A year ago, at the end of the first half of Breaking Bad’s fifth season, we learned that Walter managed to extricate himself from the meth business and hang up his porkpie hat. He sat by the pool with his wife and family, entertaining his sister- and brother-in-law, holding court, playing the paterfamilias. Then Hank happens to see Gale’s copy of Leaves Of Grass, the one Walt foolishly keeps in his bathroom, the one inscribed to W.W., and in a flash he realizes that unlike the inscription in Gale’s lab notebook, this one doesn’t stand for Walt Whitman, but for Walter White. Cut to black and to months of anticipation. With this cliffhanger, Vince Gilligan and his creative team set up Hank as Walter’s new archenemy—or maybe, depending which way our sympathies are twisted, Walter as Hank’s.
I’ve written quite a bit over the years about my admiration for the way Breaking Bad handles pacing. Just when you think there’s a lot that needs to happen before the next huge development, the show bypasses all the details and cuts right to the chase, leaving you goggle-eyed and scrambling to retrieve the pieces of your brain in its wake. And just when you think everything’s set up for the inevitable confrontation, the show turns down the burner and takes its own sweet time, making you wait episode after episode for the payoff. That kind of freedom in the way story is advanced and revealed seems to me to be one of Breaking Bad’s key elements of genius. So you can imagine my delight at the way “Blood Money” depicts the aftermath of Hank’s epiphany. Just as we’re settling back to enjoy a few episodes of cat-and-mouse as Hank pieces together the clues and Walt bumbles along in blissful ignorance, Gilligan closes the garage door, punches Walter’s bullshit lies right in the kisser, and brings us to a skidding halt at the brink of Hank’s existential choice.
But before we get there, let’s step through some of the revelations from this terrific hour of television, and this fitting beginning of Walter White’s end. After all the anticipation about how great this was going to be, I’m frankly astounded about how great it is in ways I wasn’t at all imaginative enough to anticipate. We return to the framing sequence that started this season: A noticeably thinner, more hirsute Walt, drives the rustbucket he bought at Denny’s (the one with the machine gun in the trunk) to the suburban White homestead—now fenced off, boarded up, and tagged out, skateboarders shredding in the empty pool. He’s there to retrieve the ricin cigarette he long ago secreted behind an outlet faceplate, and to freak out his erstwhile neighbor Carol. In happier times, back in the story’s present day, he gets a cheery wave from Carol while seeing off Hank and Marie, holding little Holly and making her wave, too: “Goodbye, Unca Hank!”
Hank has begged off the rest of the get-together, claiming he feels sick. And it’s no lie; the overwhelming realization of how Walter has deceived, endangered, and crippled them all blurs Hank’s vision, steals his breath, and leaves him panicked and gasping after running over some poor slob’s mailbox. I love this visceral reaction, born of rage, shame, and vertigo. Hank has devoted himself to bringing down Heisenberg, even when nobody else at the D.E.A. supported him. Remember how appalled he was that Gus Fring, Friend of Law Enforcement, was running an empire under his nose? Take that reality-redefining moment, crank it up to 11, and layer a beat of family intimacy underneath. Suddenly those boxes of evidence tell a whole new story. To the strains of Jim White’s “Wordmule,” Hank peers at the surveillance video of the precursor theft, and the grainy figures now clearly resolve into Walt and Jesse.
Walt may be projecting the illusion he is just a successful car-wash owner (and what do successful car-wash owners do? “They buy more car washes,” Walt suggests to Skyler in the interest of laundering that pile of money twice as fast), but pieces of his veneer keep flaking off. Lydia drives a rental car to his place of business to complain that the purity of her product is down below 70 percent, begging him to come back and right the ship. Jesse orders Saul to get rid of his buyout money, directing the two untouched duffel bags to Mike Ehrmantraut’s granddaughter and Drew Sharp’s parents respectively, fed up and beyond caring that the sudden appearance of bags of money on these people’s doorsteps will reignite suspicion and scrutiny. In a heartbreaking scene, Walt returns the duffel bags to Jesse and assures him that Mike is “perfectly capable of taking care of his own granddaughter.” He says it over and over again. He glares at Jesse and repeats: “I need you to believe me.” Good Lord, Walter. Not only do you have no compunction about lying through your teeth anymore, but you don’t even bother to make it plausible. Nothing’s left but a naked demand for acquiescence.
