“I will put you under the jail.”
I dreaded these words as soon as they left Hank Schrader’s lips. Not because I hope for some outcome other than Walter White’s annihilation. Not because I doubt Hank’s resolve or the ability of a multi-billion-dollar federal agency to successfully deal with the likes of Heisenberg. I feared the statement, and fear it now, because of the treacherous environment in which ASAC Schrader recited his oath—a context which began to take shape in the first minutes of the episode and acquired increasingly stronger elements of peril with each scene. This was a night of anguish, suspense, and disgust, but gliding over all was an unyielding sense of pure, unassuaged fear.
Man On a Mission
We know Hank had his W. W. epiphany only a few months after Walter’s 51st birthday. But both Episode 5.01 and 5.09 opened with a thinly-disguised 52-year-old Walter White (“Mr. Lambert”) entering the final phase of his existence. Much information is provided in each four-minute scene, but the most enlightening facts are those in the background, peripheral to our senses.
At least four, but probably closer to eight months will pass between Hank leaving the Whites’ house for the last time and Heisenberg’s forcible entry into the boarded-up property. With several influential and well-funded parties taking keen interest in compromising, incarcerating, or killing him, the immediate implication is that Walter has succeeded for many months in paying off, fending off, eliminating, or otherwise neutralizing all of the insistent threats to his life. In light of this truth, Lydia’s exclamation that Walter would put her “in a box” may be more harbinger than fear. Even backed by the depth and breadth of Madrigal’s worldwide resources, it does not seem unlikely that Walter would prevail against her. Walter entered his former residence with little or no trepidation. Seeing his former neighbor, Carol, did not phase him. While we may attribute this lack of fear to an endgame fatalism, an acceptance of his own inevitable demise, I think it’s more useful to understand these flash-forward moments as illustrative of Walter’s ability over several months to thwart every threat and obstacle in his path.
Episode 5.01 told us Walter had at least one mission: He will use a 7.62 mm caliber, 650-round-per-minute M60 machine gun to attack or defend, presumably against multiple human targets. The gun looks heavy and formidable, and we might superficially consider it an anti-siege weapon, but it weighs only ten and a half kilos (23 pounds) and is routinely used from a standing or even running position, though it is more typically a fire-in-place weapon. With Episode 5.09 we know Walter was willing to run the risk that neighbors would report a break-in at his former residence, but his second mission—killing one or more persons with ricin—outweighed the mild risk.
The picture in both future prologues is painted in wretched tones of darkness, decay, and hopelessness. Walter’s house is falling into ruin, and with his scraggly beard and gloomy disposition, he isn’t faring any better. But when have we ever looked to Walter for ‘hope’? The concept is unknown to him. Recall his graduate school conversation with his girlfriend, Gretchen, circa 1984. The two of them stood at the blackboard, recording the elemental constituents of the human body. The total came to 99.09 percent.
Walter: We are 0.111958 percent shy.
Gretchen: Supposedly that’s everything.
Walter: It just seems like something’s missing.
Gretchen: What about the soul?
Walter: [Leaning in close] The soul? There’s nothing but chemistry here.
Walter’s posture in the above tableau signifies intimate dominance over his lover, suggesting his desire to impose on her his understanding of human existence as free of spiritual considerations. There is no ‘soul’, there is no ‘hope’, there is only chemistry (value-free science) at the blackboard and chemistry (sexual attraction) between male Walter and female Gretchen. In Walter’s world, that which cannot be committed to mathematical tables, chemical reactions, or sexual exertions claims no share in our identity as human beings.
Scenes like these sprinkled through the five years of Breaking Bad have long led me to wonder about Walter’s moral foundations. I find I am not alone in my thoughts. Writing nearly a year ago for The Atlantic, Scott Meslow said, “As the first part of the final season comes to a close, one truth is increasingly clear: Walter was never good to begin with.” (Scott Meslow, “The Big Secret of ‘Breaking Bad’,” The Atlantic, 31 August 2012.) I am inclined to support Meslow’s thesis, and I believe tonight’s episode provided striking symbolic evidence in its favor.
“Live Free or Die” is the State Motto of New Hampshire, and it is drawn directly from the great rebellion we know as the American Revolutionary War. Walter White, especially in his Heisenberg persona, must certainly be considered an iconoclast, as he demonstrated in his long-ago discussion with Gretchen, but he probably thinks of himself as something of a rebel in general, at least in the sense that he takes swift action to prevent anyone from hemming him in or diverting him from his objectives. An important distinction between Walter White on the one hand and General John Stark and his New Hampshire admirers on the other is that the Revolutionary War hero’s brand of rebellion is socially accepted and celebrated. Walter White’s rebellion, with its objective to build an empire regardless of the cost in human lives and suffering, is submitted as the supreme example of socially unacceptable pathology, a denigration of the most essential qualities of our humanity.
