Breaking Bad season 5 episode 15 review: Granite State

Review Paul Martinovic 24 Sep 2013 - 07:20

Breaking Bad's penultimate episode, like the rest of the drama, is stalked by death. Here's Paul's review of Granite State...

This review contains spoilers.

5.15 Granite State

Over the entire course of television history you’ll struggle to find many TV shows that haven’t relied on death as one of the most trusty and reliable weapons in their dramatic arsenal. Need a previously unsympathetic character to win round the audience? Have their pet die and display their softer side. Need a page one rewrite of a show whose cast of characters are growing stale? Have a plane crash into the local pub! Supporting actor caught DUI or yelling slurs at a co-star? Send them to Belize. Hell, even Friends has the episode where the weird neighbour dies. Death in TV and other forms of fiction is ultimately little more than narrative punctuation: it’s necessary.

But Breaking Bad doesn’t just feature death as some device to keep the show going– it’s all about death. Yes, it’s also about meth and morality and family and villainy, but ultimately death permeates every frame and informs almost every decision made by the characters, and penultimate episode Granite State was an episode where the stench of mortality became unavoidable.

Whereas last week’s Ozymandias was a horrifying, dizzying descent into the depths of despair for Walt and his extended family, Granite State feels numb and purgatorial, as our already broken and beaten Breaking Bad gang are pummelled even further into the ground: it’s like watching someone collapse face down towards to the floor after their heart has stopped, unable to put their hands out in front of them to break the fall. But in slow-motion.

But before we dive headlong into the blackness, it was a very pleasant surprise to see the wonderful Robert Forster (Jackie Brown) appear as the infamous vacuum cleaner repairman who runs a neat side line in disappearing crooks, in his persona as ‘the Extractor’. Forster’s weary disposition brings an earthy gravitas to the role that feels just right: this is exactly the right kind of person to put in charge of the likes of the panicked, uneasy Saul and the headstrong, hysterical Walter, as they respectively attempt to find their way out of their impossible situations.

We saw a different side to Saul in what was possibly his last scene in the series: usually, his one-liners and comic exasperation have lent Walt and Jesse’s actions an air of capering that they perhaps don’t deserve, serving to make them appear much more exciting and outlaw-like than they are, say, repugnant. Looking back, perhaps this was just as much for Saul’s benefit as it was for ours, because besides a wry line about a Cinnabon, his wisecracks at this point have largely dried up. And so has his weaselly, slippery nature: it was a shock when this most unscrupulous of SOBs advised Walt to simply give himself up to the authorities. Walt attempted to Heisenberg his way out of that reasoning with some gravel-voiced intimidation, but the exertion jarred something loose and the doomed plight of Walt’s situation came rushing to the fore once more in the form a hacking cough, a perfect metaphor for the manifestation of Walt’s biggest nightmare coming to pass: all his hard work and violent misdeeds climaxing in a bout of ineffectual, impotent wheezing, and eventually death.

We then saw that nightmare played out excruciatingly on screen, as Walt lived out a number of months in a remote cabin in New Hampshire, cut off from the outside world, cut off from his money supply (he’s unable to leave his cabin to spend it, and he is unable to wire it to his family lest it alerts the police) and cut off from the ever-growing legend of Heisenberg, with only a collection of newspaper clippings and two copies of Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium to keep him company (its effect may have been enhanced by the gruelling content surrounding it, but this is genuinely a contender for one of the series’ funniest ever throwaway gags).

After a while, the onset of his inevitable death becomes almost too real for us to bear. His body becomes ravaged by cancer, chemo and the cold, with his fingers becoming too skeletal to hold a wedding ring, forcing him to wear it round his neck in what feels like a grotesque parody of a gangsta rapper’s trophy-like ‘bling’. His pointed donning of the Heisenberg hat and crazed whispered promises to himself to go into town and start planning revenge ‘tomorrow’ make him sound like a nutty old man, not a drug kingpin. He becomes too feeble to even insert his own needles for therapy, and he has to pathetically resort to bribing the Extractor to stay and play cards with him – which even then he ends up having to haggle over.

Forster’s character feels almost like an analogue of death, only with the sickle being swapped for a Hoover nozzle. There’s a weary professionalism about the way he casually turns worlds upside down: this is a guy whose nine-to-five is ushering one persona into the afterlife while setting up new ones elsewhere – except in Walt’s case of course, there is no time for a second chance, even with all the money and fake identification in the world.

There’s another character on Breaking Bad who feels like death incarnate, only for very different reasons: Granite State does an incredible job of setting up Todd as the creepiest and most evil character on a show that has not exactly been lacking in memorable villains. As I’ve mentioned before, the casting of Friday Night Lights’ Jesse Plemons was a masterstroke, using the impeccable Southern manners and farmboy features that he utilised to such likeable effect in his previous role to disarm and unsettle the audience far more thoroughly than the more traditionally loathsome Uncle Jack and his crew. Todd is a combination of Norman Bates (the unfailing politeness and bashfulness around women that conceals his dangerous, possibly perverse obsessions) and the Great White from Jaws. His smirk on recollecting the shooting of Spider Dirt Bike was chilling, and it’s hard to watch the scene where he politely (natch) threatens Skyler while stood over the crib of her baby daughter without hearing Quint’s words: “He’s got lifeless eyes, like a doll’s eyes…when he comes at ya, he doesn’t even seem to be living… until he bites ya.” As against-type stunt casting goes, this is now up there in the pantheon alongside Michael Palin in Brazil and Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West.

