Breaking Bad Breakdown: Fast Forwarding
This is the conundrum, and the essence, of serial television. We have to balance the dual temporalities of story time, which Breaking Bad generally keeps under tight control, and screen time, which AMC has drawn out to exceptional lengths this time. Viewers have filled their 11-month gap with a wide range of practices, paratexts, rewatches, and obsessions – or not, having put the series out of mind until its return. But no matter what viewers might have done in the intervening months, they could not share the immediacy and urgency of Hank’s reaction to discovering that he’d been taking care of Heisenberg’s kids. We’ve been anticipating, while he’s still in shock.
What I find most interesting in the wholly excellent “Blood Money” is how the episode deals with time and pace, recapturing the audience into the program’s timeframe and setting us up for the final stretch. Of course, the episode delays Hank’s reaction just a little more, with a cold open set in the future first glimpsed in the season 5 premiere, “Live Free or Die.” Bearded New Hampshire Walt returns to his old house, now a skatepark for squatters, and reclaims the hidden ricin to compliment his machine gun, presumably arming himself for Heisenberg’s Last Stand. This sequence reminds us where we’re going—we still don’t know how we’ll get there or who else is left standing (or against whom he is trying to stand off), but it reestablishes the time frame that presumably these final eight episodes will trace.
After the title card, we finally return to Hank in the bathroom, watching the door while we wait for his exit. Dean Norris owned this episode, and his look of numb terror as he made his way through the house—Heisenberg’s house!—helped reset our timetables. Breaking Bad would be taking this slow, easing us through Hank’s emotional turmoil, his attempts to find proof, his renewed pursuit of his white whale (another W.W.). As always, the program’s style served the story and emotion beautifully, as the haunting silence in the house punctured by Hank’s labored breathing, and the uneasy, limping camera, made us feel Hank’s immediacy despite our 11 months waiting for him to emerge from the bathroom, locking us back into the program’s tight time frame.
The episode continues at this deliberate pace, picking up just when we left off in “Gliding Over All,” an episode that featured a very non-Breaking Bad jump forward of a couple of months via a montage. Walt is truly out of the game, working at the car wash with Skyler, where they both wear beige as a symbol of their shared attempt to reclaim their former mundanity (costume colors always matter on Breaking Bad), and rebuffing Lydia’s attempt to reel him back into the lab. We soon learn that Walt’s cancer has returned with his old wardrobe, confirming a suspicion that fans had discussed at length over the hiatus, and that he’s keeping his condition and treatment a secret from his family. One common technique that final seasons often use is calling back to the first season for circularity and closure, so Walt’s health, outfit, and attitude all mirror his early character in an attempt to return to some semblance of his normal life.
At least on the surface. When he confronts Jesse about giving away his money, Walt shows his true colors even while wearing beige. Creator Vince Gilligan has suggested that Walt’s true genius is not as a chemist but as a liar, able to convince everyone of anything, even himself—which stands in stark contrast to Hank, who struggles to convince anyone that he’s feeling ill. But Jesse has finally heard enough, not fully buying Walt’s insistence that Mike is alive—and more importantly, rejecting the emotional lie that they can just put their past actions behind them and “try to live ordinary, decent lives.” But while Jesse cannot let go of the past and move forward, Walt seems to have no trouble letting go of his past deeds while still maintaining a web of lies and half-truths buttressed by rationalizations. Jesse wears the past’s weight for both of them, eventually resorting to throwing his blood money out his car window to try to leave his guilt on strangers’ lawns.
Aside from Hank, the episode finds all the other characters in states of stasis and denial, but Hank’s in-home investigation moves the narrative forward. First we watch Hank convince himself that his suspicions are correct, then try to assemble enough evidence to make a case stick. His investigation serves another function of final seasons, calling back to previous moments via the headshots of departed characters so we get one (presumably) final glimpse of Gus, Gale, Combo, and the like. And the cat-and-mouse chase launches late in the episode, when Walt realizes his Whitman is missing, and he soon suspects that Hank is on his trail at long last. The episode’s measured pace suggests that this chase will be slow-burning for the rest of the season, as they circle around each other and look for an opening. Walt’s visit to Hank’s garage feels like a probe, with Walt trying to gauge how much Hank might know and pick-up any clues that he can rationalize away with his superpower, and Hank struggling to maintain his cool despite his disgust at being in the same room as Walt (compare how Hank behaves here versus his calm confidence when he interrogates Gus back in season 4 to appreciate Dean Norris’s stellar performance).
And then the final scene hits the fast-forward button. When Hank picked up the garage door opener, my wife and I both involuntarily leaned forward off the couch as we wondered, “is the series really doing this already?!” Yes, yes it is.
The confrontation is as delicious as I’d imagined it over the last 11 months. Hank is the one who resorts to physical violence, but I feared for his safety more than Walt’s, having witnessed so much carnage left in the latter’s wake. While Walt does not quite admit to being Heisenberg, he he pivots away from denial to try to bring Hank into his inner circle of rationalized pragmatism: since he’s dying of cancer, the pursuit of justice is just an inconvenient hassle that will hurt the family. After Hank shows that he’s made of stronger stuff than that, Walt brings out Heisenberg to offer a chilling episode-ending threat to “tread lightly.”
After waiting 11 months, Breaking Bad didn’t wait long to take us deep into its climax, lulling us into an intense but measured pace only to push us up against the garage door in the final moments. We’re back in the game, and it’s going to be played hard and fast.
Random Stacks of Money in the Bushes:
- So I’ll be writing up Monday morning breakdowns of all eight episodes for Antenna. While there is no shortage of such pieces available across the web, I’ll try to provide a slightly more academic take on the narrative, especially aiming to connect episodes to ideas I’ve explored in my book Complex TV, where Breaking Bad is one of the chief case studies. I’ve also posted some pre-season thoughts at my blog which I might refer to as the season moves forward. And as is the norm for such write-ups, I’ll save some random observations and favorite moments for the end of each piece.
- Always great to see Badger and Skinny Pete rambling on, but their Star Trek conversation was epic! If only poor Jesse could just relax and geek out with them.
- My one quibble with the episode was that there was not enough Skyler, as the episode was tightly focused on the trio of Walt, Hank, and Jesse. I’ve come to adore Skyler and her story, so I hope the season gives her opportunity to push back against Walt more, once she learns more about the “collateral damage” he’s inflicted. That said, she was fun smacking down Lydia.
- I’m disappointed in Saul’s ethics, betraying one client to another. If you can’t trust a stripmall lawyer with cardboard Greek columns in his office, who can you trust?
- Breaking Bad is a show rich with paratextual pleasures and fan creativity, so I’ll share a favorite example at the end of each week’s column. This video, as tweeted out by Bryan Cranston himself, is a wonderful example of remix that is both fun & funny, and actually provides some analytic depth of character alongside its sense of play. Enjoy!