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Live, Flee, or Die: Thoughts on Breaking Bad 5.15 by Pearson Moore

This episode was messy. After the definitive, mind-blowing statements of “To’hajiilee” and “Ozymandias,” we feel ambivalent about the penultimate episode. Jesse tried to escape the shackles of his underground cell but Nazi thugs caught him. Walter tried to escape the barbed wire of his New Hampshire prison but deep snow turned him back. The entire episode seemed nothing more than a collection of incomplete actions, hollow words, and already-determined destinies. Walter wished to cheat death. We know he’s going to fail. Isn’t this the message of “Granite State” in a nutshell?

Granite is solid: Unmoved, unchanged by the corrosions of time, the currents of history, the courage of saints. Our expectation is that this is the description of Walter White. He was always Heisenberg, doomed to die as the once-great but now forgotten and disgraced Ozymandias.

But if Walter were unchanged and unmoved, there would be no story. Jesse or Uncle Jack or a grieving DEA agent could put a bullet in his head and that would be the end of it.

“Two kings,” the Vacuum Man said. Viewers smarter than I—people who didn’t need to watch the episode twice to figure out that New Identity Man’s words were not a throw-away line—understood that the episode boiled down to Walter’s Choice between two ways to end his life. In fact, we were presented with two flesh-and-blood kings, neither of whom was Heisenberg. His task was to choose between the two.

The genius of Breaking Bad, though, is that Walter’s Choice came down to falsehoods and lies. The Two Kings are grand deceptions. There is a way to cheat death, but it involves a third path, independent of either king. Live, flee, or die. Walter was offered all three choices in this episode. In the end, his face carved in unmoved, angry granite, Walter chose death.

Granite State

New Hampshire is known for its granite quarries, but the state’s nickname, “The Granite State,” I believe is metaphor meant to convey the idea of a state of being or state of mind. I think I have a sense of that mental temperament, even if I sometimes lack the bearing to cultivate it in my own life. But it’s the no-nonsense atmosphere that I’ve long known in my travels and studies that served as inspiration for two of my novels and led me to make my home in the Northeast after nearly a lifetime in the Midwest. I sit here at my work desk in my home in Upstate New York sipping down-to-earth Tim Hortons not whoopty-do Starbucks or Lydia’s hoity-toity soy and stevia latté. (I know she drinks tea, not coffee, but you’re supposed to go with the flow here. I got the soy and stevia right, eh? Besides, we don’t drink tea in the Northeast. Not since that tea party in 1773, anyway.)

“Granite State” in the episode title refers to the hard, unyielding reality of the Breaking Bad universe. Our desire and expectation as viewers is that Jesse has suffered enough. He engineered a daring escape. By the skin of his teeth, maybe with a bullet to the arm or shoulder, he will scale that fence and escape. Well, it’s a pleasant dream, a nice tale for youngsters as we tuck them into bed. But that’s not Breaking Bad. Never has been.

Both Jesse and Walter faced apparently insurmountable obstacles—granite walls—forcing them to inhabit dark and narrow physical and psychological states as broken prisoners. Walter’s 500 square-foot cabin in the snow is not much different from Jesse’s 300 square-foot prison cell in the desert. This is the Ozymandias fate, plotted out with heart-wrenching inevitability for both men.

But the obstacles are not much more than illusion. Breaking Bad is about karma. One way or another, both Jesse and Walter are going to move beyond illusion to face the full reality of Breaking Bad.

Jesse faced a steel fence made insurmountable in his mind. He could have scaled the fence. He could have done so without alerting Uncle Jack and his Aryan thugs. By the end of the series he will have done so, in one way or another. His name is Pinkman, after all, not White. Pink has a very specific meaning in Breaking Bad, and that meaning includes reference to innocence. I do not claim to know whether he will live or physically die, but he will irreversibly change his situation one way or another. I believe the story mechanics virtually require that he take the Third Path I indicated at the beginning of this essay. In a grand epiphany sometime in the final episode, Jesse will find a way to move beyond the angry red temperament of youth. He will not only become a man, but he will do so by walking the Third Path, which is life. In fact, I believe, like Achilles, he will find a way to live forever. That is, he may have to suffer physical death before the end of the series, but he will either choose that death or he will suffer death only after making the choice to become a man. One imagines him sacrificing himself to save Brock, for instance. Or pulling the trigger that puts a bullet in Walter’s skull.

