This post discusses the August 11 episode of Breaking Bad.
In this ninth episode of Breaking Bad’s final season, it’s often hard to see Walt directly. Hank, after his ill-fated browse through Leaves of Grass walks down stairs to meet his brother-in-law newly enlightened, but before the speak, Hank can’t help but see Walt in the warm light of an Albuquerque afternoon, his image gentled both by his young daughter in his arms, and the gauzy curtain that falls between the two men. The juxtaposition between that image and what Hank believes to be the reality, the glimpse he’s caught of what’s really behind curtains that remained opaque to him for so long, is enough to throw the rest of the world out of focus for Hank, who like Tony Soprano before him, has a panic attack.
When Walt arrives at Jesse’s door, his former partner denies him even eye contact, looking away from the one who knocks, seating himself at the very edge of the futon so he’ll be as far away from Walt as possible. When Walt tells Jesse he’s out, Jesse’s willing to look at him for a moment, but his gaze is blank, calculating, and he looks away again when Walt gives him the timeline of his exit from the meth business, which is rather later than Jesse’s own.
In bed that night, Skyler’s turned away from him again, though more in disinterest than in the fear she showed in earlier seasons. When she confronts Lydia at the car wash, telling Lydia “Get out of here. Now. Never come back here. Do you understand me? Go,” Skyler isn’t looking to Walt for reassurance or approval. Instead, he’s a small, out of focus figure standing behind her, reduced to the role he had at the beginning of the show.
Walt’s arrival at Hank’s house begins with Hanks’ look away, his aversion of his gaze giving him a chance to gather up his papers and to compose himself, as well as to delay the moment when his eyes and Walt’s must meet. When they do, the focus is as much on Hank’s gaze as it is on Walt’s, the former’s sparkling clearly, the latter’s pinched with effort. Walt’s warning to Hank that “If that’s true, if you don’t know who I am, then maybe your best course would be to tread lightly,” may give his brother-in-law pause. But Hank isn’t afraid to look Walt full in the face, where so many other people, so damaged by Walt, can only turn away and take their knowledge with them.
Carol, the neighbor who thought she’d seen all there was to see when the Whites appeared happy, barely gave him a glance. But on his return to the ruined home next door to her, she can’t stop looking at him, her groceries falling from her hands as if his gaze has turned her to stone.
In the sketch of Heisenberg that gave Hank so much pause when he pulled it from a file, Walt’s eyes are covered by sunglasses, rendering him remote and unknownable. But when Walt, in the flash forward, catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror of his abandoned and ruined house, his eyes are replaced by smears of flesh in the flawed glass, giving us an image of a man who can’t see himself at all, if he ever could.
Like Hank and Carol, we’ve been mesmerized by Walter White for years now, though we’ve been more knowing, and our fascination has been to less directly moral ends. Unlike them we know the depth of Walt’s humiliation over Grey Matter, his pleasure in the identity he crafted for himself and the money he’s made. And where they have been deceived, we have, at times, been complicit, seeing what’s before us, what Walt’s told us and himself, and slowly separating our view of Walt from his perception of himself.
It’s fitting that when Hank confronts Walt, Walt tries to diffuse his anger with the excuse he gave himself, and us, so long ago, and that was more convincing when Walt’s only intention was to be a small-scale entrant into the meth business — even with the harm that business causes — rather than to enter into the empire industry. “These wild accusations, they could destroy our family,” Walt tells his brother-in-law.
But where the distance of fiction and our lack of professional and moral obligations lulled us, Hank immediately snaps back “I don’t give a shit about family.” Walt’s self-justification was never particularly convincing, given that he might have found help in other ways if he could have been humble enough to take it. But Hank’s quick and clear response is a reminder of how silly and self-deceiving Walt was even before Skyler felt moved to “protect this family from the man who protects this family.”
And if Hank’s response to Walt’s true acts is immediate and professional, Jesse, who was there at the beginning of Walt’s criminal career, is also acting with a clear moral purpose now. Jesse speaks remarkably few words in this episode: names, addresses, figures to Saul, a bitten-off rebuke to Walt’s reassurance that Mike is alive and well and a refusal to grant the plea in Walt’s repeated insistence that “I need you to believe me.”
But his eyes tell us everything we need to know. There’s his inability to believe Badger and Skinny Pete’s Star Trek fantasies, really, his disconnection from the simpler world his friends have continued to reside in. There’s an almost nauseating contempt when Saul asks him “You and Mike, you been in touch?” — Jesse may have been stupid or willfully blind once, but he is no longer. There’s revulsion and agony when Walt tells him reassuringly “This is your money! You’ve earned it!” the exact wrong argument to make if he wanted to pull Jesse back into the fold. And when he tells a homeless man, who’s so conditioned to rejection that he walked away from Jesse’s car without even waiting for a verbal response, to accept a sheaf of bills, begging him “Here. Take it. Go ahead. Just take it. Take it. Yeah,” there is a spark of painful hope there.
Jesse is a murderer now, and when we met him, he was already a minor criminal, a trial to his parents, an uncurious lout. But now, his face is the one that’s reflected clearly in the glass of his coffee table, even under crumbs of weed and the skittering legs of a cockroach. If Jesse can see himself all too clearly, we can do him the courtesy of bearing witness to the decency that still lingers in him, the man he might have been had Walter White not seized upon him.
It’s a consolation, of sorts, for the fact that we’re giving Walter White what he always wanted him: our attention, and maybe even our awe at his genius. Everyone else may have turned away from him at some point, their rejection a kind of recompense for their time in ignorance of his bad acts, the kindnesses and respect they gave him when they were deceived or complicit. In the end, questions of Walter White’s true self are academic to them. But we’ve watched him this far. Whether Walter White’s self-knowledge catches up to our understanding of him may be the way the show renders its final verdict on Walt, and the name that haunts the home he left behind in yellow letters spraypainted on a wall, not entirely visible in the darkness.