The End of an Empire – Understanding the Mid-Season Finale, and the Future of Breaking Bad

Needless to say, there’s spoilers for Breaking Bad in this. I don’t have any inside information, I’m just reflecting back on one episode and what I think it means for the rest of the series. This was a lot of fun for me to write and a very interesting experience, realizing just how comprehensive this show has been. Sorry for its length but I aimed for the most comprehensive analysis I could do.

I’ve been reading articles and listening to podcasts over the past few days discussing the mid-season finale of Breaking Bad and watching people try to comprehend their views on everything, but one view that I haven’t seen a lot of is something that I want to delve deeper into right now. This isn’t film related, but Breaking Bad is easily one of the best shows to grace television and it is hard for film buffs not to appreciate the show and enjoy it. Delivering what will probably be regarded as lead actor Bryan Cranston’s finest performance in anything, ever, and Aaron Paul’s most memorable, the show is a behemoth that conveys more raw emotion and thrills than many films available today. With the fifth season of the show, we have seen Walter White fully realize his place as Heisenberg.

Throughout the first season of Breaking Bad we were introduced to Walter White (Cranston), a man who could have been rich and successful with a company he helped start (Gray Matter Industries) but instead is a high school chemistry teacher and works part-time at a car wash. When Walter turns to the manufacturing of methamphetamine, it’s only for the money so that he can support his family and treat his recently-discovered cancer. Teaming with Jesse Pinkman (Paul), they transition between one head dealer to another, and then finally find the perfect match in Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). Their product is the purest of its kind, and Gus knows this, paying them handsomely for their work. Everything runs smoothly for Walter until he ruins the status quo when trying to help Jesse, and then consequently, when Jesse kills Gale Boetticher (David Costabile) to secure Walter’s future with Fring. Then fearing for his life, Walter kills Gus leaving a mess for Fring’s right-hand man Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) to clean up. It’s not until Episode 7 of Season 5, “Say my Name”, where Walter finally loses it and kills Mike. This results in one of the most boring episodes, yet one of the most important in Breaking Bad, “Glide Over All”.

In Episode 4 of Season 5, “Fifty-One”, we learn that everything from the pilot episode up until that point has taken place over one year. It has been an exciting year for Walter, perhaps not all good, but it has definitely been great. His cancer went into remission, his life has been saved several times now, he has become a legend to those in the crystal meth industry, and he and Skyler (Anna Gunn) introduced a baby girl into the family. To counter that though, he has had to kill people, miss the birth of his daughter, crippled his brother-in-law, and on his birthday he lost his children and perhaps finally transformed fully into the bad guy. When Cranston puts on the Heisenberg role, it no longer feels like he’s acting while acting. Instead, that occurs when he plays Walter White, as can be seen in his conversations between Hank and Marie. But when he’s Heisenberg, which is almost all the time, even at home where he is alone with Skyler, he’s cold and ruthless, a meticulous man who tries to always be three steps ahead.

What happens in the episode “Glide Over All” is we see Heisenberg crumble. We see what Walter White would have been if he continued with Gray Matter Industries. We see the return of Walter White because there is nothing left that is dangerous. Every season of Breaking Bad has had several montages of cooking. Now the cooking isn’t exciting anymore to Walt. He’s at the top of the food chain now, delivering his product overseas, and working with Todd (Jesse Plemons) instead of his long-time partner Jesse. So the montage in Episode 8 no longer has the focus on the actual cooking, but rather the result of the cooking. That montage is then later told to have taken place over three months. Why make this one episode take place over three months when it took 4 whole seasons and 4 episodes into season 5 to finally have been one year?

The answer is simple: it’s routine and boring. Nothing goes wrong anymore because Heisenberg is in control, and when Heisenberg is in play, he never falters. There’s no more cartel feuds because Walter is supplying to a massive cartel at home that he doesn’t have to deal with, and then shipping overseas with no problems thanks to Lydia (Laura Fraser). He doesn’t have to worry about the police catching his scent because Mike and his accomplices have been dealt with. The montage was even boring itself, because we weren’t seeing chemistry or any cool relationship between Walter and Todd. We were seeing a business operate smoothly. Walter is now running Gray Matter Industries in his mind, but there’s a reason he got out of that. Now we see what Walter doesn’t enjoy, and why he has been keeping with the drug trade despite his many chances to get out of it. He hates monotony. With Gus in charge, he had something to complain about, or he feared his life was in peril. With Mike still alive, he was complaining nonstop about the “legacy costs” that Mike was instigating. Walter doesn’t have to kill anybody anymore. He doesn’t have to run anymore. His home is no longer a place where he has to pretend to be someone he’s not. Walter White is bored.

