder to Jesse’s record but that helps him complete the process of becoming a man that he began this season, would be perhaps the happiest one it’s possible to hope for. Walter White may be a monster. But I still have faint prayers for Jesse, even if the best he can possibly be is an old West archetype, riding out of town and leaving the woman and boy he loves behind. There’s good in being Shane, in living, and leaving someone behind but alive to remember you fondly, and with honor.