There are a few different ways to watch Breaking Bad, and all of them are completely legitimate. There's plot-watching, where the main story points are hit and discussed by everyone all week, and "Say My Name" featured one of the biggest events of the series since a wheelchair bomb blew half of Gus Fring's face off. And then there's the show that's full of such beautiful artistic nuance that it should be framed and hung in the Louvre.
"Say My Name" was direct and in-your-face, matching the hubris of Heisenberg, rather than calculated and careful like that wimp Walter White. The episode had to be more brash not only to keep up with Walter's bravado, but because Breaking Bad is feeling the crunch of an 8-episode mini-season, and that means a lot of the drawn-out subtlety was lost.
Something felt off about this episode for the first half (but it did conclude masterfully), and I use this metaphor lightly, but it's almost as if Breaking Bad fans were in charge of this one. It certainly was Breaking Bad; all the characters and trademark cinematography were there. But it lacked the master hand that turns good to great. To put it in Walter's terms, it was like someone else was trying to make Classic Coke. It was 70-percent pure Breaking Bad. "Say My Name" was both jarring and dull at points, hurried and overly-deliberate at others, and put together in a way that reminded me of the ocean of films that copy-catted Pulp Fiction after its release. Those films were concerned with getting the cool shot (lawyer wrist cam in the safe-deposit box?), the tough-guy dialogue, and the shocking scenes, but were never able to tie them together as beautifully as the original.
I'll admit that just might be the point (but I'm not enthused about it). Breaking Bad's tone has always been an extension of the character of Walter White, and his transformation into Heisenberg is accelerating at an increased rate. "Say My Name" was Walter White at his most dickish and dictator-ish, whether he's telling some bitches from Arizona to say his name or trying to guilt trip Jesse into staying in the business by alternating between enthusiastic boss (you deserve it!) and angry father figure (you're wasting your talent on those damn video games!) and juvenile debate-team member (you want this blood money?). That scene, in which Walter was convincing Jesse to stay with him, was Walter at his most unhinged. Though normally so calculated in everything he does, Walter just threw the kitchen sink at Jesse in hopes that something would work. But it backfired, and all Walt accomplished was coming off like a desperate lunatic and pushing Jesse away even further.
But it wasn't just Jesse who was shoved, I also found myself looking for the door as Walt continued to become the monster we all know he's headed for. The hardest and best part of the conceit of Breaking Bad–a nice guy breaks very, very bad over the course of a series–is seeing a man we all rooted for go beyond that point of no return. As I said before, that point happened for me in "Madrigal," the second episode of this season. But after his actions in that episode–manipulating Jesse, terrorizing Skyler–Walter had been relatively tame until now. Heck, I even cheered when he came home with not one, but two new cars, and unleashed all the horses under the hood with some gangsta revs. Last night? He was the worst he's ever been. It's an interesting reaction that creator Vince Gilligan must have known all along. From an artistic standpoint, it's groundbreaking and the end result will be well worth it. But from the week-to-week perspective of the audience, it's incredibly difficult to watch. We don't have loyalty to Walter like we did before, and we don't really have anyone else to root for because Walter is the heavy focal point of the series. As of now, we just want Jesse to survive while Walter goes all Godzilla on everything around him, and we wouldn't mind Walter Jr. to have access to unlimited bacon breakfasts. But Walter is turning everything around him into waste, and Breaking Bad has no intentions of sugarcoating it.
Mike certainly noticed that Walter was in the scorched Earth business, and had been angling to get the F out, and did. Sort of! I don't think anyone was surprised that Mike was killed by Walter, as Mike was the odds-on favorite Breaking Bad character to not make it out of Season 5.1 because he was frequently at odds with Walter, he was still a Fring supporter, had tons of baggage, and he was the most expendable member of the meth-making group. And once he declared himself out of the business and his responsibility of distribution was solved by handing that over to Declan, we were all just waiting for it to happen.
