This post is a day later coming than the prior seven, and while you might assume that the holiday has something to do with that, the truth of the matter is that the mid-season finale left me supremely conflicted. I’ve spent the last two days wrestling with this question, and still remain undecided: would a nice wet plop over the executive producer credit have been a perfectly hilarious capper, or the stupidest fucking thing anyone could ever have done, anywhere ever? Leave a comment below or a post in the message board thread to weigh in.
Our cold open this week focuses on the clean up from Mike’s murder, and despite actually seeing it happen last week, it was somehow more upsetting for me to see the barrel for the old man’s body be laid out. I don’t know why, as I’m not usually sentimental about mortal remains and have no opinion as to whether my own are buried or burned or reanimated with voodoo to help Andrew McCarthy’s grandson find buried treasure. It not just me who seemed more taken aback by the aftermath than the actual event (like most fans, I had Mike at the top of the dead pool), though. Walt looks drained of the exhilaration he felt after he “won” with Gus, and even exhibits what seems to be actual regret. Which fits with my reading that Walt has been disappointed not to have a Fring to scheme against this year, and found that as much as he tried to push Mike into that antagonistic role, it just wasn’t the same this time around. Like that other great tragic hero of our age, Charlie Sheen, he’s found that winning all the time is a good way to find yourself fucking up good things just because you want to see what happens.
Speaking of things being too easy to maintain Walt’s interest, the mass murder of the 10 guys goes off without a hitch. Walt throwing in with neo-nazis to pull it off is, if not a new low per se, certainly a new type of low for the character. But, after spending about 3 minutes extracting the names from Lydia (who drops a new, ready-to-roll international distribution system in his lap while she’s at it, yawn), planning the deed itself can barely hold his attention. He seems to put on the figurative Heisenberg hat only briefly at the motel, almost as an afterthought. The show is obviously operating in a completely different gear these days when you look at how disposing of two bodies was a two episode ordeal back in season one and now a complex web of ten assassinations across three prisons within a two minute window is planned in one scene and carried out in one (stunningly executed, exceedingly brutal) montage.
All of this is leading to Walt’s momentous but again surprisingly easy-to-accomplish decision to quit the business in the last third of the episode. This fits with the decompression of the show that has been my biggest reservation about this season. With no dire need for the money or outside influence enforcing a cooking quota, the gang’s adventures have been interesting and darkly funny as per usual, but really, if they needed to spend 3 months planning the train heist, there was nothing stopping them from doing so. Along with no longer needing to hide anything from Skyler, who was at least technically exhibiting all the symptoms of rigor mortis for the last 5 episodes, this led to a noticeable downshift in intensity for a show that had always distinguished itself as having the tightest screws on television. Along with the sidelining of important characters like Saul, and especially Jesse, these are the reasons why despite some great stuff in these last couple, this 8 episodes has been the weakest stretch of the series in my opinion. Not actually weak, mind you, just not quite strong enough to edge out Game Of Thrones as the best thing on TV this year.
But let’s get back to the good stuff. The most interesting thing about this episode is how it is almost structured as a mock-series finale, in some alternate universe where the show could end with Walt retiring voluntarily and dying in peace. There are callbacks galore, and in fact, let’s just stop and list some of them: Walt fixates on a fly again, as well as a familiar painting and a paper towel dispenser he’d previously accosted, he and Jesse reminiscence about their RV, the most extensive meth-cooking montage since “Four Days Out” and all the familiar imagery that comes with that, shots of Walt in the shower and laid out on a medical slab coming out of the EKG or whatever machine that are almost exact recreations of things we’ve seen before, mention of Horace Shapiro, Junkyard Attorney getting rid of another incriminating car, multiple time-lapse shots of suns rising/setting, a signature ricin pump-fake (a move that has come to occupy the same space in BB’s arsenal as the skyhook did in Kareem’s), and of course, Leaves of Grass. We’ll get back to Leave Of Grass.
