We all bid 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%. We’ve been reliably informed by Breaking Bad that this, In meth purity terms, is a very impressive figure. They’ve certainly never seen anything like it in the Czech Republic and apparently those guys know their meth. 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 bit he will never have control over. 100% purity is, ultimately, impossible.
It doesn’t stop him trying, though. Walt’s entire 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. Something where all the elements fall into place. We know by now Walt sees himself as a mastermind, be that chemical or criminal. It doesn’t really matter. It’s not the destination, it’s the journey. What matters is the search for perfection, the attempt to eradicate any trace of doubt or error on your way to a logical conclusion that stands up to scrutiny. Something you, Walt, can hold up and say: Look. I was right.
For a while in Gliding Over All, easily the best episode of yet another superb season, it looks like Walt may have done the impossible and actually pulled off that most elusive of things: the perfect crime. And not just the perfect crime: the perfect criminal career. In fact it looks as though he may even think, in the closing scenes of the episode, that he is edging towards redemption, having crossed yet another moral event horizon.
I mean 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, killing Gale, even letting Jane die? Well no, actually. I mean slippery freaking slope here. All those other victims were, basically, innocent parties. Mike’s men, on the other hand, all played active roles in the sale and distribution of meth, andwere most likely prolific killers and psychopaths themselves. And, lest we forget, meth is bad. Bad I say.
But the shocking montage of brutal killings was an indicator of yet another line Walt was confidently strutting across. Most of Walt’s other murders were characterized by a certain amount of intellectual flair. First he outwitted his opponents, then maneuvered them into a position where he could pounce. Take Gus’ bombing, for example. But with Mike’s killing and now the two-minute orgy of death, destruction and mayhem Walt officially entered psychopath territory.
This had to have been the most violent sequence in Breaking Bad history, high praise for a show that has become famous for including at least one shockingly gruesome scene per season. Either way, Vince Gilligan has previously said that Team Breaking Bad is determined to keep raising the bar as they forge ahead in this small screen universe that is their ongoing meth criminal enterprise. But there was nothing operatic or blackly comedic about this particular blood bath, as was the case with violence in previous episodes. This scene specifically was not a grandiose, “taking care of business” montage in the nature of Michael Corleone wrapping things up at his nephew’s baptism. No this was a bunch of street punks being ruthlessly shivved before bleeding out into a drain. In other words, the true face of Walt’s gangster lifestyle.
Horrifying though it undoubtedly was, unfortunately Walt still was clearly not ready to take his role in directing the carnage as a cue to leave. So then what caused his seeming late episode turnaround?
Chillingly, it’s hinted that it could just be boredom: Walt has no one left to vanquish. Gus is dead. Mike is dead, Mike’s men are dead. Jesse is out for good. Hank has no leads left. There is nothing left to play for and, I true psychopath form, Walt is bored with this game.
Once again Lydia managed to talk her way out of being killed, this time by pulling a lucrative deal with the Czech Republic out of her, uh, barrel. So we will all have to wait even longer for everyone’s favorite 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 huge disappointment at this stage).
A nice touch in the Lydia-pulling-it-out-of-her-barrel scene was Walt’s appearance in full Heisenberg garb, which begs the question: is Walt wearing the outfit as a disguise, or to be recognized for who is? And thereby trade on the Heisenberg legend that he created and nurtured and to the point where it can now be used to intimidate the growing number of people who are familiar with it? This ALL begs the question: of “Walt’s” two personas, which one is now the disguise? IS psychopathy even the correct diagnosis here?
The bumbling degenerate gambler mask Walt likes to wear nearly slips in an early scene with Hank, which scene played as a clever mirror of the encounters we’ve seen between these two already 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 fake emotional outpourings. But this time the roles are neatly reversed, with a genuinely distraught Hank sadly relaying to the unsympathetic Walt a story about an old summer job Hank used to have working in the woods. A job Hanks says he hated, but now looks back on fondly due to the psychic toll “chasing monsters” is taking on him.
