If you are novelist, playwright, or film director, you felt your breath taken away tonight. The rough edges melted into smoothness, every character arc found completion, and the entire weight of six years of story fit perfectly into the tense silence of calm sky and patient earth. If you are, like me, connected to the world of cinema and television only by means of the flat screen in your living room, the experience was almost surreal in the way it evoked emotion and recognition of events from seasons long past. Like “Two Cathedrals” (The West Wing, Episode 2.22; Season Two finale),“The City on the Edge of Forever” (Star Trek TOS, Episode 1.28), and “Made in America” (The Sopranos, Episode 6.21; series finale), “To’hajiilee,” the 13th episode of Season Five, was a flawless creation of storytelling depth and cinematic brilliance.
Tonight’s episode completed the grand, torturous circle we began riding—rollercoaster fashion—six years ago. We have returned to the series origin, where Walter and Jesse had their first cook. It is amid the quiet stones and the constant sky that untamed men from uncivilized places arrive to discover their character, test their mettle, and assert their authentic selves. Every player in tonight’s showdown sought and proved his true identity, as calm sky and patient earth demand.
The strange perfection of this episode is found in the deliberate and opposing assertions of ten angry and fearful men. All of the questions have been answered. The story is incomplete only because it is tragedy. Mr. Chips became Scarface—Walter became Heisenberg; we await only the knowledge of the manner in which calm sky and patient earth will repay Heisenberg for hubris, greed, and inhumanity. Tonight’s episode was a rare gem and solid proof of Breaking Bad’s standing as drama that will endure the ages.
In the pilot episode Walter began a video confession but then thought better of it. He pointed his gun at the approaching sirens, at himself, and finally at the ground. Killing a police officer, committing suicide, or accidentally discharging the pistol while he figured out the safety mechanism were equally valid outcomes in his frazzled, confused state. In Episode 5.13 he was not confused. He calmly surrendered his weapon and took slow, deliberate steps to comply precisely with Hank’s commands. He knew exactly what he had to do.
More importantly, and in striking contrast with his confusion in the pilot episode, he knew who he was. In the first few minutes of the series he could no longer call himself Walter White (though he attempted to do so in the video confession) because he was becoming Heisenberg. That soul-wrenching transition, and not the approaching emergency vehicles, was the nexus of his confusion. This evening he was calm and dignified, no longer in a green shell half-covering his white underwear, he was vested in a white shell half-covering his purple shirt. He had long ago assumed the name Heisenberg but now he understood and accepted his final identity as fallen lord. Ozymandias is an appropriate name, and it is the one Vince Gilligan will apply in next week’s episode.
The story of high school teacher become drug lord become fallen king and failed human being ended where it began and closed Walter White’s story arc. His character arc would be complete if he lacked connections to others, but his links to major characters were intentionally made richer and stronger than those of possibly any other lead character in modern television; simply demonstrating his fall is insufficient to the completion of the story. The details of the fall of Ozymandias constitute the core lesson of this morality play.
We have seen time and again in Breaking Bad that events of greatest moment occur far from the city, on rust soil under blue sky. Poetically, and within the rubrics of storytelling, the highest level of continuity and significance is achieved by plotting a circle that returns to its origin for the final battle and denouement. Sometimes the poetic terrain of the final conflict is conceptual. So, for instance, my science fiction novel, Deneb, begins with the death of an innocent man and ends with the death of an innocent woman.
Partial view of “The Battle of Dabtik Havtan”
Illustration by Chris Rallis, commissioned for Deneb
Circularity in the story events of Deneb gains emotional and poetic impact through the development of conceptual opposition between those who were once allies and friends. The circle is conceptually closed by the simultaneous completion of story arcs in four inter-connected timelines spanning 45,000 years. The completion of the circle, then, is made possible by ironic role reversals among the major characters.
Quite similar ironic events occurred this evening. Walter has always managed to outsmart even the most diabolically intelligent opponent. Tonight he was outfoxed by a 20-something kid and his DEA brother-in-law. As Vince Gilligan said, “Heisenberg has been out-Heisenberged for the first time in history.”
That role reversal is yet another indication of the completion of the circle, given form and substance and physical meaning by the coming together of forces at the geographic origin of the series, in the desert of the To’hajiilee Navajo Reservation.
To’hajiilee is a Navajo word meaning ‘to bring up water from a natural well’. That we have never seen water in these desert scenes may or may not have been intentional on the part of writers and directors, but to my mind the unseen water works well as a physical sign of the Unseen Judge always present at these desert gatherings. I think it’s the human process of bringing up water and the identity of the place as a natural well that carry the symbolic importance of To’hajiilee. In Vince Gilligan’s karma-directed Universe we see human processes that either conform to or deviate from the natural expectations of the Universe. Karma—the expectation-become-result of the unseen, unmoved Breaking Bad judge—is always pronounced and delivered on orange desert under blue sky.