Of course, Todd’s most reprehensible act in Granite State was the brutal murder of Andrea, a plot development that felt shockingly nihilistic even considering what has preceded it. The matter-of-fact nature of her killing, with Todd’s unctuous charm segueing into sheepish apology before climaxing in the lame, quiet pop of the handgun, was difficult enough to take in and of itself, but the following shot of Jesse, eyes and skin red raw, letting out a guttural, muffled howl into the night, was just plain horrible. Has there ever been a character in any piece of fiction that has had to suffer more at this point than Jesse in Breaking Bad? It has reached the point where I am almost willing him to get killed just to get put out of his misery – but whereas the spectre of inevitable death looms over Walt and drives his actions, death in Jesse’s world is something that follows him around but never takes him directly, instead leaving him behind to grieve and survey the carnage. Perhaps it’s Jesse who is death: it certainly always seems to end up pretty badly for everything he touches. Like many Breaking Bad watchers, I still really want to see a happy ending for Jesse – but the death of Andrea makes only a Pyrrhic victory possible, as there’s just too much blood on his hands. If that Pyrrhic victory involves his murdering Todd in a spectacular way, however… then I’ll take that at this point.

I definitely don’t foresee a happy ending for Walt, either: in fact, I know there isn’t a happy ending for Walter White, as I’m convinced I saw it take place three minutes before the end of this episode. After pathetically attempting to send a fraction of his earnings to Flynn (as he is now understandably insisting on being called) stuffed in a soda can box, Walt manages to get him on the phone. Barely able to stand through the pain and fighting back tears, he is almost incoherent as he tries to explain himself to his son for the first time, before a furious Flynn tells him he wishes he was dead (not unusual for a teen to tell a parent this, but he really means it) and hangs up. This signals the end for Walter White, whose M.O. has always been about trying to provide for and to protect his family. With Hank dead, Skyler estranged (after she attacked him with a knife) and now his own son wishing death on him, he has nothing left to fight for: hence his phone call of surrender that summons the police to the bar. When he drops the phone off the hook, this feels like the last action of Walter White.

But the truth is that Walter White is only one half of the man who sits savouring a whiskey he thinks will be his last, and when a serendipitous appearance from his old Gray Matter colleagues Elliot and Gretchen Schwartz disrupts the moment, the Heisenberg half of his persona begins to take control once more. And Heisenberg isn’t driven (or should that be hindered?) by family. He’s driven by one-upmanship, by hubris; by an unquenchable need to dominate and destroy the opposition. He is the warped physical manifestation of the fear that you have wasted your life, the personified rage against the dying of the light and he will damn well make sure that you know his name before he gets out of your way.

Again, the interpretation of the final scene can vary (although next week should clarify any doubt immediately): you could take it as confirmation that Walt/Heisenberg is off to kill his Gray Matter colleagues, who are (albeit understandably) publicly underestimating his contribution to the founding of the company. I think, however, that the conversation alerts him to the fact that he in fact has a whole swathe of enemies left and therefore people to rail against, the mention of the blue meth tipping him off to the fact that Jesse, Todd and Uncle Jack’s gang must be working together to profit off of his name and work, in exactly the same way that Elliot and Gretchen did all those years ago.

If Walt truly was only acting in the interests of his family, then this whole meth adventure has truly been for nought. But his reaction at the end, and refusal to finally surrender to the police, confirms that it was never really his only interest.

There’s a beautifully poignant moment earlier in the episode where the Extractor points out to Walt the bucolic nature of his surroundings, describing them as “a good spot for a man to rest up, think on things. If you look around it’s kind of beautiful.” It’s reminiscent of the kind of language you hear terminal illness sufferers use when describing the period after being diagnosed as one where life seems so much more precious, vibrant and - yes - alive (it’s also reminiscent of lines from the final scenes of Fargo, a film Breaking Bad has made numerous references to: “There's more to life than a little money, you know. Don’t you know that? And here you are, and it's a beautiful day. Well… I just don't understand it.”).

This is a path Walt could have taken, using his last few months to appreciate and enjoy the things that he had managed to achieve with his life – nice home, great family life, the education of hundreds of kids – but instead he let his bitterness at regrets and failures overwhelm him and eventually poison his soul. Family wasn’t enough: Walt needed to go out feeling like he made an impact on the world. Isn’t that what we all want to feel that we’ve done before we die? The alternative – your name being written out of history and forgotten forever – is too depressing to even contemplate. You need to make you mark when you can. And it has to be said, an M60 will do nothing if not leave a mark.

One more episode to go…

Read Paul's review of the previous episode, Ozymandias, here.

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