“He just won’t listen to reason,” Walter White explains to Jack, Todd’s murderous, neo-Nazi uncle when he orders the hit on Jesse, laying out why he wants the killing to be painless rather than to send any sort of message. Rationality is Walter White’s highest stated virtue, the thing that lets him justify cooking meth and bullying everyone around him into line, a lens that lets Walt see himself as a good person rather than as a man who’s committed monstrous acts to fulfill his own ego. But on last night’s episode of Breaking Bad, after a fairly long, successful run on that particular trip, Walt ran into the inherent limitation of hyperrationality. If other people start thinking about the world the same way that you do, rationality may lead them to different conclusions than you do. And faced with the prospect of making hundreds of millions of dollars cooking for Lydia and her backers, it makes absolute sense that Jack, Todd, and company would show up to make sure that Walter White feels compelled to fulfill his half of the bargain. Walt misses a great number of things this episode, from the different color of the soil around the picture of the barrel Hank sends to him, to the possibility that Jesse could be taping the call in which he confesses a whole string of murders and associated violence. But most of all, he misses that other people’s rationally-determined self interests could actually be different from his own.
One under-discussed aspect of that conclusion, I think, is the question of Lydia’s true employers. If Walter White has acquired a reputation so threatening that Hank can now use it against Huell, implying that Walt can track the big man as an excuse to render his phone inoperable and to frighten him into staying put, Madrigal, and whoever’s really in charge of the meth business, has always had an even more frightening grip on those who know its true power. The prospect of arrest is enough to frighten a Madrigal employee to kill himself, rather than face the police, or presumably, his actual employer. And while Lydia’s perpetual state of terror has always come, in part, from a rat-like desire to stay alive, some of it seems to derive from the fact that she knows there’s far worse out there than Walter White, and that it’s worth ordering mass hits to appease them. Walt may rely on hyperrationality to convince himself he hasn’t sold his soul. Lydia doesn’t seem to harbor any illusion that there’s anything to save from her life and whatever little pleasure she continues to derive from it.
As a result, the most frightening sequence in “To’hajiilee” isn’t really the shoot-out, though the prospect that a triumphant Hank, having just told Marie “I love you,” is a goner seems very real indeed. Instead, it’s Lydia’s brittle inspection of the product Todd’s produced for her, her question “Where’s the blue? The blue color? Does it come later? When it hardens? Am I correct in thinking this should be blue?” She knows where the emotional connection to her in this gang of thugs is, and she’s canny enough to compliment Todd, who judging by his attention to her lipstick stain on a tea mug appears to be harboring a bit of a crush on our anxious meth queenpin. But Lydia’s anxiety is clear. “Blue is our brand,” she explains. “It’s what our buyers pay top dollar for.” Eager to please her, Todd explains that “About the product, I’m really sorry about the color. For a minute or two it got a degree or two too hot,” and tells her “I think I can fix it, and I think I can bring the purity up, too.” He even offers to try to get the buyers off of Lydia’s back, to “ask my uncle to smooth things over with them. If you want.” Her response suggests not just that she thinks she has a better solution, but that Todd’s ardent suggestion is almost laughably not up to the task. “I’ll pass. Thanks,” Lydia tells him with brittle care. “I put a lot of faith in your abilities, Todd. I believe in you. Please do make the cook better. It’s very important to me.”
Breaking Bad has never had the interest in global capitalism that The Wire did: in every sense of the word, from its depiction of Walt’s aquamarine product to its relatively tight focus on a small set of characters, it’s a more jewel-like show. But what began as Walt’s desperate attempt to leave a nest-egg for his family, and turned into a massive wealth-generation enterprise, has always been an interesting reflection on the changing standards for personal success in the modern American economy. Walt started out convinced that he was mostly concerned about security, about a modest standard of prosperity in which Skyler, Walter Junior, and Holly would be able to lead a comfortable but not opulent life after he was gone. But over the course of the show, he became convinced that success meant something more, meant avenging his expulsion from Gray Matter Technologies and giving himself another shot not just at stability and security, but at the extreme wealth that so many aspects of American culture present not as a fantasy but as a baseline for comfort, for self-worth, and even for manhood. Walt’s cancer may be killing his body. But his metastasis of the American Dream has even more surely eaten out his soul.
And where The Wire personified global capitalism, making him a soft-spoken man in a tweedy hat, a small figure capable of enormous, self-interested evil, Breaking Bad has left the forces Lydia controls, and that Walt sees himself as separate from or capable of managing, as he manages everything else, off-screen, and made them more menacing as a result. If the characters of The Wire know they have to genuflect before forces beyond Baltimore’s borders, Walt has always believed that he’s a country unto himself. There’s been a lot of discussion of how Breaking Bad might end, whether through Walt’s humiliation at Hank’s hands, or his death from cancer. But I wonder if it might actually be worse for Walt to be forced back into cooking full-time for someone else’s operation. To be an employee instead of an owner, and not just an employee but a serf in someone else’s vast empire business, and to be a exposed as truly and merely a man who makes extremely powerful drugs that do great harm to other human beings, and who does this as a profession rather than a means to any other end? That’s the most humiliating outcome I can imagine for Walter White.