Walter’s story arc is complete. Hank’s story arc, too, has reached its natural endpoint, as I will discuss later in this essay. My guess is that most viewers, even if they didn’t have full, conscious awareness of this idea came away from “To’hajiilee” feeling a kind of completeness, a satisfaction with events they may not have been able to pinpoint. I believe the completion of the circle was the necessary goal of tonight’s episode.
At least a few commentators, I know, have expressed the feeling that the episode fell short of perfection by not showing the end of the gun battle. I disagree with that assessment, for reasons I intend to outline in this essay. I have never been shy in pointing out the imperfections of Breaking Bad. I’ve made fun of the purple-hued excesses of Marie, where I think the writers have gone a bit overboard in their visual humor. In last week’s essay I took a swipe at the development of Hank’s character, saying I was going to ask the commanding general of Fort Pendleton to invite Hank to Marine Corps basic training.
The Immortality of Achilles
Achilles, hero of the Iliad and the greatest warrior who ever drew breath, lives forever.
I suppose such a statement would not create much controversy, especially among those who’ve read the Iliad, but others may be scratching their heads. “Wait a minute, Pearson. Didn’t Achilles die from an arrow wound to the ankle? Isn’t this where the expression ‘Achilles’ Heel’ comes from?” But even those who’ve read the classics may feel a bit uncomfortable with the assertion that Achilles lives forever. “The Iliad is a record of humankind’s struggle with mortality,” we might hear them saying. “That Achilles’ death is not portrayed in the Iliad is beside the point,” they might contend. “All heroes, even Achilles, must die.”
Precisely. When I say ‘Achilles lives forever’, I mean his struggles during the Trojan War—with other Achaeans, with the Trojans, with the gods, with himself—render him an unforgettable ideal of virtue. A thousand generations from now our grandchildren’s grandchildren’s most distant descendants will read Homer and find in Achilles a superlative model of our shared humanity. I don’t mean that he is literally immortal.
Now, the fascinating thing about the Iliad is that the story focuses on Achilles but it never mentions his death. Paris’ shot to Achilles’ vulnerable ankle is a later accretion to the story of the Trojan War, first appearing several centuries after the Golden Age of Athens. But even then, the death of Achilles didn’t really tell us anything about Achilles per se. It confirmed and entrenched the Greek idea of human mortality; Achilles, after all, is not the only human being with a prominent weakness at the ankle: All of us have an Achilles Heel. The only other take-home lesson from Achilles’ death was that Paris was a real jerk, lacking in all the Greek virtues but especially deficient in honor. Achilles’ death told us nothing more about him as a human being, and it is for that reason that his death was rightfully left unportrayed in the Iliad.
The meaninglessness of Achilles’ death is one of the reasons that I consider Episode 5.13 a rare example of the perfect installment of a serialized television drama. The biggest question on most of our minds at the end of the episode could be expressed in three simple words: Did Hank die? The answer: It doesn’t matter. Hank Schrader, like Achilles, lives forever.
Just as Achilles’ death is a later, unnecessary addition to his story, the outcome of the gun battle is immaterial to Hank’s character arc. The biggest question at the end of last week’s episode was, as I put it, “Is Hank going to stop wearing Marie SchraderTM purple and become the man he’s supposed to be?” The answer, as we saw tonight, was a resounding YES.
All season long I’ve been lamenting Hank’s inability to regain his moral equilibrium in the battle to bring Heisenberg to justice. Hank’s vacillations, his personal vendetta against Walter, and his dreams of personal glory were all interfering with his ability to act in a manner conducive to bringing Heisenberg down. All of that changed in this episode.
For the entire episode—and for the first time this season—Gomez backed Hank and stood at his side. He began by giving Hank a firm warning. “I’m going to tell you this up front, Hank. This guy decides that he wants to lawyer-up, I don’t care if you are my boss: I’m going to put a stop to this.” It was a fair warning, and it put Hank on notice that Gomez understood the plan to be outside the purview of the DEA. “He won’t lawyer-up,” Hank said. And he was right.
Gomez’s warning and Huell’s interrogation were the last scenes containing even a trace of conflict between the ASAC and his first lieutenant. They were also the last scenes in which the two DEA men did not coordinate their attire.
During their last meeting in the Purple Palace both of them wore almost the same shade of green.
Crucially, at the showdown they were both vested in black jackets and DEA orange shirts. Gomez never left Hank’s side, physically or figuratively. They stood together, as one.