What does this all mean for the future of Breaking Bad? Well, it’s simple; Walt’s out of the drug business now, or at least he will be trying to pull out. Unfortunately, what we’re going to see is that he can’t just walk away the way that he intends to. Instead, we’re going to see the past slowly re-enter his life. The mid-season finale ended in perhaps one of the most ineffective ways with Hank (Dean Norris) finally cluing in that the Walt Whitman book that Gale had at his apartment which was addressed to “W.W” is actually addressed to Walter White. Very ineffective because it just seemed illogical that a cop who we have learned to accept as pretty smart and clever, could not figure that out, and when he does it’s only now. Why now? Why not another time when he used the bathroom? What triggered in his brain that made him think that? It doesn’t matter though, I already established the episode was not that great, but it is definitely important. What does matter is, what will Hank do now? It’s obvious he’s going to start re-evaluating the case and try and connect it all to Walter. At a time when Walter is trying to get out of the business now, which is obviously not going to fully happen, knowing Vince Gilligan and the way the show has handled situations and characters. I had predicted after watching the premiere to Season 5 that the last eight episodes would consist of a game of cat and mouse between Walter and Hank. I still retain this, but it will be a lot slower and will probably never culminate into Hank catching Walter.

Here’s where an earlier plot point from the episode will come back. Skyler reveals that she has piled up tons of money over the past three months, which she has kept in a storage unit. What she doesn’t know though, is how much money is in that pile. Well, leave it to the internet to have estimated that it’s between 17.5 and 43.86 million dollars. What does this mean? Well, first Walter uses some of it to pay back Jesse the money he owed him from the deal he cut with the cartel before killing Mike. That’s 5 million dollars. Now, that leaves quite a bit more money than any one man needs, and definitely more than Walter expected. What will he do with the rest, is unknown. One thing that is obvious is that he’s going to pay Saul Goodman’s (Bob Odenkirk) guy that Walter was going to pay near the end of Season 4 in “Crawl Space” so that he and his family could get entirely new identities and be out of harm’s way. The reason we can assume this is because in the beginning of Season 5, we have that bewildering intro that takes place on Walter’s 52nd birthday where he reveals an ID with a fake name and showing him to be from New Hampshire.

He’s alone here by the looks of things, so I don’t think we’re going to see his family anymore after this, especially since he is celebrating his birthday alone. Once again, that leads to three possible conclusions. Skyler could be worried about the family’s safety still and whether Walt is truly done with the crystal meth business, thus leaving him altogether. Another option is that Walter pays for them to live completely away from him with different identities than his own, having dealt them enough pain. What I’m banking on though is something Vince Gilligan would definitely do, and that’s kill off Walter’s entire family. There are eight episodes left, and we know things will not end well for Walter. What we don’t know is how bad things are going to get. Knowing Gilligan, he’s going to want us to sympathize with Walter again, like we did before he started killing innocent people like Jane (Krysten Ritter). Who would perform the death sentence? Perhaps none other than Jesse. Maybe Hank will find clues that Jesse just never looked for because of his undying trust that Walt was good, showing the connections between the poisoning of Brock, and the death of Jane and Mike. Walter has ruined Jesse’s life, and it would not be any surprise if this all came back somehow and pushed Jesse to ruin Walters in a time when he thought he was out. More likely to happen would be that the drug cartel would kill off Walt’s family. In terms of logic, I can see them sending him a message once they know he’s out of the business, trying to get him back in. But my money is on Jesse, despite how much would have to happen for it to occur, because we would also see Jesse rise to become a monster just like Walter.

Let’s also think how polarizing it would be to see him struggle to kill Gale, someone he barely knows, and ruthlessly murder Walt’s family, one of which is a baby.

There’s one more thing that needs to be cleared up about the introduction of Season 5: what is Walter preparing for? He’s no longer Heisenberg, that’s obvious in his disheveled appearance and worried demeanor. He’s seen meeting up with Lawson (Jim Beaver) to get firearms. Is he back in Albuquerque? I’m assuming so, because he probably only trusts Lawson since he has dealt with him before.  What are the firearms for? Breaking Bad has been making references to Heat and Scarface throughout the fifth season, so it would not be a surprise if Walter’s going out with a bang, more specifically in a shoot-out. The real question is where is he headed and who is his target? I don’t think he’d hurt Hank or risk going against an entire police force. So instead, here’s where another movie reference comes into play: in Ratatouille which was being watched at Hank’s house at one point during the season, the motto for Gusteau is “anyone can cook”. This has been brought up a lot in discussion of the season, and I think the only real explanation is that Todd will take up Walt’s position as head cook for the blue meth. We’ve seen him taking notes on how to do it, and since he has cooked for three months with Walt, and even Victor (Jeremiah Bitsui) does it without even having taken notes in the “Boxcutter” episode, it just makes logical sense to keep the blue meth flowing. Knowing Walter has a pride complex, it is very likely that he is going to take out Todd, ceasing the flow of blue meth production. Why does he need so many guns? Todd will likely be protected by the cartel, so it won’t be an easy task.