Walt clearly believes that Hank’s inability to deal with a bit of the good old ultra-violence pretty damn pathetic. You can see the scorn etched on his face (Bryan Cranston KICKING SOME ACTING ASS), as well hear the dripping sarcasm in his voice when Walt dryly intones “I used to love to go camping” by way of barely-there consolation.
So one of Walt’s biggest headaches sits before him a beaten man. Another box ticked for Team Walt. What’s left? Walt just recently told Jesse that he’s “in the empire business.” But by the end of this episode we have to view this 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 has risen to new heights, even by “Breaking Bad” standards). But none of this is enough to make Walt happy. Something is missing. The drudgery of cooking meth 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. Frankly, bottom line, Walt is bored.
It becomes clear that Walt misses the feral scrapping for survival that characterized the early days when he visits Jesse at his home and waxes nostalgic for the days of broken-down RVs and having to get by with musty school equipment. This is as close to sentimentality as Walt gets these days, 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 finishes up the same way as the other eleven loose ends.
Aaron Paul is great in this scene, as he always is, but this segment 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 even the smallest of eye movements or gestures is remarkable. Has there ever been a television actor more utterly in tune with the material and a character than Cranston with Breaking Bad and Walter White?
Walt is ready to quit. The combination of the meth trade becoming just another mind numbing job and the fact that he has earned far more money than can even be laundered, means Walt is ready to pack it in. Of course, this could all be smoke and mirrors for Skyler’s benefit, but there’s something about Walt that suggests he may actually, finally be on the level.
And Skyler seems to buy it. So desperate in her pessimism a few weeks ago that she was attempting to passive smoke Walt to death, Skyler seems to see a flicker of a light at the end of the tunnel for her family. A light that she might be able to steer her clearly unstable husband towards. And as Walt and Skyler lock eyes over a few blissful seconds of overlapping familial small talk, it seems to be a real, tangible possibility for them.
But the minor imperfections and impurities that cloud and complicate our lives aren’t going to be denied that easily. First, there’s a very real impurity to be dealt with – Walter’s cancer. Once again, Walt’s actual diagnosis is withheld from us. But there is definitely something ominous in the way Walt 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, people he has spent a great deal of time emotionally abusing in the past few weeks. Walt’s health is the one aspect of his life that he cannot 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 from the opening scene. We know that Walt’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.
In Breaking Bad these insects have come to represent an unforeseen intrusion into otherwise carefully assembled plans; a minor infestation, or impurity, that ruins the whole. But who will prove to be, come episode’s end, the metaphorical fly in the ointment of Walt’s carefully-laid retirement plans?
How appropriate that Hank should be literally shitting himself when the truth he has been running away from for the past year finally dawns on him, and we get the reaction shot we’ve been waiting for since episode one (and it doesn’t disappoint – a brilliant piece of silent acting from Dean Norris).
This is one of the all time great Breaking Bad moments, one that stands alongside Gus’s face-off, Hank’s battle with the cousins, Jane’s death and “Run!” in the pantheon of things that make your heart attempt to leap out of your chest. THIS my friends 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 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 sitting on the toilet. 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, doesn’t matter: it worked brilliantly.
At first it seems a little convenient, unlikely even, that Walt would keep such an incriminating piece of evidence as the book from Gale in his bathroom. But actually it makes perfect sense. Walt is someone who now finds it impossible to see the wood for the trees. Walt is unplayable when it comes to outlandish cat-and-mouse games, but the combination of his arrogance, recklessness and preoccupation with the finer details means Walt is officially starting to overlook things that would normally be enormously obvious.
This attitude is what makes Walt so dangerous now and what led to Mike’s death last episode. Walt in this half-season has been like a decorated university professor giving a confident, high-level talk on the finer points of analytical chemistry, while standing at the podium with his fly down.
Walt was nearly there. 99.1% there even. But now that Hank knows, that 99.1% just doesn’t matter. The 0.9%, in effect, cancels out the rest. And this half-season of Walter’s triumphant reign as a crime lord looks like it will 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. Hank’s next move is going to require a great deal of thought.
An explosive confrontation between Walt and Hank is now, officially, inevitable. Perhaps the really interesting 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 will give us plenty to ponder 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”.