Rarely have we waited so long and so eagerly for one man to emerge from the toilet.
Last year, Breaking Bad left us with Hank sitting on the can realising that Walter White is Heisenberg, the mystery meth cook he’s been chasing for nearly the entire show. No other cliffhanger would have made sense with only eight episodes to go, or been nearly as effective. Even so, Hank learning the truth about Walt transforms Breaking Bad for its remaining episodes, a point of no return that sends every character into an uncertain future.
Not only that, but Walt left the meth business in last year’s finale, so Breaking Bad will no longer be about Walt cooking meth and building an empire. Instead, it will be about him trying to survive and remain free and the ultimate consequences of his actions on those around him. That the characters’ entire world threatens to fall apart has given the show an apocalyptic quality, which is particularly wrenching because, for a few scenes in the finale, they were so close to a stable existence. Their relationships may have been destroyed or they may have been wracked with guilt, but they were safe. Instead, that quiet interlude was just the deep breath before the plunge.
The opening sequence of “Blood Money” rings in the end-times with strikingly bleak imagery. Continuing the flash-forward that opened last year’s premiere (which Walt’s birthday breakfast established as occurring about nine months after this week’s episode), Walt returns to Albuquerque with the guns he bought from Jim Beaver. The Whites’ house is fenced off and abandoned, covered in graffiti, teenagers using the empty pool as a skate ramp. The interior has been stripped of every item and the name ‘Heisenberg’ has been spray-painted on the living room wall, the yellow echoing Walt and Jesse’s containment suits. The ground left to cover in seven episodes is staggering, and immensely exciting.
Walt’s crimes becoming public knowledge is the most startling development, which his neighbour confirms when she drops her groceries in horror on seeing him. Unlike Hank’s discovery, this wasn’t narratively inevitable. Public exposure was always irrelevant to the story’s concerns, its power struggles and character arcs served more than adequately when played out in the shadows. The scope of the show’s conclusion now broadens beyond what we assumed, becoming even less predictable than it was last season.
Walt has returned to retrieve the ricin capsule he hid in the power point casing last season. Between this, the heavy artillery, and not even trying to hide from his shocked neighbour, Walt appears to be heading for a final showdown that may be coming so quickly that being spotted won’t make a difference.
Although he long ago stopped being sympathetic, Walt raised himself to a position where he could fend off the most strategic and resourceful opponents. For him to now accept his imminent capture or death is chilling and oddly moving, because our investment in Breaking Bad has hinged on our awe at what Walt built from the ruins of his own underachievement. To see the aftermath of it falling apart and Walt seemingly accept that even he can’t escape from this, we feel a sense of loss. Because Breaking Bad chose to present the development of an anti-hero rather than the life of a pre-existing one, it has blurred empathy and sympathy more confusingly and intimately than perhaps any other series.
Our concern during these flash-forwards isn’t just for Walt, of course. Our sympathy is largely for the unseen characters, whose fate we’re dying to know. The rest of “Blood Money” only gives us an inkling of what may take us to to that near future, with Hank’s reaction to the truth about Walt the most significant clue.
Although far from perfect, Hank has become the de facto hero of Breaking Bad, so his shock and grief at Walt’s true nature is heartbreaking. He feels so deeply and has such integrity that he can’t step out of that bathroom and compartmentalise his behaviour to protect his discovery, as Walt could. He can’t hide his shock, so he goes quiet, pretends to be sick, and goes home. He can’t look at Walt and barely speaks to him as he leaves, even though he must know he might make Walt suspicious. Given Walt’s strategic intelligence and the enemies he’s already defeated, Hank’s honesty is an agonising vulnerability.
He immediately gets stuck into the case files of the Fring case, and in a more plot-driven show he might continue to investigate Walt secretly over the next few episodes, setting a trap for him. But the contrast between the two men is too central to the show’s themes about masculinity and power for them to not confront each other much sooner. Just as we think Walt’s about to leave Hank’s garage in the final scene, he turns and asks if Hank knows about the tracker he’s just found on his car. Hank has looked shaken and nervous throughout the scene in a way Walt couldn’t fail to notice. Having that power over the more traditionally masculine Hank is too intoxicating not to indulge further.
