"Breaking Bad" season premiere: Walt's destruction foretold

An empty swimming pool shows how far Walt may fall on "Breaking Bad" -- but how will he get there?

Published August 12, 2013 5:00AM (EDT)

                   (Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)
(Salon/Benjamin Wheelock)

The swimming pool. It’s the first thing we see in the episode that kicks off the final chapter of “Breaking Bad.” Only the pool -- that frequently showcased pseudo-oasis in the White family backyard whose tranquility has previously been broken by mangled pink teddy bears and Skyler White plunging literally and metaphorically off her own deep end -- doesn’t look like a pool. It’s empty, nothing now but hot, scuffed pavement that serves as a makeshift skate park for Albuquerque’s modern-day equivalent of the Z-boys.

The implication of this episode-opening flash-forward -- a flash-forward that appears to take place shortly after Walter White walked out of a Denny’s in last year’s “Live Free or Die” -- is that the life Walt got into the crystal-blue-persuasion business to maintain is now completely destroyed. Or rather, it will be by the time Walt reaches his 52nd birthday. With this second glimpse of the future, Vince Gilligan and the “Breaking Bad” writers have again given us a sense of where this antiheroic saga is headed as it hurtles toward its simultaneously anticipated and dreaded ending. We know it’s going somewhere bleak and scary, where it's not just the pool that's barren -- it's the entire, once modestly cozy White household. That place isn’t just empty, it looks like a one-time crime scene, aggressively ransacked within, fenced-off outside and undoubtedly destroying the property values for Carol -- the petrified next-door neighbor who drops her groceries in shock at the sight of Walt -- and anyone else unfortunate enough to live on Negra Arroyo Lane. There is some good news for house hunters interested in eventually purchasing that charming three-bedroom rambler, though: the yellow, spray-painted HEISENBERG on the paneled wall in the living room comes with the house.

So, to recap: we know that Walt will eventually be on the run, driving a car with a machine gun in the trunk and, thanks to his brief visit to his former home, carrying a ricin capsule that was once hidden behind an electrical outlet. All of that suggests that some seriously messed-up stuff will eventually happen, with even more to follow. What we don’t know yet is exactly how to connect the dots from here -- the “present,” when Hank realizes Walter White = Heisenberg and finally socks him in the face  -- to there -- the “future” when Walter White will become an undercover lone wolf, Heisenberg with a fuller head of hair.

It’s clear that “Breaking Bad” isn’t going to waste a single minute drawing that narrative line. This TV version of a literary thriller has reached the point where the pieces are finally coming together and all we want to do is whip through its pages and finally devour that much-craved resolution. But we can’t, because there are seven more episodes to go. For those who have binge-watched most of “Breaking Bad” until this point, the notion of waiting, week by week, for the rest of Walter White’s story to drip-drip-drip out must be excruciating. But there’s a lesson in it, too. After watching a show about a man who comes to think he can have everything his way, whenever he wants, it’s good to be reminded that most people can’t. We are not in control, so we must accept it, respect it and patiently savor the prolonged, delicious agony.

Now, let’s talk about Hank Schrader, who in this week’s episode emerges gobsmacked from his fateful trip to the bathroom, rejoins his family by the aforementioned pool, fakes a stomach bug and gets the hell out of the White household with that copy of “Leaves of Grass” in his possession. After recovering from his panic attack/car crash, Hank then does some Gale Boetticher-related handwriting analysis, rifles through boxes of old evidence and confirms with each piece of warehouse surveillance footage and sketch of the elusive Heisenberg that the truth has been hiding in plain sight: the meth cook he’s been hunting is his own brother-in-law.

There’s always been a certain symmetry in the Walt and Hank characters, two men in the same family, both proud and prone to need medical attention, one a breaker of laws and the other an enforcer of them. Like Walt, Hank defines himself by his capacity to do his job and do it well. Realizing the extent of Walt’s brash, criminal behavior -- “You killed 10 witnesses to save your ass. You bombed a nursing home. You lying, two-faced sack of shit,” he sputters in Walt’s face -- is a shock to his ideas about his family, but even worse, evidence that, as ASAC at the DEA, Hank has fallen down on the job in the most colossal fashion possible. Which is why we should not assume that Hank will immediately attempt to put Walt “under the jail,” as he threatened during that explosive confrontation in his garage.

