SPOILER WARNING: This post will appear every Monday following a new episode of “Breaking Bad.” It is intended to be read after seeing the show’s latest installment as a source of recap and analysis. As such, all aspects and events that have occurred up to and including the episode discussed are fair game.
“If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
There’s a ridiculous amount to discuss from “Gliding Over All,” the midseason finale of “Breaking Bad,” but for now we’ve just got to cut to it. What’s it? The chase. The ending. The cliffhanger. The biggest revelation by a fictional character since “Einhorn is Finkle.” That’s right, Walter White is Heisenberg, and Hank finally knows it, only Walt doesn’t know Hank knows. What else?
It was the single biggest Chekov’s Gun in a show full of seemingly nothing but. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, click the link, or reread the quote up top. In any half decent piece of narrative art, there is no wasted space. When it comes to a show like “Breaking Bad,” that means not a single element is simply thrown in. Not a scene, not a line of dialogue, not a single shot, not a single piece of character background. When it comes to “Breaking Bad” specifically, that means the country’s best meth cook wasn’t going to not be found out by his DEA agent brother in-law. There was never not going to be a final confrontation between the two.
In case you missed any part of it, let’s recap: Just prior to the ending, Walt has more money than he knows what to do with and is finally out of the meth business. The family’s having a nice barbecue when Hank decides to drop a deuce. Once on the porcelain throne, he absentmindedly reaches back for some reading material to find a collection of Walt Whitman poems. Boring. Except that Walt was given this particular collection by one Gale Boetticher, his former partner, a man whose obsession with him bordered on religious.
You see, after he was killed, Hank was given Gale’s file to look over. What he found was enough to convince him that Gale was Heisenberg, a notion Walt helped back up with some insightful chemistry knowledge in the fourth episode of season four, “Bullet Points” (if you’ve got Netflix Instant, click this link and skip to the 20:50 mark). There was just one problem, the notebook included a dedication to “W.W.,” and for the life of him, Hank could not discern who it referred to. “Who do you figure that is,” Hank asks Walt, “Woodrow Wilson? Willy Wonka?” before jokingly adding, “Walter White?” Walt flipped the pages and found a spot where Gale had written down a poem, and told Hank that its author, Walt Whitman, was his W.W.
Fast forward to the finale. Hank finds a book of Walt Whitman poems, with an inscription from “G.B.” to “W.W.” in a handwriting he recognizes. Everything comes back to him as he suddenly recalls Walt’s response to his joking accusation, “You got me.” Hank realizes that not only has Heisenberg been staring him in the face this whole time, he’s made the same mistake his former boss did with Gus Fring. Recall what that supervisor had to say, “That whole night we were laughing, telling stories, drinking wine… and he’s somebody else completely… Right in front of me… right under my nose.”
This is heavy stuff, because for Hank, the “Heisenberg problem” is beyond personal. In “Bullet Points,” when Hank thought Gale was his man, the fact that he was dead still wasn’t enough. “God, I wanted to get this guy… I mean me, personally, you know?” he tells Walt. “I wanted to be the one to slap the handcuffs on him, that kind of shit. Popeye Doyle waving to Frog One.” Walt points out that in the first “French Connection” movie, Popeye never catches the bad guy, to which Hank responds “Yeah, I guess, me and old Popeye, huh? A day late and a dollar short.” Hank may have been a day late, but now his chance to come out more than a few dollars ahead, and we can be certain he’s not going to make the same mistake as his supervisor, not twice, not now that he sees the problem’s been hiding in plain sight this whole time. In so many words: Shit’s. Gon’. Go. Down.
It took Walt a long time to finally get where he wanted: a place that could satisfy his terrible arrogance, one where he was in total control, answering to no one, and making more money than Skyler could count, let alone launder. After Walt spent the first half of “Gliding Over All” tying up what he thought were his final loose ends, the second half showed him occupying the position he’d wanted so badly. But Walt finds that the “empire business” is just another grind, a feeling made more poignant by his conversation with Hank regarding a summer job the latter had back in high school. So when Skyler shows Walt the pile of green paper on the storage room floor, he’s ready to quit, and he returns to his original goals: family, security, stability.
As that first half rolled along, we all waited patiently for something to go wrong, for that arrogance to be Walt’s ultimate undoing. What we got was, well, nothing. It seemed Walt really was as good at running a criminal empire as he though he’d be. Lydia’s offer to make Walt the foremost methamphetamine supplier of the Czech Republic makes him a boatload of cash and allows him to put aside his plan to use ricin to poison her. He engineers a prison massacre, as the ten people with enough knowledge to put him behind bars are killed within two minutes. Walt even pays Jesse the $5 million he owes and stays a while to reminisce. Jesse is surprised as we are to find nothing but cash in the duffel bags left outside his door. A discovery which causes him to toss his gun and fall back against a wall, almost in tears. All the stars align and everything is right in the universe. Walt’s going to get out , arrogance in tow.
But he doesn’t. He can’t. As the Whites and the Schraders sat around the table in the backyard, we still knew that something was going to happen. It had to. The fucked-up mind this show has given me had me searching everywhere, would Walt Jr. slip and knock the baby in the pool? Was there poison in that sunscreen that Walt had forgotten about?
Nope. In the end, it wasn’t anything like the first half’s enormous displays of hubris that were Walt’s undoing. Instead, it was another, smaller event that occurred in the third episode of this season: As Walt unpacked his things after moving back into the house, he finds a Walt Whitman book, his lips curl into the tiniest of smiles, and he places it on his bedside table. After all that’s occurred, everything Walt’s done over the past four and a half seasons, it was this casual act that will lead to his downfall. As of yet, it seems the biggest tragedy of Walter White’s life has not been “flying to close to the sun and getting his throat cut,” but returning to Earth and realizing that he was his own loose end, that he couldn’t stick the comfortable landing he’d worked so hard to create, and that the lower you are, the harder you fall.
So that’s it, another ten months without “Breaking Bad” are before us. Since you’ve got all that time to spare, you might want to go back and watch the first four and a half seasons before returning to this last episode. “Gliding Over All” contained so much imagery and so many parallels that I couldn’t begin to list them here (let alone launder them). I also recommend checking out FX’s “Sons of Anarchy” (the first three seasons are on Netflix Instant if you need to catch up). Check back here on September 12, the day after the show’s fifth season premier, and you’ll find a post just like this one discussing it. “Sons” is no “Breaking Bad,” that much is certain, but it’ll help kill the time.
Watch the cast and crew go inside “Gliding Over All” below and follow the writer on Twitter @NateKreichman.