Walter White and the Flyswatter of Destiny
Andy Greenwald: What do we want when a beloved television show ends? Closure? Hope? Surprise? Or one last twist of the knife?
We've experienced all four over the course of this past decade of exceptional television. (And that's without counting TV's most common exit strategy: not having an exit strategy.) And I fully expect Sunday's Breaking Bad to incorporate elements of each. (Closure? No more blue meth would suffice. Surprise? I couldn't even begin to guess. Hope? Well ... maybe there's a Denny's next to Skyler's minimum security prison so Flynn won't have to go hungry.) But to be honest with you — and, yes, I'm speaking to all you would-be fortune-tellers out there: the Nazi hunters, the self-riciners, the Jesse truthers, and the inexplicably devoted Todd-ites — I don't care much about the specifics of "Felina." At least not from this side of it. All I want is for Vince Gilligan to have the time, space, and security necessary to end his epic tale in exactly the manner he sees fit. You want a prediction? Here's one, and it doesn't involve baby Holly: Come Monday morning, we'll all be in agreement that he was able to do just that. Here's another: As roiling as these past seven weeks have been, I still stand by what I wrote back in August: Walter White's story will end with his death.
How could it be any other way? His family is gone. His partnerships ruined. Like a lowly prep cook, his recipes have been bastardized and stolen. (The Gray Matter callback last week was so important if only to demonstrate how Walter, the OCD PhD, has lost control of his narrative twice in one lifetime. The gulf between the billionaire scientist he was "meant" to be and the high school teacher he was is about the same as the one between Heisenberg's original intention — a couple of batches to feed his family — and where his product ended up: as yet another way for the Nazis to ruin Czechoslovakia.) His money, that Pyrrhic symbol of the price he paid to "win," has been reduced to a few stacks shoved inside an unwanted cardboard box. Even his health has finally deserted him: a long New Hampshire winter spent stewing in his own juices ravaged his insides even more than the cancer could.
The hibernation of "Granite State" seems to have created one last iteration of our antihero, one final selection of the "multitudes" that once comprised the egocentric song of himself. Walter White has burned away and Heisenberg froze somewhere between Robert Forster's chemo cabin and the long, snow-packed driveway to nowhere. What's boomeranging back to Albuquerque is the fulminated mercury of resentment that has fueled the chemical chain reaction of these past five seasons. Walter isn't a man anymore, or a myth. He's the avenging author who left his creations — the good, the bad, and the truly despicable — to fend for themselves and didn't like what he saw. Now he's back to rewrite the ending.
The goal isn't to swap out Lydia's precious stevia with poison, to riddle the extended Alquist family with a trunkful of hot lead or provide a nest egg for Jesse and Brock to start a new life together, far from the Froot Loops of home — although all of those things may happen. The goal is for Walter White to exert the one thing that has mattered to him above all else, and the one thing that has proven hardest for him to maintain: control. By fanatically cleaning up the loose ends — a practice, by the way, that Walt shares with his goateed creator — Mr. White might be able to imbue his death with a neatness and meaning his life decidedly lacked. He spent five seasons trying to make people listen. This one-way road trip will give him the last word.
When approaching Breaking Bad, even the ending, one has to think like a scientist. And the only word for the disastrous events of the past few weeks is one that's anathema to anyone who has ever worn a lab coat: messy. New Hampshire changed Walter White in many ways, but not in his dedication to cleanliness and order. What finally clicked in his mind last week is a flickering propane burner of self-awareness. That fly in the lab that he never caught? The one that threatened to contaminate everything it touched? Walter was that fly. This Sunday, the final wash of Vince Gilligan's Superlab begins. Once everything is scrubbed, Walter himself can be swatted in peace.
Let's Remember the Good Times. Things Were Good Once, Right? Time of Our Life! [Chokes on Own Vomit, Dies]
Regrets, He's Had a Few. (Bitch.)
You know after watching this pilot again I realized Jesse never should have decided to cook with Mr White. What an idiot. #BreakingBad
— Aaron Paul (@aaronpaul_8) September 26, 2013
A Very Special Grantland.com Programming Alert!
Bill Simmons and other Grantland staffers will be discussing the finale on Grantland Live Sunday night. Be there.
Hunting for Finale Clues in Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium
John Lopez: This is it. The end. I loathe using chat slang like it is syntactically legitimate, but OMG! And this is my last chance to rhapsodize about Vince Gilligan’s Meth-terpiece … So, I could use the opportunity to write an eloquently reasoned epitaph arguing that Breaking Bad is the great tragic critique of our American faith in the powers of rugged individualism and genius to bend the world to one’s will. OR I could watch Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium for clues to the finale! I mean, wouldn’t that be just like Gilligan, to hide hints in last week’s reference to a film so pulse-deadening that even its writer/director Zach Helm called it the perfect Kafkaesque punishment for all of Walt’s myriad crimes? So, let’s get to it!
