Last week, Walter White’s illusions of salvaging his family life were violently stripped away. This week, the target of Breaking Bad’s relentless assault on its main character is even more personal: the last vestige of his power. Actually, it’s even worse that that. Stranding him in a cabin deep in the New Hampshire woods with a barrel full of money he can’t get to the people who need it, the people for whom he supposedly accumulated it, the show mocks his vain confidence that he can always get things done, with his wits or with his cash.
In the basement of the vacuum cleaner repair store, he advances menacingly on Saul to thwart the dissolution of their partnership. But his snarl about being the only one who gets to say when they’re through ends in a coughing fit that drives him to his knees. The eight-mile road from his cabin to the nearest two-bit town is the next agent of his defeat; “tomorrow,” he promises himself, and then of course we cut to months of tomorrows later, without him having set a foot outside his fence. When the vacuum guy (played with perfect matter-of-fact professionalism by Robert Forster) shows up to bring him groceries, the Albuquerque papers, and an IV bag of drugs, Walter is a pitiful shell. He offers Forster $10,000 for two hours of his company and gets only one. When given the chance to cut the cards for their poker game, he declines. No more control; not even any more illusions of it.
Todd VanDerWerff wrote an article for Salon that ran earlier today about Walter’s belief that the world owes him what he wants because of who he is. If we put tonight’s storylines about Walter, Jesse, and Todd side by side, we see three different responses to the human propensity to make and use tools. Walter has never respected his tools. He respects the science, sure, but that’s not a tool; that’s knowledge in his head, something that he can own and wield almost like magic. When he uses other people as tools, he fails to recognize their contribution to the victory he claims as his alone, not to mention the price they pay for his manipulation. Tonight, he finds himself with no tools at hand, no one he can use, and he is helpless. His money is meaningless without someone who will allow themselves to be bought. And of course, he’s all out of lies. When Forster asks whether Walter would believe him if he promised to get the barrel to his family after the cancer takes him, he’s asking whether Walter is willing to lie to himself. The answer is no.
Jesse’s revolt against Walter was a response to his mentor’s repeated, shocking, obtuse betrayals. But it was also a revolt against being someone else’s tool—making it all the more dreadful when he ended up as Hank’s tool in a war against his brother-in-law, and then as Todd’s tool, chained up in another superlab. When he breaks out tonight, it’s the most thrilling moment we’ve been allowed to share with him in months. For a moment, it seems that Todd has underestimated him, and that Jesse has learned from Walter the art of improvisation with whatever is at hand (in this case, the paper clip on the picture of Andrea and Brock). Captured after a horribly fleeting taste of freedom, Jesse refuses to cook anymore… but then he’s reminded, brutally, that caring about something inevitably allows those who care about nothing but themselves to reduce you to a mere tool hanging in their workshop.
Todd is the only one who doesn’t mind being someone else’s tool. He eagerly adopted the role when the Heisenberg organization took him on. And now, he promises those for whom he works exactly what they most want; he is the tool, he asserts, that can get it for them. More money for Uncle Jack (“No matter how many millions you got, how do you turn your back on more?” he asks baldly). More money for Lydia (“I think we’re kind of mutually good,” he suggests before picking lint off her back like a primate grooming its mate). For Todd, being a tool is a means to an end, and he’s happy to play the role. It’s his in. Pretty soon, he’s exactly where he wants to be. Just imagine if Walter White had been self-effacing enough to play it that way with Gus or Mike instead of blustering, plotting, and provoking open warfare.
When Walter finally gets an idea about who might still be a tool he can use, his miscalculation is utterly tragic. Surely with the passage of months, and the reduced situation in which Skyler finds herself (house up for auction, working as a taxi dispatcher, facing legal woes that have her lawyer looking like a deer in the headlights, according to Forster), Walt Jr. will accept his money and persuade his friend Lewis not to ask questions. There’s even a glimmer of hope that he’s right; unlike Skyler, Walt Jr. is still using the White family name. But Walter has forgotten how he lost his son. “Things happened that I never intended,” he tries to explain on the phone, only to be met with Flynn’s decidedly non-abstract accusations. And that’s the last straw, it seems. He did it all for them, and they have rejected him, and there’s no way for him to give them the benefits. “It can’t all be for nothing,” he pleads with his son. But it is, apparently. So he tells the DEA where he is and sits down to have one last really excellent drink.
And that’s when we find out what he has not yet lost: his pride. The name Walter White still means something; the Heisenberg porkpie hat, which seemed to lose its mojo earlier in the episode when it couldn’t help him face the cold, still represents a legacy of accomplishment Walter refuses to have dismissed. When he sees Gretchen and Elliot Schwarz answering Charlie Rose’s probing about their donation to a drug treatment organization (is it an attempt to whitewash Grey Matter’s association with a “meth kingpin,” its co-founder?) by claiming that Walter did nothing to build the company but invent its name, everything changes. He may not be able to help his family or prop up his failing health or even spend the money that’s in that looming, accusatory barrel. But he can defend his name against the charge that a name is all he is. He can demand respect for the science he owns and that he alone (he believes) can wield.
Maybe that was always his only mission. Maybe he’s only just now woken up from the lie about family that he talked himself into. Alone at last, he finds that it’s not that he’s lost everything. It’s that nothing is holding him back.
- I hope all of you are aware of the opportunity to win a trip to the finale party in Los Angeles and hang with the show’s V.I.P.s, offered by the A.V. Club and sponsor Bushmills. All the details are here. I’m pulling for you, especially if you’ll promise to take me as your +1.
- Todd scares the hell out of Skyler (and the audience) by appearing in Baby Holly’s nursery with henchmen in black ski masks and extracting a promise that she won’t mention Lydia, whom she met that one time at the car wash, to the cops. Later he wheedles Lydia into accepting this as a tolerable level of risk, as opposed to a more permanent solution, which she would no doubt prefer. I can’t believe that’s really respect for Walter or scruples about more murders, especially not after he guns down Andrea with her son sleeping in the house behind him, just to teach Jesse a lesson about how much more he can be hurt. And I’m terrified to find out why he thinks the White family might still be useful to his ambitions.
- Walt rides in an empty propane tanker to his new life in the Granite State, which means an awesome visual of him tumbling out of a giant barrel when he gets there.
- Before Todd meets Lydia (at the same coffee shop where Lydia used to meet Walter to exchange briefcases full of money), he’s drinking a mug of tea. I hope it’s chamomille with soy milk and extra stevia, because otherwise he’s doing it wrong.
- Walter’s new home has a propane generator, a TV with no reception, two DVD’s of Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium, and a wood stove that should keep the place nice and warm. “Plus,” Foster mentions, “you can cook on it.”
- Todd brings Jesse Ben & Jerry’s (“you’re gonna spoil him,” one of his gang opines) for cooking up a 96 percent pure batch: “peanut butter cup and [Stephen Colbert’s] Americone Dream.”
- “If you look around, it’s kinda beautiful,” Forster tells Walter. In vain, of course. Has Walter ever enjoyed anything but his own power since the moment he started down this road? Only Baby Holly seems to be able to make him see the beauty in something outside himself and his own visions of grandeur.
- “I’d like to speak to the agent in charge of the Walter White investigation.” “May I ask who’s calling?” “...Walter White?”