He knew where to find Jesse. After all, he’d worked side-by-side with the young man for over a year. Who knew the mind of Jesse Pinkman better than Walter White? Not only did it turn out that Walter’s assumption was correct, but his faith in the boy’s goodness was confirmed. He had wanted to burn the house down. “That was—probably, for a brief moment—his intention,” Walter told Skyler, “but he changed his mind.” Jesse couldn’t do it. Everything would work out to Walter’s liking because he knew Jesse, he understood all the variables, his assumptions were valid and correct, and his personal agenda was nothing less than the embodiment of pure reason.
By the end of the episode, Jesse understood Heisenberg’s true motivation. After all, he’d worked side-by-side with the old man for over a year. Who knew the mind of Walter White better than Jesse Pinkman? Not only was Jesse’s assumption correct, but his disgust over the man’s evil nature was confirmed. The goon standing 30 feet from Heisenberg on the plaza, hands in pockets, surely held a gun, cocked and ready. “If I go to this plaza,” Jesse told Hank, “I’m a dead man.”
That Jesse’s greatest desire, even with a gun pointed at his heart, was to burn Walter White’s house to the ground, could never have entered Walter’s mind. That Walter’s fatherly sentiments were heartfelt could not have found purchase in Jesse’s thoughts. Virtually every scene of Episode 5.12 was informed by incorrect assumptions and misguided agendas. If not for the rabid dogs inside Hank and Marie, Skyler and Jesse, Heisenberg might have been brought down by the end of the episode. But fears and schemes—the wolves of their desiring—gave the victory, once again, to the king of pure reason.
“He can’t keep getting away with this!”
Jesse did not address his outcry to Hank. He turned face and eyes and fisted hands up, not to the ceiling, but toward the heavens. His was not the cry of a helpless man, but an appeal of last resort, a plea for justice. He was addressing Powers he felt capable of hearing his cry and bringing order and justice to a chaotic and evil world. This action, and its significance, is pivotal to an understanding of the entire episode.
Jesse’s appeal to Heaven is the end-of-series bookend response to Hank’s mid-series invocation of “the Universe” (Episode 3.07, “One Minute”). There are important peculiarities in the makeup of both entreaties. Probably chief among these attributes is the fact that Jesse’s expectation of being heard has no precedent in Breaking Bad, and in fact his outcry is in one sense fundamentally opposed to Hank’s words about the Universe in Episode 3.07. The fact that weighs most heavily, though, at least for the purposes of this episode, is that Jesse is the only major character attempting to bring his life and Walter’s into conformity with his understanding of objective good. He is the only character whose actions—and in this scene his prayers—are in accord with some principle of life beyond selfish desire.
"I feel some sort of need for biblical atonement, or justice, or something. I like to believe there is some comeuppance, that karma kicks in at some point, even if it takes years or decades to happen." (Vince Gilligan quoted in the New York Times, July, 2011) It seems to me that Gilligan is building two pathways toward the triumph of Karma and that the more direct route, via something like Jesse’s cry, is so far the less likely of the two routes to succeed. The trajectory more likely to find satisfying conclusion, at least on the basis of what we have so far seen, is some kind of jagged or nonlinear process that uses objectively evil agents to achieve an objective good.
This is why, for instance, I look on Uncle Jack as being more of a future agent than an example of evil. Walter White is Breaking Bad’s center point, and Uncle Jack has significance only to the extent that he interacts in some unique and meaningful way with Walter. My suspicions are only bolstered by the close alignment of Todd with his uncle, Todd’s guardianship over our friend Anton the Spider (Chekhov’s Spider), and Lydia’s close business ties to both Todd and Uncle Jack. Some readers will have doubts at this point. That’s good! I’m just thinking out loud here, with only conjecture backing my outrageous ideas, so anyone is allowed to propose a counter-argument. Many will point to Walter’s call to Todd at the end of the episode. Hasn’t Todd always done as Walter bids?
