How will it all end for Walter White? With 14 episodes left in the series, this question lingers. Will he be granted a last meal of tater tots dipped in “Franch” or “Cajun Kick-ass?” Will he end it on his own terms with the flush of a toilet in his wake like Peter Schuler? Could Hank put all the pieces together and disregard his notion of nerdy Walt, recognizing how warped he’s become? Might Jesse overcome all the emotional abuse and manipulation and rid himself of his mentor? Or will the petrified Skylar gather the strength to roll out of bed and roll on her husband?
For now, Walt is in control. We ended season 4 with him frenzied as he tried to outlast his employer. But as his own boss, he’s confident that he’s pulling the strings. In most respects, his lack of caution is warranted. The remaining names on the Los Pollos Hermanos payroll are wiping each other out, Mike eventually gravitates toward a partnership, and his loved ones are either too afraid or loyal to pose a threat. Except Hank. Though he’s been blinded by his friendships before, he’s a keen investigative mind. As his commanding officer George Merkert reminisces about grilling with Gus Fring, “And the whole time he was someone else…right under my nose.” Hank looks back with a puzzled, discerning gaze. Does he recognize his own blindness, or does he pity the man? Either way, last week’s magnet heist resulted in more harm than good. The laptop was encrypted, so perhaps undecipherable, but the picture frame that was cracked led the feds to the Cayman Island money trail. While Mike’s name wasn’t listed, his granddaughter’s was. And the rest of Mike’s men are being squeezed with promises of receiving some of their due compensation. Nothing quite shatters loyalty like withholding paychecks. If Hank keeps following the scent, could he finally smell something rotten in Walt?
With how Cranston commands the screen so unilaterally, it’s nice to see some of the superb supporting cast shine. Aaron Paul (Jesse) has been nominated yet again, and Giancarlo Esposito (Gus), has been recognized by the Emmys for his glorious exit. Maybe this season will be the breakout for Jonathan Banks, who plays Mike “the Cleaner.” He got a spotlight this week as the worn-down Batman. He was ready to pack his bags and spend time playing Hungry, Hungry Hippos with granddaughter Kaylee. Yet circumstances, and perhaps conscience, pull him back in like the grey-haired Michael Corleone (Count ‘em two! Two movie references! *Count from Sesame Street cackle*).
Also cementing itself in my memory was another jarring cold open. We knew about Madrigal before. Hank had connected the dots and traced Gale’s filtration system order back to the multinational conglomerate. Now the web Walt has tangled himself in seems infinitely more intricate. From the same sleuthing we knew that Madrigal had a foothold in American fast food, but we finally meet the man behind the delectable fried chicken—Peter Schuler. Seen indulging in some new sauce formula, dipping his tater tots generously into the assortment, a German lab man describes them to him. Off-beat humor reigns supreme as the tiny scientist details the nuances of a combo french and ranch dressing (“Franch” needs to exist).
The man is summoned by his secretary: “Three are back.” Looking somewhat distraught, he leaves the lab and walks out into the sheen of his complex where the “Los Pollos Hermanos” sign is being taken down. He peeks into a room where three cops await. He’s clearly anticipating some legal retribution for swimming with the sharks. They peer at a photo of Gus and him on the gold course. So he chooses death over dishonor. He grabs the defibrillator and undresses in the men’s room as the police knock furiously. He hooks himself up to the machine and shocks himself to death. Like when Gus undressed and sliced open a man’s throat in the season 4 premiere “Box Cutter,” it’s all very methodical. There’s a decorum, even a grace about the way this international businessman takes his own life to avoid any further assault on his reputation. It also allows the company later to claim him as “an anomaly.” I’m unsure of what this means for his restaurant operations, but good lord, must those hard-working lab techs suffer?! They are sauce geniuses for Christ’s sake!
