Breaking Bad is chiefly about mortality. Every single event from the past five seasons occurred not because of Walter White's life but because of his imminent death. The cancer diagnosis in the pilot was like a pipe bomb on a train track: It was violent, it was wrenching, and it transformed a boring local into a terrifying express. Freed, suddenly, from the bonds of his expected future and the consequences of his repressed id, Walt chased his twin muses, chemistry and family, down a series of rabbit holes that wound up leading him straight to hell. But it was all worth it, he reasoned again and again to anyone who would listen. He had good motives for doing bad. And so, since he wouldn't be around to see the outcome — or pay the price — Walt chose to live every one of his remaining weeks like Shark Week, unconcerned with all the collateral chum left in his wake. Besides, Walt's inevitable death would absolve his sins, and all the dirty work he did while alive would provide a clean start for those he left behind.
But the difference between an exit and an escape is really just context. And as the cancer receded and the seasons wore on, Walt's flimsy justifications began to disappear too. The thing that Breaking Bad has never shied away from is reminding its audience that Walt's circumstance, while unfortunate, wasn't particularly special. An imminent demise may change what you do, but it doesn't affect who you are. And it doesn't (or it shouldn't) mean you can flick aside morality like Jesse Pinkman disposing of a cigarette butt. The universe isn't in the habit of handing out hall passes. The reality is that the worst of Heisenberg was always lurking just beneath Walter White's wallpaper wardrobe. Cancer merely fulminated the mercury buried within his own dark, frustrated heart. After all, every one of us is dying. The only question, as Superchunk once sang, is how fast.
With the cancer back and his secret out, Walt's chickens have now well and truly come home to roost (although in this case it feels a lot more like avian bird flu). But what I found so brilliant and bracing about "Blood Money," the first of Breaking Bad's final eight episodes, was the way the show — like its protagonist — so obviously intends to die as it lived: recklessly, fearlessly, and to the fullest. Before we even get into Mr. Lambert's house call or Lydia's power wash or Jesse's drive-by charity, let's go straight to the end, to that incredible, heart-punching scene in which Hank's driveway functions as the dark version of one of Superman's phone booths: mild-mannered Walter White enters but it's evil Heisenberg who stays. When it was over and it was just two bald, furious men staring daggers alongside a dusty workbench, I know I wasn't the only one watching who felt as if his stomach had just been transported into the inky, blueberry-filled blackness of space.
Has TV disappointed us or merely conditioned us to expect that the final confrontation teased on the toilet one year ago — between cop and criminal, between brother-in-law and brother-in-lawless — would be delayed for at least a couple of weeks? After all, there are no more external threats, no more supervillains. Hank vs. Walt is the final boss battle because, outside of personal demons, there simply isn't anyone else left to fight. But where other shows craft elegant story lines and then hang back awhile to admire them, Breaking Bad smashes straight through audience anticipation and its own artful design. Its narrative is as impatient as Walter Jr. in the cereal aisle. I mean, the episode was strong enough. How cocky and crazy was it for Walt even to show up at Hank's? And what level of insanity did it reach in both the writers' room and in Walt's mind to have him stop, turn, and reveal the GPS transmitter in his pocket? Forget the delicate dance of cat and mouse a generation of TV built on coy delay had prepped us to expect. Here, the cat punched the mouse in the nose and called him a monster. The mouse then stood up, casually brushed himself off, and transformed into Satan. It's awfully rare to see television so unafraid of delivering on what it has promised. And it's quite possible that no show has ever promised more than Breaking Bad. How many minutes is it until next Sunday?
"Blood Money," written by longtime staffer Peter Gould, was plenty grim, but wasn't there also something gleeful and almost giddy about it? Most showrunners approach the end of their runs with trepidation and anxiety. By contrast, Vince Gilligan seems like Rube Goldberg throwing open the doors to his studio after a night left alone with an Erector Set and a bottomless pot of coffee. Gilligan is so confident in what's to come, he has already effectively pre-spoiled at least part of his own endgame: We know that, despite what Walt tells Hank, he will indeed survive longer than six months. We know that Walt has escaped into the Granite State with a new identity and a new beard. (Perhaps using the very expensive getaway service that Saul teased a few seasons back?) And we know that "Mr. Lambert" has made the long drive home from New Hampshire to settle some unfinished business with a very large gun and now, quite wonderfully, that long-promised capsule of Chekhov's ricin. The teaser — in which squatting skateboarders have turned the family pool into a half-pipe and the White house is revealed to be boarded up, abandoned, and festooned with the sort of graffiti that always emerges when a cult forms around a legendary bad guy — was masterful and exhilarating. It's not usually this much fun to know the destination in advance, is it? Gilligan is the rare magician who shows you the magnets, ropes, and pulleys, then dazzles you with the trick anyway. Hi, Carol!