A rebel is one grounded in a tradition or way of life who then rises up in opposition to that way of life. A common expression in Hebrew tradition speaks of people with “eyes to see.” One who has eyes but does not see (does not understand, agree with, or submit to the governing tradition) is described in early Hebrew literature as a rebel, or a rebellious person. For instance, Ezekiel said, “They have eyes to see but do not see and ears to hear but do not hear, for they are a rebellious people.” (Ez 12:2, NIV)
When Walter looked into the bedroom mirror after retrieving the ricin, we were served one of the most thought-provoking images in the five years of Breaking Bad. The reflected image of a Walter White without eyes is neither coincidence nor mistake. It is intentional and rich with meaning. In the greater context of the series, it seems to me the implied message is that Walter White lacks ‘eyes to see’. That is, he lacks the most basic grounding in our heritage as civilized human beings. Though clothed in the skin of a man, he never acquired manly respect for anyone around him. If we consider this image in the context of someone bent on achieving his own selfish agenda at any cost, and if we factor in the realization that those with strong familial bonds are now poised to oppose him, even to the death, we understand the considerably enhanced potential for the suffering of innocents.
As the parents of baby girls are wont to do, Skyler often dresses Holly in pink. Every time I see the child in pink clothing I grimace, for the color pink has a very specific meaning in the Breaking Bad universe. We have only to think back to Season Two to understand my feelings of unease.
Vince Gilligan explained his use of the pink teddy bear in an interview in the summer of 2009:
We were consciously thinking of Schindler’s List when we decided that the only item in color in these teasers should be the pink teddy bear. I think Schindler’s List is a wonderful movie, and as they always teach in writing class, steal from the best. We knew we wanted to make the footage in the flash-forwards look visually different so the audience would understand that this is some alternate reality. At the eleventh hour I said, “Why not just black and white and make the pink of the teddy bear the only thing you see?” And that was a little tip of the hat to that movie.
The girl in the red coat in Schindler’s List represents innocence or hope. The pink teddy bear represents the innocents who died on Wayfarer Flight 515. The girl in red ended up on a funeral pyre. The pink teddy bear was all that remained of Wayfarer’s dead children. The implications for Holly are chilling.
Of course, Holly’s predilection for pink duds may have no bearing on her near-term future. But with immediate family virtually the only people who could become obstacles to Walter, the symbolic connection between a baby girl and a one-eyed teddy bear is more than a little disturbing—especially when her father lacks eyes to see.
Walter delivered a revealing speech halfway through the episode:
Son, you need to stop focusing on the darkness behind you. The past is the past. Nothing can change what we’ve done. But now that’s over. You’re out, and so am I…But there is nothing left for us to do, except to try to live ordinary, decent lives.
If we were looking for a sure sign of Walter White’s place among the damned, this speech was that sign. No one can wave a magic wand and say, “Now you feel no pain! You have no anguish over past sins, because all wrongs have been righted, all faults removed, all transgressions forgiven. Look! Do you see Drew Sharp’s parents? Happy, laughing, having fun? You see? They’ve forgotten all about Drew. The past is the past, after all, and they know it. You did a terrible, monstrous thing. But as soon as you took off that yellow suit, a light bulb came on, see? Now the Sharps consider you an ordinary, decent person…”
I would imagine most people do not think ‘moral straight-shooter’ when the name Saul Goodman comes up in conversation. But in assessing the value of Jesse’s intended payment of 2.5 million dollars to the Sharp family, Saul’s analysis was spot-on. For that matter, Walter’s understanding that Jesse’s guilt would not be removed by a monetary gift was likewise correct. But the reality that neither Saul nor Walter grasped is that the darkness is not ‘behind’ Jesse. It is inside him now and forever. The darkness is an irretrievable part of the whole we know as Jesse Pinkman. The tears are not for Drew Sharp. They are the inevitable result of feeling Drew’s parents’ pain, knowing their anguish. The tears are the heavy, unmoved realization that nothing in the world can remove the horrible darkness from Drew’s parents’ hearts. The tears are Jesse’s anguished discovery that he is a monster, an inhuman brute, a child killer.