I’m always intrigued when they show expands their methodology. Not only is it inventive storytelling, but it’s heightens the moral investment in Walter White. Sure, Herr Schuler was a guilty man, with filth on his hands, but through Walt’s reckless, albeit masterful, murder of Gus, the consequences ripple out way past his and Jesse’s survival. Not only does this man commit suicide, but he endangers countless others, including the freshly introduced Lydia. You may have thought the branches of his indecency could not impact any more lives than his inaction of season two. Granted his connection to the plane crash was slightly more tenuous, but as Walter grows bolder, he grows colder too (Will the landslide bring him down, Ms. Nicks?). His power grabs have thrust many to the edge. Mike’s grave warning, “Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” now clangs. I think the tremors of the explosion will shake up many more lives before this half-season is wrapped up.
The only concern Walt placates this week is Jesse’s worry about the missing ricin cigarette. As Saul confirmed, Walt did have it ripped from him in order to orchestrate his plan to win Jesse over to his side again. He needed Jesse to believe Gus would frame Walt for the poisoning of Brock as a subtle way of ordering Jesse to kill him. It was a brilliant, psychologically sadistic plan. But Jesse would languish for a long time if he felt that cigarette got in the wrong hands. So Walt uses his scientific noggin again to manufacture a fake as the voiceover of a panicked Jesse phone call plays in the background. Ricin looks an awful lot like salt. Therefore, he pours salt in a vial and stuffs it in an identical cigarette. He plants the real vial of ricin on the back of an electrical switch plate behind his nightstand for safe keeping. Then he heads over to Jesse’s place for an upbeat, playful sequence where the duo looks in every nook and cranny for the cig. Gilligan uses this opportunity for his inventive camera angles. He looks up at Walt and Jesse from tables and floors, he turns the lens upside down, and arranges various disorienting close-ups to the tune of “Stay on the Outside” by Whitey.
We also witness the return of DJ Roomba, the robot vacuum who gained fame last season as Jesse’s rager companion. Walt acts as if he’s never seen this contraption. He wonders aloud if the vacuum has sucked it up. Jesse insists he checked inside a week ago, but Walt presses him to check. Lo and behold, that’s where it was (Walt, of course, planted it). The subsequent scene gave Aaron Paul a chance to teach heartbreaking acting. Jesse erupts in tears as his guilt pours out. “I almost shot you. I don’t know what’s wrong with me, Mr. White….I’m so sorry.” It sickens me when Walt rubs his shoulders to console him. He implants more brainwashing with, “I wouldn’t change a thing. Having each other’s backs, it saved our lives. I want you to think about that going forward.” He’s no doubt taking advantage of the vulnerable boy to advocate for his own interests: building his empire.
Mike is watching the appropriately chosen “The Caine Mutiny”—a story about a captain who loses the respect of his officers when his insanity overtakes him—when Walt and Jesse come knocking. Walt proposes a three-way partnership and Mike declines. He delivers the line from the previews, “You are trouble. I’m sorry the kid here doesn’t see it….You are a time bomb, and I have no intention of being around for the boom.” Mike is a professional. He knows what it takes. What is Walter missing? Better question, does he have a fatal flaw? Is it the same pride that suckered him into illegal means to support his family? Walt is secure in his offer, however, and asks Mike to sleep on it as Mike reluctantly shakes his hand.
Next, we see Mike at Breaking Bad’s favorite restaurant chain—Denny’s. A women in oversized sunglasses sits behind him nervously. Mike listens as she gives the waitress a hard time over their tea options (she ends up with just hot water and a lemon). Mike asks if he is coming over, or will she? Overcautious, the woman wants to stay not facing each other. Of course, Mike goes over anyway. She calls him Dwayne, but the waitress knows Mike, so it’s fruitless. She whispers about who killed Gus, and for whatever reason, Mike dodges the question. Is he protecting her? Because I believe Mike would have no qualms about finding Walt in a ditch. Next, the woman hands him a list of 11 men who could “sink them.” Mike seems furious that she would suggest he kill his guys. They’re solid, he says. “They’re paid to stand up to the heat.” Mike will find out though, that that bond is being tested by the authorities. He continues, “I don’t know what kind of movies you’ve been watching, but we don’t kill 11 men as some kind of prophylactic measure.”
