A review of tonight's "Breaking Bad" coming up just as soon as I'm managing a Cinnabon in Omaha while owning three pairs of Dockers...
"I wanted to give you so much more, but this was all I could do!" -Walt
There was a point midway through "Granite State" where I was ready to accept the series' penultimate episode as a piece-mover for the finale's endgame: how Walt got from New Mexico to New Hampshire, what Skyler's new circumstances are, how so many of Todd's decisions are being driven by his crush on Lydia, etc. Not bad, but a comedown after the crushing emotions of "To'hajiilee" and "Ozymandias," right?
But then Walt stood in his lonely little mountain cabin, put on his Heisenberg hat and trudged out into the snow, and "Granite State" — written and directed by longtime producer Peter Gould — began revealing itself to be something much more complicated, dark and powerful: an hour-plus in which everything we loved about "Breaking Bad" was turned against us, until we were prisoners of the show in the same way that Walt, Jesse and Skyler all found themselves prisoners of their terrible new circumstances.
Early on, we see Jack and the other Nazis watching Jesse's confession video on a big-screen TV, laughing at Jesse as he tears up at the memory of Gale's death. "Does this pussy cry through the whole thing?" Uncle Jack sneers. This is something that we saw Jesse agonize over for a long time, and an action that the show had taken even longer building up to, and here, it's just fodder for jokes while the Nazis wait for something cooler to happen. They are essentially watching "Breaking Bad," and they've become what Emily Nussbaum from The New Yorker refers to as "the Bad Fan," watching for all the wrong reasons. We care deeply about Jesse Pinkman and his emotional highs and lows; they couldn't possibly care less.
And bit by bit, Todd, Jack and the Nazis take over every corner of the show. No one is safe from them. They can be in Holly's bedroom, ready to warn Skyler away from telling the cops about Lydia (which I suspect Skyler never would have even thought to do without Todd's prompting). They can be at Walt and Lydia's old meeting spot, with Todd all preppy and buttoned down and picking threads off of Lydia's blazer as he convinces her to keep the blue meth pipeline flowing. And they can be at Andrea's doorstep, putting a bullet in the back of her head while an enraged, powerless Jesse watches, bound and gagged in the truck.
As I've said, the Nazis aren't the show's most glamorous villains, but this is the point. They are here to reveal the fantasies of "Breaking Bad" for exactly that. The meth game isn't a quippy buddy comedy full of macabre slapstick and surprise escapes and thrilling improvised plans. It is cold, it is brutal, and it is inhuman. For a moment, it seems Jesse will be having one more adventure, as he picks the locks to his handcuffs and circus acrobats his way out of his dungeon, but it's just setting him up for one more devastating slap of reality.
You might think "Breaking Bad" wouldn't kill Andrea — that the show still, at this late date, has some boundaries it will not cross — but you would be wrong. The show we thought we were watching all along would not have done this; the show we were really watching all this time had to do this, no matter how hard it was for us and Jesse to witness.
Escape in "Granite State" is a fantasy. We discover that Walt's phone call at the end of "Ozymandias" wasn't a cure-all for Skyler's problems; so long as he stubbornly remains free, guarding money that it turns out will never make it to his family, Skyler will be a government target. After all the money Saul has made as Walt's consiglieri, the best he can hope for is a boring, anonymous life in Nebraska. Walt goes to his snowy mountain cabin with no phones, no TV, and no connection of any kind to the outside world.(*) He is completely alone with his barrel, and his thoughts, and his plans that he's too weak from cancer to act upon, so desperate for human contact that he pays his caretaker ten grand to spend a single hour with him.
(*) On the plus side, it has two copies of "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" on DVD!
Saul was right: Walt should have stayed in New Mexico to save his family. Instead, he thought he could find another way out of things: hiring hitmen to take down Jack's crew and retrieve the rest of his money (knowing recent luck, these new guys would've just kept the cash for themselves), or surreptitiously sending cash to his family through Flynn's best friend Louis. But, like so many of Walter White's self-rationalizations over the life of the series, it's all nonsense. He expects his son to be grateful to be receiving the money; Flynn understandably gives his dad an earful for murdering his uncle and destroying the family. Now Walt is left with nothing: money he won't live long enough to spend, and that his family won't accept even if he can get it to them, everyone he ever cared about either dead or despising him. It's enough to make him finally turn himself in, ask for a Dimple Pinch neat, and wait for arrest...
