This review contains spoilers.
5.9 Blood Money
Of course, this has always been a show that has inspired dangerously sustained breath-holding. Even in its infancy, there were few shows that could come close to it for sheer asphyxiating intensity, and in all honesty it’s probably a canny move that the show is being distributed in the UK exclusively on the on-demand service Netflix, as I suspect if everybody here watched the show at the same time then the combined force of exhalation at the end of each episode would be sufficiently strong enough to send the whole UK skidding across the Atlantic like a big pebble.
By this point we’re so invested in the outcome for Walt, Jesse, Hank, Skyler, Saul et al, that the experience of watching each new episode feels curiously painful, like undergoing a really entertaining minor heart attack. But there’s another reason why this final batch of episodes have inspired bordeline scuba-levels of breath bating – it’s because Breaking Bad genuinely has a chance to become one of the best TV shows ever made.
Whispers already began as early as the third season that the quality of Breaking Bad was such that it could start to potentially be mentioned alongside the all time great cable dramas like The Sopranos and The Wire. By this point, its status as part of the pantheon you would think is all but assured; but as Alan Sepinwall says in The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, his excellent history of modern TV drama, Breaking Bad has more to fear from a disappointing ending than, say, Mad Men, because everybody has their own idea for how the series *should* end. Should they drop the ball with the ending and disappoint too many people, it’ll just have to settle for being one of the best dramas of the last 20 years. If they get it right…who knows?
On the evidence of Blood Money none of us have anything to fear about Breaking Bad sticking the landing. If the cast and Vince Gilligan are worried about pleasing everybody, it definitively does not show through in this episode: everything about it oozes pure confidence. Technically it’s as sublime as always (the episode is directed by no less that Bryan Cranston himself), and Cranston, Aaron Paul and Dean Norris have built their characters so carefully over the past five seasons that they’re all capable of conveying their characters’ innermost thoughts without so much as moving their heads. We’re in good hands, is what I’m saying.
And we know that we’re in good hands in the first few seconds of the terrifying opening scene, one that features Future Walt for the first time since the opening scene of season 5 premiere Live Free Or Die. In that earlier scene, it was heavily implied that terrible, terrible things are going to happen to Walt; this scene just serves to confirm it.
On returning to his house to retrieve the ricin cigarette, we see that the once homely White residence has been stripped bare and vandalised with grafitti’d Heisenberg slogans. The drained swimming pool is filled with snickering skate punks, and the whole house has effectively become a Boogeyman’s lair, the kind of place neighbourhood kids dare each other to sneak into on Hallowe’en. Something really bad happened there.
“Who do you think you see?” is a question that Walt once asked Skyler, pointedly, before launching into the now legendary ‘I am the one who knocks’ monologue. It’s a question that has resonated through the series since. When neighbour Carol sees Future Walt outside the house, she reacts as if she’s seen a ghost (before dropping her oranges – Breaking Bad never passes up the opportunity to give a hat tip to a classic gangster trope). When Walt looks in the cracked mirror of his abandoned family home while stood in the defiled and violated ruins of his true life’s work – his family – who does he see? Is it Heisenberg? Is it Walter White? Or is it neither?
Who does Jesse see, when Walt looks him directly in the eye and swears to him that he didn’t kill Mike? Jesse, ironically, probably knows Walt better than anyone else in the world after what the pair have been through together, despite the fact that he’s been the victim of more lies from Walt than probably even Skyler. As the two men sit together on a sofa, symbolically divided by the two huge bags of titular blood money, poor Jesse once more has to sit there while Walt pisses all over him and tells him it’s raining.
But even through a depressed bong-haze and Walt’s well-honed, Oscar-winning earnestness it’s clear that Jesse is now wise to Walt’s antics. If this means Walt can no longer rely on being able to emotionally manipulate Jesse when he’s in a pinch, where now for their relationship? Certainly, Jesse no longer seems to fear or respect the man in front of him – his prevailing emotion rather appears to be sheer disgust.
As for Skyler, her new-found apparent contentment suggests that rather than seeing the one who knocks, she sees her old husband Walter White finally coming back to her; only this time, with the added drive and ambition required to run and operate his own successful car wash business. Walt, for his part, seems to be enjoying his return to his mild-mannered ways, with his lovably dorky opinions on air freshener merchandising, chipper valedictions (“Have an A1 day!”) and painfully beige outfits (interesting that Walt wears this same outfit at the car wash in the pilot episode: it’s what he’s wearing when he first explodes with rage after some mild bullying from the substantively eye-browed owner).
