I’ve been thinking a lot about the season finale of Breaking Bad over the past week, and in a way, I’m glad the episode aired while I was on vacation so I had time to consider it. I think I’ve liked a lot of this season more than some viewers have, in part because it’s borne out some of my theories about Walter White’s core personality. But there’s a major question that this episode of Breaking Bad didn’t answer for me, and I think it’s a problem for this season as a whole: why does Walt decide to stop cooking meth?
There are a number of possibilities here: that he’s bowed to Skyler’s reasoning, that in that pile of money, he’s finally found satisfaction, that having gotten the meth business running smoothly and efficiently, he’s no longer attracted to or challenged by the prospect of perfecting his operation. That, or it’s possible that he’s lying, and he intends to continue cooking.
But that decision, which comes at the end of yet another jaunty cooking-and-distributing montage (though the first that really moves time forward significantly) invalidates much of the emotional heft that the season had been building prior to this point. If he’s able to stop cooking so easily, was Walt lying to Jesse when he invoked his dream of a well-run meth empire, to Mike’s connections when he invoked himself as Classic Coke? If Walt is willing to take Skyler’s judgement of a situation seriously, and to take it on the subject around which he’s build his identity, what happened to change the dynamic between them? It’s true that up until the montage, Breaking Bad had essentially covered a year in time, and that it’s possible many things in the White household could have changed during the period of time represented by the montage. But simply jumping forward and giving us a very new set of conditions in the White household was a decision that both forfeited substantial dramatic tension, and left unresolved the question of where Walt’s identity currently truly lies.
It’s just a shame to me to give Skyler her shattering confrontation with Walt, to see her tell him “I don’t have any of your magic, Walt, I’m a coward. I can’t go to the police, I can’t stop laundering your money. I can’t keep you out of the house, I can’t even keep you out of my bed. All I can do is wait. It’s the only good option…For the cancer to come back” — and then to restore tranquility to the White household so easily, without exploring whether she embraced a kind of moral compromise and showed steel that gave her credibility in Walter’s eyes, or whether something happened to make him want his family back badly enough to return to himself. I want to know what’s happened to Walt himself in this time, to know if success has calmed and healed the scars left behind by Grey Matter, if he’s found his way back to an identity that isn’t based primarily in dominance and manipulation.
I agree with what seems to be the consensus view, that Breaking Bad needs for Hank to figure out Walt, for the good, dogged, unbrilliant, crude man to crack the sophisticated, clever, arrogant genius. But while that basic structure for the show’s finale season is important, it also matters what condition Walt’s soul is in when Hank cracks him. If he’s Heisenberg, still confident and arrogant, Walt’s moral reckoning will involve the utter dismantling of his identity. But if Walt’s grappling towards decency, his reaping of the whirlwind will involve different kinds of pain, shame, and disbelief. If it’s to be the former, we need to know how Skyler came to be able to live with him, to laugh through dinner with Hank and Marie, to enjoy watching her children play together. If it’s the latter, we need to know how Walt found his way to a third self, neither the emasculated Mr. White nor the dominating Heisenberg. I hope the final eight episodes of Breaking Bad answer those questions. I’d hate to think that “Crystal Blue Persuasion” is supposed to cover both three months and these critical bits of character development.