For an episode that spans a larger amount of time than most entire seasons and features the biggest power play by our hero yet, this was surprisingly quiet and almost contemplative. As I mentioned before, the mass murder plays out almost as an afterthought to getting rid of Mike, and Walt is not racked with nerves before or flush with triumph afterward. He plans and pulls off this operation that the nazi notes is more complicated than offing Bin Laden, mid-episode, and then essentially plays out his ride into the sunset, reuniting his family, making things “right” with Jesse, and extract himself from a massive international criminal operation with tens of millions of dollars and seemingly not a peep from his co-conspirators. Okay, it seems like his cancer is out of remission, as it must be eventually, but for the most part it’s all coming up Millhouse for Mr. White. He’s even enjoying a quiet dinner around the pool with the entire family again, a prospect which seemed completely out of the question just a few episodes ago.
And then Hank takes a dump.
I love this so much. And not just because watching bald middle-aged men quietly excrete is sort of my “thing”. I just find it soothing in a completely non-sexual way, and Dr. Schleisser says that as long as they know they’re being filmed no one is getting hurt, so maybe you’re the one who is perverted for thinking it was something dirty, huh Mr. Judgmental? Anyway, a lot of people, including myself at some points, speculated that (toilet setting aside) this would be exactly how we would enter the mid-season break, but that doesn’t make me any less delighted that they went there with time to actually explore how this changes the basic fabric of the series, and that the thread that unravels the biggest secret on the show goes back to dear, departed Gale Boeticher’s guilelessness.
How will Hank react? Will he begin his own covert investigation to confirm his suspicions? Will he confide what he knows to Marie, or Gomez? Or will he confront Walt more or less immediately?
I’m preparing myself for the first option, as it would maintain something closer to the show’s prior status quo, albeit with Hank now hiding a secret from Walter in their interactions. But I’m hoping he comes directly to Walt, as I could see him spinning a lie that he cooked one or two batches to try to leave his family some cash, and then paint Fring and Mike as the big villains that forced him to keep up the production with threats to his family. It could be just plausible enough to make Hank not want to torpedo his career by turning him in, which could lead to his reluctantly helping Walt when the Phoenix/neo-nazi/Madrigal folks come looking to pull him back into the trade. That would be an entirely new dynamic, and one I would love to see. And that might be the most impressive feat of these 8 episodes; as much as I found the individual entries less compelling than their predecessors, I never got any less eager to see what comes next.
It’s going to be a long year before we fade back in on Hank sitting on the toilet, that’s for sure. I don’t have a real clear impression of how many people actually read these things; I have gotten a handful of comments that have been uniformly positive, which is gratifying for sure. But knowing what I do about the internet, I can be relatively sure that not having attracted any random hatefulness indicates that the blog is not approaching anything resembling “popular”. Anyhow, I hope everyone comes back for season 6B, and if there is any interest in passing the interim with a different show, I am nothing if not suggestible. Boardwalk Empire, which I love, and Sons Of Anarchy, which I find to be a fascinatingly hot mess, are both about to start up again. If there is any interest in writing up those shows, register it in the comments or on the boards. If not, thanks for reading, hope to see you next year, and may you maintain at least a 96% purity in all of your endeavors.
Estimated Profits: + $62000 + multiple millions from all the deals in the montage. It looks like Walt has finally got himself securely in the black from all the blue he’s dealing. And he only had to murder 22 people and indirectly kill about 200 others to do it!