We shall see. I believe Todd is smart enough to know that Uncle Jack holds more cards than Walter White. Jack is Walter’s muscle, after all. I believe the fact that Walter has pointedly dismissed Lydia’s requests will not endear him to her. She’s unlikely to expend energy on any of his projects. With Walter’s dismissal magnified by Skyler’s demand that she never return, it seems to me more likely that Lydia will attempt to twist Walter’s call to action into a move that will further her own agenda to Walter’s detriment. Uncle Jack is actively working toward placement as the Southwest’s chief drug lord, exploiting Todd’s minimal talent and Lydia’s prodigious distribution network. That the two of them would work together to prevent Heisenberg from reasserting himself seems only natural.
In the end this is only guesswork and not a necessary outcome of the Karma-leaning nature of the Breaking Bad Universe. But there are solid reasons to believe in the nonlinear route toward Walter’s demise, and this evening’s episode was chock full of them.
Because I Say So
The scene above depicts the classic Heisenberg ‘I’m In Charge’ forward deployment of pawns with the master taking the powerful, controlling position in the back seat, orchestrating every move his minions will make. It was the most significant scene in the episode, the title of which was drawn from Saul’s position that Jesse, ‘the best, most loyal dog there ever was’, had become a ‘rabid dog’ and had to be put down, as ‘Timmie’ (actually Travis) did to the dog in “Old Yeller.” But the assumptions and self-defeating action plans discussed in the scene pointed not to Walter’s invincibility, but to his blindness and weakness.
In previous iterations of the automobile triangle we’ve seen Walter use his mastery of the smallest technical detail to assert the inevitable triumph of his intellect and will. Near the end of Episode 5.01, Jesse, Mike, and Walter escaped after having magnetized the Albuquerque PD’s evidence room.
Mike: You left the truck behind.
Walter: So what.
Mike: So what? So what if they find prints? What if they trace it back to the wrecking yard?
Walter: They won’t. There’s no prints; I made sure of that. There’s no paperwork on the truck, the magnet, or the batteries. Untraceable salvage, all of it.
Mike: You got all the answers. So you tell me, Answer Man, did all that [demagnetizing Gus Fring’s computer] even work just now?
Walter: Yes, it worked.
Mike: I’m supposed to take that on faith? Yeah? Why? How do we know?
Walter’s response constituted his claim on Gus Fring’s throne. He didn’t explain to Mike the several logical premises supporting his knowledge that the magnet worked. He didn’t defer to scientific principle or the particulars of the event. But the words he chose provided more than a simple rationale:
“Because I say so,” Walter said.
The deeper significance of Walter’s response was that his understanding was so in tune with the physical and scientific rhythms of the universe that his will became the supreme expression of truth. “Trust in me,” Walter’s words said, “because there is no higher standard of intellectual brilliance.”
If life were nothing more than easily-understood reactions reduced to equations on a chalkboard, Walter’s imperial dreams might have enjoyed a solid grounding in reality. But life is not a sequence of reactions, and human beings are not logic-driven automatons.
“Jesse is upset about the boy [Brock],” Walter said. “I just need to explain to him why that [the poisoning] had to happen.”
In Walter’s just-so, logic-only world, Jesse would understand that poisoning or even killing a child could be a necessary and good thing if it served the ultimate goal of becoming Emperor. Saul tried to set him straight.
“Just for the sake of argument,” Saul said, “if the kid’s not in the mood for a nuanced discussion of the virtues of child poisoning…then what?” Saul understood that even men of his ilk are still men, they have feelings about human life. One of those universal sentiments is that poisoning children to advance a personal agenda is simply not permissible.
Although Saul did not share in Walter’s inhumanity, he did continue to harbor the illusion that the twisted drug lord could be made to understand aspects of reality outside his own greed. We might attribute Saul’s attempts at rational discussion to a kind of wishful thinking, but in light of Walter’s belief that Jesse would accept the wisdom or ‘virtue’ of poisoning a child, Saul should have known the cause was hopeless. Anyone else, I have to believe, would have found a way to move as far away from Walter White as possible. “You are trouble,” Mike said to Walter in Episode 5.02. “You are a time bomb, and I have no intention of being around for the boom.” That boom is coming soon, and Saul has positioned himself far too close to the unstable center.
Walter has been cherry picking assumptions about Jesse’s humanity. By this point in the episode he had expressed the belief that Jesse decided not to burn down Walter’s house and that he would see the logic and value in poisoning the young boy, Brock, who was his own surrogate son. Walter was wrong on both counts, but his gross misappraisal of Jesse’s feelings was only one example of a series of fatal miscalculations and assumptions wagered by every major character throughout the episode.
