Breaking Bad season 5 episode 8 review: Gliding Over All

Review Paul Martinovic 4 Sep 2012 - 07:22

Paul bids a reluctant goodbye to Breaking Bad, which offers up this series' best episode yet as its mid-season finale...

This review contains spoilers.

5.8 Gliding Over All

99.1%. In meth purity terms, we’ve been reliably informed by Breaking Bad that this is a very impressive figure. They’ve certainly never seen anything like it in the Czech Republic, and those guys know their meth, apparently. 99.1% purity is nothing to be sniffed at (pun partially intended).  

That 0.9%, though. It has to bother Walt, doesn’t it? That, for all his chemical know-how, his attention to detail and ability to manipulate his surroundings through sheer force of will, there will always be that tiny aspect that he will never have control over. 100% purity is, ultimately, impossible.

It doesn’t stop him trying, though. His whole existence has become a battle against impurities and imperfections, using his book smarts and, by now, impressive street smarts to take the chaos that is his life and massage it into something approaching a solution, where all of the elements fall into place. We know by now Walt sees himself as a mastermind, be it chemical or criminal. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that search for perfection, the attempt to eradicate all trace of doubt or error on your way to a logical conclusion that you can hold up and say: Look. I was right.

For a while in Gliding Over All, easily the best episode of another superb season, it looks like Walt may have done the impossible, and actually pulled off that most elusive of things: the perfect crime. Not just that: the perfect criminal career. It looks as though he may even, in the closing scenes of the episode, be edging towards a path to redemption, after crossing yet another moral event horizon.

Was Walt’s orchestration of mass prison murder really morally worse than poisoning Brock? Was it worse than covering up the murder of Spider Dirt-Bike, or killing Gale, or even letting Jane die? Probably not - these were all relatively innocent parties compared to Mike’s men, who at the very least had an active role in the distribution of meth, and most likely were prolific killers and psychopaths themselves.

But the shocking montage of brutal killings was an indicator of another line Walt was strutting confidently over – while most of his other murders were characterised by a certain amount of intellectual flair, where he first outwitted his opponents before manoeuvring them into a position where he can pounce (Gus’ bombing, for example), Walt ventured into new territory with first Mike’s killing and now this, a two minute orgy of destruction was cold, brutal and despicable – adjectives which describe a headspace that by this point, Walt has become more than comfortable residing in.

All told, this was probably the most violent sequence in Breaking Bad history – high praise, seeing as the show has become famous for including at least one incredibly gruesome scene per season, and Vince Gilligan has previously said that they’re determined to keep raising the bar as they go along – but there was nothing operatic or blackly comedic about it, as has been the case with violence in previous episodes. This scene specifically wasn’t a grandiose, ‘taking care of business’ montage in the vein of Michael Corleone wrapping things up at his nephew’s baptism – it’s a bunch of street punks getting ruthlessly shivved before bleeding out into a drain. The true face of Walt’s gangster lifestyle.

Horrifying though it undoubtedly was, unfortunately Walt still wasn’t prepared to take his role in the carnage as a cue to leave. So what caused his late episode turn-around?

Chillingly, it’s hinted that it could just be boredom: Walt has no one left to vanquish. Gus is dead, Mike’s dead, Mike’s men are dead, Jesse is out for good. Hank has no leads left. There’s nothing left to play for.

Lydia managed to talk her way out of being killed once again by pulling a lucrative deal with the Czech Republic out of her, uh, barrel, meaning that we will have to wait even longer for everyone’s favourite character, Ricin Cigarette, to be put to good use (for it to go out without being responsible for anything less than the death of a major character would be a major disappointment at this stage).

A nice touch in this scene was Walt’s entrance in full Heisenberg garb, which asks the question: is Walt wearing the outfit as a disguise, or to be recognised, and therefore able to intimidate the growing number of people who are becoming familiar with the Heisenberg legend? More to the point: of his two personas, which one is now the disguise?

