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AMC (ended 2013)

Breaking Bad S05E15: "Granite State"

With just two episodes left in its life, there were only a few routes Breaking Bad could have taken with its penultimate hour, "Granite State." But Breaking Bad cares not for where we think it will go, and in the spirit of the series' reputation for taking surprising turns, "Granite State" forged a completely unexpected path and went so far out of its way that it almost felt foreign. "Granite State" will go down in history as one of the series' most unusual episodes, flickering through time jumps and new characters with little regard for chronology, and putting a surprising focus on characters who probably shouldn't be getting the kind of screen time they're getting this late in the series' life. 

To me, "Granite State" was its own two-parter. The first half was a glimpse into the universe created when the great Heisenberg Empire toppled over and left his queen and family in ruins, with would-be successors scrambling to step into Heisenberg's vacated space and former associates looking for Help Wanted signs at Cinnabon. But the fascinating second half was an informative peek into the brain of television's most stubborn man, Mr. Walter White. To be honest, the first half of "Granite State" was mostly busy work, full of the rote check-ins that many stage-setting second-to-last episodes go through to ensure the house is in order for the finale, but that second half? I just watched in stunned silence as Walter—once again—went from caged animal to beast on the loose. 


But let's start with that first half and the newly rich white supremacists. It struck me as ballsy to spend so much time with them with the clock ticking down on the series. Is now the best time to continue the development of Todd's crush on Lydia, when it might be better spent on characters who've been with us through the long haul? Some of these characters are still so new to us that they still the tags on. I'm sure Todd's fluttering heart for Ms. Prissy Pants will play a role in the finale (nothing is wasted in this series), but let me put it this way: I'm concerned that Todd is getting more scenes than Jesse this late in the game. If I'm at Disneyland one hour before closing, I'm riding Space Mountain over and over again until my head falls off. I'm not even thinking about the Toy Story shooting game. 

It's going to sound like I didn't like this episode (which is untrue, I enjoyed it a lot), but gosh darnit, I'm also having the teeny-tiniest problem with Jack's crew being the series' final big bad guys. It seems there's a concerted effort to build them up as terrible people as fast as the writers can, by having them perform new atrocities each week. To me, they're still the new kids on the block (though Jesse is the one who is "Hangin' Tough"), because they didn't even exist in our minds before Todd made a passing mention of them after the Great Train Robbery of "Dead Freight." Yet here they are, killing Hank and Andrea and robbing Walter and imprisoning Jesse and generally causing devastation to the people we've been following for six years, even though they're barely half-a-season old (Todd is the exception; he's been around for almost a season). That makes me rather angry.

But you know what? That's probably the point. We should be wondering how these guys came in seemingly out of nowhere and contaminated the show that we're so protective of, because that's exactly how Walter feels about them with relation to the empire he spent so long building up. We love Breaking Bad as much as Walter loves his money, and these damn rednecks have gone and fucked it all up for both of us. There's been a lot of talk about whether or not we're supposed to be on Walter's side at this point, given the terrible things he's done, but now that the show has solidified Jack's crew as indefensible villains, I'm backing up Walter in this grudge match with a Ricin bazooka. These Nazi-tatted assholes deserve to die. That's their role in this game. They're pests, and you know what we say to pests? "Vamanos." However, I just can't help but wonder how different Breaking Bad would feel right now if there were a more centralized, tenured villain whose demise the finale was leading up to. Is it too late to reanimate Gus?


Speaking of people whose faces have seen much better days, Jesse's is almost an afterthought. He's stashed in an underground prison cell with no foreseeable future. Now that he's been imprisoned by the rednecks and forced to cook meth (96 percent, Jesse! Nicely done!), a happy ending for Jesse looks all but flushed down the toilet at this point, and things only got worse for the kid in "Granite State." His minor victory was a bowl of Ben & Jerry's—Peanut Butter Cup and Americone Dream—a reward for his culinary skills in the lab. Maybe it was a sugar high that gave him the energy required to American Ninja Warrior his way out of that dingy prison cell. However, I'm guessing Jesse would like a do-over; he made it to the outer fence of the redneck compound but was stymied, and his punishment was a bullet to the back of Andrea's skull. This provided another chance for Aaron Paul to devastate us with that scream-crying he does so well, and now I'm wondering if Breaking Bad's only goal is to make us feel really, really terrible. There's only one episode left and this is where we find Jesse? Swollen and crying with his lady-friend dead on her doorstep and her son Brock left alone to fend for himself against poisonings from strange old men? Again, why are you trying to break my spirit, show? 


