Aug 11, 2013

Breaking Bad: “Blood Money”

By Josh Oakley


“I am a dying man who runs a car wash. My right hand to god, that’s all that I am.”

Walter White is, and has always been, a dying man. His anger, whether boiling beneath his surface, or searing the ground he stood upon (as well as anyone who dared to get in his way), fed by pride, soaked his actions before Heisenberg uttered the words “this is not meth”. It can be seen in the earliest episodes, and one can infer from context that it predates his 50th birthday. Who Walter White is may seem significantly different now from the man he was in Breaking Bad’s first episode. But this man, this emotional coward, this beast that swallows the souls of the innocent and the wounded, he has been here all along. People do not change; they simply present new angles of themselves. Like the cracked mirror in the first scene of “Blood Money”, the broken reflection of Walter White is an assemblage of masks he’s concocted over the years. And beneath those facades? The devil.

“Blood Money”, a terrific episode that contains maybe the best scene the show has ever pulled off, opens the final eight episodes with terrifying promise. That great scene, the confrontation between Hank and Walt, which I’ll get to in a minute, seems meant for a penultimate episode. But Breaking Bad has always done what it pleases in terms of doling out plot. It would not surprise me in the slightest if this explosive episode is followed by an introspective journey, or more forward momentum, or much of anything. Breaking Bad, aside from its flash-forwards, plays more linearly and is more plot-driven than many “golden age” counterparts. Even the oddities within this show feel inspired more by warped, hazy gangster films than the pure experiment that seeps into something like Mad Men. This is not to say that Breaking Bad is un-adventurous. Rather, its exploration is pure, concentrated into plot and story, rather than a series of constant divergences to inform theme.

Much of “Blood Money” is merely solid, finding the characters moving into positions from which they can be toppled. Jesse seems to have nowhere to fall to, as the former shell-of-a-man has become even hollower. Jesse has a soul, something Walt has proven to lack, which seems like a benefit. But when a genuine heart is taken through the same wringer as a man overflowing with darkness, the consequences are monstrous. The tears in Aaron Paul’s eyes as he tosses the titular dollar bills from his car inform the cold wounds that may never heal. Jesse has been beaten, both literally and figuratively, and he is far from the “yo, bitch!” shouter we first met. Maybe it would have been kinder for Vince Gilligan to kill Jesse as he originally planned, back in season one. We would have lost one of the great television performances, but Jesse Pinkman would have passed on with some semblance of humanity. He has become barren, but feels too much to simply toss it aside. Where Walt can coldly throw any weight from his shoulders, Jesse is forced to live with everything he has done. Walt has killed many people, but he has done much worse to his former student.

The most vital aspect of Jesse and Walt’s time together in tonight’s episode is a look the former gives once he’s turned his head away from the latter. Walt has just given a quintessential bullshit speech informing Jesse that Mike is still alive. Jesse doesn’t buy it for a second. This is too bad for Walt, who is dropping all those around him, such as Lydia, who pleads for the man’s return to the drug business. Walt refuses, and Skyler makes sure that Lydia never pokes her head around the car wash again, in the night’s third best scene (the second best scene is Badger’s Star Trek conversation with Skinny Pete, obviously). Skyler is no longer perturbed by Walt’s mechanizations; when he suggests a car wash empire, she agrees to consider the option. Though it is less obvious she too has been slowly chipped away at by Walt; her desire to protect the family is still intact, but mutated. 

One of Walt’s last former allies, Hank, ended the previous season (or half-season) by discovering the true identity of Gale Boetticher’s “W.W.” Of course he needs to be certain, so he spends this episode at home, going through the case files from the Gus Fring investigation. There is an obvious lack of willingness to be sure throughout much of Hank’s studying. He does not wish to believe that his brother-in-law is capable of so many horrendous acts. But he grows certain. Certain enough to place a tracker on Walt’s car, one that Walt discovers and confronts Hank with. The garage door closes. A fist is thrown. Blood has been spilt amongst family.

This scene, one of the great moments of a great show, is beyond any comprehension of “white-knuckle”. My limbs lost all sensation as my clenched muscles froze my body. This was a scene so inevitable that it could have been written in episode one. Though we wouldn’t have felt then the fury that Hank unleashes. We have seen the consequences of Walt’s actions upon Hank: the blinding tenseness of “One Minute”, the fallout from that event, the bruising verbal shots thrown from Hank to Marie. So much of Hank’s pain evolved from a man within his own family, a man he was sure that he knew. Now he can only stare at him, expressing his unawareness of whom he’s talking to. And Walt replies, “If that’s true, if you don’t know who I am, then maybe your best course would be to tread lightly”.

It is these consequences listed above – the tearing of Jesse’s heart and nature, the loss of Skyler’s purity of self, Hank’s existential disintegration – that Breaking Bad is bringing into focus for its final run. Walt tells Jesse: “you need to stop focusing on the darkness behind you. The past is the past.” This is incredibly easy for the devil to say, a man who cannot feel the emotional heft of murder. If these three shared Walt’s sociopathic tendencies, they too could ignore the immense baggage. But they have hearts, and those hearts can break, and these people can shatter. Walt has never been able to understand that his inability to care may gain him money and power, but never fulfillment. When one constantly strives for more, when one conquers one world and lusts after another, he is teetering on the brink of a bottomless pit he’s dug for himself, pulling down all those around him. Ozymandias was once a king, but now nothing remains but broken remnants of a trophy.

Then we see the thematic purpose of the flash-forward that opens the half-season. The Whites’ house is abandoned, its pool used by skaters, graffiti lining the walls, devoid of any remembrance of the life that once existed there. Walt’s cancer returned in the present, and went on to rot the space he and Skyler once purchased together with genuine hope. He pulls the ricin cigarette from a light socket, a guarantee of its position as the series’ Chekhov’s gun. He exits and greets his terrified neighbor. It is clear what he has done is now common knowledge. He is alone, off to commit another treacherous act, barely recognizable with a full head of hair and new glasses. He was never able to feel the impact of his actions within, but now the external effects are obvious. And if Walter White is looking for someone to blame, he can find the name written upon a wall in a house he once called home: Heisenberg.

Grade: A-

Miscellaneous:
  • The repeated “Hello, Carol” worked well to incorporate the idea that a fallen man has much further down to go. Also made me think of this.
  • The transition of the non-diegetic music stemming from Hank’s crooked mind to the garage door at the car wash opening was beautifully done. Open doors let secrets flow. Then, later, a garage door closing seals the ramifications of those very secrets.
  • “You don’t give a shit about family” – Hank, calling Walt out even more than he knows.
  • Dean Norris has always been excellent on this show, especially since season three, but nothing could prepare me for his work in that final scene. He was able to bring out a culmination of every experience the character has had, and combine it with this recent revelation. You could see Hank’s entire life actively being recontextualized.
  • “You’re putting me in a box here.” – Lydia to Walt, believing she is in any way unique. This is simply what the man does – places others wherever he damn well pleases.
  • “Hank, my cancer is back.” “Good. Rot, you son of a bitch”

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