...until the series' very final act reveals itself with Gretchen and Elliott's Charlie Rose interview. We'd been assuming the machine gun was for the Nazis, and I suspect it still will be. But Walt decides to journey back to Albuquerque on his own, rather than in custody, due to his former lover and other former partner. We've never been told the full story on what happened between Walt and Gretchen (the closest the series ever came was in their ugly lunch in season 2's "Peekaboo"), but we know just how much he resents their success — as much for the prestige as for the money. Walter Hartwell White wants to be celebrated — say his name, say his name, say his name — and he wants his accomplishments known and fully credited. He couldn't leave well enough alone with Hank when Hank was ready to write Heisenberg off as Gale Boetticher, and there is no way on this Earth that he can let go Gretchen and Elliott claiming that his only significant contribution to Gray Matter was the name.
While bunking underneath the vacuum repair shop, Saul tries to tell Walt, "It's over," identical words to the ones Hank used when Walt was cornered in the desert. People keep telling Walt his story is over — and it will be after next week — but he doesn't want to listen. He wants to end it on his terms.
But as gratifying as it might be to imagine Walt pulling that machine gun out of his trunk, laying waste to the Nazis, rescuing Jesse, putting himself on trial to save Skyler, and other manner of cathartic action, I don't think the finale Vince Gilligan has in mind for us is going to be quite that neat. That's the kind of ending the great Heisenberg, who appears as a cartoon character on t-shirts nationwide, might have pulled off. What "Granite State" made clear is that in its end game, "Breaking Bad" is a show with no use for Heisenberg. He's an old clown who can't even make it to the end of the driveway without coughing. (And who earlier in the vacuum repair shop can't conjure up an intimidating old speech for similar reasons.) He may vanquish some of his enemies (may intend the ricin capsule for Gretchen and Elliott, for instance, rather than Lydia), but nothing he has ever done has gone exactly according to plan, and has almost always made things worse for him and those around him.
Escape is a fantasy. Heisenberg is a fantasy. "Breaking Bad" was at times a fantasy — an amazing one. This is something much colder and harder. This is the end coming fast for us all.
Some other thoughts:
* It wasn't the overwhelming Emmy night some had been predicting — I suspect that comes next year, when voters are picking based on these last eight episodes — but "Breaking Bad" broke through in two big new areas, with Anna Gunn joining Cranston and Paul among the cast's winners, and the series itself getting the top prize of Outstanding Drama Series. Yay, Anna Gunn! Yay, "Breaking Bad"! And what a puzzling (if often deserving) overall list of winners!
* I'd been wondering the last few weeks if we would ever get a look at Saul's identity-changing "guy." Then he revealed himself — in a piece of casting I'm impressed was kept secret — as ace character actor Robert Forster, who was perfectly calm and Ehrmantraut-esque in the best possible way. While I will keep an open mind about "Better Call Saul," at the moment I'd rather see a quasi-spin-off starring Forster and Jonathan Banks as no-nonsense retired cop brothers who bust up fools because it's just in their nature.
* And I assume that's it for Saul Goodman in the present-day reality of "Breaking Bad." Unlike Walt, Saul always had a secure sense of self and of his own limitations, and he knew when it was time to cut and run for Nebraska. Now Gould and Gilligan get to show us how Saul got to the point in his life where Walt and Jesse called him to get help with the Badger problem.
* In the past, Gilligan and company kept the muted f-bombs to maybe once a season. Now we've had two in two weeks, first with Hank dealing with the Nazis, here with Jesse declaring he won't be doing another cook for "You psycho fucks!"
* Aaron Paul does his own stunts! Or, at least, he had to do that one with the leap from the bucket. Impressive.
* Skyler goes back to using her maiden name, for obvious reasons, having no way of knowing that her husband is also now using the Lambert name. Again, no escapes are possible.
* I am, unfortunately, still in the hospital, and right after the episode ended, my nurse came in to tell me I needed two new IV ports put in. I described the earlier scene with Walt and his caretaker (who had watched a few YouTube tutorials), and she shrugged and said it's actually not that hard to learn after watching it a time or two. With any luck, I'll be home well before the finale airs, and can write that review under better circumstances, but I've felt much more clear-headed throughout writing this one, even as I feel strangely more connected to Walt's plight than ever before.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com