Meth & Millions: Musings on the "Breaking Bad" Mid-Season Finale
Editor's Note: SPOILER ALERT! This story reveals details of the first eight episodes of Breaking Bad's final season, including Sunday's mid-season finale.
I admit, I was a bit alarmed. After watching last week's Breaking Bad, it honestly seemed as though series creator Vince Gilligan and the show's writers was letting the show's protagonist, Walter White, go off the rails. A calculating scientist-turned-crime lord — who had always been a few steps in front of everyone — unexpectedly began to act rashly.
White (played by Bryan Cranston) coldly cheated his long-time partner Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) out of money that was due him when Jesse decided he'd had enough of the meth business. And, in an impulsive moment of anger, Walt shot and killed adversarial but valuable associate Mike Erhmantraut (Jonathan Banks) without any plausible means of replacing Mike's muscle, criminal acumen or his distribution network.
As the credits rolled on Sunday's episode, "Gliding Over All," I realized that it had been foolish to doubt the Breaking Bad team. Sunday night's mid-season finale (the final eight episodes will run in Summer 2013) commanded full attention as it unspooled in a deliberate, directorial and writing triumph.
Gilligan showed that Walter White should never be underestimated. Even without trusted associates Jesse and Mike, Walt proved fully capable of running the meth manufacturing operation with only his new wet-behind-the-ears flunky Todd (Jesse Plemons) as his lab assistant.
And there was yet another twist when Walt went to tie up loose ends and eliminate Lydia (Laura Fraser), the tightly-wound contact who has been supplying the raw chemicals needed for the operation. Before Walt had a chance to poison her with his precious stash of ricin, she offers to open an international distribution route to the Czech Republic, with the potential for more profit than he could ever hope to pocket stateside.
Gilligan and his writers may have led us to believe Walt was getting reckless, but in the end it was a clever way of revealing yet another facet of TV's most complex (and increasingly dangerous) character.
Gilligan has often been quoted as saying Walt's journey is one where "Mr. Chips turns into Scarface." Most fans would agree that we're pretty much to Scarface on Walt's timeline, particularly after Sunday night's baroquely orchestrated plan to eliminate the incarcerated members of Mike's gang — any of whom, Walt feared, could spill details of Walt's "Heisenberg" network now that Mike was dead and Mike's trusted, busted attorney had turned DEA informant.
The murder of ten jailed men was a particularly diabolical scheme, but Walt pulled it off. And so did Breaking Bad's writers. With its grim subjects and characters and the intermittent mayhem that bursts without warning, there may be no other TV show that has sustained itself for five seasons with such conviction and such accomplishment.
One of the episode's crowning sequences was the montage that unrolled to Tommy James and the Shondells' cheerful tune, "Crystal Blue Persuasion." It showed the new international operation kicking into gear, with lab "cooks" starting and finishing, planes filled with illicit cargo taking off and landing in Europe and cash rolling in like never before. But the images that illustrated Walt's professional rise were countered by the joyless tedium of the work, Walt's irreparable relationship with his wife, Skyler, and the trail of bodies he left behind in his wake.
The montage ached simply, yet tragically, of unimagined yet ill-gotten success achieved through lies and violence. It was a brilliant moment of music contradicting the images in an music-video collision.
(And by the way, how had they not yet used the Tommy James song, as Walt's meth production method results in a super-pure product of a unusual shade of crystalline blue — or did they simply have the foresight to save it for this moment in Walt's story?)
When the fast-forward montage ends we learn that Walt has raked in so much money that Skyler, Walt's unwilling co-conspirator, had given up counting the bills. Instead she piled it in a storage warehouse and covered it with a sheet. As Walt looks over his fortune for the first time, we don't just see an embarrassment of riches, but also a debasement of wealth.
The "Crystal Blue" montage was only exceeded by the closing scene, which captures DEA agent Hank Schrader's revelation that the initials "W.W." — seen on a note he found at the murder scene of Gus Fring associate Gale Bodeker at the end of Season Three — may be none other than his brother-in-law, Walter White.
In true Breaking Bad style, Hank's discovery is made during a light-hearted family gathering when Hank sees an inscription while flipping through a book given to Walt by Gale — while he's in the bathroom, sitting on the toilet.
It's, of course, a giant revelation, made by the dumbest of consequences, in the most unintended of places. It's the monumental of the ordinary, and no one does it better than the Breaking Bad team.
Season Five opened with a flash-forward showing Walt, with his hair grown back, buying an unregistered high-powered military-caliber assault weapon. There's no doubt he's arming himself for some kind of final showdown. And, as they say, you don't bring a knife to a gun fight.
How will it end? No telling. Gilligan and his team are nothing if not masters of the finale. And 2013's series finale will undoubtedly be their biggest moment.