This post contains spoilers through the first episode of the fifth season of Breaking Bad.
This season of Breaking Bad begins with Walt attempting to behave like a human being, and ends with him acting with chilly menace. It’s a fitting frame for the major question posed by the final season of this masterful show: is Walter White a man or a monster? Can chatting with a cheerful diner waitress who encourages him to take a birthday deal because “Free meal. Free is good, even if I was like, rich,” talking about Boston’s science museum, leaving her a hundred dollars as a tip, be Walt relearning what it is to be a human being? Or has he passed beyond a veil such that he’ll always be the man telling his fearful wife “I forgive you,” unable to acknowledge the grave harm he’s done other people?
Part of the reason Walt seems unlikely to reembrace his humanity is that Hank is always standing in his way, the recipient of the praise, the potential great man Walt thinks others should understand him to be. Walt may tell Skyler “I won” after he kills Gus, but he can only feel his victory for a moment before his son begins attributing it to Hank. Walter Jr. remembers visiting Los Pollos Hermanos with Hank, who was “Just toying with the guy, like I got my eye on you, like that…When this hits the news, Uncle Hank is going to be a hero, even more so than before,” Walter Jr. enthuses to his father. Walt can never be as good as Hank. But he can be definitively, memorably worse.
And one of the things this episode establishes is how disgusted and intimidated other bad men are by Walt. Mike would love to be “done listening to this asshole talk,” but Jesse intervenes. “Oh, Jesse. Jesus. What is it with you guys? Honest to God,” Mike wants to know. There’s something incredibly sad about watching Jesse defend his original mentor, the man who’s done him so much wrong even as he’s kept him alive, against the man who might have given him some sort of code and respect even as he introduce him to life as a criminal. Mike’s a practical man, recognizing that Walt is right about the cameras, collaborates in their scheme to discover where Gus’s laptop is being held. I love his dry sense of humor as he identifies himself on the phone as “Inspector Dave Clark, Dave Clark, like the Dave Clark five,” a perfect execution of an obviously ludicrous detail. But Walter’s chilly intelligence and entitlement are repulsive to Mike, who tells Walt “You know how they say it’s been a pleasure? It hasn’t.”
While Walt needs to deal with Mike as an equal, he’s viciously condescending to Saul, telling him “You’re not Clarence Darrow. You’re a two-bit, bus-bench lawyer, and you work for me.” And Saul is withering in his assessment of his complicity with “Beg borrow or steal I’m your Huckleberry, I go the extra mile. Only you never told me that kid would end up in the hospital. Take that and get out of here. You and me, we’re done.” It’s a testament to Walt’s growing arrogance that he can threaten the man he once relied on, that he’s confident enough in his ability to extricate himself from trouble that he no longer needs to cultivate Saul, that he can treat him like an errand boy in Walt’s own schemes.
And his plan to erase Gus’s hard drive is a wild act of genius, dark magic wrought by magnets. But if you mess with forces of nature, sometimes they mess back. Inspecting Gus’s laptop, a cop discovers something different. “Fring, Gustavo, laptop computer. Glass screen is broken and in pieces, bag still sealed.” Cop “Fring, Gustavo, framed photograph of two men, damaged. The glass is broken,” and he notices that the photo’s slid down, revealing a name, Banc Cayman, and some numbers. “Huh. Check it out. That’s not on the manifest.” Walt can’t predict anything. His belief he can seems likely to be his downfall.