Breaking Bad is a show about chemistry, but the second half of its final season has been a lesson in physics: Objects in motion tend to remain in motion. When we left Walter White in last year's midseason finale, he had promised Skyler that he had given up on his empire business for good. He took his tens of millions, gave Lydia the drug-dealer equivalent of two weeks' notice, and consigned himself to spending the rest of his life as a car wash owner dying of cancer.
For all the precision of his scheming, Walt's greatest error might have been failing to recognize that "Heisenberg" wasn't just a person anymore. It had become a brand — a kind of shorthand for blue, chemically pure methamphetamine that was considered a top-shelf product both domestically and abroad. If Walt dies in next week's series finale — and I'd stake money that's where Breaking Bad is going — it's hard to believe that his now-legendary product will die, no matter how many of Jack's Nazis Walt manages to take down with him. When there's gold in the streets, there's always going to be someone new to scoop it up.
But before Walt straps on his black hat and rides back into town, he has his terrible exile in the wilderness — and that's where tonight's "Granite State" comes in, offering a substantial appetizer before next week's main course. While last week's "Ozymandias" was focused on Walter's last terrible, desperate moments in Albuquerque, tonight's "Granite State" was focused on the pathetic, empty shell of a man who escaped to a tiny cabin in New Hampshire, more than 2,000 miles away from the meth empire he created.
As always, Breaking Bad's writers have been clever with their episode titles; "Granite State" is the nickname of New Hampshire, but it's also an accurate summary for Walt's state of mind at this very late point in the series. Granite is cold, common, and impenetrable — the antithesis of Walt's delicately calibrated methamphetamine — and it's in New Hampshire that we see Walt lose his last vestige of humanity and turn into the granite-hard man we met in the flash-forward that opened the fifth season. (I guess that would probably happen to anyone subjected to so many consecutive screenings of Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium.)
From the very beginning of the series all the way back in 2008, this has been the obvious and inevitable tragic arc of Breaking Bad: Walter, in his desperate attempt to save his family, would end up destroying it. But that Drama 101 idea, which sounds so banal on the page, has been absolutely devastating to watch over the past two episodes of the series. The months that pass while Walt sits alone in the cabin — having simultaneously abandoned and been abandoned by everyone he loves — turn him into a man who's willing to spend $10,000 of his beloved stash to convince a man he doesn't even trust to spend one more hour with him.
Walt's exile in "Granite State" reminded me of my all-time favorite Breaking Bad moment: The scene in which Walt realizes that he should already be dead. "I missed it. There was some perfect moment that passed me right by," says Walt in season three's "Fly." "I'm saying that I lived too long. You want them to actually miss you. […] If I had just lived right up to that moment, and not one second more, that would have been perfect."
Since that moment, it's become increasingly clear that the other characters agree with him. In last year's "Fifty-One," Skyler told Walt she was waiting for his cancer to come back. This year, both Marie and Walter Jr. have suggested that Walt should already be dead. Hank probably would have agreed, if he hadn't been so dead-set on making sure that Walt stood trial before he was in the ground. I'm no fan of Walter White, but it's hard not to feel for him in "Granite State," when he unsuccessfully begs Walter Jr. to take just a little of his money so that all of his terrible deeds won't have been in vain.
But despite his absence, both the trial of Skyler White and the booming meth business in New Mexico have kept chugging right along. In some ways, Walt's two meth-lab protégés, who have picked up his considerable slack, represent both sides of Walt's story. Jesse is Walt, a man willing to do anything in order to protect the people he loves; Todd is Heisenberg, whose greed and ruthlessness are utterly insatiable in the face of his own lust for power.
But Walter White is far too complex a character to be broken down into a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde dichotomy. When Walt tries to slip back into Heisenberg mode with Saul — repeating a line that proved very effective the first time — he descends into a coughing fit, leaving Saul to mutter, "It's over," and leave for the spinoff-friendly pastures of Nebraska. As we see when Walt reaches New Hampshire, putting on his Heisenberg hat isn't enough to transform Walt into the dangerous mastermind whose exploits have since become national news. It's not even enough to inspire him to leave the safety of his isolated cabin.
Even as Walt deteriorates, he remains the catalyst for everything that's happened in Breaking Bad — and even in his absence, he looms over the lives of everyone he left behind. Take Skyler. Todd breaks into the White residence to warn her not to talk about Lydia to the cops — which indirectly provides Skyler with information that gives her exactly the kind of leverage she would need to cut a better deal with the D.E.A., including the possibility of witness protection. But Walt's failure to keep Skyler in the loop has taken its toll: Without the knowledge that Lydia is, for all we know, the top of the meth food chain, Skyler takes Todd's warning at face value and stays silent anyway.
So before the tragedy of Walt's situation leads to sympathy, let's remember how narrow his definition of "doing everything for his family" really is. If protecting his family was really his sole objective, Walt would have taken Saul's advice: Turning himself and all his drug money in, which would clear Skyler's name and give her the chance to save their house.
The first trigger we see is Walt's disastrous conversation with Walter Jr., which leads Walt to turn himself in. But it's the second trigger that really matters — the trigger that leads him to abandon the bar and mount his presumptive return to New Mexico. When Elliott and Gretchen Schwartz conduct an interview with Charlie Rose, revealing that Walt had virtually nothing to do with the growth of the company he helped to found, he bristles enough to change his mind about turning himself in — even though everything they're saying is basically true. "Whatever he became, the sweet, kind, brilliant man that we knew once ago, he's gone," says Gretchen.
As soon as Walt hears it, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Riding back into Albuquerque with an M60 machine gun isn't the act of a hero; it's the act of a pathetic egomaniac who wants to go out with a bang. It's not about Walt's family or the money anymore; it's about not dying alone and forgotten in a tiny New Hampshire cabin. As Breaking Bad's final episode approaches, it's clear that Walt has opted for a last blaze of glory, regardless of the consequences for anyone else. The only question left: Will the show give it to him?
Read more Breaking Bad recaps:
THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER
- 7 grammar rules you really should pay attention to
- Why you should stop believing in evolution
- Your literary playlist: A guide to the music of Haruki Murakami
- The secret to handling pressure like astronauts, Navy SEALs, and samurai
- After Ferguson, we don't need another dialogue on race
- Russia's new air force is a mystery
- How I became a borderline hoarder
- The government is getting into the fact-checking business. Be very, very afraid.
Subscribe to the Week