This post discusses plot points from the August 25 episode of Breaking Bad.
“If that day ever comes, you have no evidence to support your claims,” Walt tells Hank below a jaunty taqueria sign when their families attempt a detente midway through this episode of Breaking Bad. He’s right that an increasingly desperate Hank, who’s let down Marie by not coming clean to Galvez and his other coworkers, has the truth but not actually the goods on Walt. But if Walt knew he lived in a show created by Vince Gilligan, an alumnus of the X-Files, he’d understand something about this situation. The truth is out there, the hard facts of his situation. And no matter how many fantasies Walt spins, he can’t actually eliminate those facts. The clean slate Walt is trying to sell Jesse on may be something that he’s been able to give himself mentally–and this episode suggested that Walt’s come impressively far in bleaching out his own compassion and sense of reality along with his fears and weaknesses–but it doesn’t exist in a world where there’s a ricin cigarette in his power outlet and a gun cooling in the soda machine of what was supposed to be his legitimate business.
This episode of Breaking Bad is substantially centered around two monologues by Walt in which he attempts to distort reality to his own advantage. The first, meant as a threat to Hank and Marie, and as a further illustration of Walt’s prowess, is a taunt not just because of what it suggests Walt could do: finger Hank for his own crimes. It’s a vicious little act because it shows Walt doing what Hank can’t yet manage: putting scraps of the truth into a coherent narrative. “If you’re watching this tape, I’m probably dead, murdered by my brother, Hank Schrader,” Walt narrates cooly into the video camera, weaving an alternate universe in which Hank is Heisenberg:
I was astounded. I’ve always thought Hank was a very moral man, and I was particularly vulnerable at the time, something he knew and took advantage of. I was reeling from a cancer diagnoses that would bankrupt my family. Hank took me on a ride-along…Hank sold me into servitude to this man. When I tried to quit, Fring threatened my family…Fring was able to arrange, I guess you call it a hit, on Hank. It failed, but Hank was seriously injured. I ended up paying his medical bills, which amounted to over $177,000…Working with a man named Hector Salamanca, he worked to kill Fring. The bomb he used was built by me. I contemplated suicide, but I’m a coward. I wanted to go to the police, but I was frightened…To keep me in line, he took my children. For three months, he kept them. My wife,w ho had not idea of my criminal activities, was horrified to learn what I’d done. I was in hell. I hated myself for what I’d brought upon my family…I tried to quit again. And in response, he gave me this. I can’t take this anymore. I live in fear every day that Hank will kill me. Or worse, hurt my family. All I can think to do is to make this video and hope that the world will finally see this man for what he really is.
This isn’t necessarily a narrative that holds up under scrutiny. Hank’s injuries in the shooting would seem to have suspiciously little impact on the distribution of methamphetamine during his recovery. And one of the things about being accountable to people, as Hank has been for much of his career, is that they have a tendency to be able to produce alibis on your behalf. But Walt is betting on his own ability to act as a sort of penny-ante Southwestern Doctor Strange against the actual, tangible facts that, if discovered, could lead law enforcement authorities to the truth. And at least in this moment, aided by the revelation that Marie accepted the Whites’ money because, as she explains to Hank, “Insurance wouldn’t have covered the treatment that you needed, and I just wanted the best for you..I knew you would refuse it, and without it, you might never have been able to walk again,” which drives a significant psychological wedge between the couple, it seems like Walt might have succeeded in placing the Crimson Bands of Cyttorak on his brother-in-law.
But he misses a larger danger: the problem for Walt, long-term, isn’t really that Hank is looking for him. It’s that no matter how many kids and how many dirt bikes he dissolves in industrial vats, the detritus of what he’s done is out there. Some of it is human, like Todd, who’s telling the story of “like, the biggest train heist ever” to Neo-Nazis in diners over coffee. And some of it is physical, like the ricin cigarette lingering behind the electrical plate in the White home. And Walt, in believing that he can spin his way past this flotsam and jetsam, unwittingly calls it to the attention of someone far more volatile than Hank.
Unlike Walt’s monologue to Hank, which is animated by malice, a need to prove how much smarter he is than his brother-in-law all over again, Walt’s soliloquy to Jesse seems to come from a different place. There’s no question that it’s self-serving, and there’s something delightful about hearing Jesse wake up, even for a moment, and see the part of his former partner. But Walt’s wish for Jesse, his promise that “Saul knows a man. He specializes in giving people new identities. He’d move you some place far away. Set you up with a whole new life. Yeah, I know, sounds a little extreme. But maybe it’s exactly what you need. I really think that would be good for you. Clean slate. Just think about it. You’d get a job. Something legitimate, something you like. Meet a girl, start a family, even. Hell, you’re still so damn young. What’s here for you now, anyway? I tell you, if I could, I’d trade places. A whole life ahead of you with a chance to hit the reset button. In a few years, this all might feel like nothing more than a bad dream,” seems to have a hint of wishful thinking in it. The best Walt can hope for these days is to die before Hank catches him, that his son–to whom he confesses that his cancer is back, spending that moment just to keep Walter Junior away from Hank and Marie’s house–will merely have the experience of having a dead father, not a horrifyingly disgraced one. Walt may need Jesse out of town and disappeared, but it’s hard to believe that he doesn’t also want a hit of what he’s selling, just like Jesse did when Walt reconnected with him a year ago.
And what’s remarkable about Jesse’s arc in the back half of this episode is the way he flirts with the emotional truth, falls for Walt’s lies yet again, and then discovers the larger truth of the facts. “Would you just, for once, stop working me?” Jesse tells Walt in the desert in what feels like a remarkable moment of clarity, one that’s taken him a year, and us much longer to achieve “Just stop working me for like ten seconds straight. Stop jerking me around…Just drop the whole concerned dad thing and tell me the truth. You’re acting like me leaving town is about me throwing millions of dollars away. it’s really about you. You need me gone. Because your dickhead brother in law is never going to let up Just say so. Just ask me for a favor. Just tell me you don’t give a shit about me and it’s either this. It’s either this or you’ll kill me the same way you killed Mike. I mean, isn’t this what this is all about? Us meeting all the way out here in case I say no? Go on. Just tell me you need this.”
He’s uncovered perhaps Walt’s worst fear, that he actually needs other people, and not just for the technical things that he can assign to lesser beings like Jesse and Todd, but transactions that he needs desperately enough to deal with someone on a basis of equality. It feels like an enormous step back when Jesse leans into Walt’s embrace, when he walks, potentially off to his death from Saul’s office, conned again, this time maybe even more by himself than by Walt. But that just makes the moment when Jesse uncovers a fact about Walt, when he stops being distracted by emotion and figures out the mystery of the ricin cigarette, even more stunning. This kid who couldn’t master Walt’s chemistry class in a licit setting, who let his surrogate father figure talk him into murder, who’s refused to see the truth as long as he possibly could because it let him continue to feel worthy, has figured out something Walter White seems to have forgotten: facts matter. Precision counts. And dealers, methheads, and law enforcement can tell the difference between a cloudy, inferior product, and one that’s crystal clear.