'Breaking Bad' Finale: Poetic Justice

I'm calling it: Poetry 1, Science 0.
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Don't read on unless you've seen "Gliding Over All," the final "Breaking Bad" episode of 2012.

The final scene of Sunday's "Breaking Bad" 2012 finale puts a whole new spin on the phrase "Oh sh*t."

Walt is not done, he's not out of the game, and it's a book of poetry that ultimately implicates him. The episode's title, not surprisingly, is part of an excerpt from "Leaves of Grass," a work by chemist Gale Boetticher's favorite poet. Here's the relevant section:

Gliding o'er all, through all,
Through Nature, Time, and Space,
As a ship on the waters advancing,
The voyage of the soul--not life alone,
Death, many deaths I'll sing.

There's no doubt that "Gliding Over All" contained many deaths (and it's not hard to imagine that more are coming). It's odd that such a subdued hour was the one in which Walter White turned a corner and actually became a mass murderer. The voyage of this soul has been one dark journey indeed, to the extent that the murder of Mike and the mass execution of his guys are just really details at this point. We already know what Walt is; he's been damned for a long time, most likely from the moment he set foot in that crappy Winnebago.

"Breaking Bad" does like its contrasts, though; the mundane suburban living room contains the criminal mastermind; the crappy Aztec took the drug kingpin to his job; the fast-food manager was a potentate in the drug world. Things don't normally go together are often paired up in this show, thus jazzy tunes embroidered scenes of concentrated violence, and we got not one but two visually accomplished montages in which business was taken care of, some of it quite bloody.

Even if some of the lyrics provided ironic commentary about what was going on in those scenes, the song's fizzy tones helped remove some of the ugliness from these situations. As Walt no doubt does, we could regard those deaths, those tasks, those sacks of money as mere transactions, items on a ledger sheet or a to-do list. There's the banality of evil, and then there's the boredom of actually executing certain kinds of evil. It's hard work and it's repetitive, if nothing else. I think Walt White wanted out of the biz for the latter reason, more than anything else.

All in all, there was a hushed, subdued atmosphere to this episode, but director Michelle MacLaren built up a sense of contained, coiled tension to the point where the party around the pool was nearly unbearable. It was like a scene from a David Lynch film: It was so perfect and serene that you knew something horrific was about to happen. By the time Hank got up to use the bathroom, I was convinced dozens of armed men were about to storm the house.

Nothing quite that dramatic happened, although, within the world of "Breaking Bad," nothing more dramatic could have happened. The penny dropped, and Hank finally knew the identity of Heisenberg -- the "W.W." that Gale mentioned in his notebooks was the same W.W. to whom the book of poetry was inscribed.

The implications of Hank's realization are vast, of course, but now that we know that Hank knows -- or has very strong suspicions -- some of the biggest elements of the final eight episode of "Breaking Bad" have been put into play. It looks like it will be Hank vs. Walt (and possibly Walt vs. cancer, based on that brief scene of Walt in what looked like a medical scanner of some kind. Where Jesse and Skyler will end up in this mix is a very open question.)

I have to give credit to a Twitter correspondent named @Bryan_Murphy for correctly predicting that the Whitman book would end up implicating Walt. In an episode earlier this season, we saw the book that Walt got from Gale in Season 3's "Sunset" (We never saw Gale hand Walt the volume in that episode, I believe; I think Gale recited a Whitman work and Walt was later was seen with the book.) This season, there was a brief shot of the book in the White home (on Walt's nightstand, I believe). The observant Bryan pointed out two important things: That book could lead the astute Hank to figure out W.W.'s identity, and Hank and Marie were in and out of that house all the time. Those two things came together here exactly as he predicted.

There are some delicious ironies here: The arrogant Walt -- who thinks he knows everything -- has no idea that Hank knows he's Heisenberg. Even more poignant, it was Gale -- sweet, innocent, doomed Gale -- who ultimately reached out from the grave to implicate Walt, and with a book of sensitive poetry, no less. That Gale's gift implicates Walt seems appropriate and morally satisfying somehow.

I wasn't quite satisfied with the rushed nature of this episode, however. Alan Sepinwall has been writing convincingly about various Season 5 developments that could have used more setup, and though I haven't had quite as many problems with the season as Alan has, I do think that the death of Mike didn't line up the way it should have. When two actors as great as Jonathan Banks and Bryan Cranston are doing phenomenal work, it's easy to let these things go, but as I wrote last week, I didn't quite buy that Mike would let Walt get his go-bag. And would the ultra-cautious Mike really have let Walt get the drop on him in their final confrontation? As another Twitter correspondent said, "Mike died because the show needed him to be dead." As much as I generally liked "Say My Name," I have to agree.

This isn't to say that I haven't enjoyed Season 5; I have. It's just that when a drama is amazingly meticulous about its storytelling, you notice it when that attention to detail is not quite up to the usual standards.

In any event, this episode was mostly about Walt taking care of Mike's guys and establishing a profitable new routine with the new Team Heisenberg (which consists of Lydia, Todd and Walt). It didn't have the excitement or impact of some of the show's bigger, more suspenseful episodes, thus the rushed quality of Walt's exit from the business stood out.

When Walt stood at the kitchen sink telling Skyler he was done with drugs, I felt as though there were some scenes missing. How did Lydia and Todd take that news? Would they continue without him? How would Walt feel about the fact that Todd, Lydia and even Jesse could still implicate him in an untold number of crimes? Being "out" wouldn't mean that he was safe from them turning on him at any point. Would the family have to go underground? They certainly didn't appear to be preparing for that.