Breaking Bad is tragedy, though, not comedy. This makes Jesse’s ultimate fate uncertain, with physical death a far stronger possibility than a last-minute reprieve. But if I am uncertain about the disposition of Jesse’s character, I no longer have any question about Walter’s fate. I believe “Granite State” was intended to answer that final, lingering question, and it did so in a way I could not have guessed.

Walter escaped the confines of the New Hampshire mountain cabin. We think the Charlie Rose interview with Elliott and Gretchen Schwartz steeled him. We saw his facial expression change from disbelief to anger to stone-faced resolve. It was quite a transformation. But there was a lot more to the Charlie Rose interview than simply an excuse for Walter to seek one last moment of revenge against those he understands to have forced him into his predicament. There’s more to it than Gretchen’s attempt to destroy his name. I believe the deeper significance of the interview is to be found in Walter’s initial reason for walking eight miles into town.

Immovable Object and Inexorable Force

“I understand I am in terrible trouble. I understand you will use everything in your power against me and my children unless…unless I give you Walt.”

If you’re new to my essays you’re wondering why I paired an image of Todd’s goons muzzling Skyler with a quote from the DEA’s interrogation of her earlier in the episode. “Pearson mixed up the images.” [Shaking your head] “He had a day to write the bloody essay. Couldn’t he at least put the screencaps in the right order?”

The juxtaposition is intentional, of course. Todd wanted her to recite virtually the same words she used at the meeting with the DEA, the only change being that Todd would use “everything in his power against me and my children unless” she agreed never to say anything about Lydia. A small condition changed. The tactics didn’t change all that much. In fact, of the two meetings, the Nazis showed greater civility than the Feds. The Nazis won’t take her children if she obeys their rules. You can bet your life, though, that the Feds will take her children, even if she cooperates. Even if she delivers Walt, the Feds will confiscate her house, her bank accounts, and everything she owns. That’s the way the rules are written in the War on Drugs, and there’s nothing Skyler can do to oppose the immovable monolith of federal law.

I believe the two Skyler scenes were intended to demonstrate a property of the Breaking Bad Universe.

“You’ve seen some people. The lady who came into the car wash. The one with the black hair…you said anything about her? ...The police don’t need to know anything about her.”

One immovable monolith wants her to talk, the other wants her to keep her mouth shut. Both monoliths wear black suits. Both monoliths use approximately the same techniques, obey virtually the same rules.

At first glance it seems preposterous that the writers would equate neo-Nazis and drug enforcement agents. But there’s no mistake. Neither is this some bizarre coincidence. It’s the way the Breaking Bad Universe is set up. Men dressed in black can erect all the objects and laws and guns and ideologies they believe to be immovable, but in the end these grand monoliths are nothing more than the agents of inexorable force, which in the Breaking Bad world is Karma.

The Nazis and the DEA are pawns used by the unyielding force of the Universe to bring about the inevitable outcome.

There are no heroes, only those who live free, those whose lives flow with the Universe. Hank could not bring down Heisenberg because he was tainted, as all of us are, with imperfections that prevented his effectiveness. I cannot stress enough that Breaking Bad is morality play on a grand scale. No single human being can rise to the level of hero because this morality play is not about heroism but about the inexorable power of the Universe itself. It’s about forces that transcend human abilities and attributes. It’s about Karma, not about justice or heroism or vengeance. The Universe will make things right, but in its own time, using its own agents. Players who wish to be effective in this play will make themselves into agents of the Universe’s power. Effective players will choose the Third Path. Skyler has no concept of this, and neither does Walter. Jesse is probably the only character with the potential to intuit the truth of that Third Path.

Two Kings

So many interpretations could be applied to Vacuum Man’s ‘two kings’. Gus Fring was Monarch of the Southwest from Texas to Arizona. But Walter could not have been considered king until the ‘face-off’ at the end of Season Four. He managed to expand Gus’ territory, making Declan into a subordinate and in that way legitimately acquiring the title of Emperor. Even the Mexican drug cartel lacked the resources to deal with Emperor Heisenberg, whose power reached as far as Eastern Europe.

