[While Tim's off enjoying his first few days of wedded bliss, I'm stepping into his size-1,000 gold-plated flip-flops to recap this episode of Breaking Bad. I will never be as smart as he is, but I'm at least as enthusiastic!]
A few episodes back, the special teams division of Vamanos Pest were cookin' the blues while a television played an episode of How It's Made. We know now that in every nook and cranny of Breaking Bad are hidden details intentionally placed, and this was a huge one. Despite its violence and mystery and pervasive, dramatic anxiety, Breaking Bad's life blood has always been its processes. In 4.5 seasons, Breaking Bad has lovingly detailed the following: The various ways to make meth (duh) as well as distributing it, profiting from it, and (DEA-wise) infiltrating it; long-distance computer erasure; clandestine train robberies; money laundering; and Cartel coups. But this A+ of a midseason finale also showed us how, among other things, one murders ten men in prison and also expands his drug kingdom overseas. Even more processes! It would all be so nerdy if it weren't so badass! Unfortunately, as Walter White discovered in "Gliding Over All," sometimes mastering a process means you're done with it. Some systems just can't last forever.
"Gliding Over All" served two main purposes: (1) Walt tied up as many loose ends as he could before expanding his business even further, and then (2) he quit. From the beginning of the episode we got the sense that he'd been thinking a lot about the past year, a sense of nostalgia hinted at through the call-back imagery of houseflies, Walt showering, that busted paper towel dispenser, Walt visiting the cancer center, and the presence of Leaves of Grass on his stack of bathroom readers. (That last item would prove to be more than just metaphorical foreshadowing, obviously.) But it certainly seemed that the murder and mayhem of late may have weakened Heisenberg's resolve and brought the old, decent, family man, back to the fore (at least temporarily). Fortunately for lovers of carnage and badassery, Heisenberg would not be abdicating the throne without one last, spectacular, bloody, showing: The systematic prison murders of ALL TEN of Mike's "guys" (including his lawyer!). In a word: Dang.
Aside: For my money, Lydia Rodarte-Quayle (that name!) is the best new addition to Season 5. I don't know what it is about this lady—her pretension, her ambition, her awkwardness—but I can't take my eyes off her. We first met her as a shaky, paranoid, businesswoman who may or may not have willingly gotten involved in Gus Fring's meth empire. But at this point she seems to have accepted that any day now she could be assassinated or incarcerated, so rather than pull back from Walter's empire, she's broken bad almost as dramatically as he has. When Heisenberg arrived to meet with her at a local cafe (in an entrance so subtly terrifying it's no wonder a waiter never approached the table), what transpired was one of the best scenes of the season. After a general exchange of threats and untrustworthy promises, Lydia divulged the names of all ten of Mike's "guys" from memory. But on one condition: Walter would have to allow Lydia to help him expand his business into the Czech Republic where there was apparently a thirst for meth that would put the Southwest to shame. We could sense that Walter had no interest in further dealings with Lydia, but her promises of an international insta-empire proved too tantalizing to pass up. But the kicker was, after they shook on it and she fled the table, we saw that Walter had brought his vial of ricin! Now she may never know just how much her cold-blooded ambition saved her life that day.
And how about that montage? You know which one I mean. When Walter implied last week that he'd be murdering every last one of Gus' former associates, I had no idea he'd actually pull it off with such aplomb! We knew that one or more of them was about to spill—Hank was hard at work trying to get the most information from the lowest bidder—so it was clear Walter's plan wasn't rooted in the delusions of a power-hungry paranoiac. But after he arranged with Todd's shady uncle to have all the murders carried out within minutes of each other (at several different prisons!) it seemed that Heisenberg had officially entered the Pablo Escobar phase of his reign. That's a lot of murder spread over a lot of geography and all so that no one would be the final living witness who'd break. In all its terrible elegance, this was a shocker of a high point for this show, and I for one hope to never see another arterial shiv again.
