Just two episodes from the end of the series, AMC’s "Breaking Bad" has collapsed into bloody mayhem, with protagonist Walter White sinking further into the abyss he opened when he transformed from a meek science professor into a meth druglord and murderer.
Walt is alone and on the run, abandoned by his family, implicated in the killing of two federal agents and pursued by the authorities. A ruthless neo-Nazi gang may be after him, too. His cancer is back. Things look grim for Walter White. He has lost eveything.
Or has he?
The enormous pile of money that has driven the plot in the last season, and brought Walt to the arrest he escaped only thanks to the most shocking of Breaking Bad’s many plot twists, is still there. It just happens not to be in Walt’s possession at this time; the Nazis have it. Just like they have Jesse Pinkman, the former partner in crime and putative son whom Walt tried to have killed for ratting him out to the feds -- but who also remains a possible ally on the inside in any attempt to recoup the money. And attempt to recoup it Walt most assuredly will. It’s the reason he did everything he did, at least in his own rationalization of the evil he committed: I did it for my family. Dying and facing staggering medical bills, he turned to meth production to save his wife and two kids from destitution.
But then Walt’s drug empire expanded. The money grew. The ill-gotten nest egg of the quiet, suburban Whites turned into an $80 million cash pile -- one that is the silent pulse of the show’s closing season, propelling the drama to its impending resolution.
In the last season, the visual representations of the money’s centrality have been as numerous as they have been sinister. First, there was the shot of Walt and Skyler under the hospital-green cold light of a storage room, looking at the mountain of money Skyler "sprayed for silverfish" before she stashed it away, their expressions ominously blank as they stared at the literal enormity of what his crime had got them.
Then there was the suspense of watching attorney Saul Goodman’s two henchmen enter the storage room in a later episode -- contemplating how much they would skim for themselves -- and put the loot into seven huge plastic barrels, which Walt then buried in the desert, only to be tricked by Jesse into revealing the location of the money and giving himself up to the DEA. "I'm gonna get you where you really live," Jesse had said to Walt in the previous episode, revealing that he knew his boss and tormentor, and his money obsession, very well.
But Walt’s arrest turns into a intense gun battle when his new neo-Nazi allies show up at the site and shoot both federal agents dead. In the most chilling shot of the entire show so far, their bodies get dumped into the same pit where the money, now taken by the Nazis, was -- a neat if unsubtle illustration of Walter White’s evil parable, now complete with the killing of his own brother-in-law, DEA agent Hank Schrader. And all that in the same location where Walt and Jesse’s drugmaking began, tying the scene of the nascent crime to its extreme consequence.
And that wasn’t the end of the fraught shots involving Walt’s money. After the failed arrest and gunfight, he is seen wheeling the barrel with the $11 million left to him by the neo-Nazis through the desert after his car breaks down, risking death by exhaustion rather than abandon the last of his treasure and walk away unencumbered. (Money, weight: a heavily literal image of Walt’s conscience.)
But money isn’t everything to Walter White. After all, he did it for the family -- yet, right now, he’s lost them too. His formerly complicit wife threatened him, wounded him in fact, with a kitchen knife. His son Walt Jr., suddenly turning from worship to hatred of his father, called 911 on him. But family isn’t just his wife and kids (and sister in law, now a widow because of him.) His de facto son Jesse is still around, bleeding and half-dead and forced to cook meth for the Nazis who were going to kill him on Walt’s orders and now hold him captive.
Incidentally, it’s easy to see a parallel with the other father / son-who’s-not-a-son tragic duo in recent American television, Tony Soprano and Chris Moltisanti -- right down to the killing of the son by the father (well, Walter White hasn’t actually succeeded in killing Jesse, but not for lack of trying, and he might yet.) Breaking Bad has in fact veered at the end into Sopranos territory, espousing bloody family dynamics worthy of a Greek tragedy disguised in American suburbia.
But before the tragedy can be consumed (and no tragic hero survives, in Greece as in New Jersey, and surely in New Mexico as well), Walt and Jesse must come together once more to fight their common enemy, the neo-Nazis. Walt wants them dead to get the rest of his money, for the loved ones he ran from but is still clearly trying to protect. Jesse wants to escape the madmen who kidnapped him. The real family and the crime family and the money will be entwined again, driving the plot to a finale we know will be staggeringly violent.
We have seen, in flash forwards, Walt buying an automatic rifle and sneaking back into his old house to retrieve the vial of deadly ricin he left there. It’s not far-fetched to speculate that on the receiving end of the bullets and the poison will be the Nazis, whose demise will usher in a resolution consummated in the name of the two central elements of Breaking Bad and, one could say, of American life: money, family, and the dangerous meeting of the two.