Thank God, It’s the Police
I suppose there’s a bit of a leap between Chevy Chase’s ironic statement in “Fletch,” a so-so 1980s comedy (although Rotten Tomatoes gives the flick a rating of 75%), and one of the last episodes of a darker-than-dark dramatic series about a good man become the Devil incarnate. Some of the less important plot points are common to “Fletch” and Breaking Bad: murders, drug use, a criminal conspiracy, an apparently upstanding citizen who trades morality for personal gain. But it’s the way “Fletch” plays with our tendency to assume the honor and integrity of police officers that triggered the connection in my mind.
An expectation of single-minded devotion to romanticized ideals of honor, duty, and integrity is not a reasonable viewer demand for any character in a realistic crime drama. The ambiguous protagonist or the anti-hero is not a new concept in films of this type. “To Live and Die in L.A.” (1985) went so far as to propose in its law enforcement protagonist, Secret Service Agent Richard Chance, a comfort with criminality and immorality every bit as encompassing as that of the counterfeiter he pursued.
Hank doesn’t need to conform to my morality or my understanding of the ideal police officer, but I believe, if he’s going to bring down Heisenberg, he will have to conform to the expectations of the karma-driven Breaking Bad Universe.
Jesse: What if it’s about killing me?
Hank: Nothing’s gonna happen to you.
[Jesse leaves to use the bathroom]
Gomez: What if the kid’s right? What if it’s a trap?
Hank: The kid? Oh, you mean the junkie-murderer that’s dribbling all over my guest bathroom floor? I hope that he’s right. Pinkman gets killed. We get it all on tape.”
I don’t think Hank’s lack of concern for Jesse’s life has necessarily steered him out of alignment with the Universe. I think the critical factor is Hank’s lack of humility, an attribute the Breaking Bad Universe seems to crave.
We’re Better Than That
It was Hank who framed our understanding of the moral center of Breaking Bad in his confession to Marie in Episode 3.07 (“One Minute”).
Marie: A low-life degenerate [Jesse] versus you—doing the job you’re supposed to. Why should you be the one who pays…for doing the right thing?
Hank: No, Baby, it [beating Jesse] wasn’t the right thing. That’s not what the job is. I’m supposed to be better than that…What I did to Pinkman, that’s not who I’m supposed to be, that’s not me…All this, everything that’s happened: I swear to God, Marie, I think the universe is trying to tell me something.
Two seasons ago Hank believed the Universe rejected vigilante justice. Even though Jesse was guilty of great crimes, the Universe did not want Hank to use his physical strength or his position of authority to settle personal scores. Within the ethical framework of the Breaking Bad Universe, Hank’s beating of Jesse was beyond the pale, even if an omniscient human judge (aware of Jesse’s crimes) would have granted the legitimacy of the beating.
The characters in Breaking Bad don’t answer to the DEA or even to an omniscient human arbiter. They answer to the Universe. They come into conformity with the will of the Universe through humility and listening, so that when ‘the universe is trying to tell’ them something, they will hear, understand, and act accordingly.
Hank hasn’t been listening, not for many episodes now. With Marie, he believed Walter “screwed us, and he won.” His intention was not to listen and obey the edicts of the Universe. Rather, his single ambition was to settle the score, to win, to get away with something, to take what was not rightfully his (in the Universe’s eyes), as he demonstrated by dressing in a Marie SchraderTM kleptomaniac purple shirt during Jesse’s confession.
“The Wolf Attacks Old Yeller”
Carl Burger, 1956
Fred Gipson’s children’s novel "Old Yeller" provided the rich source material for Saul Goodman’s metaphor-laced suggestion that Walter kill Jesse. Saul seemed to imply Jesse ‘got rabies’ spontaneously or perhaps by his own choice. The dog in the novel, of course, did not choose to get rabies. Old Yeller succumbed to ‘hydrophobia’ (as the disease was called in the novel) by fighting off a rabid wolf.