[94 excruciating minutes later … ]
Jesus. That was so much harder than it sounds. Dustin Hoffman makes Pee-wee Herman look like Shari Lewis. And a King Lear reference in a kid’s film? Bambi losing his mother is more user-friendly. Gilligan, you bastard: You knew someone would do it and somewhere you’re laughing your sick ass off at me. But no ... it can’t all be for nothing! So, dammit, here’s crazy fan theory no. 243: Mr. Magorium is a metaphor for Walt and Jesse’s relationship. Magorium knows his “time is up” and decides to leave his magic emporium to his willfully naïve protégé, Natalie Portman. But Portman doubts she has the same “spark” to keep it going until a wide-eyed, hat-loving youth forces her to take over the store, proving she has the magic touch after all … So: Magorium = Walt; willfully naïve Portman = willfully naïve Jesse; wide-eyed youth = wide-eyed psycho Todd; and Wonder Emporium = Blue Meth Superlab. Get it? This whole meth thing hasn’t been about Walt’s family at all, right? It’s about Walt’s pride in his life’s work, which he wants to pass on. But only Jesse can make the blue meth. It’s just that “morality” has prevented him from embracing his gift — that is, until Todd forced him to “cook” just like Portman was “forced” to run the Wonder Emporium. See! So, clearly Walt’s coming back to wipe out Jack et al. and pass his legacy on to Jesse, the only son he really has anymore. Which means Walt will die in a blaze of glory, but not before showing Jesse how to get the meth to 97 percent, thus bequeathing his empire to a new Heisenberg — as Magorium’s point-hammeringly unsubtle voice-over says, one story’s ending is just the opportunity for another’s beginning! Suck it, Badger!!
Who am I kidding? That movie made me hate children. Even Walt likes children, when he's not poisoning them. You want my real theory? That’s what made Walt flip out last week, not Gretchen and Elliott’s smug, condescending Charlie Rose interview. He tweaked ‘cause he’s been stuck in a cabin in fucking New Hampshire for three months, watching Magorium on a living-hell loop. Walt isn’t going after Jack and his band of Merry Meth-Nazis with that M60. He’s going after Zach Helm and whatever Ritalin-snorting Hollywood execs caused that film.
Anyway, adios, Walt, Vince, & Co.: You were my life-crippling addiction these past few years. Thanks for the meth. It was good while it lasted …
Hey, You Can Bid on Your Favorite Breaking Bad Props!
Emily Yoshida: Many people, myself included, have spent a lot of time and words trying to pinpoint what exactly makes and made Breaking Bad so special and unusual, what the something-something is that solidifies its place in the pantheon of all-time greatest television shows. Yes, it stuck to a tight narrative; yes, it was more about its central character than the world he inhabited. These are both huge factors in differentiating it from its contemporaries. But for me, the one aspect of the show that made it so singular and stayed constant throughout its run was its sense of morality. Most of the other antiheroes of our Sunday nights dabbled in ambiguously bad deeds in worlds where good men were hard to find (and interesting women sometimes even harder), so you may as well be a bad guy, too; but Vince Gilligan never shied away from the fact that what Walter White was doing was, in fact, hurtful, irresponsible, selfish, and, most importantly, super duper lame, at least to the non-sociopath viewer. The word "bad" is in the title, for crying out loud, and, crucially, without a validating "ass" tacked on at the end. Walter White was never supposed to be cool.
When people compare the show to a Greek or Shakespearean tragedy, it's because, like Breaking Bad, those stories always framed their main characters with neon-yellow caution tape, telling the audience in no uncertain terms NOT TO BE LIKE THESE GUYS. NO, SERIOUSLY, NOT EVEN AS A GOOF. And that's what ultimately keeps Breaking Bad from being five seasons of empty nihilism; it has made abundantly clear that there were plenty of opportunities for Walter to be happy and normal and die in peace, if it weren't for his monstrous narcissism and his need to prove his superiority at every turn. Of course, there will always be Todds who are desperate to root for a monster and look past his patheticness, and it can get muddled at times through the perhaps unavoidable mechanics of modern television; Oedipus never got shot from a low angle, Macbeth never made a slow-mo entrance to dubstep. We root for what's entertaining, and wiping a hard drive with an electromagnet is more entertaining than chemo vomit. But if you cheer when Walter tells Skyler "I am the one who knocks," you're missing the trembling desperation behind Bryan Cranston's eyes and the unspoken addendum: " … oh god, does that sound convincing? Because if not, I'm fucked."
