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Recap: "Granite State," Breaking Bad's penultimate episode

Lori is busy covering the Emmys, so I’m stepping in this week. Excuse the stream-of-consciousness presentation. And don’t worry: Lori will be back for next week’s finale. (We’ll also have additional coverage and stories leading up to next week’s finale so keep an eye out.)

Oh, and, of course, beware: thar be spoilers ahead.

Walter White is dead. Long live Walter White.

At least, that’s the point that’s hammered home at the conclusion of tonight’s episode, the words uttered by Gretchen Schwarz, the long-ago love who Walter abandoned years before and who took up with his business partner, the people Walter still holds a grudge against. Coming on the heels of the ultimate rejection of his own son, it’s an icy sledgehammer that kills whatever of Walter White is left and leaves only Heisenberg, a modern Mr. Hyde hell-bent on revenge.

But how did we get there?

The episode – exquisitely written and directed by Peter Gould – opens with a surprising reveal: Saul going into the shady, underground version of witness protection someone like Saul would know about, alongside Walt (literally). We’re also introduced to Saul’s guy, his cleaner, in the form of veteran actor Robert Forster who is, appropriately, in the vacuum business. When Saul learns he’ll be bunking with Walt, the security camera footage of Walter losing his mind tells us all we need to know about his mental state following the events that closed last week’s episode.

The post-credits sequence, Marie’s brief and only appearance, finds her in an understandable haze and the only thing that pulls her out is the discovery by her law enforcement escort that someone’s broken in. And this is our transition to the Nazis (who were the ones who smashed into Marie’s house to steal… well…) watching Jesse’s confession tape he did with Hank, revealing that Todd shot Drew Sharp. And, once again, Todd manages to save Jesse’s skin by convincing Jack to squeeze a few more cooks out of Jesse. Some of the touches of black humor in a very dark episode include Jack’s “The heart wants what it wants, right?” phrase to Todd about his fondness for Lydia.

Gould’s direction is stellar, the wonderful panning shot from the vacuum shop to the hole below where Saul and Walt are hiding, just one example of excellent cinematography in a series that’s known for it. It also transitions us down a level, the lowest level Walt has fallen to: actually underground. Hell is a bunker below a vacuum cleaner repair shop? For once, he fails to drag someone with him on a plan. All along, the drug that’s transitioned Walt to Heisenberg has been his control, his power; when he loses that, Walter can’t deal with the consequences. And just as he tries to intimidate Saul like he’s intimidated so many before, a coughing fit ravages his composure, and Walt is defeated, broken. Saul says, “It’s over,” and, unlike many before him, walks away unharmed (for now) by Walt/Heisenberg.

But it’s during this exchange that Walter hits the same important beat that’s been hitting us over and over during this final half-season.

“What I do, I do for my family.”

It’s the underlying theme of Walt’s one tether to reality even as he becomes more and more blinded by delusions. Those delusions surface just a moment later when, revealing his plan for revenge, he tells Saul, “I will take what is mine.” He can’t let go; he’s still holding out for greed, for his money. Remember, the whole reason he finds himself in the mess – well, aside from EVERYTHING ELSE that’s happened in the series – was his fear of Jesse discovering his barrels of cash in the desert. Only that worked him up so bad he finally messed up.

After a brief stop-over in the prosecutor’s office where Skyler is hazily disconnected from reality like Marie, we get the latest in a series of Terrifying Encounters with Todd (which could be its own TV show, really) when the Nazis break in to the house and confront Skyler over what she knows. And this is where we have to talk about Emmy consideration for Jesse Plemons whose chilly delivery to Skyler during this scene is at a Gus-like, spine-tingling icyness, the same brutal coldness he showed when shooting Drew Sharp.

The next scene with Lydia shows the flip-side of Todd: well-groomed, almost apologetic towards Skyler in saying the “message” was received. Lydia’s desire to have dirty work done but not get her hands dirty doesn’t shake Todd’s admiration of her. But even as he seems to be so “Aw, shucks,” the creepiness seeps through even in his back-to-back conversation when he turns to her back, picks lint off her back. It’s a nice, if scary, touch.

Equally terrifying must be how Walt feels as he finally arrives at his destination, the mountains of New Hampshire, disconnected, a one-room cabin in the woods in New Hampshire after a long cross-country journey holed up in the empty tank of a propane truck. He has no outside connection for his own protection: no phones, internet, etc.

“Your business is your business. My business is keeping you out of custody,” Forster’s character tells him, “the hottest client I’ve ever had by far.” Pushing back against forces trying to hem him in, Walt asks, “And what’s keeping me from walking out that gate?” The loss of control is killing Walter almost as much as the cancer is. Indeed, he dons his hat – HEISENBERG! – and decides to march out the gate and down the road exactly as he’s been instructed to NOT do but, ultimately, he can’t do it; he simply stares, wary, and scared. Just like with Saul, Heisenberg is defeated again, seemingly repressed, even as he still lurks.

“Tomorrow” he whispers to himself as he limps back towards his cabin.

Jesse’s escape attempt from the Nazis is exquisitely shot, especially that initial jump. For a moment, we think at least SOMETHING positive will happen to one of our few remaining characters to root for. But this is Breaking Bad. We should know better. We know the Nazis won’t kill him; by virtue of the photo that is used as blackmail, we know the price Jesse will pay will be a brutal one. And, my God, is it ever.

Here’s what I have written in my notes: “The killing of Andrea, Jesse’s reaction. Holy shit.”

