The article below contains spoilers for “Blood Money,” the August 11th, 2013 episode of “Breaking Bad.”
“Heisenberg” — written in bright yellow letters, right across the living room wall. In a flashback once, “Breaking Bad” showed us a younger, achingly hopeful Skyler (Anna Gunn) and Walter White (Bryan Cranston) touring this house and considering it as a place in which they’d start their family. The flashforward that kicks off “Blood Money,” the series’ midseason premiere and the first of its final arc of eight episodes, gives us the end of the White residence — abandoned, boarded up, locked behind a gate with warning signs, kids breaking in to skateboard in the emptied-out pool and decorate the exterior with graffiti.
It’s one hell of an image, bearded, 52-year-old Walt tracking through the dark, empty wreckage of his former home to retrieve the ricin he hid behind the electrical outlet in “Madrigal,” staring down his warped face in the broken mirror, the sight of him as he leaves so shocking to his neighbor that she drops her groceries on the ground. It’s also a thrillingly satisfying one — to look at Walt, one year from now, alone, the suburban life and family for which he claimed to be doing everything gone, gone, gone. Whether they’re dead, whether they’ve fled, moved away, are waiting for him somewhere, Walt is apparently solo in preparing for some showdown with his poisons and his machine gun, and everything he’s built looks to have gone to hell. Walt’s hid behind a lot of bullshit over the seasons, but the idea that he’s been doing this all for the benefit of his loved ones sure seems to be off the table.
Walt really doesn’t deserve a happy ending. But death, as inevitable a destination as it seems, does feel like it might be too simple a fate for the man, in a drama in which karma has always come calling. Walt’s been prepared for death. It’s been his source of strength, what started him on this path to begin with — fueled by a genuine, despairing panic to leave money for his wife and children to live off of when he’s gone, mixed with a self-righteousness and increasingly large helpings of deluded hypocrisy.
Walt could go out congratulating himself on his martyrdom, easy — but to go down as a criminal, to lose the mask of respectability (was the house been seized by the cops?) under which he’s been living, to be Heisenberg to the world and not just as an underworld legend, to be treated like the bad guy he’s become… that’d be a much more brutal blow to a man whose desire to be known as “the one who knocks” has coexisted far too easily with his self-image as a devoted father, patient husband and courageous cancer survivor.
The return of that cancer, which Walt has been hiding from Skyler and Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte), is just one of the many things that threatens to creep up on our protagonist in “Blood Money,” a terrific, tense episode directed by Cranston and written by Peter Gould that holds up to some astronomically high expectations. There’s also the question of Jesse (Aaron Paul), who’s being eaten away by guilt (and Badger’s “Star Trek” fan fiction) to the point where he might try anything, and who, via Saul (Bob Odenkirk), ill-advisedly tries to give away five million dollars of “blood money” to Mike Ehrmantraut’s granddaughter Kaylee and to the parents of the kid killed during the “Dead Freight” train job. There’s the nervous Lydia (Laura Fraser) and the meth-making empire she still represents, from which Walt abruptly exited. Purity levels are down, and what’s the Czech Republic to do? It’s bad enough that she felt the need to pay him a call at the car wash, where she’s driven away by a Skyler who apparently believes in Walt’s newfound dedication to leading a lawful life.
And most importantly, there’s Hank (Dean Norris), who we catch up with still there on the toilet staring at that “Leaves of Grass” inscription from poor, dead Gale Boetticher, and slowly putting together who his brother-in-law really is. The show nicely portrays Hank on the verge of stroking out under the initial weight of this revelation, driving the car right into someone’s front yard before returning from the emergency room collected and determined to officially make the connection.
To the show’s credit, the confrontation isn’t pushed off. Walt, in a slightly convenient touch, sees that his Walt Whitman book is missing and cottons to what’s happened, finding a tracker under his car and going to confront Hank in the garage out of what reads primarily as arrogance. It’s a fantastic scene, with Hank lowering the garage door via remote and Walt shifting between blitheness, feigned demurrals, pity-seeking and threats (“Tread lightly”). He gets what’s been long in coming to him — that punch, yes, but also Hank’s listing to his face the sins he’s all but convinced himself he didn’t commit, like the killing of Mike’s accomplices and the bombing of the nursing home.
It’s strange to want to cheer to a character’s declaring he doesn’t “give a shit about family,” but Hank’s absolutely justified in that, especially after all Walt’s sanctimony-clad villainy — he’s a good cop, and a good man, and he knows he has Walt dead to rights in his monstrousness. Norris’ dazed eyes when he finally glimpses Heisenberg are something else — stunned, betrayed and disbelieving. It’s paired with another intensely strong exchange, the scene between Walt and Jesse in which Jesse’s so sick of it all he lets on to Walt that he knows Mike is dead, despite the fact that it could sign his death warrant, Paul wonderfully broken as his former partner drones on about how “you need to stop focusing on the darkness behind you — the past is the past.”
But the past isn’t only the past. Walt’s fooling himself once again if he thinks getting out of the game is as simple as quitting a job — just walking away and investing himself in the placement of the car wash’s air freshener selection instead of the running of an international drug manufacturing and smuggling operation. Even if he can worm his way out of Hank’s grasp for a little while, life has never been so uncomplicated in “Breaking Bad,” ties never so easy to snip, and Walt never as smart as he likes to believe, especially not about the criminal world. If the next seven episodes are going to be like this one, the big question is one of how bad things are going to get, and who Walt’s taking with him on his way down.