Customer Feedback: Best Quality Vacuum Repair
The Andrea Situation
Zach Dionne: I know Jesse's girlfriend getting murdered last week was a heart-clobbering device to stuff Jesse even further down into the inescapable bag o' hell he's living in. I know this because the murder took about one second, and the shot of Jesse gagging and screaming and bawling — making what Greenwald called "the hoarse and rattling sound of someone who has been alive too long" — lasted a full, unbearable 30 seconds. But what if Andrea's death wasn't just a warning shot for Jesse — "cook, or else" — but a warning for us all? "Quit now, or else." Walt has an automatic weapon, a vial of ricin, and a heart rotting with resentment and anger. I can't shake the idea that more deaths are coming, and that we'll get as little time to process them as we did for Jesse's last beacon of hope.
The Taxi Dispatch Theory
Kirk Goldsberry: According to Yelp, there are only about 10 or so cab companies in Albuquerque. Why is this important? Well, there was that seemingly random bit of dialogue in “Granite State” in which Ed (Robert Forster) tells Walt that Skyler has been working part-time as a taxi dispatcher. It’s their last exchange before that famous taxidermy/chemotherapy scene. Walt is asking about his family and going through the case of eyeglasses. All of Ed’s other updates (public defender is a deer in the headlights, Skyler still has both kids, no court date yet) seem requisite and fit with the plot, but something about that taxi dispatch revelation stuck out. The camera even hung on Walt for a moment as he learned about it.
The thing about taxi dispatchers is that they’re always on the phone arranging things with strangers. It’s their job. Walter White has been on the phone a lot, too, of late. Now, maybe this whole taxi dispatch is nothing, but I doubt it. I think it enables Walt to call Skyler at least once during the finale. If there are only 10 cab companies in all of ABQ, then how hard can it be for Walt to reach Skyler in an untraceable environment?
There are a lot of reasons why Walt would want to talk to Skyler. Maybe he’ll arrange a farewell meeting with her, or tell her where some money is, or maybe he’ll give her the most intense apology/good-bye in television history. Or maybe he’ll just need a ride to the airport.
The "Possibly Giving Vince Gilligan Too Much Credit for His Incredible Attention to Detail" Theory of the Week
Everything you might want to know about that hockey game on the TV in the bar.
Meth Money, Meth Problems
Ben Detrick: On Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, a paragon of criminal rap and the greatest LP recorded in the history of mankind, Ghostface mourned the squandered fortune of captured bank robbers: “Remember them kids that came off with eight million?” he seethed. “That’s jet money, underground money / submarines and rings / too bad you fucked up, dummies.” Pity those miserable chumps rotting in jail, ruefully counting the shiny baubles and baroque dirigibles they only own when REM descends upon their 6-by-8s.
On Breaking Bad, no one gets a vanity bathyscaphe, either. For all the millions of greenbacks siphoned out of the American Southwest and Slavic states by our beloved blue-meth syndicate, luxuries are meager. We find men of ungodly wealth living like lunch-pail schmoes. Gus spent his workdays managing a string of chicken joints. Ehrmantraut lived in a nondescript house with a dust-choked yard. And if Walt and Jesse hosted a car show — which would include such gems as a Pontiac Aztek, a Toyota Tercel, and a Fleetwood Bounder RV — the marquee attractions would be the Chrysler 300 and the Dodge Challenger, both of which sticker around $30,000. Sure, Lydia rocks red-bottoms and has a prismatic condo, but she’s still employed as head of logistics at Kraft Food Group or whatever. Point is, outside of tequila-swigging cartel members in chaotic, yellow-tinged Mexico, we’ve never seen the dope-dealer fantasy of being rousted from slumber in a new Bugatti realized on Breaking Bad.
Here, money lays around in cumbersome reams, hogging space in storage units until it’s moved, stolen, or chucked out the window of a vehicle. Ducats are mostly devoted to the mechanics of making the pile grow taller: clout, murderous muscle, cooking equipment, the means to conceal illicit earnings behind an oleaginous sheen of poultry grease and car wax. But over recent weeks, reservoirs of cash have come to represent something else: The Fresh Start. In entreaties to Jesse, Uncle Jack, and his own family, Walt has been preaching the gospel of walking away from the internecine meth business and beginning anew. No takers on that whole endless-horizon conceit, though.
And when Walt barreled up his millions and split for New Hampshire, there was no Jacuzzi, no murdered-out Maybach, no Winthorpe lounging aside Ophelia on a yacht. Just a shack with a wheezing stove and creaky timbers that whisper “Kill yourself” during the darkest hour. Some Fresh Start, Walt: Sifting through copies of the Albuquerque broadsheet, jacking off in protein shake canisters and bribing a way-too-candid old dude with 10 racks to play Go Fish. This is the fate that crushes the aspirations of an enterprising young molly dealer.
