This post does not discuss plot points from the finale season of Breaking Bad. Read ahead in safety.
What more is there to say about Breaking Bad? After five seasons, it feels almost beside the point to praise the outstanding acting of its stellar cast, lead by Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, and Anna Gunn, to laud its cinematography, which raised the standards for television across the board, or to meditate further on the stark clarity of Vince Gilligan’s moral vision. But watching the first episode of the final season, which returns to AMC on August 11 at 9PM, I found myself struck by one of the theories of the show, that Breaking Bad is the story of a hero told from the perspective of the villain.
When we met Hank Schrader five years ago, he was a blusterer, a braggart, a man who would hijack his brother-in-law Walter White’s birthday party to demand the guests celebrate his own work fighting drug-related crime. In the seasons that followed, we’d see his struggle to recover from a gunshot wound, his rise in the hierarchy of law enforcement even as he chased the wrong suspects in his pursuit of Albuquerque’s meth trade, and his family’s struggles with infertility. And much of the time, we observed him from the perspective of Walt, the brother-in-law who was humiliated by him, and used that humiliation as fuel, and at times, as justification for his parallel rise in Albequerque’s underworld. But while we spent the previous five seasons on Walt’s turf, the labs where he cooked meth, the apartment where he live during his separation from his wife, the home where he’d reassert himself as master of his domain in a flush of criminal self-confidence, it’s finally time for us to move into Hank’s domain, and to see Walt through Hank’s eyes.
There’s a certain simplicity to chemistry, which isn’t to say it’s easy to master. Conditions matter: Jesse Pinkman slouched his way through Walter White’s classroom, but came alive to the possibility of chemicals when they were reunited in an old RV. One of the tragedies of Jesse and Walt’s relationship is that Walt, through cooking meth, gave Jesse the education he was unable to impart to him in the classroom. And even once you’ve passed your knowledge along, that doesn’t guarantee the stability of your compounds and processes.
We call the ineffable spark between people that can lead to love or hatred chemistry, but that’s a misnomer, an expression of our desire to quantify a mysterious process, or to reduce it to elements like oxytocin, and thereby diminishing its power over us. Much of the previous five seasons of Breaking Bad have been concerned with actual chemistry, be it the poison that’s fed into Walt’s veins in an attempt to control his cancer, the toxins that have made him secretly rich, or the tricks Walt’s used to get himself out of sticky situations, demonstrations so showy and clever that divorced from their murderous context they might evoke joy rather than a kind of admiring horror. But with Hank’s discovery of Walt’s copy of Leaves of Grass, a gift from the departed Gale, Breaking Bad is entering the realm of that other kind of chemistry, and considering a very different set of questions.
Part of Walt’s pleasure in his Heisenberg identity has been that it allowed him to put one over on Hank, a sometimes crude, somewhat blustery man who’s used his position as a law enforcement officer to lord it over his comparatively mousey brother-in-law. It was on a ride-along with Hank that Walt met Jesse, who would become his partner in crime. And Walt made a game of his surveillance of Gus Fring with Hank, pretending to be in wonder of the dangerous world in which Hank operated, while enjoying the secret pleasure of his own dominance in that sphere. Walt’s always believed that he was smarter, and perhaps worthier, than Hank, and at times, the show has been in agreement with him.
But as Hank begins his investigation of his brother-in-law, that perspective is shifting. As much as Walt is a master of chemicals, he’s also operating in a field governed by scientific laws, and he can rely on scientific certainties to help him in his pursuit of certain results. The questions of whether what he was doing is moral and sustainable are separate from those results, and Walt’s done an impressive job of compartmentalizing those concerns from his efforts to secure his family’s financial future.
Hank, but contrast, faces a rather more daunting task, operating as he does in the field of personal rather than physical chemistry. Where his inability to see that Walt was Heisenberg might once have been a sign of Hank’s stupidity or obliviousness. Now that he’s made the connection, the time it took seems more like a recognition of the obvious difficulty of a task that requires him to look beyond family ties, to process an enormous amount of highly unreliable visual information and reporting, and to penetrate the deep deception that Walt’s built up around himself and his family.
And while Walt has successfully siloed his meth cooking and his concern for his family, Hank doesn’t have that option. The moment Hank found Leaves of Grass and read Gale’s inscription in it, his relationship to Walt changed. He can’t undo that revelation if he’d like to, but choosing to go forward carries profound implications at minimum for the emotional health of Hank’s family, and at worst for their collective safety. Given the bloody swath Heisenberg’s carved across Albequerque, it wouldn’t be unreasonable for Hank to fear for his life, for Marie’s, and given that he doesn’t yet know the extent of Skyler’s involvement, for his sister and her children. Walt may be able to measure out the ingredients of his trade with extreme precision, and to cook them in immaculately clean vessels. Hank has no such luxuries, nor such comforts, and attempting to predict Walt’s actions, given how startling it is that he is Heisenberg at all, seems like it will prove enormously, unnervingly hard.
But Walt has ostensibly given up chemicals other than the ones that scent A1A’s best-selling pine air fresheners and the sorts that come in pill bottles. While chemistry helped him manage other people’s unpredictable behavior in the past, or at least to escape the consequences of that erracticness, be it with a bomb strapped to Tio Salamanca’s wheelchair or a vial of ricin, the decision to quit cooking means that Walt is operating more on Hank’s turf than on his own.
And Hank isn’t the only person he’ll have to try to manage with his personality as his main tool of persuasion. Skyler may be relieved that Walt’s stopped cooking, and even to have returned to her former position of dominance in family decisions, like whether to buy a second car wash. But that doesn’t mean that the man who protects her family couldn’t become a danger to them again. Last season, Skyler outflanked Walt with a wily feigning of post-partum depression that got their children out of the house, and that took Walt by surprise. There’s no reason to think she couldn’t turn her comparative weaknesses into powerful strengths again, if she felt moved to, and the premiere suggests that the terror Walt put her through has been an annealing process that’s left her stronger.
Jesse may have managed to stop doing business with Walt. But while Walt’s proven adept at setting up fine mesh barriers between his past, present and future, Jesse’s attempts to compartmentalize his life remain soluble to large guilt molecules. In an attempt to purge the slow poisoning he’s experiencing, Jesse makes one drastic effort to purge himself of one source of his shame. Walt and Saul head him off, but fail to anticipate that Jesse’s so wounded that he’s willing to behave in wildly irrational ways to try to heal himself.
For more than a year, Walter White prided himself on the purity of his product, his ability to produce meth with a beautiful blue, glassy sheen that helped him forget its lethality. But the master chemist seems to have forgotten that the same approach to purity and transparency that served him so well in a series of labs might have been wise to adopt in the world outside of it, too. Walt may have disdained Jesse’s use of chili powder as a signature spiking ingredient when they first began cooking together, but his life is similarly contaminated by the hurt he’s done Skyler, the trick he pulled on his brother-in-law, the way he’s tried to push his son into a particular vision of manhood. Walt may never be the kind of cook who blows himself up with a lab, but as the beginning of Breaking Bad’s end game suggests, there are plenty of other ways to start a fatal conflagration with carelessness and greed than dirty equipment and bad ratios of ingredients.