Regret is not something to be removed from the human heart. Badger invoked Captain Kirk in this episode, during his ‘pie eating’ screenplay discussion. It was James T. Kirk who most memorably addressed regret in the final scenes of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier. Sybok, a Vulcan prophet, said he could remove regret, make every trace of anguish disappear from the soul. Doctor McCoy embraced the idea. Logic-minded Spock accepted the offer, too. Even those of us without grounding in literary or film theory understand that McCoy is a projection of the purely emotional side of Kirk while Spock is the purely logical manifestation of the Captain. James Tiberius Kirk, of course, represents the epitome of human life. If both the extreme sides of our humanity are in agreement, it seemed only logical—and ultimately the most honest expression of our deepest emotion—for Kirk to allow Sybok to perform his magic and free the Captain from every pain of his heart.
This was Captain Kirk’s response to McCoy's plea for Sybok’s plan:
Damn it, Bones, you're a doctor. You know that pain and guilt can't be taken away with a wave of a magic wand. They're the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are. If we lose them, we lose ourselves. I don't want my pain taken away! I need my pain!
The Pain Speech constitutes an eloquent declaration of foundational Star Trek philosophy. We think of Spock, Kirk, and McCoy as the Holy Trinity of the Great Bird’s universe.
But Kirk (that is, the human perfection to which all of us can aspire) is far greater than the sum of his (our) parts. The Pain Speech says there are aspects of our humanity beyond logic and emotion that define us as human beings. We are not individuals. We are inextricably connected to every single person around us. We may wish to deny it. Perhaps we believe ‘Live Free or Die’ means individualism is the supreme expression of our humanity. If someone stands in my path and will not move, don’t I have the right to use force to continue along my path?
Star Trek and Breaking Bad tell us we walk paths together, not alone. If we try to walk alone we suffer the consequences of guilt, shame, regret, and soul-wrenching anguish. Individualism is reality for only a few among us, Friedrich Nietzsche’s Übermenschen, for whom the rules of human civility do not apply. For Nietzsche the Übermensch is a perfection, the supreme human accomplishment, the final statement of the Sophist’s contention that man is the measure of all things, that there is nothing beyond that which the intellect can conceive and perfect Superman hands can build:
Man is something that shall be overcome [by the Übermensch]. What have you done to overcome him?... All beings so far have created something beyond themselves; and do you want to be the ebb of this great flood, and even go back to the beasts rather than overcome man? What is ape to man? A laughing stock or painful embarrassment. And man shall be that to Übermensch: a laughingstock or painful embarrassment. You have made your way from worm to man, and much in you is still worm. Once you were apes, and even now, too, man is more ape than any ape... The Übermensch is the meaning of the earth. Let your will say: the Übermensch shall be the meaning of the earth...
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, pp. 3-4.
Heisenberg would read these words and nod in agreement—just as Rudolf Hess, Adolf Eichmann, Josef Goebbels, Hermann Goering, and Adolf Hitler did in the 1920s and 1930s. Breaking Bad rejects every word of Nietzsche’s thought. It is possible to live free of regret, without anguish, Breaking Bad says—but only if your name is Walter White. The rest of us sit in Jesse Pinkman’s living room, crying tears for those we have wronged, unconsoled by Walter’s insensitive, monstrous words.
A Way Out of Hell
“If you believe there’s a hell…we’re all pretty much going there,” Walter confesses to Jesse in Episode 5.07. By now, in Episode 5.09, Jesse feels the full weight of the truth of his damnation. He seeks release from his anguish, as he demonstrated in the late-night distribution of his blood money. The money is irrelevant to his rehabilitation, of course. I don’t know that Jesse’s forgiveness and redemption are part of the Breaking Bad project, but there are ways out of his hell.
In my latest novel, Deneb, three wolves form the foundation of the plotline: The Wolf of Fear, the Wolf of Truth, and the Wolf of Anguish.
(The dark Wolf of Truth, Pallas Athena representing the Wolf of Anguish, and the white Wolf of Fear)
Concept by Pearson Moore, composition by Robin Ludwig, photograph of Pallas Athena by Marcus J. Ranum
The three wolves represent the human timeline. Fear is our future, truth is the present reality we wish to reject, and anguish is the troubled past we cannot escape. Deneb and its two sequels present a unique solution to the problem of unresolvable sin, requiring the collaboration of hundreds of individuals over the course of 45,000 years. This may sound long and difficult—and it is!—but other, no less daring forays into our most heinous crimes are equally challenging, because they insist on uncompromising revelations of the human soul.
