Breaking Bad Postmortem: "This Was Walter White Hitting Bottom"
by Adam Bryant
Bryan Cranston, Breaking Bad
[WARNING: The following story contains spoilers from Sunday's episode of Breaking Bad. Read at your own risk.]
On Sunday’s episode of Breaking Bad, Walter White was a dead man walking — and not just because he’s a wanted criminal.
Although Walt (Bryan Cranston) makes his escape to a snowy cabin in New Hampshire via Saul’s (Bob Odenkirk) “vacuum repair guy” (Robert Forster), he slowly becomes more and more frail as his cancer takes a firmer grasp. Despite Walt’s desire at the beginning of the episode to hire hit men to kill Jack (Michael Bowen) and his crew, Walt soon realizes he no longer has the fight in him. Soon enough, Saul’s guy is giving Walt makeshift chemotherapy, and Walt is paying him $10,000 just to stay and talk for an hour.
While Breaking Bad reached new heights by winning its first Emmy for best drama series Sunday night, the show’s main character hit rock bottom. After a final failed attempt to send his family some money, Walt calls the DEA, seemingly giving them his location in an act of surrender. But before the local cops arrive, Walt sees his former business partners Gretchen and Elliot on TV discussing their now-fugitive former partner. And as they belittle Walt’s contributions to their billion-dollar company, Heisenberg rears his ugly head one last time. As the cops bust into the bar, Walt has disappeared, no doubt destined to return to Albuquerque armed with a machine gun and his ricin capsule.
How much fight does Walt have left? And can an equally broken Jesse (Aaron Paul) recover from the tragedy of watching Todd (Jesse Plemons) shoot Andrea (Emily Rios) after Jesse tried to escape? TVGuide.com turned to “Granite State” writer and director Peter Gould to dissect the series’ penultimate episode.
Given all the huge things that happened in “Ozymandias,” what were your goals going into this penultimate episode?
Peter Gould: This show is all about consequences. Certainly we didn’t feel we were finished with the last episode because there were still all these huge dramatic questions left in the show: What happens to Walt? What happens to Jesse? What happens to what’s left of the White family? And also the big question of the show is: When does Walt see who he really is? When does Walt get insight into what he’s done? And the answer we always came up with was, “Well that’s the end of the series. Once he could look in the mirror and truly see who he is, that’s the end of the show.” I felt really privileged to do this episode because this was Walter White hitting bottom — being as pathetic as that character could get.
But he doesn’t start out that way! He has all those plans to kill Jack’s crew and get back his money, even when Saul is telling him the smart thing to do is turn himself in. Why won’t Walt listen?
Gould: Walt [wants] to defend his money. … At this point, this money is the only reason he can cling to for all the terrible decisions he’s made, all the awful consequences. Ultimately the only reason he’s still alive is what’s in that one black barrel. That is the whole universe to him. There are a whole host of other reasons he doesn’t want to die in prison. He doesn’t want to go through what he’d have to go through and give the system and Hank that kind of win.
But Walt’s not exactly Heisenberg in this episode. He can’t intimidate Saul without going into a coughing fit and once he gets to New Hampshire, he gets even weaker.
Gould: What he’s not willing to face is he’s lost his mojo. We always talk about Heisenberg, but it seems like Heisenberg may have died when Hank did. This is a guy who’s now alone. He’s lost whatever that crazy energy was that allowed him to do these things and always had him bouncing back. He’s lost his self-confidence really. He thinks, “What am I going to do next? Am I really going to hire a bunch of hit men? Suddenly he’s seeing that everything he’s trying to do, all his great schemes, have completely backfired. That’s the ultimate torture. There’s that line Robert Forster says, “This could be a great place for a man to sit and think.” That might be the ultimate torture for Walter White.
Obviously, Walt’s cancer plays a big part in his decline. Do you think his health issues are causing these reflections about what he’s done or is it the other way around?
Gould: When you’re emotionally hurt, your energy is low, and that’s when the illness gets worse. In a weird way, his body and the cancer are giving him away at that point. He’s trying to arouse himself, but his soul isn’t in it and the cancer is using the opportunity to eat away at him. Maybe he was running on adrenaline before that.
Walt finally musters the strength to reach out to Walt Jr. with the hope of sending some money. But he’s just trying to keep this “all for family” lie to himself alive, right?
Gould: Absolutely. At the beginning of the episode he says he’s going to get all the money back from Jack. It’s all going to his family. And now if he can just sneak this one box of cash, some good will come of this before he dies. He’s in denial. I think this was his last desperate attempt at doing the impossible, how do you give your drug millions to people who don’t want them? It’s an impossible problem. He’s trying to get away with something and once his son knows what he is, he’s never going to be able to.
Walt then calls the DEA to surrender. But he sees Gretchen and Elliot on Charlie Rose. Even though Walt’s cancer always seemed to be the catalyst for his descent, it seems the Gray Matter debacle might be the true root of his evil.
Gould: I think that’s what the whole episode is about. In a weird way, Walt comes to a dead end in this episode and something happens in that moment and he sees that he maybe has another move left. There’s an awful lot that’s happening in that moment. That’s a big moment for the series, and I think all the implications of that moment are going to surprise most of our viewers.
It seems to wake the “Say my name” side of Heisenberg. He’s a man driven by ego and his need to feel significant.
Gould: You used a great word: significance. He wants his life to have meaning and … that’s been something that’s driven him all the way through because he knows he’s going to die. Now, he’s looking back at all the mistakes he made, and does he take responsibility for them?
That music cue was killer!
Gould: That’s the first time we’ve ever used the Breaking Bad theme in the body of the show and it’s something [composer Dave Porter] and I discussed. In this moment, he’s made his complete journey to who he’s going to be. He’s no longer a guy shifting between Walter White and Heisenberg. He’s one guy.
It doesn’t seem Todd has learned anything from his time Walt. He even says what could also be Walt’s motto: “No matter how much you got, how do you turn your back on more?”
Gould: That is Walt’s guiding philosophy. He keeps moving the goal post for himself. The very first episode that I wrote in Season 1, Jesse says, “How much money do you need ?” and Walt says, “More.” He’s had variations on that answer ever since because the truth is what Walt really values more than anything is forward motion. But is Todd really greedy? I think Uncle Jack has it right: With Todd it’s really all about Lydia. In a weird way it’s an interesting contrast. Uncle Jack has all the money in the world, so why bother cooking meth? Walter White would never say that. It would never be enough for Walt. These evil guys, at least there’s a limitation that Walt hasn’t had in the past.
And then Todd shoots Andrea in front of Jesse. How much more punishment can you guys pile on this guy?
Gould: The way Aaron played that agony makes me realize Jesse is a broken person. He’s like someone who’s in a concentration camp. He truly is in hell right now. The question is does he have the will to live at this point? Well, he has to live because of Brock.
Is that what drives Jesse in the finale? Is he, like Walt, weighing his responsibility for all the destruction he’s helped create?
Gould: The Jesse we know takes responsibility, maybe even too much. Walt is willing to forgive himself for anything, but Jesse never forgives himself. We’ve seen him do terrible things. We know he’s suffering for them, so we’re more likely to forgive him. It’s a little ambiguous because we don’t know what Walt is up to at the end of the episode. But we do know that Jesse is trapped. He always wants to do the right thing, and there’s no right thing.
Breaking Bad‘s series finale airs Sunday at 9/8c on AMC. How do you think it will all end?