The bumbling degenerate gambler mask he likes to wear nearly slipped in Walt’s early scene with Hank, which played as a clever mirror of the encounters we’ve seen between them a number of times during this half-season – we’ve become used to seeing Hank embarrassed and uncomfortable at Walt’s teary, uninhibited, and (unbeknownst to Hank) utterly feigned emotional outpourings, but here we saw the roles neatly reversed, with a genuinely distraught Hank sadly relaying to an unsympathetic Walt a story about a old summer job he used to have tending to woods, a job he used to hate but now looks back on fondly due to the psychic toll that “chasing monsters” is inflicting on him.

Walt clearly finds Hank’s inability to deal with a bit of the old ultra-violence pretty pathetic – you can see the scorn etched on his face, as well hear the discernible sarcasm in his voice when he dryly intones “I used to love to go camping” by way of barely-there consolation.

So one of Walt’s biggest headaches now sits before him a beaten man. Another box ticked for Team Walt. What’s left? Walt told Jesse recently that he’s “in the empire business”, but by the end of this episode this has be viewed as yet another of Walt’s lies: the empire is clearly growing, as the expansion overseas and that wonderful shot of Vamanos Pest tents steadily taking over Albuquerque neighborhoods demonstrates (special mention should go to the directing and editing of this episode, which was superb across the board even by the show’s lofty standards), but this doesn’t make him happy. The drudgery of the meth cooking is getting to him, and, crucially, the only people he has left in his organization are compliant yes-men: the cowardly Saul, and the blank-faced, obedient Todd. There’s no one to butt heads with any more. It’s boring, frankly.

That Walt misses the feral scrapping for survival that characterized the early days is clear when he comes to visit Jesse at his home, and gets all nostalgic for the days of broken-down RVs and having to cook by with musty school equipment. This is as close to sentimentality as Walt gets now, but there’s a brilliant edge added to the scene as Walt’s reminiscing is interpreted by Jesse as a form of farewell before he sees Jesse ends up the same way as the other eleven loose ends.

Aaron Paul is great in this scene, as he always is, but this section and the episode as a whole is yet another astonishing acting showcase from Bryan Cranston. Gliding Over All features a more contemplative Walt than we’ve seen in recent episodes, and the amount that Cranston is able to convey about Walter’s mindset with the smallest of eye movements or gestures is just remarkable. Has there ever been another television actor more utterly in tune with the material and a character than Cranston is with Breaking Bad and Walter White?

Walt finds himself ready to quit, then: the combination of the meth trade turning into just another job, and the significant fact that he has now earned too much money than he is capable of laundering, means he is ready to pack it in. It could all be smoke and mirrors for Skyler’s benefit, of course, but there’s something about him that suggests he may actually be finally being genuine.

Skyler seems to buy it too – so desperate in her pessimism a few weeks ago that she was attempting to passive smoke Walt to death, she now realises that there may be actually be an out for the family, one that she might delicately be able to move the unstable Walt towards. And as Walt and Skyler lock eyes over a few blissful seconds of overlapping familial small talk, it’s a real, tangible possibility for them.

But those minor imperfections and impurities that cloud and complicate our lives aren’t going to be denied that easily. Firstly, there’s a very literal impurity to be dealt with – Walter’s cancer. Once again, we’re denied the opportunity to actually learn what his diagnosis is, but there’s definitely something ominous in the way he ruefully greets the sight of a towel dispenser he furiously dented after previously learning his cancer was in remission – not to mention his reflective, almost generous attitude to Jesse and Skyler, to people he’s spent a great deal of time emotionally abusing for the past few weeks, in the scenes that follow. His health is the one aspect of his life that Walt can’t control, and it’s hinted that in this respect the fight may have finally gone out of him.

But here’s the thing – you don’t choose when you get to fight. Gliding Over All has a heavy sense of foreboding right from its opening shot - we know that Walter’s not just going to be able to quit, and not just because of that tantalizing flash-forward in Live Free or Die. There’s a wealth of insect symbolism throughout the episode, the likes of which we’ve seen many times in the past, most notably with Walt’s battle with a persistent fly in the underground lab, and of course most recently the spider in the jar in Dead Freight.

Gliding Over All is full of the little buggers: there’s Walt’s quiet contemplation of a fly in his office in the opening scene; there’s the cockroach spying on the Vamanos Pest operation, and there’s Skyler’s declaration that she has to stop by the enormous pile of money in the garage every once in a while to stop it getting infested with silverfish.