But there’s another side to Walt’s restful retirement and tiresome re-raveling of loose ends. Like most premature retirees, he’s bored stiff, and as is traditional, he copes by interfering in his wife’s business. Look at how he shows up at the carwash to bug Skyler about his elaborate plan for restructuring the displays to move more high-margin air fresheners. The man always got off on solving problems better than anyone else. Now the only outlets for his talents are penny-ante schemes to move money around, one $14.95 basic wash at a time. (“Please give this to your carwash professional, and have an A-1 day.”)
So when he realizes Leaves Of Grass is missing, connects the dots to Hank’s discomfort, and confirms his suspicions by finding a tracking device on his Chrysler, it’s both terrible and wonderful. Terrible: His secret is out. Wonderful: He has a project. And he feels fully up to the task, all but sneering at Hank for his clumsy use of the same tracking device the two of them planted on Fring’s car. “If you don’t know who I am, maybe your best course of action is to tread lightly,” he warns a shaken, awestruck Hank. Making meth was never what Heisenberg was all about. Having an enemy to crush, whether it be in business or in the struggle to survive—that’s the essence of Walt’s alter ego. And he seems to grow a foot taller when he’s able to set that side of himself free.
Now it’s Hank’s move, and how he plays it will depend on where his priorities lie. Justice? Walter argues cancer will take care of that before the law can. Family? The fragile peace they’ve achieved is built on death and deceit, but it still might be better than the alternative. Vengeance? Hank has been crippled and unmanned, quite literally, by Walt’s quest for power. He’s always fixated on bringing down Heisenberg as the key to reclaiming his self. Maybe we’re going to find out if that project is indeed the cure for his wounded psyche…which would bring him full-tilt up against Walt’s project to mow down anything that threatens him. There doesn’t seem to be a way for both of them to win. But I can think of plenty of ways both of them could lose.
- A microscale counterpoint to the quick pace of the Hank storyline: The horror-movie ominous, glacial push-in to the bathroom door, where after an agonizing wait, Hank emerges stunned and transformed.
- As if there weren’t already enough riches in this hour, we also get a long fanfic conversation between Badger and Skinny Pete about how Scotty helps Chekov cheat in a pie-eating contest. I mean, space pie-eating contest. But on a more serious note, their conversation about how the transporter basically makes a color copy of you fits in with Breaking Bad’s thematic undercurrent of forgery, replication, and knock-offs. I can’t help but wonder what Jesse or Walter will be making a faux version of. Mike Ehrmantraut, maybe?
- Jesse is taking Walter’s sarcastic “blood money” comment to heart. After his attempt to leave the duffel bags at Saul’s office falls through, he conceives of an even more desperate disposal plan: give away $10,000 bundles to homeless people, and throw them into yards on the wrong side of town like a demented newsboy. While Walter slogs through the process of washing the cash through air fresheners and energy shots, Jesse just flings it out of his life.
- Walt hasn’t told anybody he’s back on chemo, until he reveals the secret to Hank. And he throws up in the same toilet where Hank broke down upon finding Gale’s inscription. Knowledge eats away at your insides on this show, doesn’t it?
- Huell reluctantly bumps Jesse up to the front of Saul’s queue when he sees the pack of cigarettes from which he lifted the ricin. There’s no indication that Jesse is doing this deliberately; he still thinks he’s the one who lost the fake cig. But it’s an indication that Saul’s organization might be more frightened about what Jesse knows about conspiracies to poison children than about what he knows about drug operations.
- Hank’s first instinct after lashing out at Walter personally is to try to safeguard Walter’s family. “Have Skyler bring the kids here, then we’ll talk,” he proposes. Imagine the depth of his rage when he realizes Skyler is now Walter’s partner, meaning he might need protection from her rather than the other way around.
- “Yeah, like you said. He’s alive.”