This review contains spoilers.
5.7 Say My Name
Breaking Bad has always taken pleasure in subverting our expectations – episodes late in the season feel like clinging on to an enormous firework as it spins wildly around the room, out of control, dragging you violently in one direction then another; or, to use a more appropriate, chemistry-based analogy, the closing stages of a season are when the addition of too many reactive elements to the formula finally causes it to become unstable, leading to it corroding and destroying everything that surrounds it.
Unlike previous episodes at this stage of a season, however, Say My Name had a quiet inevitability to it. Mike and Walt have been at loggerheads all season, and their conflict was clearly coming to an end, so did anyone truly think that Mike would make the clean break and live happily ever after?
No one ever gets out unscathed on Breaking Bad without first paying the price for their mistakes, and Mike’s biggest mistake throughout the entire series was to continually underestimate Walt – to let him worm his way out of trouble and into positions of power time after time after time. Last week, Mike left Walt limply cable-tied to a radiator next to the keys to the treasured methylamine which was parked next door – clearly not the actions of a man who is taking significant, or even adequate precautions
So why the blind spot? It’s easy to see why Walt’s other two nemeses, Hank and Jesse (and they are nemeses, even though neither of them exactly realise it yet), can’t see how dangerous he is: to Hank, he’ll always be his dorky brother-in-law, and to Jesse, there’s still the vestiges of the respect formed by their initial teacher-pupil relationship, as is constantly demonstrated by him still instinctively referring to him as Mr White. Walt knows the innate power of these preconceptions, and uses them accordingly to manipulate situations to his advantage
But Mike was different (describing him in the past tense like this is brutal, by the way). He saw Walter for exactly what he was, as he demonstrated in what proved to be his final blazing argument with Walt: made to leave town after his lawyer was caught with hundreds and thousands of dollars of hazard pay and subsequently flipped by the DEA, Mike is heartbreakingly forced to abandon his granddaughter and quickly get out of dodge. He’s required to leave in such a hurry that he isn’t even able to grab his ’go-bag’, a case possibly full of clothes, toiletries, duct tape, makeshift torture instruments, and low-level military weaponry.
Therefore, he’s required to have one final interaction with Walt, who readily volunteers to make the drop as he wants something in return – the nine names of the men who, now that their hazard pay has been stemmed, he knows will be being leaned on heavily by the DEA.
Mike’s refusal to give up his men and Walt’s subsequent grandstanding leads to our favourite elderly hitman finally snapping, and the depths of his perception are confirmed as he loudly and angrily runs down a painfully accurate description of Walt’s character defects– petty, ego-driven, impulsive, irrational, arrogant, and utterly hamstrung by his own pride.
While Mike’s amateur psychology here was first rate, ironically, it perhaps was Mike’s own pride that stopped him from dealing with Walter as effectively as he might have during their working relationship. Mike correctly identifies Walt’s ego as his biggest weakness, so if he had been able to at least pretend to respect Walt even a little bit, he would probably have found him a lot easier to deal with and may have ultimately escaped with his life.
Easier said than done though. Mike ultimately couldn’t even feign respect for Walt, so violently opposed were their two approaches to business – Mike with his unerring loyalty, strong (relative) code of ethics and principles; and Walt with his cutthroat, do-whatever-it-takes to survive mentality.
As a result, Mike was so disgusted by Walt that he refused to ever take him seriously as a man, let alone a boss – consistently skeptical of his ideas, addressing him in an almost constant sneer, and physically intimidating him on a number of occasions. And unless you haven’t noticed, Walt is all about being taken seriously as a man. He’s primarily in two businesses: 1) the empire business, and 2) the being taken seriously as a man business. But mainly the second one.
Take the opening of the episode as Exhibit A, which saw Walt/Heisenberg at possibly his most swaggeringly aggressive yet, demanding that some high-level meth dealers “say his name” after they first were all-but forced to accept the terms of a counter deal he just laid out for them: “Heisenberg…” “You’re goddamn right.” It’s a crowning moment of machismo for Walt and his swinging dick Heisenberg persona, and even Mike is briefly and grudgingly respectful.
But when Walt tries this same trick again later in his confrontation with Mike – using tough talk in a stubborn, steel-eyed negotiation as they face each other down like gunslingers – it has absolutely no effect on his weary ex-partner. Walt’s stunned to see that Mike’s not only not scared, but also ready to drop that quick, scathingly unflattering psych profile on him, one that also fairly transparently belittles his manhood (“You should have known your place!”) He then walks right up to him and snatches the bag right out of his hands, as if he were just an ordinary man and not a mythic drug lord.
