The article below contains spoilers for “Granite State,” the September 22nd, 2013 episode of “Breaking Bad.”
Of course, it’s the eternally pragmatic, amoral Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) who gives his fallen client Walter White (Bryan Cranston) the best advice that a nickel can buy — advice the guy doesn’t want to hear. As they both sit in the basement of the vacuum cleaner store owned by the man who makes people disappear (Robert Forster, who brings a Mike Ehrmantrautesque sense of wise matter-of-factness to his enterprise), Saul tells Walt not to leave, to turn himself in. He points out that Walt doesn’t have a lot of time left, that he’d be infamous in jail, “the John Dillinger of the Metropolitan Detention Center.” If Walt really wants to help his family, Saul explains, he’ll go back and face the charges rather than run and leave his wife and kids to deal with the wreckage he’s left them in.
Why doesn’t Walt turn himself in? Well, because he’s holding onto that last scrap of a chance to be the hero and the one in control, to be the man who can swoop in to kill off a compound of heavily armed neo-Nazis, take back the $80 million that was stolen from him and leave it for his children to live off of in comfort and security forever. Even with the Heisenberg pork pie hat on, it’s a series of tasks that’s all but impossible, and when he has a second to slow down and consider it, out alone in that New Hampshire cabin, he can’t bring himself to go past the gate. It’s an insane goal, but still easier for him to consider than the alternative, which is going down in defeat, failing at providing cash for his family, admitting fault and that he’s made some terrible mistakes.
I took a lot of criticism last week, quite fairly, for not pointing out that Walt obviously knew that the police were listening in on the call, and that Skyler knew he knew. While I still think the sentiments he let out were a genuine expression of his rage at his wife’s not falling into line and coming with him, the idea that he was making the call on her behalf honestly never occurred to me primarily because it was such a shitty (but admittedly very Walter White-style) plan. There’s no reason to believe that, just because you say on the phone that someone wasn’t a part of your criminal enterprise, but knew about it and has been living off of the proceeds, that that person is therefore legally off the hook — and for all that Walt’s been obsessed with leaving money for his family, he doesn’t seem to have given serious consideration to how assets and accounts get confiscated and frozen by the cops.
But it speaks to that binary view Walt’s always had of criminality and those who engage in it — that some people are criminals, and deserve whatever they get, and others are legit, and have an invisible line around them that he feels is understood. Mike was a criminal, as were his men. Hank was not, and that’s part of the reason his death was such a blow to our protagonist. Walt, in his own view, is still a good guy dabbling in drugs for absolutely legit reasons, for his family. Walt declared Skyler an innocent party, and therefore considered her safety taken care of, but the DEA are not going to see it that way and just let her go, and in addition to being left to support the family alone while being prosecuted, Skyler’s had her daughter threatened by Todd (Jesse Plemons) and his crew. The only valuable bit of information she has to offer in trade will get her or the kids killed.
And so, knowing some of that, Walt sat out there in the cabin, cold blueish light streaming in from the few windows, dying, paying $10,000 a pop for a stranger to sit and play cards with him for two hours as he wrestles with the fear keeping him pinned in that purgatory as months dragged by and his 52nd birthday in the Denny’s rushed up to meet him. (Here’s hoping he didn’t watch “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” — no one, even Heisenberg, deserves such a fate.) “Granite State,” which was written and directed by Peter Gould, comes after the action-packed, brilliant “Ozymandias” and is bound to look slower and pensive in contrast, but it’s an installment that, in a different way, I found to be just as good. Walt is so smart, but he’s a maddening liar, to himself most of all, and sitting there, dealing with the fact that his life could very easily wind down to an end in the snowy nowhere with a chemo bag hooked to a mounted deer head dripping into his veins, he finally had to look at himself with some kind of clarity.
Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte) hasn’t been the best utilized character in the series, but his scenes have been like a knife to the heart in these two episodes, as someone who’s been present the whole time but kept out of the loop. That phone call cut through all of Walt’s shored up delusions about doing things for his family — “You killed Uncle Hank, you killed him! What you did to mom — you asshole. I don’t want anything from you, I don’t give a shit.” Walt’s family is significantly worse off than they were when the show started, and for all the good intentions he weeps about on the phone, he’s destroyed their lives and their trust in a way that no barrel of money could fix.
That call (and Cranston is fantastic, as always, in this episode) was enough to motivate him to turn himself in — but there’s something stronger than love for Walter White, and that’s pride, and it’s both bleak and thrilling that the thing that gets him moving, not as a contrite Walt but as a vengeful Heisenberg, is the glimpse of his old Gray Matter Technologies partners on Charlie Rose, saying that all he contributed to their company was the name. That fact, that he could have been a contender but that he walked away, has been at the heart of his turn into the drug trade. Why shouldn’t it fuel his journey back for one last bloody hurrah?
So Saul seems to be off to Nebraska (soon to star in “Better Call Paul,” about the day-to-day hijinks of an irascible Midwestern Cinnabon manager with a mysterious past), and Walt is headed back to Albuquerque where, though he doesn’t know it yet, he may have one last run-in with his former partner Jesse (Aaron Paul). There was a group of pro-Walt die-hards who insisted after last week’s episode that he’d redeem himself by going back to rescue Jesse — which may actually happen, though through no benevolence on Walt’s part.
As far as Walt knows, he sent Jesse off to die and that’s what happened, though the younger man is in a situation that may be worse than death, living in that pit, cooking meth on demand and being rewarded with ice cream by the now completely frightening Todd (“That Opie, dead-eyed piece of shit,” as Jesse puts it). That escape sequence was an agonizing tease, the promise of freedom and of Jesse turning on the white supremacists put to a terrible end when he’s not just caught, but made to watch Andrea (Emily Rios) be murdered outside her house while being reminded her son’s still alive.
That’s it. We’ve caught up with the future — all that’s left is for Walter White to meet his destiny, and anyone it involves saving is going to be gravy. This is all about revenge, proving himself and going out with a bang.