The woman, whose name is Lydia (played by Scot actress Laura Fraser, sporting a convincing accent) seems satisfied. As an addition to the cast, her usefulness remains to be seen. Since Schuler offed himself, it’s necessary for a representative of Madrigal to be present and to initiate the “cleansing” that takes place, but I’m concerned what role she’s supposed to play. She’s scared, shaking the whole time, and yet she’s involved in this business? Supposedly she has connections, but she doesn’t seem to have the stuff for this profession. I’m hoping that as this story develops her past contributions to Gus’ empire, and her connection with Madrigal are more elaborated on. Laura Fraser seems like a fine actress, but everyone who has entered this show through the drug tie-ins has seemed sturdy, not shuddering.
After enjoying another breakfast, Walt Jr. leaves the White home and Walt shakes Skylar awake. She’s avoiding the car wash and doesn’t seem eager to see her husband. In a stroke of visionary direction, neither of their faces are shown as if to depict lifelessness, or at least the illusion that she can’t even look at him anymore. I could see how some would find Skylar cowardly for sleeping all day and just lying frigid in his presence, but I saw it more as shame and depression than fear. Yes, she’s expressed being scared of him, but she’s also reconciling what happened to Ted. Though by accident, she played a role in his injuries. She can’t stand face herself and see a similar monster to the one who lays beside her. There’s a lot of guilt and grief she’s shouldering. She’s harboring a full-fledged criminal, and that means she’s been morally corrupted. Any action he takes reflects her, and everything she does is associated with him as well. Wouldn’t you wish to escape that life for a day or two?
Elsewhere in Albuquerque, Mike heads to the DEA for questioning. He sees Chow as he’s leaving. The man is shaken after the interrogation, seeming worried about what will follow. Mike is, as always, cool. Hank employs his humiliating humor, but Mike shrugs it off. After a crack about “guarding the special sauce” he simply states he provided corporate security. He’s a licensed P.I. in every state they operate in and a concealed carry gun owner. We learn as an audience that he was indeed a cop back in Philly. We’re left hanging when Hank suggests his tenure ended “dramatically.” They threaten Mike with the possibility someone has already implicated him as Gus’ muscle. “What else did you do for Fring.” They mention they know of his drug empire, and Mike denies any knowledge of such an enterprise. He brazenly puts his hands on the table asking, “Forget your handcuffs?” He’s confused as to why he’s there when no charges have been filed. Mike sarcastically quips, “You wanna state that for the camera?” Hank pulls the rabbit out of his hat though when he reveals his knowledge of the Cayman account in Mike’s granddaughter’s name, joking that he deduced a fifth grader couldn’t be the highest paid person on the payroll. Infuriated, but bottling it up, Mike repeats his refrain of ”I know nothing” and stomps away. Having Kaylee’s future threatened doesn’t sit well.
In Saul’s office, Walt and Jesse meet to discuss the logistics of starting up cooking again. Walt immediately decrees, “No more RVs.” Jesse mourns “The Crystal Ship”—his pet name for their old lab. He’s so awesome, why does Walt have to drag him down with him! Walt asks how Jesse’s doing finding precursor, and he’s only missing methylamine. He’s convinced it can’t be found. Walt refuses to degrade himself to a “pseudo-cook.” At this time, Saul gives his friendly advice about quitting while ahead, saying a lottery ticket winner wouldn’t buy another ticket, he’d cash in. In condescending fashion, reasserting the servile relationship of last week, Walt refutes that he didn’t win any lottery. He’s $40,000 in debt, and there’s gold in the streets, waiting to be scooped up. Walt sees himself as a job creator of sorts. He’s of the privileged few that could get the wheels turning. He even mentions his “superior product” like he’s a legit entrepreneur. It’s all a crock of shit to help him, or maybe at this point everyone around him, sleep at night.
