This post contains spoilers through the August 26 episode of Breaking Bad. I’ll be on vacation and may not have the ability to watch next week’s episode, though if I do, I’ll blog it.
Earlier in this season of Breaking Bad, Jesse asked Walter White if a meth empire was really something to be proud of. At the beginning of this episode, Walt’s belief that it was gave him a powerful tool to extract respect from the kind of men he once feared. By the end of it, he was beginning to realize the limitations of the thing he is the best at.
“I’m the man who’s keeping it,” Walt told Mike’s contact. “Yours is just some tepid, off-brand generic cola. What I’m making is Classic Coke…Do you really want to live in a world without Coca-Cola?…You’ve got the greatest, no, the two greatest meth cooks in America right here…You all know exactly who I am. Say my name…I’m the cook. I’m the man who killed Gus Fring.” All of these things are absolutely true: Walt’s meth is powerful, and pure, only he can make it, many people want to buy it, and he is a killer. But while Walt’s narrowed his universe to match that set of facts, and to construct circumstances in which those facts override all other considerations, not everyone has decided to join him there. If he’s Satan, he’s rebelled without being sure of his legions in his war on God, and conventional morality, and Grey Matter.
There’s Skyler, who is collaborating, but not shutting up. “Walt. What is this?” she asks him when he and Jesse come to stash the chemicals at the car wash. “Why are you hiding it here?…Who are you hiding it from? From the police? Or someone else? Someone who would kill for it?” Walt tells her to go back into the office, but her appearance there is marked by a subtler and more potentially important exchange: the first moment when Skyler and Jesse have been in agreement. “Hey, Mrs. White,” Jesse tells her, including her in the courtesy he’s always extended to Walt. Noticing her looking at the truck, he reads the name of the company: “Vamanos.” “I wish,” Skyler tells him, relying on a literal reading of the word. I’ve long wanted to see an alliance between Skyler and Jesse, who are both deeply entangled in Walt’s affairs, both increasingly angry at him, and who, between them, could paint the most complete portrait of Walt’s affairs of any characters who remain living.
But if that’s to happen, Jesse will need to extricate, root and branch, the hold Walt has on him. And as their bond slipped this week on the way to the events that must surely sunder any sympathy Jesse has for his former teacher, Walt resorted to an accusation even uglier than the ones that he’s made about Skyler. “Look at you. What have you got in your life? Nothing. Nobody. Oh, wait, yes. Video games and go-karts,” Walt told Jesse. “And when you get tired of that, what then? And how soon will you start using again? Look. Look I know how upset you are about what happened to this boy. I am just as upset as you are…Do I have to lock myself in a room and get high to prove it to you?” That Walt’s turned cooking meth into Jesse’s program of recovery is a sickeningly beautiful example of his inversion of conventional morality.
And it’s unnerving to watch him try the same methods to attach Todd to him that worked so well on Jesse, replacing only verbal abuse with a mild offer of partnership. “Did you take chemistry in high school?” Walt asks Todd in an unsettling sequence set to The Monkees “Going Down,” in an unnerving juxtaposition. “As we go, I’ll be as detailed as possible without being overwhelming…Look, Todd, I don’t need you to be Antoine Lavoisier. What I do need is your full effort and attention.” Todd gives Walt what he thinks he wants. “You did fine, Todd. You applied yourself. That’s all I can ask,” Walt tells him. He’s willing to spend time with Walt. But like Jesse, Todd is less interested in money than Walt would like, telling his boss “We can talk money when I get this right.” Walt requires his ties with people to operate on multiple levels because he’s so likely to damage at least one level of the bonds between them. He had counted on greed to keep Jesse in the fold, failing to recognize that the man he helped rebuild was one who turned out to care about principles and the state of his own soul more than $5 million. If Todd wants Walt’s approval more than he wants money, then Walt will never have as much control over that violent young man as he’d like.
Speaking of control and manipulation, I know some viewers felt that the events of tonight’s episode were inevitable, and rushed along because they needed to happen. But to me, Breaking Bad has become a terrible game of chess: I know the king needs to be eliminated from the board, and the terrible anticipation comes from wondering how that outcome will be arrived at, and what sacrifices and casualties will be occasioned along the way. The possibility of Mike’s suicide was heavily telegraphed tonight, from the movie he watched while Hank and Gomez searched his home, in which characters discuss the powder burn on a man’s temple, to the well in which he disposed of his old life (which reminded me of the deep well in Haruki Murkami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle), to Hank’s gesture of blowing his own head off, to his backing away from Kaylee, abandoning her so she wouldn’t see his dishonor or death, to his insistence that Jesse, his other child, not bring him his getaway bag.
Each moment of dread carried its own possibilities, but Walt’s shooting of Mike ultimately felt necessary to the show’s larger dramatic needs: the alienation of Walt and Jesse, and Walt’s continued moral descent and alienation. “If you believe that there’s a hell, I don’t know if you’re into that, we’re already pretty much getting there,” Walt told Jesse earlier in the episode. “But I’m not going to lie down until I get there.” He fancies himself Satan, in control of his own damnation, until the moment when he shoots Mike. “I just realized. I just realized that Lydia has the names, I can get them from her,” Walt told Mike as the other man was dying. “I’m sorry, Mike. This whole thing could have been avoided.” Walt’s not really sorry. But he’s realized two things. First, that for once, he didn’t think through all of his options, that he didn’t see around all the corners, and that in doing so, he’s caused himself a great deal more trouble. And Walt didn’t do that because he wanted to kill Mike, because he’s a petty, nasty, needy little man, and he didn’t get something else he wanted and that Mike had: Jesse’s continued loyalty.
“Shut up. Let me die in peace,” Mike tells Walt, unwilling to participate in Walt’s revelation, however minor. That he’s rid of Walt may mark Mike, however painful it was to lose him, luckier than any of the other people unfortunate to remain in Walter White’s rotten little circle of hell. He went out, at least, among the bright plant life of the trees and brush by the river where he skipped his last stones, an exceedingly rare sign of life (and a color that’s almost never used in the series) in the blasted landscape that is Walt’s domain. Mike may have died, but the prospect of something else, a world in which Walter White is disoriented and alone, unable to claim the last word, is growing even in that wasteland.