But then Heisenberg is never far away. F Scott Fitzgerald said that the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. Walt’s status as a criminal mastermind in large part seems down to his ability to operate two directly opposed personas at the same time, and switch between them as and when he sees fit.
In Blood Money for the most part he’s happy to stay as mild-mannered Walter White, as the one that’s most convenient for him in his current situation. However, there are still moments where Heisenberg pops up when called upon- like when he casually dismiss Lydia’s plea for her life, or handles a panicked phone call from Saul literally like a boss. Like Walt’s cancer – which has returned with a vengeance – Heisenberg might occasionally retreat, but it seems will never be able to fully go away.
And then there’s Hank. Who does he see when he looks? When he steps out of the bathroom, after an uncomfortably long stretch on the throne (11+ months by my count), he sees his brother-in-law, and he sees his arch-nemesis, living in the same body: and he can’t take it, as he spirals quickly into an anxiety attack. It’s telling that Hank’s first glimpse of Walt post-revelation is when he’s at kindest and most loving – as he plays with and makes baby talk with Holly – as this harmless exterior is exactly what has kept Hank away the scent for so long.
Hank always reminds me of Edward G Robinson’s character in the classic noir Double Indemnity. A truly gifted investigator and a natural tough guy, whose only weakness is his own inherently good nature; one characterised by a need to feel as if he can trust those closest to him, due to his day to day existence living in a world populated by crooks and snakes.
I’m reminded of it here because what’s great about the way Blood Money plays out is that it reminds you that Hank really is a brilliant investigator, despite his catastrophic blind spot, in much the same way Robinson eventually gets redemption in Double Indemnity. Hank even gets his equivalent of one of the show’s many meth montages, in a scene showing him plowing through the Heisenberg paperwork that also serves as a neat potted history of the show up to this point. His suspicions apparently confirmed, soon he’s got a tracker on Walt’s car: but almost as soon as it’s attached Walt has figured out Hank’s now onto him, after noticing the Leaves of Grass shaped hole in his toilet book-basket.
In a characteristically clever bit of misdirection, the final scene plays out tentatively at first, as if it will mark the beginning of a duel between Hank and Walt which will see them circle each other well into the next few episodes. But of course that doesn’t make sense – while Dean Norris, Bryan Cranston and Walter White are all brilliant actors, Hank Schrader isn’t, and almost as soon as Walt enters and sees Hank’s demeanour it’s clear that the two men are finally on the same page.
So after Walt pulls a Columbo just as he’s about to leave, the confrontation we’ve been waiting five seasons is suddenly upon us, and it’s every bit as intense as we could have imagined. Hank is incensed, a fizzing ball of unfocused rage and betrayal, but clearly still thinking he’s got a clear upper hand against Walt.
While Walt is briefly rattled, and perhaps even genuinely a little sympathetic with Hank’s position, he spends little time in getting quickly to his default mode of cool, pragmatic persuasion. He’s unbelievably gifted at making you feel like his plan of action is the only possible logical path for you to take, and not just something that’s fuelled by his own rampant self-interest. He makes the case that Hank would be the one actually causing the real damage to the family if he made a fuss, and it’s a testament to his unmatched skill at emotional chess that Hank seems willing even to discuss it.
But then Walt balks at Hank’s one condition, to move the kids out of the house, which leads to a disbelieving Hank wondering aloud who it is he’s talking to. He’s answered indirectly but immediately: when Walt’s expression changes and he warns Hank to “tread lightly”, Hank gets his first real glimpse of Heisenberg. And, by the same token, when Hank threatened to take away his family, Walt no longer saw his brother-in-law in front of him, but yet another obstacle to overcome: another Tuco, another Mike, another Gustavo Fring. Another foreign body in Walt’s perfectly engineered formula that needs to be eliminated.
Both men have spent the last few years deluded into thinking that the other is not a threat, but as they face each other in the garage at the end of Blood Money, they see each other’s true faces for the first time. Hank and Walt are enemies, they are now at war, and we have seven more episodes to go. Don’t forget to breathe.
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