Walter’s ascension to the imperial throne was a coup d’état. A subordinate replaced the King and became Emperor. They were two kings, but they came into being sequentially, not contemporaneously.

Some have assumed the ‘two kings’ were Jesse and Walter. But we saw Walter’s fall last week in “Ozymandias,” and it’s hard for me to think of Jesse as ‘king’ of anything. The juxtaposition of Todd’s goons and the DEA might indicate that these are the two monarchs, but there are solid reasons for dismissing this notion. First, the subtext of the episode is Walter’s Choice and the two kings would therefore be understood as standing in opposition to each other. As I’ve already indicated, I feel Todd’s henchmen and the DEA were intentionally depicted as brothers in black, unified in tactics and objectives, not in any sense opposed to each other. Second, I understand the DEA and Todd to be comparatively weak agents of a greater force: Vince Gilligan’s karma-infused Universe.

Because of the way the episode ended, I believe we are to understand the ‘two kings’ in a metaphorical sense as monoliths of human thought and behavior represented by two specific and diametrically opposed individuals. One of those kings, I believe, is represented by Uncle Jack Welker.

King Jack

Uncle Jack seized control of the fallen Ozymandias’ money. He controlled the manufacture, distribution, and sale of methamphetamine throughout the Southwestern United States and Eastern Europe. He held a DEA agent’s life in his hands. He directed a neo-Nazi army. At his command innocents lived or died. By the beginning of last week’s episode, at the latest, he was the undisputed meth kingpin of the Southwest.

But why on Earth did he have to be a Nazi?

The thesis of Breaking Bad is that a good man can degenerate into purest evil: Mr. Chips can become Scarface. Since Nazis are the embodiment of pure evil, it is useful to reference them as the standard by which we judge Walter White. Does his brand of evil descend to the depravities of Nazi ideology and practice?

I don’t think the debate around this question is meant to be resolved in a single essay, or even in a single book-length review, such as the one I will offer in Breaking Blue. I think the question is koan meant to engage our faculties of thought for many years to come.

I believe a solid argument could be made that Walter’s actions conformed in every essential facet with the deepest evil to which a person might succumb. The 99.1% pure methamphetamine could be understood symbolically as the representation of a man who was 99.1% evil, that his concern for family and his willingness to sacrifice his entire fortune for Hank’s life was the concrete manifestation of the 0.9% of him that was human and therefore not evil.

“Granite State,” I believe, was Walter’s last chance to make a choice for good rather than evil. The choice had to be stark, and therefore one option was the pure evil of Nazism. The opposing choice was…well, the writers did something with this choice that I never could have come up with. It was one of the most ingenious twists in the conceptual topography of a thematically rich artistic creation, and one of the primary reasons that Breaking Bad will long be considered a masterpiece of cinema. It’s that ingenious twist that we saw play out in the Charlie Rose interview, and it’s the central thought toward which I am trying to drive this essay.

The Third Path

“Stay. Face the music.”

This is the Third Path I have been alluding to throughout the essay. There are only three options: Live, Flee, or Die. Walter chose to flee to New Hampshire, inexplicably deciding to be known by his wife’s maiden surname of Lambert.

To stay—to ‘face the music’, to man-up, to show backbone—is the option for life. It is a rejection of death and a refusal to flee responsibility or fate.

Socrates lives forever because he refused to flee the death sentence imposed by the Assembly of Athens. He faced the music.

Stephen lives forever. We celebrate his feast the day after Christmas. He chose to surrender his life rather than surrender his beliefs.

It’s easy to misunderstand the ideal of martyrdom, to ascribe to the nobility of dying for a cause greater than oneself a kind of ignorance or stupidity, as Monty Python did in “Life of Brian.”

