Inevitability is a funny thing, it’s not a question of “what”, it’s a question of “when” and “how”. Last week’s Ozymandias was inevitability incarnate. It was a thunderstorm of every last cataclysmic event that has been teetering on the brink of coming to fruition for the entirety of Breaking Bad‘s run. Normally, events like the ones of that episode would be scattered throughout the second half of a show’s final season in order to milk each dramatic element for all it’s worth, but here Vince Gilligan and co. went for a different approach. Instead on spending their time letting the downfall occur slowly, they dumped it all in one episode, resulting in the stress-inducing roller coaster ride that is Ozymandias. Not did s*** hit the fan all at once, but it wasn’t even in the series finale. This leaves the writers with a rather unprecedented question: what comes after inevitability? Essentially, what Breaking Bad‘s writing staff did was completely decimate the essential premise that the show has been running on since day one, giving themselves a clean slate for these final two episodes. By ridding themselves of their narrative shackles they have given their audience a new lens through which to experience the journey of Walter White.
This week we’re given Granite State, written and directed by the most veteran of series vets, Peter Gould. Granite State is largely an episode of parallels, it doesn’t have quite as much forward action as last week, but it’s analytical nature is a necessity for setting up the finale. Breaking Bad has been known for using both audio and visual callbacks to illustrate a transformation of character or situation, but this episode just may take the cake as far as sheer numbers go. Skyler has a scene that replicates, beat-for-beat, the sequence where Walt is first informed about his cancer. Vacant stare, intense white-noise, ending in a sharp audio/visual recalibration. Except in Skyler’s situation, it’s news regarding the fallout of her husbands heinous crimes.
Another occurs in a meeting between Todd and Lydia. It begins very similarly to the first meeting we ever observed between Lydia and Mike in a small town diner, with Mike disregarding Lydia’s frantic paranoia regarding public meetings, forcing her to talk to him face to face. But here the tables have turned, here Todd and Lydia meet in a very upscale coffee-shop that accommodates all of Lydia’s neurotically precise drink specifications. The seating arrangements are also entirely on her terms as well, with her and Todd facing different directions, sitting at separate tables.
Finally, and most prominently, a brief exchange between Walt and Saul at the beginning of the episode has Walt threateningly staring Saul down after Saul questioned his judgment, much like he has done in the past. Informing him, in full-on Heisenberg mode, that their partnership isn’t “over” until he says it is. Or he would have, had he not succumbed to a cancerous coughing fit. The spell of fear he has held over Saul is lifted as he crumples over in pain, and Saul, almost pityingly, informs his former client that it is, indeed, over.
These parallels all serve the specific purpose of highlighting just how seriously, and irreversibly, the situation has changed. Walt has become Skyler’s cancer, he’s inescapable and has permanently damaged her life. Lydia, the merciless, uptight businesswoman is now in the position of power. And finally, Heisenberg has come to an end. No matter how hard Walter tries, he simply cannot conjure up his ruthless persona anymore. The world will not allow it, his own body will not allow it, his own guilt (what remains anyway) will not allow it. He has been reduced to a nobody; a pathetic, dying old man sentenced to a life of exile out in the cold, icy mountains. The once mighty Heisenberg spends most of this episode shuffling around a dusty old New Hampshire cottage with nothing to keep him company except for two copies of Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. He is dressed in ill-fitting long underwear and a ratty sweatshirt. His signature bald look is gone, replaced by an unkempt head of hair and a mangy looking beard. He looks sick and frail, a not-so-subtle reflection of the barren state of his soul. Bryan Cranston’s performance here is amongst his best in the series. His previous shining moments were predominantly in the persona of Heisenberg; theatrical, intense, animated. Here, it’s the extreme nuance of his performance that sells it. His emotions and reactions have become muted, only little hints of his inner turmoil are expressed on his face, but when Cranston allows the audience a peek into Walter’s head, he makes every last second count.
Back in Albuquerque, things have not improved for Jesse Pinkman. After a botched escape attempt, he is subjected to what is perhaps the greatest horror the series has ever out onscreen. As punishment for his lack of cooperation, Jesse’s neo-nazi captors allow him to be a witness as they execute his former girlfriend, Andrea. Todd, as cold and psychopathic as always, very calmly informs the unsuspecting young woman that “this isn’t personal” before ending her life with a few gunshots to the back of the head. I am not an easily shocked viewer, and as appalled as I’ve been by the recent events in Breaking Bad it would be a lie to say that any of them really and truly caught me off-guard (Walt’s confession being an exception). But Andrea’s murder was really and truly a line I did not expect the writing staff to cross. It seemed to me that she had already been subjected to as much punishment any recurring character ever really needs to endure, so I assumed she was no longer on the table as far as potential victims go. I assumed that Todd’s threat against both Brock and Andrea was an empty one, both on his end and on the end of the writers. But I was wrong, horribly, horribly wrong. The scene barely gives the audience any time to really process what’s happening, suddenly Todd is knocking on a somebody’s door, Andrea comes out, and within a few seconds her life is over. The shock of the scene is matched only by how sickening and efficiently brutal it is. Breaking Bad has always been a dark and unflinching show, but this may be an all-time low (and yes, I mean that in a good way). Andrea doesn’t even get the good graces to die with dignity like Hank. She never knew why she had to die, she never really knew who killed her, she never had the chance to have a heartfelt goodbye to her son. One second she was alive, then the next second she died. Such is the the extent to which the disease that is Heisenberg has spread.