Meanwhile, Skyler learned that life outside the criminal element isn't any easier, at least so far. Walt's plan to get her off Scot-free came with a caveat: The feds needed Walt before they'd stop bugging her. Without Walter in custody, the authorities will keep leaning on Skyler until she falls over, and it will only be a matter of time before an investigation turns up some of her dirty dealings in the business. To put it bluntly, she's screwed, and her future is totally reliant on a man who, in her mind, could be anywhere... and doing anything. Yet even with a pair of cops parked in front of her house, she's still vulnerable to Walter's former associates, which meant unwanted babysitters in the form of Todd and his racist cat-burglar pals. Todd warned her not to talk about Lydia, but the scene was more about Breaking Bad showing us that the redneck crew is still infecting the life Walter left behind. I mean, breaking into Skyler's house and hovering over baby Holly? "Granite State" wanted us to really hate Todd and his associates, and its mission was accomplished. 

Which brings us to our potential knight in shining armor and redneck eradicator, Walter White. Walter's whole arc in this episode was so good. SO GOOD! Saul's guy (played by the wonderful Robert Forester) hauled Walter out to the snowy wasteland of New Hampshire to let the heat die down (quite literally, I suppose), but what transpired wasn't a man ducking out of sight and cowering away. Instead, Walter stewed. He grew restless and lonely, and not even two DVD copies of Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium could abate his concerns for what he left behind. Watching the way Saul's guy made people disappear was fascinating, but for as thorough and air-tight as his plans and accommodations were, the business of keeping a man out of custody relies on the man himself. As Walter said, "What's keeping me from walking out of here?" Nothing. It's Walter's choice.

Initially, the decision wasn't easy. About halfway through "Granite State," Walter unpacked his Heisenberg hat and considered setting off for the great unknown, but ultimately opted for caution and retreated to the cabin. How great was that short sequence? The momentum had built with the ceremonial donning of the hat, and he looked determined to traverse through the woods and take back what was his, but the road to revenge was covered in snow, prickly pine cones, and worst of all, doubt. This was a Heisenberg false start, and he reasoned himself into thinking that now was not the time, muttered "Tomorrow," and went back to the cabin to warm his hands and let a buck's head wear the Heisenberg hat.  

But tomorrow turned into next week, and next week turned into next month (maybe; the exact amount of time that passed wasn't clear), and Walter slowly deteriorated as loneliness, malnutrition, and that pesky cancer took over. News from the outside world slowly trickled in through Saul's guy and yellowing old newspapers—Skyler was working as a taxi dispatcher, her lawyer was some fresh-faced newb, the White house was a morbid tourist attraction, and his family's name was forever tainted. Saul's guy tapped Walter's vein to put some radiation in him, and Walter was so desperate for human contact the he had to buy company for $10,000 an hour. Walter realized he was a man in a cabin waiting to die, and his barrel of money—what was left of his legacy—would probably end up in his fixer's pocket. He wasted away to the point where his wedding ring slid off his finger like it was covered in butter, his family literally and metaphorically slipping away from any means of his help. Walter felt helpless, and Walter hates feeling helpless.

So Walter packed up some cash to Ensure (heehee) that his wife and children would reap at least some of the rewards of his criminal enterprise and finally made that trek to the one-horse town. He called Walter Jr. Flynn with a plan to mail them money through Flynn's pal Louis (I knew Louis would make a comeback!), but Flynn rejected both the offer and his dad himself, calling Walter a murderer and telling him to die before hanging up on him. Owwwww. At this point, I'd prefer to see Breaking Bad characters hold a gun rather than a phone, because Breaking Bad has been absolutely ruining my happiness with its phone calls in recent episodes (but they're soooo good). 