Disney’s release of a film version of the story only a year after the novel’s publication, as well as the dark tale’s broad acceptance as a ‘children’s story’, make for fascinating cultural studies of the post-war period. My parents were typical of adults at the time who understood "Old Yeller" as appropriate and instructive for children of all ages. I have to believe most present-day parents, on learning of the heroic dog’s descent into the horrors of a rabies-induced snarling frenzy, and the need to end the dog’s suffering with a musket ball between the eyes, would do everything in their power to protect young children from such a violent and trauma-inducing tale.
"Old Yeller" can be understood as a simple coming-of-age story, in which young Travis Coates, at 14 barely old enough to hold the long-barreled musket, must act as his family’s protector while his father is gone on a cattle drive. But the story is full of symbolism that was no doubt particularly attractive to the ‘Greatest Generation’ after its conquest of both the Great Depression and fascism. My parents and their peers witnessed first-hand some of the worst depravities history had ever known. That the wicked chaos of the world might be symbolically represented by a rabid wolf was an idea they would have accepted without a second thought. Wild, rabid wolves (uncivilized ideologies) could infect domesticated dogs (civilized Europeans and Japanese). Old Yeller was the stand-in for the human-faced enemy at whom my father and his brothers had to aim long-barreled rifles—and then pull the trigger. War was a nasty business, but fascism, Japanese imperialism, and the Great Depression proved that building a strong civilization was a matter of constructing protections against the chaos—against the rabies of wild wolves.
The worldview of "Old Yeller" is founded on a simple duality: The wild, chaotic world of the rabid wolf, and the orderly, domesticated world of Old Yeller and Travis Coates. That Saul Goodman was entrusted with the "Old Yeller" metaphor was not accidental. He is Breaking Bad’s Bozo the Clown, and "Old Yeller," the enduring and celebrated old chestnut, is not merely overly simplistic in its outlook, it is, according to the metaphysics of Breaking Bad, just plain wrong. There are not two worlds, one wild and bad and the other orderly and good. The Universe has allotted us but a single world, and in that sometimes hostile place we will find the full range of good and evil. In fact, we will find the darkest evil in our own hearts. All of us can become rabid wolves.
The Wolf Man, 1941
Even a man who is pure of heart,
And says his prayers by night,
May become a wolf when the wolfbane blooms,
And the autumn moon is bright.
The old gypsy’s poem did not provide much comfort to Larry Talbot, who had recently been bitten by a wolf. But when the old woman told him the animal was no ordinary wolf but a werewolf, and in fact her own son, Talbot was gripped in terror. No matter what he did, regardless of any precautions he might take, the next full moon would cause his transformation into a wild, frenzied, murderous beast.
The wolf carries special meaning to me as a storyteller. I based my most recent novel, Deneb, on three symbolic wolves: the Wolf of Anguish, the Wolf of Truth, and the Wolf of Fear, representing respectively the human past, present day life, and the future, as I explained in my essay on Episode 5.09. In the context of Saul’s "Old Yeller" metaphor, I believe it’s essential to point out that Travis’ beloved pet is nothing more than a domesticated wolf.
Dogs have been ‘man’s best friend’, geneticists tell us, for just over 100,000 years. Our long friendship began when we were yet cavemen and the wolf was not only our craftiest competitor, but our most feared enemy. We hunted the same animals, and in pretty much the same way. They were wolves with fangs; we were wolves with spears. Somehow, a remarkable alliance was formed. The wolf began hunting with us, guarded our caves, and became our constant and most loyal companion. But underneath those dozens of millennia of comfort and companionship, the dog remains a wolf with fangs. In fact, dogs and wolves belong to the same species: Canis lupus.
I believe Breaking Bad, in the person of beloved high school chemistry teacher Walter White, is telling us that underneath millennial accretions of culture and sophistication, human beings remain nothing more than wolves with spears. Our great intellects were formed in response to the hunt, the struggle, and the kill. To this day, the greatest human advances are forged in the grim crucible of war.
When Saul said that Jesse was a ‘rabid dog’, he did not indicate the source of Jesse’s distemper, but the analogy clearly begins with Walter’s attack on the young man; Jesse’s frenzied state was the direct result of being bitten by the rabid wolf, Walter White. But Hank’s earlier revelation of the Universe prevents us from seeing Walter’s descent into depravity, or any Breaking Bad character’s imperfections, as stemming from a ‘struggle between good and evil’. The characters are not torn between allegiance to either of two worlds, they are torn between the mutually-indwelling identities of wild wolf and domesticated dog. We saw two lovable dogs tonight: Jesse Pinkman and Walter White, Jr. All of the other characters chose to pursue their identities as spear-carrying wolves. Perhaps the most frightening of tonight’s wolves was Skyler White.
