"Breaking Bad" recap: A shootout, interrupted

Hank corners Walt in the desert -- but not for long

Published September 9, 2013 12:08PM (EDT)

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

“Walter White, you have the right to remain silent.”

When Hank Schrader uttered the most anticipated Miranda warning of his career during this week’s pulse-pounder of a "Breaking Bad" episode, wasn’t there a moment -- just a brief, brief moment -- when it seemed like Hank actually might have Walter White cornered and in custody for good? We knew that couldn’t be the case. We’ve seen the flash-forwards, the ones in which Walt is clearly not in jail, has assumed a new identity and seems to be planning some violent, possibly ricin-related act of vengeance. But there was just a half-second -- when Walt was cuffed and shoved into the backseat of Hank’s truck and Jesse Pinkman was flashing a half-smile that said, “Wow, he actually isn’t going to keep getting away with it” -- when it seemed like Heisenberg would be brought to justice.

But before that half-second could elapse, the usual "Breaking Bad" jitters flared up because, especially at this stage in the series, nothing can possibly get resolved that easily. And that’s when the cavalry -- specifically Todd, his Uncle Jack and the white supremacist posse  -- rode in and started a hell of a shoot-out, one instigated by cowboys of a sort who stood on Indian land against the wide-open, jagged terrain of the American southwest. It’s not clear exactly what time it was when all this happened. It seems fair to guess high noon.

And then -- then! -- at what may have been the most climactic moment so far in the Walter White narrative, the episode just stopped, in mid-epic hail of gunfire. It was impossible to absorb that ending without thinking back to the brilliant/maddening "Sopranos" cut-to-black series finale. That homage must have been a deliberate move on the writers and director’s parts. (Earlier in the hour, we also heard the sound of “Oh Sherrie” as sung by Steve Perry, the Journey frontman who also crooned "The Sopranos" closer “Don’t Stop Believin’.” This, too, could not have been a coincidence.)

By concluding this episode as they did, Vince Gilligan and co. seemed to be saying on two different levels, “It’s not going to end this way.” Meaning: "Breaking Bad" is not going to end with Hank getting Walt “dead to rights.” And, more broadly, it’s not going to end on some sudden, ambiguous note that makes us wonder what actually happened to Walter White. There’s three more to go. And in three more, we’ll presumably know what happened to him beyond all doubt.

Since we’re not there yet, let’s talk about how the cuckoo-bananas gun battle could very easily have been avoided if Hank wasn’t such a gloating bastard. Had Hank quickly and efficiently read Walt those aforementioned rights, put him in the car, then gotten his Dodge the heck out of To’hajiilee, he and Walt would have been on their way to DEA headquarters well before the hitman parade came to town. But Hank had to slow things down by getting all braggy, then calling Marie to make sure she knew her hero husband had finally captured the bad guy. Hank let his pride get the best of him, the same way Walt so often has. We won’t know this for certain until next week, but it seems fair to assume that Hank’s sin of pride will result in him being mowed down by Team Todd. Yes, Hank Schrader’s almost surely going to die. At least he’s going out in a blaze of glory, having finally caught his Heisenberg, albeit only briefly. None of that, of course, will be of any consolation to Marie.

To be fair to Hank, Jesse also didn’t expedite matters by spitting in Walt’s face when Walt called him a coward. Our dear Pinkman also turned vicious and arrogant when he lured Walt into the desert by threatening to burn up all that money, dropping so many “bitches” into his sentences that it seemed like he was trying to reach a bitch quota before the end of the hour. It just wasn’t enough for Jesse to know that Walt had been beaten. Jesse needed to make Mr. White hurt.

Ego wasn’t the only thing that linked Hank, Walt and Jesse in this episode. Their strategies were similar, too. To ensnare their meth man, Hank and Jesse both ripped pages straight out of the Walter White playbook, a playbook filled with excessive bluffing, staying eight steps ahead of your adversaries and pressing down hard on still-open wounds.

Walt knew that if he wanted to lure Jesse out of hiding, he should hit him where it hurt: by using Andrea and Brock as bait. Similarly, Jesse realized the best way to ensnare Mr. White was to target the thing that mattered most to him: his money. Meanwhile, Hank had learned enough harsh lessons lately to know that the swiftest path to success necessitated copying the moves of his brother-in-law. So he took Huell into protective custody, told him an elaborate lie about Walt’s plans to bump off Jesse, Huell and Saul, then provided convincing visual proof that everything he had just said was true. This worked even more effectively than Walt’s preposterous, Hank-implicating video confession, giving Hank, via Huell, enough substantial information to convince Walt, via Jesse, that they knew exactly where Walt’s dollars were buried. It’s true what they say: nothing is more persuasive than a picture of butcher shop brains positioned above the head of an allegedly deceased Aaron Paul.

Actually, one thing is more convincing: a photo of alleged meth-business money sitting in a barrel. As Jesse suspected, Walt went completely nuts when he thought his wads of cash might be going up in flames. To be clear: Walt didn’t go nuts because, as Jesse contended, he’s super-greedy and cares deeply about the money itself. He didn’t even go nuts because he sees all those barrels of dough as vital to his family’s future. He totally lost it when he thought Jesse “Fire in the hole, bitch” Pinkman was burning up his Benjamins because, to Walt, that money proves that he achieved something. It’s tangible evidence that Walt sold his soul to the devil but at least had enough intelligence to profit from the deal. By supposedly setting Walt’s money on fire, Jesse was burning down -- here comes that word again -- Walt’s pride. And Walt simply couldn’t have that.

Walt found himself not only emasculated by Hank, Jesse and Gomez this week, but also by Todd and his Uncle Jack. In order to execute the hit Walt requested on Jesse, Todd and Jack insisted that Walt cook one more time, their obvious attempt to bring the purity and blueness back to the meth Lydia is so eager to sell overseas. That’s why they showed up in the desert with artillery cocked and loaded even though Walt told Jack not to come once he realized Jesse was accompanied by Hank and Gomez. They showed up anyway because protecting Walt was about protecting business.

Walt has always said he cooked meth and committed all sorts of other unspeakable crimes in order to provide for his family. That may have been true at one time. By season three, if not sooner, that justification seemed blatantly preposterous. That’s why it was fascinating to see Walt caught in Hank’s car, unable to do anything other than scream and squirm, while he sat directly in between his meth-business life and his family life. Those two worlds finally really did collide. The results were ugly, terrifying and will likely change Walt’s course from here forward.

Before Walt received Jesse’s money-barrel text message and screeched out of the car wash, he gave Skyler and Walt Jr., a meaningful stare. He was seeing them together, running the family business, at a great distance from where he stood, just as they probably will be after Walt is long gone. I suspect that moment may have been the last time Walt will see them for a while. I also suspect that somewhere in his gut, Walt knew that, too.

Walt is going to have to answer to Todd and his uncle now. He’s going to have to make meth again, on someone else’s terms, just as things were when Walt and Jesse first got into this mess. As these recaps predicted before, Todd and his allies seem pretty determined to take over Heisenberg Inc., and they will use Heisenberg himself to stage that coup.

Did you get a look at the mug of tea that Todd handed to Lydia -- a woman he clearly looooooves -- early in this episode? It said, “These colors don’t run.” That’s a statement that usually implies that  the colors in the American flag won’t fade, that true patriots always stand up and fight. But in the context of Todd’s role in the "Breaking Bad" universe, it means something else. It means that while the meth he’s cooking may not be the proper Heisenberg hue just yet, Todd is true crystal-blue, to his core. Walter White may be officially out of the business, but Todd? Oh, he’s still coming to play. And when he has to, he’ll bring out the big guns.

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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