"Breaking Bad" recap: The 3 questions the show still has to answer

The second-to-last episode finds Walt in hiding, Skyler in trouble, and some mysteries still unresolved

Published September 23, 2013 6:32PM (EDT)

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

In the movie "It’s a Wonderful Life," George Bailey meets a guardian angel who shows him how things would have turned out for his loved ones if he had never been born.

In the penultimate episode of "Breaking Bad," Walter White experienced his own, twisted version of "It’s a Wonderful Life." He didn’t encounter a guardian angel named Clarence. (To be perfectly clear: because of Walter White, absolutely no one will ever get their wings.) But after extricating himself from his family’s life -- assuming the identity of Mr. Lambert, confining himself to an isolated New Hampshire cabin and rendering himself non-existent to his wife and kids -- Walt got to learn how his family was functioning without him. His informant was the opposite of Clarence: it was Saul’s fixer, a no-nonsense, unempathetic “vacuum repair salesman” played, in a bit of very smart casting, by Robert Forster.

As Forster the Fixer explained, a few months following Walt’s departure, the Whites moved out of their home on Negra Arroyo Lane. That house is now up for auction and has been vandalized by kids who considered it a tourist attraction. (Hence, the spraypainted Heisenberg we saw in the previous flashforward.) Skyler is working as a taxi dispatcher to make ends meet. She’s still taking care of Flynn and Holly, and she’s facing a potential hearing before a grand jury for crimes that her husband primarily committed and for which he is currently the target of a nationwide manhunt.

It’s funny that both George Bailey and Walter White -- two characters who otherwise have next to nothing in common -- both reach a personal crossroads in their stories because of money. George’s problems are eventually solved when all of his friends and associates hand him the cash he needs, an expression of their appreciation for the many selfless things he’s done. Walter White’s problem, on the other hand, is that he has a barrel filled with millions, can’t get it to his family and doesn’t have a single soul he can trust to make sure they receive it. If, as George ultimately learns, no man is a failure who has friends, then Walt is a huge failure, the kind who has to pay a guy he barely knows $10K just to sit with him for an hour.

In this episode, we saw Walt at his weakest, both physically and mentally. But even self-administered, occasional chemo and complete isolation from society couldn’t wipe out his determination to remain Heisenberg. We saw that quite clearly when Walt dug out his Heisenberg hat, popped out its dents and walked down to the edge of that snowy New Hampshire property, determined to defy the fixer’s instructions and expectations by leaving without getting caught. Nevertheless, he opted to stay put and keep his dual copies of "Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium" company. His health and, perhaps, his own fear forced Walt to hunker down at the cabin for months, until he felt compelled to get some money to his family and, following that disastrous phone call with Flynn, turn himself into the DEA. Then, right after his pseudo-surrender, something happened. Walt saw his old friends, Elliott and Gretchen Schwartz, talking to Charlie Rose on a TV inside the bar where Walt had just ordered a glass of scotch neat, exactly the way the late Hank Schrader would have liked it.

The Schwartzes, those two upstanding, exceedingly wealthy science geniuses, were saying that Walter White -- now officially known across America as a very bad guy -- didn’t make any significant contributions to Gray Matter, their successful pharmaceutical operation. Walt had “virtually nothing to do with the creation of the company and still less to do with growing it to what it is today,” Elliott said, lying just as smoothly as his former partner does. “The sweet, kind, brilliant man that we once knew,” Gretchen added, “he’s gone.”

The implications of the statements made in that interview -- that Walt wasn’t smart enough to build Gray Matter, that, as Rose noted, Walt’s signature blue meth was still being sold without him, and that, according to Gretchen, Walt was once just some super-nice guy instead of the one who knocks -- were the final straw. That’s when Walt decided to take matters into his own hands and do what he had to do to uphold his legacy. The name of this episode was “Granite State,” a reference to the nickname of New Hampshire, where Walt was hiding. But it also seemed like an apt description for where Walt’s mental state landed by the end of this 75-minute installment. After vacillating between hiding away or turning vigilante, his decision was set in stone. He’s Heisenberg forever, dammit, even if it kills him.

As usual, Walt emphasized over and over in this episode that his actions were motivated entirely by a desire to protect his family. But, again, as usual, his behavior didn’t back that up. He selfishly refused to take Saul’s sage advice that he turn himself in, prevent Skyler from going to prison and live the rest of his brief days in jail, knowing he had done the right thing. (By the way, I know the "Breaking Bad" spin-off "Better Call Saul" is a prequel. But for the record, I would totally watch a show that focuses on Saul’s attempt to navigate the “sticky” workplace politics that arise while, under his new, assumed identity, he manages a Cinnabon in Omaha, Nebraska.)

