TV Recap: Breaking Bad, “Granite State” (5.15)
“No matter how much you got, how do you turn your back on more?”
Walter White’s journey can be understood as a series of increasingly unforgivable lies. Seen from another angle, it can be understood as one man’s relentless denial of redemption. For 61 television hours, Walter White has resisted the opportunity to be redeemed with the cosmic pressure increasing as time progressed. In the first season, his suffering was mostly the result of cancer. By “Granite State,” his personal Hell is a Dostoyevskian opportunity.
Walter White’s journey can be understood as a series of increasingly unforgivable lies. Seen from another angle, it can be understood as one man’s relentless denial of redemption.
One of my favorite scenes in The Sopranos is in the third season when Carmela decides to see a psychiatrist. He tells her the truth – she must leave her husband and he can only be redeemed if he pays his debt to society. Of course, she shrugs it off. Here, the universe offers Walter White his greatest, and almost certainly final, opportunity for salvation in the form of an isolated cabin in New Hampshire – alone with his barrel of money. This is the apotheosis of Breaking Bad as a moral construction, reminding us, as Dostoyevsky did, that our personal Hell is also our greatest chance for renewal. I realize that I’m probably one of only 10 people who would watch it, but I’d love a show that documents Walter’s months spent in isolation – desperately clawing through Albuquerque newspapers for the faintest drop of ego-fuel, resisting every urge to truly confront himself. In his time alone, he not only fails to recognize that he needs to ask his family’s forgiveness; he fails to understand the corruption of his own motivations. In his call to Flynn (no longer a trace of “Walt Jr.” to be found, a seed wisely planted by the writers), he regurgitates the same rationalized bullshit that he’s been spreading around for years. And after a fateful encounter with Charlie Rose’s least interesting interview subjects ever, Walter succumbs to his greatest vice – ego. He has lost the right to a clean name, but his pride demands his name be remembered.
At this point, I find it more appropriate to read Breaking Bad as a story of addiction rather than corruption. In a show about illicit drug manufacture, the character that exhibits more characteristics of addictive behavior than any other is the one who has never even tasted his own product. When Vince Gilligan made his “Mr. Chips to Scarface” pitch, he might not have been thinking that Walter White would one day be possessed by Tony Montana’s obsessions and compulsions instead of his murderous rage. In an early scene this week, Walt tells Saul that he already plans to escape anonymity, murder Jack, and take back what’s his – with one crucial addendum, “then I’m out for good.” It’s something we’ve heard over and over. It’s also something that addicts tell themselves to rationalize continuation – “One more and then I’ll stop.” It’s a weak, expositional scene, but it gives us what I presume to be Saul’s last words, “It’s over.” Crippled by God, Walt still can’t hear the wisdom.
The most fascinating sequence in “Granite State” comes at the midpoint. Just after Robert Forster’s vanishing man drops Walt off at his new cabin, Heisenberg doesn’t miss a beat. Donning the pork pie hat that would surely lead to his capture, he begins to march toward town. Curiously, he only makes it to the gate (complete with Charles Foster Kane’s “No Trespassing” sign guarding the modern Xanadu) before saying the last word I ever thought I’d hear Walter White say – “Tomorrow.” He opens himself up to redemption. He begins to shed the ego.
At this point, I find it more appropriate to read Breaking Bad as a story of addiction rather than corruption. In a show about illicit drug manufacture, the character that exhibits more characteristics of addictive behavior than any other is the one who has never even tasted his own product.
It doesn’t last for long. The audience tempted by the possibility of redemption, “Granite State” shifts to Jesse, who has inhabited a spiritual Siberia for quite some time and, recently, endured brutal imprisonment. He manages to escape his hole for a brief, ecstatic moment. I’m so aligned with Jesse that I felt physically elated for the minute before Breaking Bad nosedives into the bowels of ruthlessness. Todd’s murder of Andrea is as senseless as anything we’ve seen on the show. In a way, it is a cheap narrative gesture, clearly meant to throw Jesse into absolute despair rather than illuminate any new character information. It’s a very crude reading, but the murder does at least allow for some kind of equilibrium to be reached in the Pinkman arc. Jesse has willingly murdered. He has committed crimes alongside the man he hates. Just because we sympathize with Jesse doesn’t mean that he is any less culpable. Again, I understand that this is a crude way to view the circumstance, but maybe it speaks to one element of the writer’s intentions. Jesse has already been repenting for a while, but Andrea’s murder attacks the main attribute that distinguishes him from the pigs that surround him – he cares about someone. It places Jesse in his own version of New Hampshire.
Breaking Bad’s most noble pursuit is moral order. In any other show, a good guy would have popped out and saved the day numerous times by now. But no matter how chaotic it may seem, it always feels like someone is watching over these characters, not keeping tabs, but quietly judging. Breaking Bad is a show that judges its characters fairly. Next week, there may be an overwhelming urge to see the power of justice enacted – the washing of sins or eternal damnation. But the more interesting idea is how narrative intersects with justice. Vince Gilligan and his writers have crafted this most moral of television shows almost completely by accident. The moral order is a function of the desire for a satisfying narrative. Ultimately, this writer’s room is a crowdpleasing agent. They aim to satisfy. Next week, pay attention to how that satisfaction interacts with the cosmic fairness we always hope will rule.
- * Sorry this piece turned into more of a treatise than a review. Actually, I’m not sorry. If you want a review, there are plenty to choose from.
- * With another couple episodes, Todd could have entered Breaking Bad’s villain pantheon with Gus Fring. His hand on Skyler’s shoulder was terrifying.
- * I wasn’t sold on the last shot/moment from a narrative perspective, but as cinema, it was solid. Hearing the main title theme creep in for the first time was baller.
- * Loved the shout out to Americone Dream, a nice second-tier Ben & Jerry’s flavor inspired by Stephen Colbert.
- * I wanted to briefly address the phone call from last week. I didn’t leave myself much space to write about it and I was surprised when it inspired a tsunami of thinkpiece-ejaculate. I assumed that it was, on the surface, meant to look like Walt salvaging what little he could of the life and universe that he destroyed – a view confirmed by the writer of the episode. But it was clearly a complicated speech, one that doesn’t easily break down into tidy, compartmentalized cubbyholes of Walter/Heisenberg dialectics. The call was ugly and messy. It was from the mind and from the gut. It was contradictory and ambiguous – a quality nearly universal in great ideas.
- * Congratulations to the show on its Emmy. I think season 5A was one of the weakest runs of the show (whereas we are now in probably the strongest), but it deserves to be recognized as a body of work. What’d you think of this week?