Because to Mike, Walt will always be an absurd figure, the chemistry teacher who is playing drug lord, and that realization for Walt – that he will never earn Mike’s respect as an intellectual, a criminal, or even a human being – finally sends Walt over the edge, and leads him to impulsively gun down Mike in what is admittedly an achingly beautiful and picturesque setting (hey, at least it’s not a nursing home, right Mike?)
And it’s in these final moments Walt unwittingly cements himself as that absurd figure, perhaps more absurd than even Mike ever thought possible, as he suddenly comes around from an extremely ill-timed ‘senior moment’ to realize that his murder had been in vain – he could have easily got the names he was after from Lydia.
This is already one of my favourite moments in Breaking Bad history – I laughed out loud when Walt metaphorically sniffed the gas he’d left on, as it was such a hilarious and character-appropriate way to illustrate Walt’s ever-loosening grip on reality. (As a quick aside, Jonathan Banks and particularly Bryan Cranston were both phenomenal in this episode, conveying some deeply complex character arcs with an intensity and intelligence that will surely be rewarded during the American awards season. Banks, and Mike, will be sorely missed.)
We are now beginning to see what an unfiltered Walter White/Heisenberg persona looks like, and it isn’t pretty, Whether consciously or sub-consciously, Walter has spent this half-season steady disassembling all of the safeguards that had been keeping him (relatively) human, and now is left without anyone or anything to keep his worst impulses in check. Now Mike is gone, he has no-one to call him on his bullshit and actually be able to stand up to him about it on an aggressive, masculine level. He’s also driven Jesse away, who has effectively acted as his conscience and moral centre for the past few seasons. His family too, is now long gone, with Skylar (metaphorically) and his kids (literally) having both left the building.
All that’s left are yes-men who are either intimidated by him (Saul) or in thrall to him (Todd). We see a preview of Walt and Todd’s working relationship, and realise that the greatest asset of Jesse to Walt was his subservience, and his ability to be easily manipulated – here, however, Walt is surprised and happy to realise that manipulation now won’t be necessary, as he now has a pupil who is just as obedient, eager to learn and eager to please, with none of the fussy moral hang-ups that would consistently plague Jesse’s work getting in the way.
Before Jesse got out though we got a nice best-of of Walt’s manipulation tactics, as he tried to use guilt, scorn, ridicule, pity, flat out anger, and money to persuade Jesse to stay. Walt’s endless lies and circular logic have become too much for even Jesse now, however – “It’s bullshit, every time” – and Jesse proves his moral fibre by agreeing to walk out on $5m if it means finally cutting ties with the increasingly deranged Walt.
So how will the momentous death of Mike affect things going into the season finale? Well, it’s sure to make Jesse do…something, considering their relationship constantly seemed to be teetering on the edge of being genuinely affectionate. Will we finally head into season 6 with the Jesse vs. Walt showdown that’s been building for years?
Or will Hank prove to be Walt’s main stumbling block to his empire-building, and a confrontation that’s been brewing for even longer will get resolved? Now that the main lead in the case has been murdered, it’s sure to cement Hank’s resolve that he’s getting closer, after his bosses all but shut down the investigation, and convince him to pump more time and effort into the project.
But, perhaps most pressingly, how will the murder of Mike affect Walt, at least in the short-term? Walt’s self-mythologizing is heavily built around his status as a master planner, someone who canvasses every detail and outwits every other player in the game by always being sure he is a few moves ahead at every point: so for him to make this, the most basic of errors, one that would lead to him committing yet another murder (shortly after assuring Jesse that they were to be a thing of the past) out of pure, spiteful hot-headedness, should even penetrate Walt’s inches thick layers of denial and self-justification and make him realize that he is beginning to lose control. If he were to make another mistake like that, in another of the dangerous, precarious scenarios that Walt seemingly so craves being a part of, it could cost him any or all of the following: his freedom, his fortune, his life, and his children’s lives.
Walt himself must know that this is a worrying precedent – he has hitherto prided himself on being able to ride out even the most potentially hazardous of situations by using his intelligence and ruthlessness to harness the elements to his advantage. But now, with the senseless murder of Mike on his conscience, and the knowledge that his violent emotions are finally capable of overtaking the power of his calculating intellect, he has identified himself as the unstable element – the catalyst for the break down into chaos and destruction that he has been forced to dig deep and rise above so many times in the past. Up until now, he’s proven a master at managing situations controlling others, but now he faces possibly his biggest challenge yet – will Walt be able to control himself?
Read Paul’s review of last week’s episode, Buyout, here.