The upshot of dressing the men as if they were twins is not only demonstration of their single-mindedness, but symbolic visual representation of Hank’s adherence to the rules of the Breaking Bad Universe. As Steven Michael Quezada noted during tonight’s Talking Bad discussion, “The cool thing about Gomez, he’s the only character on Breaking Bad that never broke bad.” Gomez’s moral purity was essential to the episode and to Hank’s character arc.
For several episodes I have been hoping, praying, pleading with anyone who would listen that Hank would find himself, stop wearing every weird color under the sun, and return to his color, which is orange. It finally happened, and with such poetic perfection as I could not have imagined. YES. Let’s hear it for DEA orange!
The characters of Breaking Bad do not fulfill personal destiny in a vacuum. That Hank has rediscovered his moral center would have proven an interesting but largely uneventful footnote to the drama if he had not use his new-found virtue to dethrone Heisenberg. That is precisely what he did, and there is no going back, as we will see.
Just prior to the beginning of the second half of Season Five, Bryan Cranston narrated one of the most powerful television trailers I’ve ever heard, using the words of a poem long familiar to my ears. The poem is a simple sonnet, “Ozymandias,” written by Percy Bysshe Shelley in 1818:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.'
Unlike heroic and virtuous Achilles and Hank Schrader, the powerful and the proud do not live forever. The greatest of vain and greedy men become dust and vapor, lost even to distant memory.
Vincent Price recorded his interpretation of the poem 40 years ago. For those unfamiliar with his work, Price’s vocal intonations and facial expressions brought terror to even the most lifeless scripts. There is no such thing as a boring Vincent Price movie.
This is part of the poem as I am used to hearing it, read by Leonard Nimoy. The passage begins at 2:49 into the recording.
I hear Mr. Spock’s steady intonation of Shelley’s words every time I play Civilization IV and gain the Construction advance. It wasn’t until 2008, after I had been playing the game for two years, that I became intrigued enough to look up the full poem. I still remember the feeling of wide-eyed disbelief at the power of the words.
I will have much more to say about “Ozymandias” after next week’s episode, but for now, let’s take a look at the significance of the poem to this evening’s events.
“Do not come,” Walter said. It was his last command as Emperor Heisenberg. He could have instructed Uncle Jack to bring extra firepower, to prepare for battle with the DEA. He called off the Nazis neither as a tactical maneuver nor out of fear of later reprisals. As we learned during the gunfight, Walter stepped down from the throne of his own accord as a way of protecting Hank and his immediate family. He was not taking a temporary leave of absence or an imperial sabbatical. He knew the game was over. There is no more Heisenberg, except as a graffitied taunt on the inner wall of a federally-repossessed drug house.
Regardless of the outcome of the shootout in the desert, we know Walter will survive not as Heisenberg, but as Ozymandias, and we know he suffered the fall of his own choice, rather than becoming the cause of Hank’s death.
I am not sure of the complete significance of Walter’s choice. Probably we can say that at this moment in time, at least, Walter retained some small morsel of humanity. He wished for a connection to other human beings, even if only to his family. His ‘confession’ wrongfully accused Hank, but perhaps he thought of the tactic as nothing more than a warning—part of his counsel to ‘tread lightly’—not understanding that it was the axe that severed forever the familial bond between Skyler and Marie and Hank and himself.
Possibly his remorse will be only temporary, but Walter’s sudden acceptance of his fall from imperial majesty opens up new roads toward understanding the ricin vial and the M60 machine gun, and sheds new light on the significance of Mr. Lambert at Denny’s.
Of Bullets and Bacon
The face we saw in the two flashforward scenes was not the commanding countenance of a conquering emperor. This was a man long defeated. The implication, in light of Walter’s voluntary surrender, is that many of the events in the 140 minutes remaining to the series will catalog moments of increasing levels of pathos, made poignant by our understanding that even in this wretched soul, probably beyond redemption, is a kernel of human empathy and willingness to sacrifice for his family.
The showdown in the desert also gives strong support to the so-called ‘Bacon Death Theory’ that has gained currency since our first look at Walter’s breakfast at Denny’s last year and the celebration of Walter’s 51st birthday a few weeks later.
“Hey, Mom, you forgot something,” Junior said 13 minutes into Episode 5.04 (“Fifty-one”). “Dad’s bacon.”
“No, that’s okay,” Walter said. “I can do it.”
“No, Mom has to,” Junior insisted.
“Well, it is sort of a tradition,” Walter said, shrugging, as if surrendering to the inevitability of it all.
Skyler would have to form Walter’s bacon into a perfect 51 because there was no alternative. So that’s what she did, even though she detested the assignment.