I want to anticipate some of the comments I will receive on this. I know “Life of Brian” was religious parody, the thesis of which was the idea that human beings have an innate tendency to ascribe mystical meaning or value to otherwise unremarkable events. So some ordinary guy named Brian comes to be worshipped as the Messiah. Fine. I’m not making a religious point here, and I don’t believe Vince Gilligan is, either. But I need to discuss martyrdom because it is the perfection of the Third Path. More important to Breaking Bad, I believe Jesse will finally realize he needs to walk that path, while Walter, as we saw in the confrontation with Saul, categorically rejected it.

The essential idea of martyrdom in the context of Breaking Bad is surrender to the flow of the Universe. It is in this sense that Hank is hero and martyr of Breaking Bad. He died wearing DEA orange. His final act was the declaration of his true identity: “My name is ASAC Schrader.” He would not bow down to or plead before King Jack. Hank understood his place in the Universe, and he surrendered himself to it.

So, I’m sorry to say this, Monty Python, but if you wish to always look on the bright side of life, you can do so only if you know your place in life, and knowing your place might indeed mean taking a bullet in the head, as Hank Schrader did. Hank is happier than anyone who flees life can be. He truly looks on the bright side of life—an idea that a comedy troupe possessing superficial understanding of life could never comprehend.

Breaking Bad wants us to reach deep, to grasp the full meaning of surrendering oneself to the dictates of Karma.

The Wages of Synthesis

It was only $100,000—just one percent of the contents of his 55 gallon drum. But it was nearly more than he could carry. The burden might have meant something. Walter’s excuse for murder and deceit and suffering and threats—the lie that he told himself and others—was that he was doing this for his family. He thought of a way to get the money to Skyler and Junior. His desire to help his wife and son was the driving force that allowed him to walk eight miles in deep snow to the ‘one-horse town’ to telephone his son at school.

“You want to send money?”

Walter, tears flowing down his face, expressed gratitude that Junior understood.

The next words out of Junior’s mouth tell us what he must have been thinking as Walter spoke of money:

“You killed Uncle Hank!”

Junior must have known that before he or anyone else could use the money they would have to cleanse it of soaked in, dried, encrusted blood—and that blood belonged to family. But such money can never be made clean.

“You killed Uncle Hank!”

The truth overwhelmed any value the money might have possessed. Walter had been telling himself for two years that his calculations and crimes and constantly living on the edge were worth the goal of providing a final nest egg for his family. He thought the only remaining obstacle to his family’s financial salvation was threat of seizure of resources by the DEA. But now he knew the deeper truth. Even if the DEA welcomed the money, even if they allowed Junior and Skyler to take the money without conditions, Walter’s family would reject it. The money was unclean. The money was evil, and they would have no part of it. Far from having any value, the money in that drum was beyond worthless: It was a 300-pound barrel of putrid, festering filth.

When Junior yelled, “Why don’t you just die already? Just die!” Walter thought the path to death was closed. He’d already tried to flee and that didn’t work. The only choice remaining to him was surrender. The Third Path.

So Walter dialed the Albuquerque DEA, told them he was Walter White, dropped the phone, and went to the bar to enjoy his final drink as a prisoner of the Granite State. And that’s when one of the most amazing sequences in this series occurred.

King Elliott

“Turnovers, turnover, turnovers!” the hockey announcer said. If there’s one thing that unites people on both sides of Lake Ontario—and both sides of the New Hampshire/Québec border—it’s a good game on the ice.

“When you get turnovers created in the offensive zone, chances happen and hopefully won’t happen again.” The announcer wasn’t talking about hockey, of course. The turnovers went from Tuco and the Mexican Cartel (Season One) to Gus Fring (Seasons Two to Four) to Heisenberg (Season Five) and now, finally, to Jack Welker (Season Six or the second half of Season Five, depending on the source you consult). Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers! Indeed.

The most spectacular turnover in our story occurred years ago—decades before Walter’s 50th birthday celebration in the pilot episode of Breaking Bad. Nobody took him away from his Rosebud—he left of his own free will, leaving his girlfriend, Gretchen, and selling his stake in the company he had worked so hard to set up.

Charlie Rose pressed them about Walter White. He was the co-founder of Graymatter, wasn’t he? Not really, Elliott and Gretchen said. He contributed practically nothing at the beginning, and certainly he hadn’t done anything to grow the company.