It was obvious Mike was a goner once the DEA fell into pursuit, but it should have been more obvious it would happen in this episode before that. Once Mike stashed a fat stack of cash in a safe deposit box for his granddaughter, it was effectively the end of his character arc. Mike was very conscious of his mortality and knew the sun was fading on his life, and all he wanted at that point was to take care of Kaylee. And when Walt volunteered to deliver Mike's "go bag" to him, that was it. (Other than conveniently setting up a scene where Walter could meet Mike in a private place, why was it okay with Mike that Walter deliver the bag instead of Jesse? He had to have known that his chances of making it out of that scenario weren't that good if crazy-ass Walter was handing over the bag.)
The killing scene was surprisingly not intense because the results were preordained, but it was still gorgeous and, given how he had prepared beforehand, a fitting end to Mike. However, it wasn't even about Mike. With all apologies to him and the wonderful series-long performance by Jonathan Banks, once again that scene belonged to Walter and Bryan Cranston. Walter's faces before (gritted teeth, animalistic) and after (shocked and possibly full of regret) he pulled the trigger summed up the character's past and present perfectly. Taunted and blamed, Walter yielded to Heisenberg who rushed to Mike and pulled the trigger. But pulling a trigger is an act that can never be undone and can change someone forever (just ask Jesse, re: Gale). And in squeezing the trigger and hearing the BLAM, it slapped Walter upside the head and for the first time in a long time we saw the face of the man we met in Season 1. The same pantsless man who was fumbling around with a video camera leaving a goodbye video for his family as sirens approached.
Even Walter seemed to be shocked by his own actions. I'm not sure he regretted killing Mike, after all, Mike was the big connection between the meth operation and him and Mike had outlasted his usefulness to the business. But the sobering instance of killing a one-time partner in the heat of the moment because Mike said this whole mess was Walter's fault definitely woke up a part of him that had been hibernating until the Game of Thrones-long winter of Heisenberg ended.
From the flashforward that opened this season, we know that Walter spends some time across the country for a year, probably waiting for some heat to die down and letting his hair grow back in. Mike's last words of advice to Walter (well, before "Shut the fuck up, and let me die in peace") were to leave town. Could this be the moment that spurs Walter to finally listen to Mike? Could standing there on the tranquil bank of a New Mexico river while his associate dies, by his hand, and the ensuing pressure from the DEA be enough to send Walter away?
There's something in that face that we haven't seen in such a long time. There was Walter still rationalizing his actions to Mike ("I just realized Lydia has the names, I can get them from her.") and saying "this whole situation could have been avoided if..." because he still couldn't swallow his pride. But his face, a full 180-degree turn from the opening scene, was saying something different. His face said he went too far, and that's something Walter hasn't thought about for a long time.
– Unfortunately, I have a previous engagement (emphasis on "engagement") to take care of this weekend so I won't be available to write up next Sunday's season finale immediately. Price Peterson will step in, and I'll share my thoughts later that week. Sorry!
– Breaking Bad loves to mount cameras on things, but lawyer wrist-cam in the safe deposit box area was overkill. This was the first directing stint for writer Thomas Schnauz, and I wasn't too happy with a lot of his choices. But again, I think a lot of it had to do with the episode needing to do too much from a lack of time.
– If there's one thing I'm concerned about, it's a lack of focus for the "finale" next week. After this penultimate episode, what exactly are we looking forward to? How Jesse reacts to Mike's death? Will there be pressure from the DEA? Declan and the Arizona peeps don't appear to be a problem any more. There's not a lot to hold onto as we move towards the final episode. It's completely open, which can be good and bad.
– The scene with Walter and Todd cooking was particularly interesting. It was, in a sense, the second half a two-parter with the scene of Jesse and Walter cooking meth in a fumigated house from a few episodes ago the first part. But I think the tone was all wrong, and that goes along with what I said early in this article about something feeling off. The "Hazard Pay" scene was romanticized as a triumphant return to business and gorgeously shot. This episode's attempted a similar tone, with an upbeat ditty providing the soundtrack, but Walter cooking with Todd couldn't be more depressing. It signals the end of so many things that I think the scene would have been better served shot differently and with a more somber music selection. This was practically a funeral, but instead it soullessly replicated the feeling of the first. Sorry! I love these meth-making scenes so I'm extra picky!
– Another part that seemed out of place was the scene at the carwash where Walt hid the methylamine. Was that included just to give Skyler some screen time, and if so, what did it accomplish?
– Bacon cookies! Bacon cookies! BACON COOKIES!