Speaking of the Nazi’s, one of Granite State‘s primary functions as an episode is setting these white power psychopaths up as truly depraved villains. In one of the first scenes of the episode we’re treated to Uncle Jack and Co. watching Jesse’s tearful confession video that he recorded for Hank. What was heartbreaking for us is all good fun for them, they proceed to relentlessly mock Jesse, hurling venomous insults at the image of the destroyed young man they see before them. In another terrifying sequence, Todd and two of his goons break into the White household and threaten of both Skyler and baby Holly. Todd’s dead eyed matter-of-factness while terrorizing a mother and her child makes the scene and his character all the more chilling. In one of my early reviews this season, I wondered what purpose Todd and Uncle Jack would serve in the long-run. I thinks it’s yet another testament to the meticulousness and thoroughness of the writers that a few characters who seemed rather insignificant not three episodes ago have risen to effectively become the most vile and repulsive villains in the series history, and in a series like Breaking Bad that is no easy feat.
In the final act of Granite State we find the pitiful husk that remains of Walter White attempting to call his son from a small bar somewhere in New Hampshire. After tricking the school principle (a surprise reappearance from Carmen Serano) into believing it was a call from Marie, Walt manages to get through to Walt Jr.. He desperately mumbles justifications and apologies while his son listens, seemingly shellshocked at hearing his father’s voice. A sobbing Walt almost manages to tell his son that everything that he did, he did for his family. But he stops himself before that lie manages to escape. The reality of who he was, and why he did what he did is inescapable now, even to him. Yet still, he is trapped in a prison of his own pride, his own ego. He can’t bring himself to simply say, out loud, that he is guilty, that he is at fault. Even in this state of devastation, far be it from Walter White to apologize for his crimes, no matter how heinous. Then, in a last ditch effort to supply his family with the money he still has left, Walt tries to convince his son to go play with a scheme he hatched to smuggle his cash into Albuquerque. Junior, snapping out of his shocked state, responds by giving his father what for, screaming accusations about Hank’s murder and ferociously ordering his father to “just die”. Walt’s pleas to his son to be heard out fall on deaf ears. Walter White has lost the right to talk to his own family.
After Junior hangs up, a defeated Walt calls the cops on himself before sitting down at the bar for one last drink. At the end of his rope, it would seem that this is the last stop for our notorious anti-hero. But then, oddly enough, Charlie Rose of all people swoops in and changes the game. Walt manages to catch part of an interview on the television in the bar between Rose and Walt’s former colleagues; Gretchen and Elliot Schwartz. He watches as the couple, in an attempt to distance themselves from the now infamous name of Walter White, discredit him and his work at their company; Gray Matter. They falsely claim on air that Walt’s contributions to the company extend no further than the company name itself. Gretchen further asserts that Walter White, the kind, loving family-man that they knew no longer exists, and has been permanently replaced by the Heisenberg persona. As Walt sits and listens, a look of grim determination begins to dawn on his face. The Schwartz’s words have awoken something in him, the flame of his dogmatic persistence has been rekindled. By the time the cops show up (in a scene beautifully shot by Michael Slovis, I might add), Walter White is long gone. His glass of whiskey sits unfinished at the bar as the Breaking Bad theme swells just as the screen cuts to black.
In all honesty, I was unsure precisely what this revitalization in Walt really meant. Was it Walter White becoming determined to return and right his wrongs, intent on disproving Gretchen’s assertion about the absolute nature of his moral degradation? Was it Heisenberg returning full force to exact vengeance upon the nazis as well as the Schwart’s? I’ve heard a lot of speculation, and just like Ozymandias‘s now infamous phone call, opinions seem to be all over the map.
Peter Gould himself stepped in to share his thoughts: “The way I see it is that Heisenberg is gone. He keeps trying to kind of evoke the ghost of Heisenberg, the thrill of feeling powerful, and it’s not there. It’s gone. It died when Hank died…It died when he saw baby Holly. And then in the end…what’s happening is he’s becoming something new. It’s not Walter White; it’s not Heisenberg. It’s something new.”
What does this mean for next week’s finale? It’s anyone’s guess. But for an all new variant of Walter White to show it’s face this late in the game, I must say the possibilities of that are far more thrilling than the return of either Walter White or Heisenberg. Regardless of what happens next week, Breaking Bad has cemented it’s legacy forever, and Granite State is one of it’s most unique and heartbreaking episodes to date. What very well could have been a simple reprieve from the depressing onslaught of these last few weeks, State takes the opportunity it’s positioning to paint a devastating picture of the destruction Walter White has brought upon himself. So many little moments are filled with subtle symbolism that deepen our understanding of all these different characters, and add even more dimensions to them. Granite State is by no means the most thrilling episodes of the series, but just like Fly it’s one of the most revealing. An unflinching look at the human heart and the corroding effects of untethered selfish ambition.
One to go. Make it count, Vince Gilligan.
Episode Grade: A
Credit goes to Heisenberg Chronicles on Tumblr for that awesome poster.
ALSO: Congrats to Anna Gunn and the entire Breaking Bad team on their Emmy wins!