Even Walt’s phone call with Flynn, which alerted his son to the money he had sent in the mail,  was incredibly selfish. To call that kid out of chemistry class (irony), convince him there’s a terrible emergency and do it under the pretense that the caller was Marie -- the widow of the beloved uncle whose death Walt indirectly caused -- was beyond insensitive. Walt loves his son. He does. He just has no idea at this point how to put his child’s needs ahead of his own. Flynn’s embittered response to his father -- “Why are you still alive? Why don’t you just die already?” -- was harsh and sad, but justified. It was a small form of punishment for a man who really does deserve to be punished for all the terrible things he’s done, but probably won’t be, not fully.

All the wrong people are being punished instead. People like Andrea, who was shot in the head by Todd -- Why did she open the door? Why did she step outside?? -- to dissuade Jesse from ever again attempting to escape his meth-cooking prison-pit. (In a way, both Jesse and Walt really did go to jail for their crimes.)

All I could think about after Andrea died was what Brock would do when he woke up and found his mother’s body on the front porch. That poor kid. I don’t know who’s going to be more traumatized by all this insanity: Brock or Holly White, who once again was surrounded by kidnappers when Todd and co. broke into the Whites’ house and told Skyler not to say anything about Lydia to the police.

Lydia, who met Todd in the same restaurant where she once connected with Walt, did not seem satisfied by Todd’s assurance that Skyler would keep quiet. She practically demanded Skyler be killed, as a matter of fact, which is interesting considering that Lydia is a mother who once had to beg Mike for her life to be spared. We can assume that, based on her excitement over the 92% clarity in Todd’s crystals, that she decided to back off. But for how long?

And why is Todd so motivated to be, in the words of Jesse Pinkman, such an Opie Deadeye Piece of Shit just because he has the hots for Lydia? Clearly there’s more going on with Todd than a mere desire to attract the hot drug lord in heels. Like his mentor, Walt, Todd is motivated by pride. He’s less fixated on wanting to having sex with Lydia and more concerned with seeming like a formidable force in her eyes. Todd is a younger, potentially more frightening combination of Walter White and Gus Fring, all foolish hubris, deceptive politeness and endless appetite for the extreme. “This is millions,” Todd told his uncle. “No matter how much you got, how do you turn your back on more?” Todd still respects Mr. White, so much that he wants to not only protect his family but, slowly and surely, become him.

Only one episode of "Breaking Bad" remains, which means there’s just one more opportunity to answer all lingering questions and resolve all dangling plot threads. Here are three of the most important issues that need to be addressed:

-- What will become of Jesse Pinkman? When he MacGyvered his way out of his meth-cook hellhole with a paper clip, then dashed away, it was impossible to refrain from yelling, “Run, Jesse! Run!” like Jenny from "Forrest Gump." Alas, Jesse couldn’t run, or climb a barbed wire fence, fast enough. By the way, it’s important to remember that Jesse had a few chances to avoid this whole situation. He could have hopped in Robert Forster’s van a few episodes ago, like Walt told him to. He could have done a better job of hiding under the car during that shoot-out. Or he could have stayed at the Schraders instead of riding along to apprehend Walt in the desert. Nevertheless, he is where he is now. The question is: during the months while Walt’s been away, has Jesse been killed? Or is he still alive, handcuffed to his job as manufacturer of crystal blue persuasion?

-- Will we get more details about why Walt severed his professional relationship with Elliott and Gretchen? We know his romance with Gretchen had something to do with it, but the circumstances that led him to abandon Gray Matter seem like an important key to understanding Walter White, the kind of key that the writers might have waited to share until the last minute. The fact that Gretchen and Elliott resurfaced this week makes me think we actually might get an answer to this, finally.

-- Who is the ricin for? It’s fair to assume that the guns Walt acquires, as shown in the previous flashforward, are the ones he plans to use to mow down Todd and his Aryan Nation Crew. But the ricin could be for a number of people.

Last week, I concluded it was for Jesse, and I still think that’s a possibility. The fact that Walt tried, on two separate occasions, to convince Jesse to administer the poison would make it fitting for Walt to finally give it to him.

It also could be for Lydia. Her tea seems like a logical place to put it. And the past two episodes have certainly made a point of focusing on her beloved tea.

Or, as actor Adam Scott said in this week’s edition of "Talking Bad" and many others on the Internet also have noted, the ricin could be for Walt himself. When Walt considered administering ricin before, it was to knock out two men who were clear commanders of the meth business: Tuco Salamanca and Gus Fring. If Walt has decided that, as Walt Junior suggested, he should just die already, a suicide by ricin would be the way to go. It would allow him to go out without ever being apprehended by the police. It also would be a way for Walt  to declare that, ultimately, the boss who was bigger than Tuco or Hector or Gus or anybody else, was Walter White. In fact, Walter White had virtually everything to do with the creation of a million-dollar, international meth business and even more to do with growing it to what it is today. That guy? He truly led a wonderful life.

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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