It wasn't just the big lingering questions that were answered last night. The episode also tackled nearly every remaining small one. To wit: Yes, Walt did really quit the business entirely in "Gliding Over All." And yes, he seems to be serious about fixing the parts of Skyler's life that shattered when he decided to break bad. (Although it appears he hasn't told her about his health.) And she, in turn, is playing her role to perfection, planning a second honeymoon in Europe, running the world's most lucrative car wash, and rebuffing Lydia before her rental even has a chance to be buffed. Oh, Lydia. Such a great and specific character and one I almost wish had joined the show earlier in its run. Now I fear she won't make it to the finish line. "You're putting me in a box here," she seethes to Walt when he refuses her entreaties to get back to work. I have a feeling her words might prove too prophetic and not at all metaphorical.
Wait, I take back the previous paragraph: One question still remains. Did Hank finish his business? Or at least offer up a courtesy flush? Seeing him stand up again was what all Breaking Bad fans had waited a calendar year for, and it didn't disappoint. Bryan Cranston directed the episode, and he and Dean Norris staged Hank's realization — and its aftereffects — to perfection. The entire thing felt like the moment after you surface from a deep dive with water clogging your ears; all that's audible is the terrible thump-thump-thumping of your own heart. No one thought Hank would merely cowboy up and collar his brother-in-law then and there, did they? We've had 54 episodes to learn that Hank hides a tactician's mind and a romantic's heart behind the gruff demeanor and coarse manners of a grizzly bear pledging a fraternity. The panic attack felt true and, more than that, it felt devastating. Hank will do anything to bring Walt down, even though it will destroy his own family — and, most likely, his reputation — in the process. (Another smart trick: All the time spent having Walt Jr. and Holly live with their aunt and uncle wasn't about the rupture in the White marriage. It was about giving Hank another layer of skin in the game.)
Out of the entire hour, the only thing that momentarily made me look like Huell when Jesse pulled out the joint in Saul's waiting room was, unfortunately, the business with Jesse himself. Now, to be clear, this was no fault of Aaron Paul's. What's been incredible to watch over these past few seasons is the way such a kinetic actor has grown more powerful the more still he's had to become. At this point in the series, Jesse — red-eyed and hollowed out — has been smoked to the bone. He's a chewed-up filter dropped on the sidewalk; all the useful bits have been slowly puffed away. The scene in which Walt brings him the money for a second time was as powerful as any the two have shared — with special credit going to Cranston, the director, for the devastating two shot on the couch, when Walt, usually such a nimble liar, seemed to put an emphasis on the wrong part of this sentence: "I need you to believe me." Jesse, at long last, realizes that it has only ever been about what his misguided surrogate father needs. (It's always important when Walt pulls out a "son." Cranston drops the word like a 15-pound bowling ball, right on someone else's foot.) It was Mike who really cared for Jesse, just as it was Mike who actually knew how to care for his family, how to keep them clean while his own ends got bloody. Walter White is the one who knocks everything sideways and then claims he's the only one capable of picking it all back up.
I guess what I'm saying is, we've seen Jesse shell-shocked before, and we've seen him so low it's hard to remember the times he was high. Throwing the money around like the vengeful paperboy in Better Off Dead made for great visuals but less-than-rewarding content. As we approach the combustible final cook, we know that Walt is the agent and Hank, despite his badge, is the reagent. It's Jesse Pinkman who, as always, will serve as the unstable molecule dropped into the petri dish. I spent my entire season preview arguing that Walter White has always had one foot in the grave and that Breaking Bad will surprise absolutely no one by spending these last seven hours pushing him all the way in. The real uncertainty, and much of the remaining drama, lies with the fate of his protégé.
I think it's wrong to say, as many have, that Jesse is the "hero" of this story. Clearly that role goes to the rock-obsessed home-brewer with the DIY Lester Freamon tackboard going in his garage. But Jesse is more interesting because he lacks such a traditional role. Instead, he's the only recognizable human left on the game board, a hoodied Rick Jones stuck with courtside seats to a fistfight between the Incredible Hulk and the Thing. While Walt tries to swat flies and Hank will now attempt to catch one, it's Jesse who sits and stares at a cockroach feeling more than a little sense of kinship. Jesse is the one who sampled the product, who lost his love, who pulled the trigger. If he were to kill someone else, even Walt, he might never forgive himself. If he were to die, we'd never forgive Vince Gilligan.
And so, whatever uncertainty remains in this series falls to him and not to Heisenberg. Depending on what Jesse does next and who he does it to, the ending could prove to be satisfying and soul-crushing or merely — mercifully! — satisfying. After all: Is Mr. Lambert returning to Albuquerque in order to hunt down a foe or in a final effort to protect a friend? As last night's sped-up storytelling proved, Breaking Bad is never one to beat around the bush. So why do I have a feeling that this question might be among the very last to be answered? And that, either way, the catalyst we're talking about — either the friend or the foe — will turn out to be Jesse Pinkman? As I said at the top, everybody's dying, bitch. The question is how fast.