In Breaking Bad these insects have come to represent the same thing – an unforeseen intrusion into otherwise carefully assembled plans; a minor infestation, or impurity, which ruins the whole. But who would prove to be, come episode’s end, the metaphorical fly in the ointment of Walt’s carefully-laid retirement plans?

Or, using a slightly brusquer but no less appropriate metaphor: who would provide the turd in the punchbowl? Well, it wasn’t a punchbowl exactly, but how appropriate that Hank should be literally shitting himself when the truth he has been running away from for the past year should finally dawn on him, and we got the reaction shot that we’ve been waiting for since episode one (it didn’t disappoint – a brilliant piece of facial acting from Dean Norris).

It provided one of the all time great Breaking Bad moments, one that can stand alongside Gus’s face-off, Hank’s battle with the cousins, Jane’s death, and “Run!” in the pantheon of things that made your heart leap out of your chest. This is why Breaking Bad is such incredible drama – it has an exquisite sense of rhythm and timing, with the episode as a whole being perfectly paced and leading to a final sequence that is expertly calibrated to elicit the maximum amount of emotion from the viewer. There are dozens of red herrings that something spectacular is going to happen – Holly being pushed by Walt Jr. around the pool looked particularly ominous, as did Jesse opening a parting gift from Walt a few scenes earlier – so it was a great swerve by the writers to have Hank simply amble into the bathroom and accidentally make the biggest discovery of his personal and professional life while sat on the throne. Only Vince Gilligan knows if he included the earlier discussion of Walt Whitman between Hank and Walt with the intention of returning to it as a flashback, but it doesn’t matter: it worked brilliantly. What better line to end the season with than with Walt’s weary: “You got me.”

That said, at first it seemed a little convenient and unlikely that Walt would keep such an incriminating piece of evidence as the book from Gale in his bathroom, but actually it makes perfect sense – it was foreshadowed heavily last week, and indeed most of this season, that Walt is someone who now finds it impossible to see the wood for the trees. He’s unplayable when it comes to outlandish cat-and-mouse games, but the combination of his arrogance, recklessness, and occupation with the finer details means he is now beginning to overlook things that would normally appear to be hugely obvious.

It’s this attitude that has led to him becoming even more dangerous – it’s what led to the death of Mike last week – and it’s what led to his downfall here. Walt in this half-season has effectively been like a decorated university professor giving a confident, high-level talk on the finer points of intricacies of analytical chemistry, while stood at the podium with his flies wide open.

Oh Walt. You were so nearly there. 99.1% there, I’d say, but now Hank has found out – after Walt all but placed the answers in his lap - all that success is immaterial. The 0.9%, the fly in the ointment, the spider in the jar, the (yes) turd in the bathroom look like they are ready to finally come for him, and this half-season of Walter’s triumphant reign as a crime lord looks set to now be followed by eight episodes of an almighty reckoning. Which isn’t to say Hank is going to wipe himself, wash his hands, walk out of the bathroom and slap some cuffs on Walt – he’s too intertwined and compromised by Walt’s criminal lifestyle to do that just yet, and his next course of action will require a great deal of thought.

But the trauma Hank has suffered as a direct result of Walt’s actions won’t be something he will be able to justify, or explain, or come to terms with in the way that Walt himself has become a master at. No, an explosive confrontation between the two is now inevitable. Perhaps an even more pressing question is how Walt will react to this, without doubt the greatest conflict to arise between his family life and his Heisenberg persona to date. Hank is now no longer an abstract enemy for Walt, but a very real and dangerous one.

We’ll have to wait an agonizingly long eight months to know for sure what Walt’s rejoinder to Hank will be, and it’ll give us plenty to chew on in the coming months and, no doubt, in the comments below. For now though, perhaps there’s a little clue to how Walt will react in this line from Squeeze’s Up The Junction, a typically wry and apropos soundtrack choice for the final scene: “I’d beg for some forgiveness/But begging’s not my business”.

 Read Paul's review of last week's episode, Say My Name, here.

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