The way that scene between the relatives-cum-adversaries played out -- with that long overdue punch to Walt’s face and Hank’s cathartically spewed accusations -- makes me think that may be as far as Hank goes to bury his brother-in-law. For one thing, that threat issued by Walt -- “If that’s true, if you don’t know who I am, then maybe your best course would be to tread lightly” -- may make Hank fearful for his safety as well as Marie’s. But also, if Hank shares what he’s discovered with his fellow agents, he’ll look smart for five seconds, then foolish for eternity. (“His brother-in-law the whole time, and this lunkhead didn’t know?”) Hank doesn’t want that. It may be easier for him to take extended medical leave or early retirement and, somehow, try to swallow the inevitable bile that will result from continuing to keep Walt’s identity a secret. What was it that other Walt, the Whitman one, wrote in one of his closing verses in “Leaves of Grass”? “Do you think I could walk pleasantly and well-suited toward annihilation?” No matter what he does, Hank faces potential annihilation of one kind or another.

Let’s say Hank doesn’t pursue the case. Walt is going to get exposed somehow, right? Which brings us to Jesse Pinkman. Oh, Jesse, of the many times we’ve wanted to embrace you during “Breaking Bad’s” run, our desire to hug you and hug hard may be strongest right now. After briefly appearing with Badger and Skinny Pete in the “Breaking Bad” version of a Kevin Smith film, the high and distraught Jesse takes his duffel bags of $5 million to Saul Goodman and instructs him to send half to Mike’s granddaughter, Kaylee, and the other half to the parents of Drew Sharp, the boy who got killed after being at the wrong train track at the wrong time.

Saul -- who, thanks to to the genius of Bob Odenkirk, is convincingly flippant in Jesse’s presence (“Pull up a bong and take a seat!”) as well as skittish as a cat in a cheap suit -- calls Walt, which, of course, results in the “blood money” being returned to Jesse by his former meth-cooking mentor.

Walt tries to convince Jesse to keep it. “You need to stop focusing on the past,” he says. “The darkness is behind us.” He assures Jesse that he needs to move on and keep the illegally-earned cash he rightfully earned. But even though he’s been persuaded by this man so many times before, Jesse doesn’t seem to buy it this time, especially not when it comes to Walt’s assertion that Mike is still alive. Jesse is beyond angry or hurt or outraged. He’s just drained, like the Whites’ future swimming pool, so bereft he can’t even muster a “bitch.” Aaron Paul, as usual, conveys all of that subtly, with the weight in his weary slump and his teary yet emotionless eyes.

Jesse handles the money the only way that makes sense to him: by driving through a lower-income neighborhood and flinging wads of cash out the window like a screwed-up version of Santa Claus. For those who tend to parse the names of “Breaking Bad” episodes for clues -- remember back in season two, when the episode titles “Seven Thirty-Seven,” “Down,” “Over” and “ABQ” foreshadowed that season-ending plane crash? -- the fact that this episode is called “Blood Money” could be a hint that all that cash, which, presumably, won’t go unnoticed or unreported, is the root of Walt’s downfall.

As for Walt: OH MY GOD, WILL THIS MAN EVER STOP LYING? We know Walt’s a morally bankrupt guy, but it’s just stunning the way he constantly, with no hint of remorse or hesitation, withholds the truth. He’s lying to his family about his cancer’s return. He lies to Hank about his Heisenbergness. But worst of all is the way he lies to Jesse about Mike: “Listen to me, I did not kill Mike … for all I know, he is alive and well.” Walt has compartmentalized so effectively that he doesn’t even think he’s lying. Because he’s not actively “in the business,” dismissing Lydia’s request for more involvement, he has convinced himself that he’s a new guy, separate from the meth-cooker who blew off Gus Fring’s face, melted a defenseless boy’s remains in hydrochloric acid and shot Mike Ehrmentrout in cold blood. “I’m a dying man, who runs a a car wash. My right hand to God, that is all that I am,” he tells Hank. And he thinks it’s true because “I” is now a guy who focuses his days on air freshener marketing strategies, not manufacturing high-octane crystal meth.

But for Walter White, things are starting to come full circle. In the first few minutes of “Breaking Bad”’s very first episode, he was a 50-year-old man in a button-down shirt and his underwear, speaking his home address into a video camera and apologizing to his family for the things he had done. Now he’s 51, standing outside that home in a robe and his underwear, unapologetic and feverishly searching for a book of poetry that reveals he is The Danger. And, soon, everyone will know it.

By Jen Chaney

Jen Chaney is a pop culture writer whose work appears regularly in The Washington Post, New York Magazine’s Vulture and The Dissolve. She’s currently working on a book about the movie “Clueless,” to be published next year by Touchstone.

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