In one of the most moving scenes in Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, a Hindu man, delirious with agony, rushes up to the emaciated saint. “I’m going to hell,” he tells the Mahatma. He will suffer eternal damnation because he killed a Muslim child in retribution for a Muslim gang’s execution of his own child. “I know a way out of hell,” the saint tells him. He is to seek out a little boy whose parents are dead, and raise the child as his own. “Only, make sure,” the Mahatma says, “that he is a Muslim, and that you raise him as one.”
Similarly, in The Mission, Rodrigo spends months in a self-imposed solitary confinement within the walls of a monastery. He is the most wretched and unforgivable of monsters. He captured human beings, killed any who stood in his way, and sold his bound and whipped human chattel as slaves for his own profit. He devised for himself the most torturous and physically painful of penances—dragging hundreds of pounds swords and battle armor up the face of mountains—but no amount of suffering could undo the unspeakable crimes he had committed. The way out of his hell appeared in the form of a young Guarani man, from the same Aboriginal nation whose members Rodrigo had enslaved. The young man held a knife to Rodrigo’s throat, yelled at him for several minutes, then took the knife and cut through the ropes that attached Rodrigo to his great armored burden, releasing the man from his penance—and from his sin.
I don’t know that Jesse’s redemption will be explored in the final episodes, but if it is, I imagine part of that plan will involve Jesse’s confession, his collaboration with the DEA, and perhaps a face-to-face meeting with the Sharp family or the Boetticher family. Walter, of course, will have some sense of this possibility; we have to consider Jesse Pinkman a large potential target on Heisenberg’s final agenda.
You Guys Thought of Everything
Todd’s golly-gee sentiment in Episode 5.05 is the guiding philosophy of 20-year-old boys everywhere who have not yet grown into manhood—and the foundational principal of Heisenberg’s fully-matured science.
I can make mold grow on a bar of Ivory soap. “What!” you exclaim. “How is such a thing possible? Ivory is soap! It’s 99 and 44/100ths percent pure!” Just the same, I can do it. It’s not that difficult. You can do it, too. Heisenberg’s Crystal Blue Persuasion is consistently 99.1 percent pure. It’s the ultimate high. But it’s not perfect, and neither is Heisenberg.
One of the facts that escapes the Übermensch, whether his name is Adolf Hitler or Walter White, is that life cannot be reduced to a mathematical equation or a chemical formula. Just as there is no absolutely pure Ivory soap, so too there is no absolutely foolproof plan of action. Murphy is not just a good idea: It’s the law. If anything can go wrong, it will, and there’s no way—even with months or years or decades of planning—that even the simplest of systems can be rendered mechanically perfect. Your hammer will break, your development plan will fail, your perfectly safe pharmaceutical drug will make a housewife go into convulsions, your space shuttle will explode in the air. And a fourteen-year-old boy on a motorcycle will watch you steal methylamine from a train.
Probably the most important event in the train robbery sequence was the last one we saw, inside Todd’s car.
Todd, beaten but not down, holds a jar containing a spider. The spider has a name, known to many of us. It’s Anton. Anton’s older siblings are the M60 machine gun and the ricin crystals—but Anton the Spider is far more deadly than either of his brothers. Anton’s appearance later in the story is inevitable—in fact, it’s a rule. In literary terms, the spider and the M60 machine gun and the ricin are called Chekhov’s Gun. Todd’s pet, Anton Chekhov the Spider, is more deadly because Walter White knows about the machine gun and the ricin. He doesn’t know about Chekhov’s Spider. Did I mention that the actress who plays Skyler is called Gunn? This is not to say that we should look for a collaboration between Skyler and Todd in the closing minutes of the series. But we will see the spider again. Count on it—unless, of course, Vince Gilligan’s crew didn’t think of everything…
A Man For All Seasons of Crime
The photograph above is the official AMC/Breaking Bad portrait of Hank Schrader taken from the AMC website. And I didn’t even ask permission! The thing is, the portrait above doesn’t depict the real ASAC Henry ‘Hank’ Schrader. And as much as I would like to believe—even need to believe—that Hank is the invincible hero who will single-handedly bring down Heisenberg, he is not, and he will not. Hank Schrader is not the Man For All Seasons of Crime, and this is truly the nexus of my fear.
The image above, in my opinion, captures the true essence of Hank Schrader. Created by the very talented French visual artist Martin Woutisseth, this portrait of Hank and some two dozen Breaking Bad images from Mr. Woutisseth’s inventive imagination will be featured in my upcoming companion book Breaking Blue, to be published in early December.
Woutisseth’s portrait depicts a bold, courageous man who has his own doubts and fears. That’s not the Hank Schrader we saw in tonight’s episode, and that’s what has me worried. If Hank is going to bring down Heisenberg, he needs to be truly Hank, and not someone else. Most of all, he needs to take off the dangerous red shirt he wore in the final scene and replace it with his color: orange.