No, Mom has to. The implication is that if Mom doesn’t do it, there must be an extraordinary set of conditions preventing her execution of the task. Skyler was not at Denny’s a year later. There might have been any number of mundane reasons for her absence, but with Junior’s pronouncement in 5.04, we knew something important about the sad flashforward scene at Denny’s.
When Walter decided to call himself ‘Mr. Lambert’ (Skyler’s maiden name) and used his own hands to tear the bacon into a 52 we knew he did so because Skyler could not be there. If there were any possibility that Skyler could be present, even days later, Walter would have waited for her to form the bacon.
The most obvious conclusion, even last year, was that Skyler had died sometime before the flashforward scene at Denny’s. Based on the events of tonight’s episode, Skyler’s death seems all the more likely. It’s hard to envision a simple divorce or separation rising to the level of pathos required for the final scenes of the series. A corollary to the theory of Skyler’s demise is death or severe injury to Junior. This is based on a symbolic interpretation of Skyler’s removal of bacon from Junior’s plate to form the ‘1’ of ‘51’ on Walter’s plate. Walter was made whole at Junior’s expense according to this theory. Since Walter could be made whole only by avoiding death, the implication was that Junior died in his stead.
I am not convinced of the ‘Bacon Death Theory’, or its corollary. Obviously another possibility is that Skyler will not surrender her Mrs. Heisenberg identity even after Walter’s disappearance. In such a scenario the ricin may represent a kind of ‘Sophie’s Choice’, in which Walter must kill Skyler in order to protect his children. Enterprising theorists can think up dozens of plausible scenarios that do not include Skyler’s demise. But tonight’s episode does seem to favor Skyler’s death as a likely outcome.
Regardless of Skyler’s destiny, the defeated man we saw in the desert and at Denny’s stands in striking contrast to the determined man purchasing a machine gun and returning to Albuquerque to recover a vial of deadly poison. If he truly is defeated, why does he show any interest in these two deadly weapons?
Prior to tonight’s episode we might have opined that the ricin would be used to poison one of Heisenberg’s enemies—or become the instrument of Heisenberg’s suicide. But Heisenberg is defeated and gone—at least for the moment. Walter’s keen interest in saving Hank, even at risk of everything he sought to gain, indicates another possibility: The machine gun, and possibly the ricin, will be used to protect Walter’s family. This might have been counted a distant possibility last week. The family protection scenario is stronger this week. For instance, we might imagine Walter using the machine gun to protect Hank or Marie from Uncle Jack’s goons.
Walter’s posture during the surrender scene is provocative and fascinating, with undertones obvious to anyone who attends liturgical churches on a regular basis.
The decision to put Walter in a traditional priestly posture may have been written into the script or it may have been a little ‘extra’ thrown in by the director, Michelle MacLaren. I know practically nothing about her, but I do know, from several interviews, that Vince Gilligan grew up as a practicing Roman Catholic and has since become agnostic in his beliefs. If Gilligan added posture instructions to the scene, the undertone could not have been accidental.
Another explanation is that Gilligan was drawing not from liturgical rubric but from the way the Roman Catholic Mass was ritualized by parishioners of the time. The arms-outstretched posture was often adopted by Roman Catholic parishioners during recitation of the Lord’s Prayer in the late 1970s and 1980s, when Vince Gilligan would have been attending Mass. The posture is still used today, though the practice has fallen out of favor since the liturgical reforms of the last twelve years. The stance indicates not only openness to the Deity, but communicates the idea of humble submission, penitence, and contrition.
I believe it’s that very personal experience of the Mass that the writers or the director chose to inject into this scene. I believe the intention was to convey the idea that Walter was coming forward as his true self, not as Heisenberg, not as High School teacher Mr. Walter White, but simply as Walter, the now defeated man. What we saw in this scene, I believe, was the authentic Walter White, stripped of every grain of artifice or falsehood.
I don’t think he’s consciously seeking forgiveness. Not yet. I don’t think the concept has entered his mind. But perhaps in outstretched arms, in hands subtly turned, in fingers reaching out as if in hopes of grasping something precious, some suppressed aspect of Walter’s inner self—perhaps the part of him that insisted on Hank’s safety above Walter’s personal gain—is yearning to find expression in Walter’s thoughts, in his words, in what he could do, in what he might now refuse or fail to do. Maybe the posture represents a kind of subliminal, pre-penitential Confiteor, as it were.
I believe we are to understand through Walter’s outstretched arms that he carries within himself the potential to beg forgiveness. Whether any such forgiveness is possible in the Breaking Bad Universe is another matter entirely. My own thinking is that Heisenberg’s fall to desert sand and wind is inevitable, that the karma-driven world of Breaking Bad offers no quarter to the likes of Walter White, and that his miserable descent to become the Ozymandias who once was is as certain as the coming end of the series.