The revenge of the Nazis is so cold hearted, so cold-blooded, it’s almost impossible to come to terms with (and yet it could have been even worse). It’s another bludgeoning of the soul by the writers of one of the most brutal shows to air. And Todd, chilling as ever, saying so nonchalantly before he puts the bullet in Andrea’s head, “Don’t take it personal”… Pitted against Aaron Paul’s anger and agony at the murder, it’s another of the moments where it’s just too hard to look at the screen. This episode didn’t hold as many soul-crushing moments as last week’s “Ozymandius,” but this moment alone fulfills this week’s dose of gut-wrenching anguish.

After this, how can we go on? We’re forced to New Hampshire and Walt, seemingly – here’s that word again – broken, has yet to walk down the road even as so much time has passed. The pile of papers the cleaner delivers indicates several weeks, if not months. Skyler still has the kids and is still facing possible legal action, the cleaner tells Walt, by she’s been reduced to taxi dispatch. After helping Walt to some black market chemo treatment — “I watched a few YouTube videos, it’s all about finding the vein” – with the chemo bag hanging off the antlers… still humor to be found though who the hell is laughing after Andrea’s death? — Walt is so lonely, he pays the cleaner to stay an hour for $10,000. He’s at rock bottom, so skinny his wedding ring won’t stay on his finger.

With the news of Skyler echoing in his ears, he finally musters enough strength – physically and mentally – to finally walk down that road into town, to try to reach out to his family. The seclusion has repressed Heisenberg, Walt’s hair grown back, even in his weakened state, and the condition of his family at the forefront of his mind. He just wants to reach out to them, to know they’re okay. And he does what he shouldn’t do: he calls. And when he speaks to Flynn, he’s still in full Walt-denial mode, trying to wriggle out of a situation of his own doing. He thinks he can do this, he’s still delusional enough to think he can talk his way out of trouble with his family. If there was any light in him left, it’s snuffed when he listens to Flynn turn on him and blame him – rightfully – for everything’s that happened.

With that, with his family, the only thing left to hang on to, done with him, Walt calls the feds – the deadpan exchange of “Who’s calling?” “Walter White” being another moment of humor in a sea of darkness – because it seems he’s given up. He’ll sit and enjoy one last drink of freedom before he gives it all up, before he finally gives in. And that’s when he stumbles across the Charlie Rose interviews with his pals from Gray Matter, long forgotten, trying to distance themselves as much as possible from Walt, the man who started the business but the man who, to them, should have nothing left to do with him.

And it’s then that the lone remaining ember of Heisenberg, burning like the wood in the stove in Walt’s New Hampshire cabin, comes to life and lights anew. With each phrase, seeing his old lover disparage him, seeing his old friend Elliott take part, the weight of the world’s injustice – as Walt sees it, anyway – ignites and fuels the flame. Just as Heisenberg seemed to have been suppressed, leaving a cold, hard, broken Walt – not unlike the jagged granite slates that fill New Hampshire – the reasons to fight back return with a vengeance.

And it’s vengeance that Walt’s left to seek when the sheriffs descend on the bar only to find Walt’s empty glass, a stunningly shot scene of high tension set to the show’s theme music, even as we know Walt won’t be there. The happenstance viewing of the interview with his colleagues has succeeded in snuffing out Walter for good, leaving only Heisenberg remaining, Gretchen’s words a little too on-the-nose but still effective.

The injustices Walt has faced – and those he simply BELIEVES he’s faced – go all the way back to the formation of Gray Matter, the Schwarz’s success a direct rebuke, at least in his mind, of Walt’s hard work; he deserved so much more, he thinks, than to be completely torn apart and disregarded as some guy who came up with the company name and nothing more. Whether it was a student mocking him at the car wash, beating up the kids making fun of Flynn in the clothing store, or the way Gus wielded his power over Walt, these outside forces are what, to Walt, he believes has pushed him to this brink: he wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for THEM. And this character assassination – as opposed to the many physical assassinations Walt has been a part of – is what finally does it, finally makes the transition to Heisenberg permanent. Hair or bald, hat or no, Walt IS dead.

There is only Heisenberg now.

It’s appropriate, then, that the show’s theme song plays over this scene, a mirror of that first moment, that first cook, that first time years ago when Walt took that first leap, the first step down this road. He’s once again been pushed over the edge to do something drastic for someone – or something – he loves. Except this time, nothing is going to break his fall.

Like so many other instances throughout the show’s run, it’s a matter of happenstance – a random flicking through the channels – that enflames Walt and sends him on a trajectory with violence and, likely, disaster, a moment that simply adds yet another level of tragedy.

But at least we know he’s heading towards the last confrontation. We know who the gun is for. We still don’t know exactly who the ricin is for (though I still think it’s for Jesse, Walt still blaming him for Hank’s death) but we know what he means to do with it. We now know the timeline, how the house fell into disrepair, how he came to be in New Hampshire. And we know that the meth empire – whoever it belongs to now – is still going.

It’s all over but the shouting.

Will next week’s finale deliver? Who knows? Judging by this final half-season, it will, and then some. It will leave us heartbroken and gutted. It will put these characters we’ve grown to love and hate through the wringer one more time (or, knowing this show, maybe several times). And it will also leave us in awe. No matter what happens, this has been a masterpiece of television even as we await the final chapter. And we’ll watch, through our fingers if we have to, to experience every raw emotion.

In one of the best moments in the pilot, Walt said “I am awake.”

Years later, he’s fully awake once more. And so are we.