As ‘Breaking Bad’ Nears Series Finale, A Gray Matter Is Unresolved

  @EllenKilloran on September 18 2013 6:32 PM

In “Ozymandias,” the third to last episode of “Breaking Bad,” we saw Walter White’s world come crashing down around him. Though he was able to escape with his life and liberty (for the moment), things aren’t looking very promising. Still, we know from the Season 5.2 premiere -- "Hello, Carol!" -- that Walt will be back: for something, or someone.

Walt almost lost his freedom in the desert, but the prospect of spending the rest of his life in prison is far from the worst case scenario. Losing all the money would have been, and losing his family a close second. Second because even if Walter was permanently estranged from his wife and children (due to something other than their death, which obviously would be the very worst possible outcome), as long as he could leave something behind for them, that would mean that all of this had not been in vain.

Vanity is what has been driving Walt all along. The crystal meth empire came about because he did not want to be remembered as the kind of man who couldn’t take care of his family; he didn’t want to leave his children’s future in anyone else’s hands. Walt's particular strain of vanity is the kind that can benefit someone else: It is responsible for his most despicable acts, but it also allows him to forsake his immediate needs out of concern for others -- depending on who those others are, of course, and how the presumed self-sacrifice feeds Walt’s “I’m doing this for you” rationale.

Whether or not we are convinced that cancer will kill Walt in a matter of months, as he has repeatedly insisted, he has been preparing for his physical death since the very first episode, and has always had an eye on what he will leave behind – security for his family, and a legacy for himself; one that will on some level immortalize him. Walt is prepared to take himself out of the equation as long as the wheels are satisfactorily set in motion.

“Breaking Bad,” from the start, has explored the battle between universal morality and situational ethics; between sacrificing the greater societal good for the sake of those you care for most in the world (including and especially yourself.)  Walt’s terminal cancer diagnosis effectively terminated his social contract -- and with a swiftness that suggests the contract may have been tenuous to begin with. There’s a lot we still don’t know about Walter White: The “unassuming high school chemistry teacher” profile emerged after a murky professional and personal separation, one that I have to believe is going to be explained before the series’ end. Something significant must have happened for Walt to abruptly abandon Gretchen and sell his stake in Gray Matter Technologies for peanuts; and “Breaking Bad” will feel incomplete if we never revisit it.

Sure, odds are Walt would not have become a drug kingpin when he did if he hadn’t been facing overwhelming medical expenses, but people often show their true colors when their back is up against the wall. And Walt’s back sure was, again, at the end of “Ozymandias,” when it became crystal clear that the family-portrait fantasy Walt had been clinging to was just that -- a pipe dream. There is little doubt that Walt knew exactly what he was doing when he delivered his abusive rant to Skyler over a tapped phone line: He was making sure -- or trying to make sure -- that she didn’t go down with him. Given the apparent hastiness of Walt’s decision to snatch baby Holly, and the fact that Skyler was more than happy to stab him to death a moment before, it might be a bit more of a stretch to believe that the kidnapping was all part of a master plan to paint him as an inveterate criminal who had bullied his wife into submission. But Walt has always been quick on the draw with a Plan B (or Plan C), and kidnapping Holly cemented the narrative that Walt hopes will provide his family with a second chance, even if it wasn’t the fresh start he had hoped for.

This doesn’t mean Walt is a good man, of course -- he’s still a monster, with monstrous hubris. But it does bring full circle the evolution of Walter White, at least since we’ve met him: From a man who became a criminal in order to save his family to a man who used his family in order to become a bigger criminal to a man who became an even bigger criminal in order to save his family -- from himself.

If you believe that final phone conversation closed the loop on Skyler and Walt’s relationship, as I do, it is easy to expect the final two episodes will act as bookends to everything else. There’s little left to be said between Skyler and Walt, but there are plenty of loose ends to tie up elsewhere, and doing so will likely require going back in time. [SPOILER AHEAD]

We have good reason to believe that Charlie Rose will make a cameo in the penultimate episode of “Breaking Bad” this Sunday. In a live discussion with Vince Gilligan at the Museum of the Moving Image this summer, Rose let it slip that he would be appearing in show’s final season. “Who in the world gave you the idea to include me in the next-to-last episode?” he asked Gilligan before an audience of several hundred, including a Los Angeles Times reporter.  

Given that Walt is a wanted man in Saul Goodman’s version of the witness protection program, it likely isn’t him who appears on “Charlie Rose.” But a Nobel prize-winning scientist -- say, Gray Matter co-founder Elliot Schwartz -- would be a good candidate. Perhaps it could also be Marie, making the press rounds as the grieving widow of a heroic DEA agent, but that doesn’t fit the typical “Charlie Rose” guest profile. Even so, Marie’s apparent personality disorder is another narrative thread that’s been left incomplete so far.

It seems like a lot to ask of “Breaking Bad” to answer so many questions in so little time, but Gilligan has done the near-impossible before, and has made public assurances that he wouldn’t leave us hanging (a la “The Sopranos” series finale). If there’s been one constant in “Breaking Bad,” it’s that nothing in the script is an accident -- if there’s something that’s still in the back of the audience’s mind, it’s because Gilligan wants it there.

 

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