Broken and defeated, Walter called up the DEA to put himself out of his misery. Maybe he just wanted it to end, maybe he just wanted to give the feds the body they needed so Skyler, Flynn, and Holly could get on with their lives. But the message was clear: At that very moment, Walter was finally done. Saul had been right when, earlier in the episode, he told Walter, "It's over." 

But allow me to finish what Walter was going to say to Saul before a coughing fit interrupted him and left the door open for Saul to say those oh-so-wrong words—"It's not over until I say it's over." And it is NOT over. While sipping on a Dimple Pinch and waiting to get hauled in by New Hampshire's finest, the bartender flipped through TV channels and Charlie Rose was interviewing Elliot and Gretchen Schwartz. The pair was pawning their charity foundation to help drug-abuse treatment centers in the Southwest in an attempt to deflect any association with Walter White, and they publicly denounced any contribution he'd ever made to Gray Matter Technologies.

Walter's greatest fear is dying without leaving a legacy, without his due. I don't think he's too bothered by Elliott and Gretchen saying he didn't have too much to do with Gray Matter. I've already heard lots of people suggest that the Ricin in the flashforward must be for the Schwartzes, but I don't think that at all. If the finale involves Walter hunting down Elliott and Gretchen, two people who Walter strode past with his new meth-making endeavor—then get ready for a very disappointing final hour. Screw the Schwartzes.

No, what Walter was really upset about was when Charlie Rose said that there were reports of Walter's blue meth in the Southwest and in Europe. The fact that it was mentioned in an interview with the Schwartzes served as a reminder to him and to us that he'd let a potential legacy die once before, and he won't let it happen again. Gray Matter was a partnership; the blue meth that keeps junkies geeked out for days is all his. That, and the money he made from it, are his legacy. That's what Walter is setting out to preserve. That's why Walter has a huge gun in his trunk and Ricin in his pocket. It's not over. It's not over until he says it's over. No half measures.



NOTES

– Looking back on that conversation with Saul is SO awesome the second time through. "My money goes to my children, not just this barrel. ALL OF IT. I'm going to kill Jack and his entire crew and I'm going to take back what is mine and give it to my children. And then, and only then, am I through." Amen.

– I have to think that's the last we'll see of Saul. Now he's just a douchebag with three pairs of Dockers. Until the prequel spin-off series, I mean. 

– There's been some discussion about whether or not Walter White is a good person and whether or not we're supposed to be rooting for him. Some academics may even say it's morally wrong to root for the guy. I say this is a television show, and I'd be plenty happy if Walter White dropped a nuke on Albuquerque. Even if he isn't a good man, I want him to see his goals realized, because he's an amazing television character that I've happily spent six years hanging out with. Do I want him to make it out of the series alive and live his life sipping fruity drinks on a tropical beach? No. But like him, I want everything he did to be worth something.

– I don't think Saul's guy was wrong when he warned Walter, "If you leave this place, you will get caught." Walter knows this. He's going to finish his business, and then it's cuffs or a coffin for him.

– I'm amazed at how self-aware Breaking Bad has become as of late. There've been lots of call backs to previous dialogue, locations, and iconic imagery. Usually I dismiss this kind of thing as fan service, but it's really fun to be a part of with this show.

– So Walter is going to slaughter Jack's men, and I'll be the first one to offer my stamp of approval. But what will Walter do with Jesse? Has time softened his attitude toward Jesse? He HATED Jesse just last week and wanted him dead. The biggest question I have going into the finale is how their relationship will come to a close.

– "Granite State" was a testament to how Breaking Bad is a Swiss army knife of a television show, with so many different ways to affect us. Much of the current season has been dominated by adrenaline and falling dominoes, but "Granite State" felt more measured by comparison (particularly in the aftermath of last week's hour-long carpet-bombing that we're all still recovering from). The action was shelved in favor of putting Walter into a place that will pay off next week. We're all fully expecting a bloodbath, right? *crosses fingers*

– I apologize for the tardiness of this review, but I just got back from a destination wedding in Yosemite (great timing on your nuptials, pal!). Next week, my review of the series finale review will be up late on Sunday night. 


Previously Aired Episode

AIRED ON 9/29/2013

Season 5 : Episode 16

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