Mike gets a call from Chow as he’s watching Kaylee. Chow’s very adamant that unless he can provide him with compensation, he might fold. When he hangs up, and Mike promises to meet, we see a man pointing a gun at Chow. Mike’s savvy enough that he’s aware this could be a trap. He’s walks up to the front door as one of his former “guys,” Chris, points a silenced pistol in the peephole. He hears a rapping on the door that is Mike’s granddaughter’s pig doll hanging and knocking into it. This provides enough distraction for him to sneak up on Chris. He politely asks him to sit next to Chow, who we see has been popped in the head. Chris admits to being hired by Lydia, and that she was offering triple for Mike. Chris even confesses to needing his money, that it’s not personal. Mike understands and even grants him the courtesy of saying, “You ready?” before he kills him.
Immediately Mike heads to Lydia’s gorgeous hillside mansion. As the nanny puts her daughter to bed, he covers Lydia’s mouth and fumes, “Two good men died because of you!” He asks if she has anything to say and her only request is that she not disappear, that her daughter finds the body so she doesn’t feel abandoned. Mike hesitates. He is “the Cleaner” after all, he doesn’t leave any mess. So whether it is for his own benefit—well his granddaughter’s, so that he can fill his pockets again and secure her future—or hers because he is a softie for little girls, Mike gives Lydia an out. He inquires about methylamine, the one hitch in Walt’s rebuilding. She apparently still has a connect. He lets her live and calls Walt, having changed his mind. He’s in.
Walt goes back to washing dishes, an apt metaphor for this two-episode process of cleaning up. His cancer-riddled hunch has straightened. All the pieces seem to be forming for his vision, but his ignorance may still catch up to him. He believes he knows all the secrets, that by killing the crown wearer, he’s inherited it. But this is not a monarchy, power is not divinely bestowed, it is gained through divine knowledge. He doesn’t care to know everything because he’s ensnared enough “friends” into his operation that they will take care of him. But what about when Hank looks under his nose for his next clue? What about when Skylar gets out of bed? What about when Jesse realizes that he should have shot Mr. White that night? Gus was always seeking out more knowledge about everyone he entrusted. Walt is sure he knows it all. Hubris doesn’t build an empire, it fuels it. And like the crawl space in his home, the foundation of his rising operation is built on some hidden treasures. Can Walt leave them buried, when his brother-in-law is so adept at digging?
The last frames focus on Skylar. Walt disrobes and snuggles up to her saying that she missed his lasagna. She stares in the opposite direction, never looking back. He tries, like with Jesse, to comfort her. “You know it gets easier…” The justifications he’s made for himself are his poison. He hopes to numb her, to deaden her soul with his reasoning. You’ll get past all the ugliness and the regret with time. He finishes with, “When we do what we do for good reasons, we’ve got nothing to worry about. And there’s no better reason than family.” The whole time she’s flinching, shivering as he kisses her neck and shoulders, caressing her. How filthy must she feel. All this violence and atrocity has been committed in her and her children’s names. In the name of love. How perverse.
As an expression of his devotion he’s destroyed instead of cultivated. He’s endangered the sanctity of the home he claims to protect. What choices she does have are equally damaging. Either she accepts all the cruelty, sacrifices her integrity and continues to support this charade, or she chooses to deny the father of her children and declare him a monster. Either way she acknowledges her complicity. She’s been trapped by the animal, not the other way around. While Anna Gunn has been portraying a largely lifeless woman, she’s overflowing with emotion to the point it appears she’s lost feeling. I’m fascinated by her crossroads, and the precipice they all stand on. Walt washes his hands to muddy them some more. Jesse sulks in his sins, but commits to a sinner. And Mike anguishes in his former employer’s absence, by agrees to an alliance with his repulsive killer. Everyone seems to be scarred by the past and not allowing themselves to heal either. For a show that started with a race against cancer, everyone seems to be ignoring the malignant, walking tumor that’s metastasizing.