Be warned: Spoilers for the latest episode of “Breaking Bad” appear below.
“I don’t even know who I’m talking to.”
When “Breaking Bad” left the airwaves last September, the series had laid out a clear blueprint for what would play out over at least some of the show’s final episodes. Walter White (Bryan Cranston) had finally achieved dominion over his meth business before seemingly walking away from it all. But his brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris), an agent with the Drug Enforcement Administration who had unknowingly been chasing Walt for years, finally stumbled upon evidence that pointed him in the right direction.
The final eight episodes would have to show us this cat-and-mouse game. How quickly would Hank put it all together? How long before he began investigating Walt, a miasmatic presence who infects everyone and everything he touches? How long before Walt began to wonder what Hank knew? How many episodes would show us this slow dance escalating into out-and-out conflict?
The answer, as it turns out, is just one, because like its central character, “Breaking Bad” has a lot of things left to do and very little time to do them.
By the end of the episode (technically the beginning of the second half of the fifth season, though this feels in anticipation and execution more like a season premiere), Walt and Hank are having it out in Hank’s garage. The lawman has combed through the crimes connected to “Heisenberg” over the course of the show, now possessed of the Rosetta stone (Walt’s involvement) that allows him to see the entire picture. And prideful, egotistical Walt, who realized that Hank had figured something out, opted to just ask about the tracking device on his car rather than waiting to see Hank’s next move.
This marvelous, electric confrontation ends on an uncertain note. Walt never comes right out and admits that Hank is right, while Hank (as the quote at the top of this post suggests) still can’t quite fathom Walt’s true identity and character.
“Nothing can change what we’ve done. But now that’s over. You’re out and so am I.”
And it capped a tremendous episode of “Breaking Bad,” one that smoothly continued or paid off beats established during the first half of Season Five while laying the groundwork for the next two months. Walt is, as he told the eternally under-appreciated Skyler (played by Anna Gunn, who finally left the under-appreciated label behind with Emmy nominations last year and this year), out of the drug game.
Jesse (Aaron Paul) remains a guilt-ridden mess, haunted by the murder of a child and the likely murder of a friend, unable to even enjoy the entertainment provided by his friends Badger and Skinny Pete (the show’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, if Rosencrantz and Guildenstern got high and discussed “Star Trek” fan fiction, which they probably would if “Hamlet” were written today). As the show’s moral lodestar, Jesse seeks to rid himself of the blood money that gives the episode its title, and when he can’t give it to relatives of the deceased he simply throws it onto people’s homes and lawns, seeking to cast off the sins that weigh on him and the sins that Walt simply does not contemplate.
Why did Walt — who declared himself in “the empire business” last year — finally walk away? As we learn midway through this episode, and as many fans surmised last year, his cancer has returned. He is, as he was at the show’s inception, a dying man. But whereas the cancer’s initial arrival sparked his move into the drug business, its recurrence seemed to have pushed him in the opposite direction. One by one, his reasons for cooking meth have been peeled away over the course of the show, but nothing deterred him from what he seemed to feel was his destiny. Now, with no future and no empire to protect, he seems to have finally found peace within his family and his normal life.
Of course, we know this cannot last. The episode begins with a haunting flash-forward, as did last year’s fifth season premiere, showing a bearded and heavily armed Walt some months hence. This opening sequence gives us much more information about what looms for him: His house is boarded up, the city has fenced off his property, the home is stripped bare and the word “Heisenberg” is spray-painted on the living room wall.
Clearly, the word gets out about Walter White. His neighbor Carol stares at him with terror and drops her groceries, spilling out her oranges, which have symbolized looming death since ”The Godfather.” The oranges seem almost besides the point, though, since Walt’s eventual demise has been embedded in the show from the very beginning, and since Walt’s decision to begin cooking crystal meth has resulted in nothing but death and destruction.
We know death is coming. We know that Walt and Hank are finally face to face, with Hank trying to wrap his brain around the fact that his brother-in-law is the monster he sought all along. And we know that at some point down the line, Walt will arm himself with a machine gun and a vial of ricin. We just don’t know what will bring us to that moment, nor do we know how quickly the show will bring us there.