The Happy Endings No One's Getting
Mark Lisanti: On Sunday night, vengeful Breaking Bad showgod Vince Gilligan will finally put his damned creations out of their misery, muttering a folksy aw, shucks as one long-suffering character after another is torn asunder by cannon fire, or sloppily jackhammered in half by a nouveau-riche neo-Nazi, or crushed beneath a flame-engulfed DEA helicopter tumbling out of the sky like a broken angel falling to earth. OK, maybe that's a tad dramatic; it's unlikely the finale will be nothing more than a string of grisly demises. Plenty of Gilligan's children will make it out alive, if only so they can resume their torture-slog through the charred hellscape Walter White has left behind. Marie could die of a heart attack. Who knows?
Wow. This keeps getting dark. See what this show does to you? But maybe that's why we're here: to turn that rictus of despair upside down. There's still one episode left, and with it, a last chance to steer the Aztec away from the yawning chasm of TV oblivion it's hurtling toward and redirect it to a sunnier place. Let's give our surviving characters (sorry, everybody who got aced before Episode 516!) the happy endings they won't get on Sunday.
Walt: After a quick stop at the burned-out husk of the former White home to retrieve the ricin vial, Walter heads for New York City. The ricin is, of course, earmarked for credulous PBS chat-bumpkin Charlie Rose, who gave the Gray Matter principals a megaphone through which to scream their self-serving lies. But a funny thing happens on the way to poison the talk show host back to the David Frost era: Walt runs into Rose in the elevator, earning an invite onto the show for an exclusive conversation with the most wanted man in America. A giddy Walt, forgetting all about the revenge killing that brought him to Manhattan, finally gets to tell his side of the story, starting with the utter failure of the U.S. health care system and ending in an impromptu whiteboard presentation of his exact intellectual property contributions to both the exploding designer methamphetamine industry and the soon-to-be-IPO'd multibillion-dollar company he helped found. Somewhere in the middle is a reenactment of his "I am the one who knocks" speech (using Rose's upturned table as a prop door) that becomes an instant viral sensation, earning over 10 million YouTube views in 24 hours under the title "HE IS THE ONE WHO KNOCKS!!!!! (AWESOME)." Yes, the DEA is waiting offstage at the conclusion of Walt's interview, but he has already gotten what he always wanted: the full recognition of his genius, a song-of-himself heard throughout the world. The "one who knocks" speech is a huge hit with the guys at the Supermax, who are already borderline worshipful of his ability to ferment 97 percent pure toilet wine. On his 53rd birthday, they give him a black fedora. He weeps uncontrollably at the gesture.
Skyler: While on hold with a drunken potential fare who can't recall where he lives, Skyler absently flips through the accounting ledger her boss mistakenly left on her desk. By the end of her shift, she has cleaned up his poorly kept books. The boss is appreciative, and Skyler suggests helpful ways by which he might shelter his money from the IRS. "You should think about investing in car washes. There's a lot of cash in that," she tells him. "Or so I've heard." A promotion to bookkeeper soon follows, and along with it a bump to $20 per hour. Which nicely supplements the $15 million in laundered American dollars she has quietly kept in a STOR-URSELF locker just outside of Taos ever since it became clear Walt did not actually have a handle on things. She frames the first paycheck from the promotion and hangs it above her desk.
Jesse: Always quick to fall in love, even with a heart repeatedly shattered by tragedy, Jesse elopes with Amanda, the adoption counselor he meets at a Survivors Anonymous meeting. (Once he got his cook up to Heisenberg levels and taught Todd how to maintain the quality, an appreciative Jack gave him his freedom and a no-hard-feelings-kid chuck on his still-healing chin.) Jesse and Amanda adopt Brock from a neglectful foster home, and the trio pull up stakes and move to a small apartment in Irvine, California. Brock is forbidden from ever using the word "bitch."
Walter Jr. Lands a totally sweet gig as a short-order pancake cook in an experimental IHOP where patrons are served breakfast in a pitch-black dining room. He drives a used Fiero.
Holly: Grows up to marry a volunteer firefighter. He is a kind and modest man. And very bald. She likes bald guys but never quite figured out why.
Marie: After a stunning breakthrough with her DEA-assigned grief counselor, Marie's full range of color vision is restored, and she can finally access hues outside of the purple range. With a vibrant new world open to her, she launches a small interior-decorating firm that quickly lands a contract with Ikea, and soon she's splashing color around prefabricated living spaces for the furniture giant. She's really partial to orange.
Saul: He's already got a spin-off.. Let's not get greedy here. Hiding in plain sight in Hollywood is going to be tricky enough.
The Vacuum Cleaner Guy: Sells an "experimental, top-of-the-line Dyson" to a household-name billionaire real-estate developer/reality-TV host who's suddenly on the run when a casino deal with a Macau triad goes south. The price is in the nine figures. He buys an island. That island has no vacuum cleaner stores.
Huell: Dies peacefully in his sleep in that motel room. He dreamed of puppies.