"This season, Skyler’s wardrobe shifted to shades of cream and beige to illustrate the life being drained from her…She now matches Walt’s signature colors, indicating they are on the same team."
Believe it or not, we’ve seen Skyler on one other occasion wearing the red color usually reserved for Jesse Pinkman. Skyler’s color chart, painstakingly assembled by blogger John Larue, shows every major color Skyler has worn during the five seasons of the show.
From “Colorizing Walter White’s Decay”
By John Larue
Red is a stand-out hue for Skyler, who began the series vesting herself in the most esteemed color in the Breaking Bad Universe, blue. She made an important symbolic statement with the color in Episode 5.04, “Fifty-One,” when she walked into and then submerged herself in the backyard pool; her Seasons Four and Five colors were otherwise black, dark brown, or dark gray. I believe her second appearance in red, in the Christmas photograph that Jesse examined, was placed to symbolically emphasize her new identity as Mrs. Heisenberg. That is, this photograph can be taken as the unambiguous statement of Skyler’s full-fledged complicity in Walter’s criminal world.
The hotel room scene, in which Skyler directed Walter to kill Jesse, depicted one of the most dramatic reversals in Walter’s criminal career. Skyler, dressed in off-white, addressed Walter in his tan shirt, a color symbolic of weakness and mediocrity. But in this scene she became Walter’s superior. Walter stood at the foot of the bed—the servant’s position. Skyler was dressed in colors no stronger than his, but she floated in a sea of orange, the power color of Breaking Bad. Recall, for instance, Gus Fring’s almost ritual vesting ceremony, in which he covered himself in orange so he could kill his lieutenant, Victor.
Gus killing Victor, Episode 4.01
Walter, of course, would do everything in his power to avoid killing Jesse. At this point Walter continues to have feelings for his son Walter Junior, as we saw in the poolside scene, but also for his surrogate or adopted son, Jesse. Saul understands Jesse as the ‘faithful dog’, Walt feels he is family, but even the strongest of Walter’s sentiments means nothing to Skyler. As she pointed out, “We’ve come this far, for us; what’s one more?” Jesse is just another potential threat to be neutralized and turned into red glop in a barrel of hydrofluoric acid.
Walter doesn’t understand the concept of choice. He doesn’t understand that Jesse’s death is the inevitable outcome of his meticulous work over the last year. We could easily imagine him shrugging his shoulders, unhappy but resigned to Jesse’s fate. “We must live in the world. The world is thus.” Probably Jesse is the only one smart enough to realize the truth of Cardinal Altamirano’s response in The Mission.
“No, thus have we made the world.”
Walter is truly reaping what he sowed. His wife is a ruthless, heartless killer. His partner is disillusioned, disoriented, without hope. His sister-in-law’s only joy derives of her contemplation of delivery mechanisms for poisons she hopes will inflict maximum suffering and pain before ending his life. Lydia, Uncle Jack, and Todd are probably conspiring to kill him. He has no friends, only enemies, and it is more than likely that the few people he cares about will be injured or killed.
I spend around 20 hours every week thinking on, researching, and writing about Breaking Bad. But I’ve devoted even more time this summer to contemplating the 87 young men of Platoon 1051, Charlie Company, First Battalion, at Fort Pendleton in San Diego—and one young man in particular: my son, now enduring the mind-bending, body-numbing rigors of Marine Corps boot camp.
Honor is a central Marine Corps value, the virtue upon which every other Corps value stands. The karma-possessed world of Breaking Bad depicts a man bereft of even the smallest particle of humanity, whose downward spiral began when he surrendered his own honor and put in its place greed, self-pride, and selfishness; Walter is the antithesis of the ideal Marine.