Intense murder montages aside, the episode also had some intense character-relationship moments. After Walter literally shut Jesse out of the operation at the beginning of the episode ("There is no 'WE'!") it was clear that the most crucial relationship on the show had seen better days. But as much as Walter often tries to pretend he doesn't need (or, you know, love) Jesse, it's right there in his reluctance to embrace Todd as a new partner. Unlike Jesse, Todd is seemingly remorseless, was born into a family of thugs, and can easily pass for wholesome, yet there's just something missing there. That's why Walter's surprise visit to Jesse's futon den was so powerful. He'd realized that he shouldn't have cheated Jesse out of his severance, nor, probably, have destroyed most of Jesse's personal relationships over the past year, so hopefully a few duffel bags full of cash might somehow right those wrongs. But of course the scene wasn't as heartwarming as it sounds: The whole time Jesse stared at Walter with the wild-eyed tension of a man who'd come face to face with the grim reaper. Jesse knew Mike was probably dead, and worse, that he himself as much a "loose end" as the ten inmates were. But in a reveal that nicely mirrored Walter's scene with Lydia, as soon as Walter left we realized Jesse had been fingering a hidden gun the entire scene. Once again a character walked a razor-thin edge between life and death but fortunately made it out alive.
The most satisfying pay-off in this episode revolved around Skyler. All season she'd been inhabiting her own personal horror film, but in this episode we saw her spontaneously smile and laugh with baby Holly as though her terrors had begun to ebb. Marie noticed this as well and suggested that, um, maybe it was time for Skyler to take her kids home? Almost three months had passed since Hank and Marie took the kids, which meant that the preceding montage of Walter's growing empire was the largest leap forward in the timeline we'd seen yet. So when Skyler arrived home to find Walter staring blankly into the swimming pool (who knew swimming pools could be so existential!) she spoke to him for the first time in probably a while: "I want to show you something." This "something" was a personal storage unit containing an enormous stack of cash. Over the past three months Heisenberg had made so much money that Skyler couldn't even count it, let alone launder it through their rinky dink carwash. Her hushed rhetorical seemed to hit Walter hard: When was it time to stop? The answer, he came to realize, was now.
By episode's end Walter had made up with Jesse (sort of), gotten his children back, made several hundred million dollars, gotten away with mass murder, and even shared a poolside smile with Skyler. A satisfying conclusion, right? Unfortunately this was only the MID-season finale, so we know there are still eight episodes of unbearable anxiety left and that they may involve an ENORMOUS MACHINE GUN. And I'm guessing the main impetus of those bad times began in this episode's final scene: Hank, excusing himself from a poolside hangout, decided to use the master bathroom where he came across Walter's copy of Leaves of Grass, inscribed to a "W.W." from a "G.B." Just like that the ghost of Gale Boetticher struck again: Immediately recalling his experiences pawing through Gale's journal, Hank now knew that Walter was the shadowy legend he'd been pursuing all along.
Yeah, I'll say it again: This was an A+ episode for me. If we're being real, even an unsuccessful episode of Breaking Bad is still a tremendous hour of television. But when it's firing on all cylinders it can be almost transcendently great. Like, I-forgot-I'm-in-my-living-room-merely-watching-TV great. I understand there have been some murmurs of disappointment with the first half of Season 5 so far, but I am not one of those murmurers. Those who have had misgivings about certain events in "Gliding Over All"—you're not wrong either. But that disappointment is merely a testament to just how high our expectations for this show have become. This episode definitely wasn't as horrifying as Hank's parking lot shootout, or disturbing as Walt's crawlspace meltdown, or cathartic as Gus' jack-o-lantern farewell, but it did contain almost everything we adore about this show all wrapped up in a package signed "Love, Vince Gilligan."
I want to go watch it again right now.
... How had "Crystal Blue Persuasion" NOT been used in this show before? And wasn't that particular montage so lovely? Not only did we see almost all of the essential characters in the context of their chain of command, the shots were so artfully matched and edited. That aerial shot alone of tented houses was just straight-up stunning.
... If this episode represented a false happy ending for the series, what do you think the REAL ending will be? I'm getting the sense that Walter's in for a pretty brutal comeuppance. But would be WHO would be responsible for it?
... Hank's speech about how much he longed for his old, terrible job of marking trees for deforestation was a real heartbreaker. The man is obviously not a genius, but he has been an extremely competent and driven agent who deserves better than he's gotten. Can't wait to find out how this new revelation will energize him.
... Not to worry, Tim Surette will be back later this week to give his thoughts on the finale. I'm just as excited about this as you are; his coverage has been one of the highlights of this season.
... Ballpark guesses: How much money was that??
... What's been your favorite new character or element of Season 5?
... What processes featured on this show have been the most fascinating?
... Do you think Walter will die by season's end? If so, how?