This post contains spoilers through the August 12 episode of Breaking Bad.
As we march towards the conclusion of Breaking Bad, I’ve started watching the show like an augur, reading every line of dialogue for potential clues to the future. Hank’s calling Holly “my girl” could foreshadow his getting a half-formed wish through terrible means. The weird poetry of Hank’s praise of Marie’s therapist to Walt, faking grief for his own advantage, “they come in like zombies, out like larks,” makes me wonder what kind of creature Skyler might emerge as if she survives her time at Walt’s side. And that tarantula that begins and ends the episode, lethally dangerous but bumping impotently against the lid of the jar in which it’ll bake to death, is a miniature of the man who knocks, a reminder that Walt has been able to barge into all sorts of doors, but someday, he might find himself without a way of the house he’s built for himself.
As devastating as the end of this episode was, Todd’s genial smile and wave turned swiftly to murder, I felt like there was also a moral correctness to it. Breaking Bad has spent a lot of time letting us enjoy watching its characters pull off elaborate heists. If anything, that’s the show’s signature means of getting us to feel emotionally attached to behavior we’d find immediately criminal and easy to judge if it was pulled off with less style, be it the bodies Walt and Jesse dissolve in chemicals and ship off into the great unknown, their mobile cook setup, or their attack on evidence control. Jesse’s “yeah, bitch,” is one of the show’s signature catchphrases, and his exultation at their innovative successes is one of the show’s few repeated positive emotions.
Breaking Bad‘s been working up to a reckoning with the consequences of that cleverness, though. The team’s ingenious plan to wipe Gus’s laptop inadvertently revealed the clue that led Hank to Mike, putting increased pressure on Mike personally, and on the triumvirate of Walt, Mike, and Jesse. Now, they’ve brought tragedy down on themselves in a direct and immediate way, and it’s clearly traceable to Walt’s arrogance. If he’d heeded Mike’s instructions, not only would Jesse not have had to endure an agonizing wait beneath a moving train, but their exultations might have wrapped up such that Walt, Jesse, and Todd wouldn’t have been high on the adrenaline of victory, and they might have looked like nothing more than a couple of working class adults messing about in the desert. Instead, there’s blood, and a critically important spur to the show’s future action.
I’m not sure what will happen here, but a range of reactions seem predictable. Jesse, who has consistently demonstrated a high regard for the welfare of children will be devastated. Walt seems likely to rationalize—”You think that just because we’re both parents means I won’t let my partner do what’s necessary?” he coldly told Lydia earlier in the episode. And Mike, who is already struggling under the burden of too many responsibilities, is likely to be hugely exasperated with Walt, and sympathetic to Jesse’s anguish. If Todd lives through his decision, he’ll be an enormous liability, and if he does so through Walt’s insistence, the power triangle that has moderated the group’s decision-making could turn into a deadlocked square. If he doesn’t, and his death comes at the hand of any one of the three members of the core operation, it could result in a radical and clear power realignment, most likely pitting Walt against Mike and Jesse.
But would that realignment make Walt see anything differently? When he comes to Hank’s office at the beginning of the episode, he does a masterful job of snowing his brother-in-law, and winning himself time to bug Hank’s office. “Skyler doesn’t love me anymore. And I don’t know what to do, Hank,” Walt says “She says that I’m a bad influence on the kids, and I’m not good for them…She thinks I’m a bad father. I’m sorry.” It’s a performance that first elicits Hank’s sympathy, compelling Hank to tell Walt, “Sky and you got your issues, but that there, I mean, I’m not an expert on parenting or anything, but from where I’m sitting, I just don’t see it. I think you’re great with the kids. I think your’e great with the kids. You’re a provider, a role model. The guts you showed going toe to toe with cancer, that’s an inspiration to me.” And when Walt admits “I’ve made mistakes,” grabbing for Hank’s hand, crying, he hits the right note to disgust Hank, too. A man still learning to walk without his cane has never made for the door so quickly to fix a cup of coffee. Walt may be able to enjoy smearing Skyler and getting sympathy for his plight, even while being fully aware that his ploy has a strategic purpose. I wonder if it’ll be so easy for him to continue basking in his self-veneration with pooling blood and a dead child in front of his eyes, unlike the wife he has moldering in a haze of cigarette smoke in his far-away home.