The early episodes of the show established Hank as friendly but domineering, treating Walt as the shy nerd he likes but doesn’t understand, and Walt’s self-esteem was so low that he didn’t consider himself Hank’s male equal. Since then, he’s established himself as a powerful force, if not physically so. It’s fitting then that, when Hank realises he can’t keep up the charade any longer, he closes the garage door and punches Walt in the face. But Walt counters not with force, but manipulation. He pleads with Hank that pursuing him is pointless because his cancer is back and he’ll be dead in six months. But when that isn’t enough, Walt reveals what Hank has opened himself up to. Hank says that he no longer knows who he’s talking to, so Walt suggests that if that’s the case, he should ‘tread lightly’.
Manipulation, intelligence, and theatricality have been Walt’s instruments in becoming Heisenberg. Even if he can’t physically best Hank, he can remind him that he’s now part of a darker, more horrifying world that could devour Hank in ways he would never dream of visiting on Walt. By establishing his power outside of masculine norms, he’s eclipsed Hank’s alpha status. How Hank proceeds while knowing these risks is making the wait for next week excruciating.
And for a scene that’s been anticipated for the entire series, it didn’t disappoint. Dean Norris and Bryan Cranston finally confronting each other as enemies was electric, with Hank voicing all the clues to Heisenberg’s identity that we’d seen him encounter but never connect to Walt. You could argue that Hank knew ever since the moment, replayed in the final scene last year, where he speculated to Walt that the W.W. initials in Gale’s journal could conceivably stand for ‘Walter White’. But he couldn’t let it be true then, so now he’s as angry with himself for not seeing the reality under his nose as he is with Walt for his crimes, and that frailty makes their new rivalry tragic as well as gripping.
While Hank has been suffering through revelation, Jesse has been stagnating, enduring his guilt and shame over the death and misery he’s helped perpetuate. He can’t even anonymously donate his millions to Mike’s granddaughter and the family of the boy Todd killed without endangering himself and others, creating a vicious cycle that’s paralysing him. He’s desperate to unburden himself of the money, but can’t just destroy it when it could still help him atone for how he earned it. Eventually, he drives around an impoverished neighbourhood at night, throwing wads of bills into front yards like a wealthy paperboy, tears in his eyes from knowing that even when the money is gone, his guilt will remain.
Aaron Paul plays Jesse as utterly hollowed out, his vitality and heart now just a smouldering ember. Even anger seems beyond him now. But stifling him further is his dread of what Walt might do to him to protect his own freedom. As Walt confidently lies to him that Mike is alive, Jesse has to sit there and humour him. He knows Walt well enough to recognise that when he’s emphatic and convincing, he has another agenda. But fearing that Walt will get rid of him if he shows a hint of rebellion, Jesse has to pretend to believe his lies. Indignity on top of guilt is going to drive Jesse to do something, but what?
The other characters don’t get much screen time this week. Skyler is focused on running the car wash, and although her relationship with Walt is still merely mutually convenient if no longer hostile, she’s still working to ensure he stays out of the business. Lydia unexpectedly turns up at the car wash, asking Walt to run some training because meth purity has plummeted. On realising this, Skyler approaches her and calmly demands that she never come near them again. How Skyler’s story develops and resolves will likely hinge on what pressure Lydia and her backers exert to bring Walt back into the game, and she’s now undoubtedly reinforced for Lydia that she and their children are Walt’s motivation for staying on the straight and narrow.
Todd, presumably the cause of the problem, is conspicuously absent this week even though Jesse Plemons is now a regular cast member. Since he murdered the boy after the train heist, he’s been a slow-burning wild card. Whenever he’s not around, his potential lurks on the periphery. We’ve seen what he’s capable of, so what might he do to Walt and his family to maintain and bolster his success as a meth cook?
The agonising uncertainty of how this tenuous status quo will disintegrate into the bleak future we’ve been teased with makes this season the most exhilarating final lap since Lost or Battlestar Galactica, whose penultimate finales also promised fundamental shifts with massive and inexplicable consequences. On the strength of this first episode, Breaking Bad is maintaining that grip on our imagination even with last year’s cliffhanger resolved. That it so perfectly executes the long-awaited confrontation between Walt and Hank bodes damn well for the remaining seven episodes.