The last point I have to make about “Glide Over All” and its contents is about a recurring notion in relation to Walt’s health. The cancer is coming back folks. How do I know this? It’s made very apparent all throughout that this is what’s happening. The episode begins with a fly, in reference to the Rian Johnson (Looper, Brick) directed episode “Fly” from season 3 (he also directed “Fifty-One”). During that episode we were teased with the idea that the cancer could be getting worse, giving us our link between the cancer and the fly. Not only that, but the fly represents a threat of contamination throughout the episode, forcing Walter and Jesse to work together to kill it, otherwise they can’t go on with making the methamphetamine. Cancer can of course be considered a form of contamination. The other hint that the cancer is coming back is that we finally see for the first time in a while that Walter has gone to get a check-up and presumably to check the status of the cancer. Why bother showing that in the mid-season finale if it isn’t going to be important? It would be such a Gilligan thing to do for Walter to have a shoot-out, live, and then die from his cancer. Or to have someone like Jesse poison Walter after knowing what he’s done to everyone in his life, and for Walt to die from the cancer instead. Those are two entirely possible situations and I definitely lean on the notion that Jesse will try to poison him.

The eight episodes we’ve seen so far of this season have been very Walt-centric, and not focusing at all on Jesse. This is going to change in the last half of the season. Obviously Walt is the main character, but there’s so much that can happen with Jesse still. I do think he’s going to find out about the past instances of how Walt killed Jane, Mike, and poisoned Brock courtesy of Hank or maybe Saul. What has been a worrying thing is whether Jesse will live beyond the series. Gilligan has made it known that he wants to show the rise and fall of Walter, but Jesse has become such an integral part to Walter’s life that when we think of Walter White, we think of Jesse Pinkman as well. Jesse was going to die at the end of season 1 but Aaron Paul was so good that Gilligan stretched his lifespan into the fifth season. Perhaps plans have changed to not kill him off at all, but I still hold onto the notion that we will see Jesse die. Maybe it will be with him still believing Walter to be a good guy, or maybe it will be when he realizes there’s nothing left in his life having lost (presumably) Walter, and recently Mike, both of whom served as father-like figures to Jesse who never really had a Dad because of his disapproval of his habits. Regardless, the fate of Jesse is uncertain, but my gut says he’s going to die and it is definitely going to be one of the more depressing moments in television history.

We’ve watched what will go down as one of the greatest characters rise to the top of the food chain, and it would only be just as satisfying to watch the monster that has been created, crumble under his own weight. Walter White has suffered an incredible transformation into Heisenberg, and if Vince Gilligan wants to do the show justice, I think we will see a lot of what I’ve predicted above come into play next year when the final 8 episodes of Season 5 air. When the series ends, I might very well do a retrospective and maybe see how accurate I was. If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, the series so far, this episode, or the future of Breaking Bad, please feel free and post them below. I’d love to hear some other predictions.

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2 responses to “The End of an Empire – Understanding the Mid-Season Finale, and the Future of Breaking Bad

  1. Loved reading this and anything else on my favourite series. It’s funny, because its not aired in the UK so I have no one to really talk to about it, so I just air my views online and go crazy talking to other people about something they’ve never heard of.

    There is so much speculation and talk about it and it’s so good to hear peoples views and see their links between everything.

    You raise some good points that I agree with, and the one about the fly, contamination and his cancer, so very true. It’s clear it’s back, just how will it affect the conclusion to the series. Do you remember the opening scene of season five? I watched it back the other day, just to refresh my mind – quite interesting.

    Also, you should have a look at Walt Whitmans book that has the note in, Leaves of Grass. Some interesting lines in there that suggest a lot, depending on how you take them.

    Great Post!

    • From what I understand, there’s a lot of stuff from Walt Whitman that applies to the series. Many different references, and even the poem “Gliding Over All” seems like it has some implications as to what will occur in the future. Definitely going to have to check out Leaves of Grass (any relation to the stoner Edward Norton flick?) at some point before the series returns next summer.

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