This post contains spoilers through the second episode of the fifth season of Breaking Bad.
When I wrote, prior to the beginning of Breaking Bad’s final episode, that the key to understanding Walter White is recognizing that he is an abuser, I was talking about his interactions with Jesse in this episode, where the younger man blames himself for suspecting that Walt wanted to harm Brock, which, of course, Walt did. For the moment, Walt may be in control of events around him in this episode, but much of this hour of television is about watching other people, strong and weak alike, become vulnerable. In Mike’s interrogation by Hank, and Lydia’s terror when confronted by Mike, we can see some of the ways in which Walter White’s confidence might become his undoing.
In that scene, we see precisely why Walt’s hold on Jesse is so powerful. He has seemingly omnipotent knowledge—even if he doesn’t recognize Jesse’s Roomba, he turns out to be absolutely right that the two should check it for the ricin cigarette again. Walt’s capable of being terrifying and providing a regular guy tone missing from Jesse’s life, telling him, “I don’t know about you, but I, for one, could use a beer.” And he’s set himself up with tremendous power to dispense forgiveness. “You and I working together, having each other’s back, it’s what saved our lives,” he tells the devastated younger man. “I want you to think about that as we go forward.” That he’s able to dispense forgiveness as Jesse digs himself deeper into self-delusion, that Walt can dispense with what ought to be crippling guilt and shame, is a chilling indicator of how far Walt has traveled from common humanity.
But if the experiences of other people around him are any indication, Walt’s chilly self-assurance may not be a long-time guarantee of freedom, much less happiness and self-assurance. Mike finds himself in danger both from Gus’s German partners—an addition to the show I feel mixed about, if only because a build towards a conclusion feels like it should start the world contracting, not expanding—and from law enforcement as the numbers hidden in the picture frame give Hank a lead.
Lydia has none of Walt’s calm. She stands out in the diner where she meets Mike, both for her nerves and her particularness. “I would like a cup of hot water, filtered if possible, and a single slice of lemon,” she delivers her memorable order after running through all the diner’s options. “I don’t suppose you have Stevia. Never mind. I brought my own.” Mike wearily points out how exhausting her evasive maneuvers are when he joins her in her booth and suggests “How ‘bout we lose the sunglasses. I feel like I’m talking to Jackie Onassis…Breathe in, breathe out. Drink your whatever.”
But however bad Lydia may be at scheming (a real hallmark of women in this series), she has all of Walt’s audacity, and much of his fear of becoming invisible. “These are my guys, and they are solid, understand,” Mike tells her in informing her that he has no intention of killing the eleven men Lydia insists could ruin them. “They’re paid to stand up to the heat, keep their mouths shut, no matter what. And they will. Now I don’t know what kind of movies you been watching, but here in the real world, we don’t kill eleven people as some kind of prophylactic measure.” His advice doesn’t stop her though, just as it’s never stopped Walter, or convinced Jesse to peel away from his diabolical mentor. Lydia has one of Mike’s men killed in such a way that Mike is forced to kill the other. And when Mike shows up to kill her, she has a very Walt-like request: “Don’t shoot me in the face, please. I don’t want my daughter to find me like that,” she begs. Mike is disgusted. “No one’s going to find you,” he tells her. “You’d let your five year old stumble across your dead body?” But she continues to beg “Promise I don’t disappear.” I don’t think Walt would be as dumb—if anything else, he has more practice. But I can see an extreme gesture, taken in part in the name of making what Walt perceives to be his greatness visible, as Walt’s undoing.
And Mike runs into trouble as a result of the bank numbers exposed by Walt’s daring caper. Mike is cool through the initial phases of his interrogation with Hank, but eventually, he comes up against something that Hank knows that he didn’t: that Gus has stashed millions of dollars in Mike’s granddaughter’s name. “I suppose we could talk about the $2 million in your granddaughter’s name,” Hanks tell him, knowing that having no answer, nothing to say, will be more deadly to Mike than trying to catch the other man in a lie. “This fifth grade girl is the muscle behind Fring’s entire operation…maybe it was actually her dear old granddad.” This information may get back to Walt. But there may be something out there that he still cares about that someone could use him as leverage. It was a combination of Gus’s threats to Walt’s family and Walt’s epic narcissism that pushed him to murder. I hate to imagine what the threat of humiliation, of the destruction of Walt’s carefully-constructed self-image might lead him to.
“You know, it gets easier. I promise you that. What you’re feeling right now. About Ted. Everything. It’ll pass,” Walt tells Skyler. But feeling better about doing evil isn’t the same of escaping its accumulated consequences.