And anyway, the whole problem with getting out is that sometimes your business partners don't take kindly to goodbyes. What about his new buyers in the Czech Republic? His local distribution partner? Were they going to be okay with Walt closing up shop, or handing over the business to far less experienced hands? Everybody was making an insane amount of money -- it doesn't stand to reason that everyone would just agree to let Walt go quietly.

Of course, it's quite possible that many of these questions will get answers when the show returns in 2013, but the way "Gliding Over All" glided over so many of these questions within the episode itself ... well, it didn't sit quite right with me. There's a difference between mystery and confusion, and Walt's "exit" from the business was a little further into the latter category than I would have liked. I'm all for cliffhangers, but this felt more like the show simply didn't have time to get to these questions.

All of which led me to wonder, was Walt simply lying about being done? He didn't appear to be lying to Skyler, but how could he be sure that he truly was out, if we didn't see any of those questions get answered? It's hard to imagine where his confidence on that front was coming from (though of course, blind arrogance is always a factor with Mr. White). Ultimately, Walt was out because the show needed him to be out -- so it could reel him back in.

We knew two things going into this episode: There are eight more hours to come next year, and AMC is not about to broadcast a show about a blameless Walt White's day-to-day routine. Also, this was the final episode of this year, so we knew we couldn't really end with all those loose ends neatly tied up. We didn't know what form it would take, but we knew we'd find out he wasn't out of the game yet.

Thus it wasn't the most suspenseful "Breaking Bad" hour of the season, and certainly not the most elegantly plotted, but there were still quite a few things to enjoy. Lydia seemed more satisfied with Heisenberg's willingness to wear a hat and dark glasses to their daytime meeting (this lady has seen way too many spy movies), and the way Lydia played to Walt's ego was masterful. You could see the wheels turning in Walt's head and him mentally crowing "Mine's bigger!" as Lydia spoke of plans for worldwide domination. Walt would finally have the international empire that Gus Fring never got to have; it was the perfect angle for Lydia to play.

It was chilling to realize that Walt would have indeed poisoned Lydia right on the spot, had he needed too; he had the vial of ricin under the hat the whole time. (Sidebar: We've seen that ricin tube too many times for it not to come in to play down the line. It's the poison equivalent to Chekhov's gun at this point.)

And we've seen many different kinds of Walt and Jesse scenes, but I can't recall a scene with as much awkwardness and wariness as the one we saw tonight. For once, Walt didn't have a secret agenda, at least I don't think he did. He appeared to be missing Jesse, and paying back the money he owed was the least he could do at that point. But Jesse has been trained by this point to suspect Walt (despite not knowing the worst of Walt's crimes), and he clearly had his guard up the entire time. That's not a bad idea, given Walt's manipulative tendencies. But isn't it strange that Walt might ultimately lure Jesse back in to his orbit by doing the one thing Jesse doesn't expect -- truly letting Jesse leave for good?

In the end, even Skyler softened toward Walt. I don't think she'd ever really like or trust him again, and love has to be off the table by now. But in that pool party scene, you could tell that she was starting to breathe again. She had her family back, she could finally relax. How wrong she was.

It's not long, after all, until Walt's 52nd birthday rolls around. We saw how hunted and desperate he was in the scene that opened Season 5. We saw him take a pill (as part of a cancer treatment?). We saw him buy a very large gun.

Now we have a better idea about who he might use it on.

A few final observations:

  • So why didn't Walt destroy the book that linked him to Gale? I find both his arrogance and his stupidity plausible, all things considered. I think it was reasonable of Walt to assume Hank would not be looking around his bedroom (and Walt must not have known the book migrated to the bathroom). Also, you can't discount the fact that Walt thinks nobody else is as smart as he is, and he clearly thinks anyone making the link between W.W. and G.B. is unlikely to the point of impossibility. More importantly, this is a pattern with Walt: He thinks he's thought of everything and dealt with every detail, but time after time, he hasn't. He wiped Gus' laptop, only to have the cops find the Chicken Man's secret bank accounts. The men linked to those bank accounts were finally dead, but Hank stumbled across the Whitman book. As smart as he is, Walt's inability to acknowledge the number of dumb mistakes or oversights that have plagued his operation will be his downfall in the end.

  • Of course Gale spelled honor the English way, "honour." That is just so Gale.
  • Just how much of a sociopath is Walt? He is completely unruffled by the news report about the 10 men he had killed -- he's so undisturbed that he can calmly play with his daughter as he listens to the broadcast. Chilling.
  • Excellent work from Dean Norris in the scene in which he had a drink with Walt. It's easy to see why he thought the grid work of his college days was more appealing than chasing monsters but he was soon to find out that his doggedness about Heisenberg would eventually pay off. How will he deal with the fact that he's known the biggest monster all along?
  • How do we feel about this episode featuring two montages set to mellow music? I did enjoy the Team Heisenberg sequence (and the use of "Crystal Blue Persuasion" was kind of overdue, even if it was entertainingly on the nose), but I can't help but feel that two similar kinds of montages in one episode may have been one too many. Perhaps a different music choice in the prison-killings scenes might have been slightly preferable? But this is a very minor quibble on my part.
  • "How big does this pile have to be?" That's the ultimate question, Skyler. And for once, Walt put down the crack pipe of his ego and said, "No mas." Too late, though. Too late.
  • Walter White. Taken down by poetry. I'm calling it: Poetry 1, Science 0.
  • On this week's Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan podcast, Ryan McGee and I will discuss the "Breaking Bad" mid-season finale and the "Doctor Who" season premiere on this week's edition, which should go up some time Monday. You can find it here and on iTunes.

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