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.
In my post for last week’s episode, “Buyout,” I concocted a theory that Walt’s plan (“everybody wins”) would have something to do with creating some kind of fake or ersatz meth. It was based on a few small clues: Hank’s comparison of Miracle Whip and mayonnaise, a news report about a kelp-based caviar knock-off, and Jesse’s comment about “truth in advertising, yo.” Well, it turns out I was part right, which is pretty good for a show as unpredictable as “Breaking Bad.”
See, it wasn’t Walt making the knock-off, it was Declan, the big-time meth dealer the guys met with. Declan and his crew have been aping Walt’s product for some time. They switched to a P2P cook and even started using blue food coloring to make their customers think they had the real deal. But in reality, they were only getting a product that was 70 percent pure, nothing compared to Walter’s 99.1 percent. “It’s grade school tee-ball versus the New York Yankees,” Walt explains, “yours is some tepid off-brand cola. What I’m making is classic Coke.” Incredulous, Declan replies that all he has to do is kill Walt right there, and poof, no more competition, no more Coke. It’s only Walt asking if he “really wants to live in a world without Coca-cola” that stops him. Originally, Declan wanted to buy all that methylamine to put Heisenberg out of business. Instead, he ended up buying major stock.
All this is directly related to another revelation from last week’s episode, that Walt’s motivations are not quite so noble as they once were. He is no longer the guy who got a bad rap his whole life, up to and including getting lung cancer, struggling to obtain some sort of safety net for his family ($737,000 to be exact). That is, assuming he ever was. Nowadays it’s about being Heisenberg, “the best meth cook in America.” It’s about the “empire business,” and proving to everyone that looked down at him that he really is superior.
This notion was given further credence when Jesse showed up to get his share of the money. Prior to that point, Walt had simply brushed Jesse aside each time he brought up that he, like Mike, would be getting out of the meth business. When it comes down to it, and Jesse (finally) sticks to his guns, Walt is entirely unable to understand why he would want to quit. “Being the best at something is a rare thing,” Walt says, “You don’t just toss something like that away.” But Jesse doesn’t care about being the best, or all the money he stands to make. He even walks away from the $5 million he’s owed, and still it simply does not register with Walt that anyone could not care about the things that motivate him. Heisenberg is always calm and collected because things always go his way. For him, “it’s all there, black and white, clear as crystal.” He’s an emotionless meth-making machine. But as Jesse turns his back, Heisenberg’s robotic calm evaporates, only instead of printing error messages and beeping “does not compute,” he screams “If you leave you get nothing! [You lose! Good day sir!]”
When Todd becomes Walt’s new cooking partner, it’s clear that all is not well in the Kingdom of Heisenberg. However, Todd’s willingness to learn (studying his notes during a break) and refusing to discuss his cut of the money until he’s earned it pleases Walt. At the very least he’s got someone with similar ambitions, and who’s already proven that he will do whatever is necessary to succeed (like, you know, shooting an innocent child). “I don’t need you to be Antoine Lavoisier,” Walt says, “What I do need is your full attention. Listen and apply yourself.” Of course, Todd was never going to get a reference to an 18th century scientist (“the father of modern chemistry”), which just goes to show that Walt’s words weren’t meant to reassure anyone but himself.
The End of Ehrmantraut
I’ll say it again, this entire season (and series) has been about the transformation of mild-mannered Walter White into criminal mastermind Heisenberg. There’s just one problem with this scenario though: the first episode of the season showed what appeared to be a subdued Walter returning from exile in New Hampshire to buy an M60 in a Denny’s. Heisenberg’s little “say my name” tirade was his apex, his “high-water mark.” Killing Mike was the first move in the opposite direction, “the place where the wave broke and rolled back.”
When Walt tells Jesse that no one else needs to get hurt because they are now in control of their business, Jesse responds with “You keep saying that and it’s bullshit every time.” And how correct he was. Almost directly after letting those words drip out of his mouth, Walter up and kills Mike essentially for hurting his feelings. Walter has left more than a couple bodies in his wake as he rose to the top, but this is the first one that was entirely without purpose. Walt’s decision to kill Mike was made based on pure emotion, the exact pride and ego Mike had just finished scolding him about.
Just after firing the killing shot, Walt had a look on his face that we haven’t seen in a while. It was one of fear, of surprise. It represented a lack of understanding. For the first time in a while, things didn’t go exactly according to Heisenberg’s plans. After working so hard for so long to be “in control,” he couldn’t even control himself. Walt follows Mike down to the river, and immediately recognizes that the whole thing could have been avoided, as he could have gotten the names of Mike’s “guys” from Lydia. Mike responds, “shut the fuck up and let me die in peace.” A badass ending for a badass character.
The fact is Walt can still get the names from Lydia, and he will, based on the sneak peek into next week’s episode, the last of the summer. To save himself, Walt needs to do something about the guys in jail, and I’d be willing to bet Todd’s “prison connections” are going to come back into play.
Watch the cast and crew go inside “Say My Name” below and follow the writer on Twitter @NateKreichman.