Murders – Emilio, Krazy 8, Jane, two of Gus’s dealers, Gale Boetticher, Gustavo Fring, Tyrus, Hector “Tio” Salamanca, two other Fring goons, 14 year-old arachnophile Drew Sharp, Mike Ehrmantraut, Dennis the Laundry Manager, Dan the lawyer, 8 more of Mike’s guys
Collateral Damage – One innocent janitor loses his job and goes to jail on a bullshit marijuana charge. Hank had to kill a guy, even if he was an insane, degenerate piece of filth who deserved to die, giving him fairly severe PTSD. Combo was killed dealing for Walt. Jane’s father’s life is utterly ruined. 167 passengers on two planes are dead. Skyler is forced to become an accessory after the fact (or take down her son, sister and brother-in-law with Walt). 3 broken Pontiac Aztek windshields. Jesse’s RV is destroyed. On their mission to kill Heisenberg, the Cousins kill 9 illegal immigrants and their coyote, an old woman with a handicap-accessible van, a grocery-shopping bystander, an Indian woman and the Reservation sheriff that investigates. Also they shoot Hank multiple times, forcing him through a long, painful physical therapy process. Andrea’s kid brother is murdered by Gus’s dealers due to trouble Jesse and Walt stirred up. Jesse murders Gale, crushing him with guilt and destroying his hard-fought sobriety. Gus murders Victor to send a message to Walt and Jesse. Three Honduran workers get deported (or maybe worse). Walt purposefully wrecks a car, straining an already-injured Hank’s neck in an unspecified fashion. Ted Beneke breaks his neck fleeing from Heisenpire goons. Brock is poisoned and nearly dies. Tio blows himself up, but no one’s weeping for that vicious old fucker. The staff of an industrial laundry is out of their jobs. Dozens (hundreds?) of criminal prosecutions are compromised when the guys wreck the APD evidence locker. Hank’s boss gets pushed out of his job for his failure to apprehend Fring or Heisenberg. Herr Schuler, Chau and a low rent hitman get offed as Lydia scrambles to cover up Madrigal’s connection to Fring’s drug empire in the wake of his death. Walt manipulates Jesse into breaking up with Andrea. Mike’s lawyer is arrested, depriving his favorite banker of sweets. Hank has that last great pleasure of a middle-aged man, a quiet, leisurely excretion, ruined by one of histories greatest monsters.
Heisenberg Certainty Principle – “It can be done exactly how I want it. The only question is, are you the man to do it?”
Best Lie – “I used to love camping.” I don’t know why, but I just feel like Walt has never been an outdoorsman, and this is just the first thing that came to him to fill the silence.
Official Walter Jr. Breakfast Count: 15. The kid has been absent from several episodes now, to no one I know’s consternation. People may loathe Skyler, but no one even cares about Flynn.
We Are Done, Professionally – Jesse actually stays out, even after getting a nostalgic visit from Mr. White. Good for you, Jesse. You are going to suffer so damn much in the final 8 episodes, but still.
It’s The Little Things – Son of Fly! Lydia getting hung up on Walt ordering coffee to make their meet “play better”. Todd’s quick “Okay!” when Walt says he doesn’t want to talk about Mike’s body. How the bag Todd drops on the scale at the beginning of the meth montage tumbles off (suggesting just a little bit of ineptitude that might try Walt’s patience working with Not-Jesse but not overplaying it). Skyler mentioning that her laundering operation has essentially been reduced to spraying a giant pile of bills for silverfish. The way I can’t shake the feeling that Walt was disappointed not to be able to poison Lydia, not because she is an unacceptable loose end, but because he’s thinking “Jesus, I’m never going to get rid of this stuff!”
Random Retrospective Thoughts On Season 5A: I never came around on Lydia, so having her be such a big supporting character does not sit great with me, particularly when it comes at such a steep cost to Saul’s screentime. Jesse and Skyler (outside of her showcase episode) were also really marginalized compared to prior years, although I suppose I appreciate the attempts to make Jesse feel important to the proceedings by having him come up with the ideas for the two big heists. This tips things in favor of Mike, who needed the added characterization as his story wound to a close, and Walt, who is as focal here as he has been since the first season.
This makes a similar sort of sense, as the show is his story and it is also winding down, and because the issues he’s facing here are not quite as accessible or primally motivating as finding out you have a terminal disease or feeling poor and powerless. Not to go on an economic tangent here, but most of us feel so far from the top right now that we probably need to be walked through getting there and not feeling particularly interested being there anymore in order to understand it. But still, to have the character retake the spotlight at a point in his journey where I find him the least interesting and sympathetic does not make for the most gripping of episodes. Really, what this underscores for me is what a brilliant move that opening flash-forward was, as without it I think I would’ve been much more critical of the show feeling aimless in this stretch, idling around with Walt in triumph, with less to hide and fear than ever before while other established characters languish on the sidelines. But with that destination in sight, the sight of Heisenberg ascendant takes on a different, more purposeful flavor. What might have seemed like pandering to the crowd that wanted Walt to be Scarface from season 1, episode 2 is instead recognizable as sowing the seeds for what looks to be a long, ugly fall.