Vince Gilligan’s justice-based Universe represents the idea that certain values are essential to our identity as human beings. There’s nothing new in that particular aspect of the series creator’s vision, but he couples his insistence on the inevitable triumph of karma with the notion of volition. Recall Walter White’s self-made conceptual prison, expressed by his own lips in Episode 1.05:
"Sometimes I feel like I never actually make any of my own choices. I mean, my entire life…it just seems like I never had a say—about any of it."
Now that we know the details of Walter’s history, his scientific technical brilliance, his founding of Gray Matter—and his choice to walk away from the company—his self-pity is amazing in its erroneous ignorance. As his son would probably tell him now, “Dad, you’re being a pussy.” The important lesson Vince Gilligan drove home in the Episode 1.05 ‘intervention’ scene is that all of us are endowed with choice. We have the ability to lead our lives as unhappy, bitter slaves to our greed and selfishness, or we can choose to honor those around us, summon the courage to do what is right, commit ourselves to the service of others, and if we are called to leadership, to guide and mentor others by ductus exemplo (leadership by example).
I wrote earlier in this essay that the most enduring advances in technology have resulted not from peacetime studies but from the exigencies of war. As grim as battles are, there are Walter Whites throughout society, and all over the world, some of whom choose to assert their desire to control hearts, minds, and lives. War will always be with us because those guided by error and ignorance will always be with us. Because war is the ultimate, least desired, and yet most important and visible aspect of human life, it becomes the place where karma and justice, honor and courage gain their greatest significance. Organizations like the Marine Corps and the Légion Étrangère strive not only for tactical supremacy, but more importantly they insist on adherence to the highest ideals of our shared humanity.
I believe the DEA, represented by Hank Schrader, is supposed to be Breaking Bad’s Marine Corps—the organization that exemplifies the central values of Vince Gilligan’s Universe. It isn’t there yet, and won’t be until Hank puts away the purple shirts and returns to DEA battle dress: the understated orange color that Hank preferred in Season One.
From “Colorizing Walter White’s Decay”
By John Larue
But before he again dons orange, he’ll have to go through an attitude adjustment. The DEA Albuquerque office is not going to function as it should when its leader is bent on executing personal vendettas. Honor, Hank. That’s where courage comes from. Maybe he needs 12 weeks at Camp Pendleton. I’m going to ask General Bullard to send him an invitation letter.
Agendas of Fear and Loathing
He entered the plaza convinced he would be facing something unearthly. Something inhuman. “Look, you two guys are just…guys, okay?” Heisenberg was not ‘just a guy’. He was not subject to the frailties or limits of existence. He enjoyed every advantage over Jesse. “He is smarter than you.” The very shape of the universe, in Jesse’s mind, was warped in Heisenberg’s favor. “He is luckier than you.” That is, the Fates spun their yarn and wove their fabric in such a way that Emperor Heisenberg would prevail. “Mr. White? He’s the Devil.”
If only Jesse had brought honorable intentions. If only he had found courage. The meeting in the plaza could have been the occasion of Walter’s final downfall. Instead, Jesse was hounded by the Wolf of Fear. His agenda was personal vengeance on the man who poisoned the little boy he has adopted as his own son. In this regard, in surrendering himself to fear and vengeance, he was different in neither attitude nor behavior from Hank Schrader, Skyler White, or even Heisenberg himself.
We should not have been surprised that Jesse thought “There’s another way—a better way.” Every one of his thoughts was guided by fear and loathing of the child-poisoning devil. Even though his future, and perhaps his very life, now depends on his unwavering cooperation with the DEA, he wavered, he equivocated, he looked on strangers in the plaza and lost control of his bladder. Ruled by groundless assumptions and baseless fears, he could not but fail.
I have no idea about the sequence of events to begin next Sunday. Vince Gilligan and his crew have created a dark, complicated endgame more fascinating than anything I could have imagined. Anyone who might have led or contributed to Walter’s downfall is so heavily compromised and wracked by fear and personal agenda that Heisenberg’s victory seems assured. The most intriguing aspect of all this is that I know Heisenberg will not win. But how he will fall, now that his most potent adversaries have been neutralized, nullified, or neutered, I cannot even guess.
My money is on Uncle Jack for the crippling blow, but my hopes are with Hank for the knockout punch. I’m going to have that letter to General Bullard overnighted. Expect the formal invitation later this week, Hank.