“When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer.”—Hans Gruber in Die Hard*
Of all the ways Walter White would handle finally becoming the undisputed master of the meth trade, with no one to gainsay him, the one portrayed in this episode is the most tragic. I’ve been writing for weeks about the foolishness and hubris of his insistence on absolute authority. If I had been right in any conventional way, the death of Mike would have been the moment things started to fall apart. After all, there were suddenly double digits of additional loose ends to tie up, and the guy who had been handling it was gone. If Walt truly had risen above his ability, the unravelling would have begun with Hank’s stable full of witnesses ready to cut deals and give up everything they knew.
But I’ve underestimated Walt. Not his ruthlessness, but his efficiency—and efficacy. Having brought Todd into the inner circle, he now makes use of the prison connections of Todd’s uncle to organize (and pay for) an audacious synchronized murder spree across multiple prisons, with the cooperation of dozens of guards and inmates. In two minutes, timed on that birthday watch, everyone with firsthand knowledge of the Fring operation’s inner workings is eliminated.
Well, except one. And because of that one, the price is a bit higher than Walt expects. When he meets with Lydia to get the names, she first extracts from him a handshake deal to use her (and her far-flung Madrigal network, “46,000 employees across 15 divisions” as she describes it when he wonders about the DEA heat) as the new distribution arm for the Heisenberg blue. Turns out that the Czech Republic is full of meth-heads ready to have their hair blown back by a product whose purity they’ve never experienced, and Madrigal has the complex supply chains to get it to them. When she hands over the nine names and walks away, Walt looks disappointed; the ricin vial he’d been ready to use to tie up the Lydia loose end has to go back behind the outlet. He’s got a new partner.
Not just disappointed, though. Tired. As Heisenberg puts back on his hat and heads back to work, he already looks like a man who has discovered that the prize he worked for isn’t what he imagined. It doesn’t feel like freedom. In fact, it’s a job, and like all jobs, it’s a never-ending treadmill. To the tune of Tommy James and the Shondells’ delicate “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” as an aerial shot shows us tented home after tented home dotting the suburban landscape right up to the desert’s edge, Walt cooks, weighs, divvies up cash, sinks bags of meth in barrels of goop, meets Lydia’s guy, gets loose cash in a straw bag, bundles it, drops it off at the car wash hidden in stacks of soda cans, lathers, rinses, repeats. The barrels fly off to the Czech Republic, cash comes back. Walt’s the boss and the cook and one of only two remaining employees of the operation. He’s not having any fun. He’s beat.
So when Skyler takes him to a storage unit and shows him a hot-tub-sized pile of cash covered with a sheet—cash she says she couldn’t keep up with even to count, much less launder; “more money than we could spend in ten lifetimes”—he’s ready to hear the message. The endless duplication of effort, all to feed the bottomless appetite of an invisible overseas market, has taken its toll. In the end, being the kingpin is just another grind.
So, it would seem, is Skyler’s self-appointed position of enemy within. After three months of visiting the kids at Marie and Hank’s place, she’s ready to seize the opening that Hank’s exhaustion presents to offer a permanent peace treaty. Take the giant pile of money, get out of the meth business, and the kids can come back home so their old life can resume. Walt was too good at what he set out to do. He built the business he dreamed of, but it didn’t give him the sense of power and freedom he had expected. Just like that, he’s ready to stop playing games and readjust his dreams back to what he originally wanted. Family. Security. Peace.
When he shows up at Jesse’s doorstep and starts reminiscing about the Bounder, their crappy RV with the squealing power steering belt and stuck gas gauge and engine that threatened to die at every red light (“We had money… why’d we have to have the world’s shittiest RV?” Jesse asks pointedly; “Inertia?” Walt guesses, revealing exactly what’s been on his mind since Skyler made her move), we’re waiting for Walter to reveal what he wants and angle the nostalgic conversation into a reestablished relationship for some ulterior motive. But no. It’s nothing more than what it seems on the surface. A brief look back at a time when the dangers and opportunities were both terrifyingly real, and when both of them felt alive to the moment. Walt leaves behind Jesse’s buyout money in two duffel bags, and Jesse collapses, flinging away the gun he had retrieved in case Walter had anything else in mind. Finally, he’s really out.
What do we want out of our jobs? When Walter visits his kids after the jailhouse massacres, he runs into Hank after a truly shitty day at the DEA. The Fring case has collapsed again, and Hank tosses back drinks, stares into space, and remembers the job he once had marking lumber for loggers. He hated it at the time because it never ended; it was the same thing, day after day. Now, he thinks, “I should have enjoyed it more… tagging trees is a lot better than chasing monsters.” Maybe Walter thinks he can give Hank a gift, too, by returning his job to the daily routine as the blue meth gets whisked far out of the district office’s jurisdiction, and then finally hanging up his Heisenberg hat for good. The Whites reunite under one roof. Marie and Hank can stop being surrogate parents. More photo ops for Hank, less grisly unfinished business. Everybody wins.
The most tragic outcome, it turns out, is not that the world comes apart when you’re at the top. It’s that the soft landing you’ve engineered, after everything has been taken care of and made right, refuses to materialize. It’s that you are your own loose end. It’s not the hubris of the moment that is Walt’s undoing, but the hubris of months ago, when with a chuckle he kept Gale’s copy of Leaves Of Grass as a souvenir. And when Hank idly picks it up in the Whites’ bathroom, a previously unimaginable scene of domestic contentment playing outside by the pool, he sees it all in a flash. W.W.—”Woodrow Wilson? Willy Wonka? Walter White?” Hank asked Walter while they were looking over Gale’s notebooks in “Bullet Points.” “You got me,” Walter joked. He didn’t then. But now he does.
- *This quotation is a paraphrase of Plutarch or perhaps John Calvin, it appears, missing the point of the original passage, which was that Alexander was upset he could not conquer any of the other worlds in the multiverse.
- The title refers to a short Whitman poem that insists death be included in the celebration of the voyage of the soul.
- Todd is an obedient, useful, but ultimately uninspiring partner. “Pretty cool the way they do that, turn a car into a cube,” he observes, while assuring Walter that Mike’s car has been crushed at Old Joe’s junkyard. Not a “yo” or “bitch” to be found.
- Walt tracks a fly in the Vamonos office while waiting for Todd to show. That’s been a symbol of contamination and obsession on this show. Now it’s the one little thing you can’t swat down.
- Kevin Rankin plays one of Todd’s uncle’s associates, which counts as a Friday Night Lights reunion of sorts (he played Jason Street’s murderball buddy Herc).
- Benign chemistry topics surround Walter as he and Skyler entertain on the pool deck: Hank is thinking about brewing up some beer, Marie is taking prenatal vitamins to make her hair shinier, and Flynn has to be careful not to get sunscreen on Holly’s fingers where she might ingest it.
- Mike is “gone,” Walter tells Jesse, letting him believe that the disappearing act didn’t end in a barrel. Is that vacuum cleaner repair card still somewhere in Walter’s pocket? That giant pile of money is enough to buy them that new life now. As soon as they realize they’re going to need it.