“So, what was Walter White’s contribution?” Rose asked.

“The company name,” Gretchen said.

Elliott nodded. “The company name. We came up with it by combining our names. Schwartz means black, black plus white makes gray.”

“Hence Graymatter Technologies,” Rose said.

“…his [Walter’s] contribution begins and ends right there.”

“Is Walter White still out there?”

“No, he’s not.” Gretchen’s response was firm.

“You sound very sure.”

“I am. I can’t speak to this Heisenberg thing that people refer to. But whatever he became, the sweet, kind, brilliant man that we once knew, long ago—he’s gone.”

Three important events transpired simultaneously in this amazing interview.

First of all, Gretchen and Elliott minimized Walter to insignificance (“his contribution…ends right there”), even taking away his name (Walter White’s only contribution is that Schwartz + White = Gray; White, as far as Graymatter is concerned, no longer exists because it is lost in and swallowed up by Gray) and finally asserting that he doesn’t even exist (Is Walter White still out there? “No.”).

As a practical matter of storytelling, names often bear great significance. In some ancient cultures a person’s name was thought to carry the person’s full identity. Thus, if the name is taken away, the person has no identity, no worth as a person.

We know from our acquaintance with Walter over the last six years that his name means more to him than anything else in the world. He is far more attached to his name than the normal person. When he wished to demonstrate his power to Declan early in Season Five, he uttered a simple command: “Say my name!”

Second, then, by attempting to remove Walter’s name from the scrolls of history, Gretchen and Elliott were committing the one error Walter White will never forgive. He planned on giving himself up to the DEA. By intentionally leaving the telephone off the hook he was sending the federal agency an engraved invitation to come and arrest him. But as soon as Elliott and Gretchen asserted that Walter had no name, no identity, and therefore no personal or social value, Walter rose from his chair and left the bar, a new sense of purpose energizing every muscle in his body.

The third event bears greatest significance.

It’s obvious that Elliott and Gretchen are lying about Walter’s contribution to the founding of Graymatter. Elliott praised Walter at his birthday party in the latter half of Season One. Throughout these six years we have learned bits and pieces of the story. Walter’s contribution was substantial, including patents, inventions, and seminal work in proton radiography that led to the awarding of a Nobel Prize, presumably to Elliott, not to Walter.

Regardless of Elliott’s level of integrity and honesty prior to the Charlie Rose interview, during the interview we know he lied. This fact is of immediate significance to Walter and his new-found reason to use ricin or an M60 machine gun (or both) to take vengeance on Elliott and Gretchen, but it has greater long-term significance.

Either Elliott and Gretchen are involved in a creative conspiracy with the DEA and the FBI to lure Walter back to Albuquerque (wouldn’t that be interesting!) or the lies on the Charlie Rose Show are integral to the fabric of the Breaking Bad Universe. If there is no conspiracy, the lies remove from Walter’s world the final bastion of decency to which he might have appealed. If Elliott and his philanthropy represent the ‘Good King’ in Walter’s Choice, Walter is left without a choice that could cleanse his soul. Everyone, even the most sympathetic and generous of Breaking Bad’s characters, is so flawed that personal gain outweighs truth, justice, honor, and any other virtue we might try to apply.

The conspiracy idea is interesting, and one of the writers may have pushed hard enough that it became part of the finale. But I doubt it. It’s a cutesy move not in synch with the down-to-earth character of the show. The disconnect between the human world and the Universe has created striking contrast ever since the first episodes. The discontinuity is especially strong if we look at the color symbolism, something I will take on in the pages of Breaking Blue. In light of Breaking Bad’s six-year tradition of lies and deceptions, even among the most innocent characters, King Elliott’s lies about Walter fit perfectly into the scheme.

In a sense Elliott’s lies destroy the final connection Walter had to the world. His wife and son have disowned and disavowed him. His money is useless. He has no friends, only enemies, and the single creative force in his life is the will to extract revenge.

Walter wishes death. He returns to Albuquerque knowing he races toward his sure and sudden demise. Thanks to tonight’s episode, we know he will succeed.

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