Colors have enormous symbolic importance in Breaking Bad. In fact, I contend that the entire series philosophy can be explained in terms of color, and I will take a stab at just such an argument in Breaking Blue, as I have already begun to do in Breaking White.
I will not attempt a full-blown analysis of the color orange in this essay. I’m already running into the 5000-word limit, and the orange essay (Chapter O in Breaking Blue, of course!) is going to run more than 6000 words all by itself. But I can briefly state my intestinal misgivings over the vesting of Hank in a red shirt.
In Breaking Bad red is the color of unexamined youthful anger and passion. Jesse drives a red car. Red was his most frequent choice of apparel in Seasons One and Two. As he’s matured—and deepened in his angst—he’s been shedding red in favor of black and dark gray. To put Hank in a Breaking Bad Red Shirt (qualitatively very different from the industry-standard Star Trek Red Shirt) is to indicate Hank’s submission to the constraints of misguided, unexamined anger and passion.
One might argue that Hank’s adoption of an angry red shirt is entirely appropriate to the plotline and to his heightened emotional state surrounding the revelation of Walter as Heisenberg. I agree. If the reversion to red is only temporary, there is no problem at all. But my discomfort extends further than the limits of this episode. The teaser for Episode 5.10 includes these words uttered by Hank: “I can be the man who caught him.”
Again, on the surface there’s nothing wrong with such a sentiment. But recall Vince Gilligan’s stinging rejection of the Nietzschean philosophy in the Darkness Behind You speech. Individualism, at least in the Breaking Bad universe, is doomed to failure. It’s 99 and 44/100ths percent pure, no more. According to the unbreakable rules of Breaking Bad, Hank cannot be “the man who caught him,” at least not single-handedly.
Astute viewers have already worked out theories around this problem. “Hank has to continue wearing red,” they’ll say, “because look who’s wearing yellow. Red and yellow make orange, you know.” It’s absolutely true. If there is any character associated with one particular color, it’s Marie Schrader. In fact, I don’t even need to tell you which color I’m referring to.
In Episode 5.08, then, we should have had our socks knocked off when Marie appeared in yellow. Yellow! For five years we’ve seen her occasionally in white but almost always in every possible shade of purple, violet, lavender, plum, lilac. If I say Marie, the first word that will come into your head is the word Purple. Yet there she was, Chez White, vested entirely in yellow. There are few ways to make sense of this strange inversion of the color wheel, but one of those ways is to note that Marie is the perfect complement to Hank. If Hank has become too emotional and now wears red, Marie will bring him back to Earth by wearing solid yellow. Red and yellow make orange. That is to say, Marie’s solid yellow foundation will allow Red Hank, when the stuff hits the fan, to become True-Orange Hank. A spiritually-based emotional collaboration between Marie and Hank bears the essential feature of rejecting individualism, therefore pulling Hank out of Nietzschean hell and allowing him to confront and vanquish the Übermensch monster, Heisenberg.
But having Hank say “I can be the man” sounds all too much like the kind of thing Pakhom said in Tolstoy’s classic short story, “How Much Land Does a Man Need?” Or Indy’s misguided sentiment in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.
“I can reach it,” he said.
No, Indiana, you can’t reach it. No one can. Not even Hank Schrader can reach it. The DEA’s Holy Grail is Heisenberg. It’s going to take the entire DEA—not a cowboy in a red shirt in a garage working all by himself—to bring down the DEA’s most fabled enemy. Indiana knew to close his eyes in Raiders of the Lost Ark. Hank needs to close his eyes, too; in humility, that is, he needs to work with his team—and maybe teams from other regions—to bring an end to Heisenberg’s terror.
Red is the color of my fear. One way or another, Heisenberg is going down. Whether he’s bitten by Chekhov’s Spider or apprehended by agents working for the Man in Orange, Walter White’s days are numbered. My hope has always been that Hank’s guys would do the deed, and that the new ASAC would live to see his great quest succeed. But red is the color of passionate failure. It’s the color of blood and death. It’s the color of Heisenberg’s temporary triumphs. My fear, then, is that I will see Hank’s red shirt soaked in red blood. On the other hand, my hope is that the final scene will show the grim but relieved countenance of Hank Schrader, and as the camera pulls away, we see, to our own relief, the blazing orange shirt that defines Breaking Bad’s greatest hero.
It’s been a long day at the keyboard. I’d usually have a Guinness. But tonight there’s only one possibility. Nesbitt’s. Here’s hoping!