“For what shall it profit a man if he shall gain the whole world, and forfeit his soul?” Mark 8:36 (King James Bible – Cambridge Ed.)
After a signature montage featuring the 60s pop hit “Crystal Blue Persuasion,” itself a wink to the mythical “blue” methamphetamine that Walter White has produced for the past year and a half (give or take), his estranged wife Skylar asks Walt to take a drive. Their destination? A non-descript facility where Skylar has hidden Walt’s ill gotten drug gains. When she unlocks the rolling door and enters the storage unit, she reveals a pile of money so dense and heavy its value cannot be calculated. These are the wages her husband has earned, these are the wages that a pile of bodies from toddlers to senior citizens has left in its wake, these are the wages a man who never received the acknowledgement for being the brilliant chemist he is, felt it necessary to earn to soothe his wounded pride.
At its core, Breaking Bad is a morality tale. A good and decent man is brought low by his desire to care for his family. At many points along the way, Walter White could have walked away from his decision to be a manufacturer of a highly profitable form of methamphetamine and nowhere was that option made more available to him than in the immediate aftermath of last season’s finale, when his boss (and nemesis), Gustavo Fring was snuffed out. His enemy vanquished, and his life still his own, Walt could have been grateful for surviving many near misses on his life; instead, Gus’s murder merely served to feed Walt’s desire to assume his mantle.
As a piece of meta storytelling, Season “5A” leaves behind the frenetic pace of its immediate predecessor, where chaos and mayhem were always present and all the characters were on a knife’s edge, for a story about fallout - Skylar’s repulsion over Ted’s paralysis, Jesse’s ambivalence about his criminal lifestyle, Mike’s yearning to expel a deep sigh, pack up his bag and disappear, and Walt’s unabashed desire to gain the recognition that has always eluded him. But the profit Walt accumulates comes at the price of his family, the metastisizing cancer that his presence represents provides the starkest and most deeply painful scenes of the season, culminating in a luminous, almost hallucinatory cry for help when Skylar walks into the backyard pool fully clothed while Walt recounts her support of him in cancer treatment to Marie and Hank. When she cannot rid the house of Walt, she removes the children from it, sacrificing her own well being to protect the children Walt claims to value above all else. Absent his children, Walt’s lone source of pride is his singular talent as a drug producer, and that, he attacks with great zeal.
Having not only “won” by killing Gus, but making a decision to continue producing meth, the most immediate fallout from Gus’s killing is two-fold, the evidence seized at Gus’s restaurant and how to continue producing meth now that Walt’s state of the art lab has been destroyed. The laptop computer Gus managed his criminal enterprise from contains all sorts of information that could be devastating to Walt, Jesse, Mike and anyone else associated with the now-deceased Pollo Hermano. In a fit of MacGyver-esque ingenuity, the crew is able to magnetize the computer, erasing its contents; however, a photo of Gus and his former partner Max shatters and reveals an off shore bank account, allowing law enforcement to quickly pick up nine of Fring’s men, any of whom could blow up the entire criminal enterprise.
To keep the peace (not to mention closed jail house mouths), Walt and Jesse come up with a clever way to produce their meth under the guise of a pest control company that chemical bombs people’s homes. And while yet another MacGyver caper results in a cool 1,000 gallons of needed methylamine, a civilian, a young boy on a bike, is shot during the robbery, souring Jesse on the criminal lifestyle and sending a clear message to Mike that it is time to cut bait. He negotiates a deal with another regional distributor to sell his and Jesse’s shares of methylamine, but Walt deftly offers a better deal – production of his ‘blue’ in exchange for a more generous cut of the proceeds of the manufactured product. Mike becomes compromised when the lawyer he has retained to pay off Gus’s imprisoned lackeys (and feather the nest for his granddaughter) is arrested, and Walt kills Mike, along with all of Fring’s henchmen, in a perverted homage to The Godfather, as Neo-Nazis snuff out all the prisoners in merciless fashion to the precision timing of a Tag Heuer chronograph. The operatic ending to Fring’s gang leaves Hank bitter and angry. In a ruminative exchange with Walt, he reminisces about a summer job clearing timber and how he did not value it then, but after “chasing monsters” for so long, he does now.
Walt lends a sympathetic ear, but cannot help but twist the knife, “I liked camping” he observes, before the camera quickly cuts to the aforementioned montage. With Gus, Mike and all remaining links to the Fring criminal enterprise now severed, Walt puts his foot on the gas and produces, in three months, that mountain of money, but after he’s squeezed the last drop out of his methylamine reserve, his manner is brooding and pensive, the money he has accumulated, that, as Skylar notes, they could not spend in ten lifetimes, is silent testament to his unrivaled skill, but leaves him emotionally wanting. He has lost the love of his wife, his moral bearing and ordered the killing of people with ruthless indifference. “I’m out” he says with a note of resignation.
If it were only that easy. Walt suffers the sin of pride, both in his need for validation (“say my name”) and in his belief that he is just a little smarter than everyone else. So, he thinks nothing of keeping a copy of Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, inscribed fondly by his former lab assistant Gale Boetticher, in plain view, just as he does the pricey watch Jesse buys him for his 51st birthday. While the watch can be explained away to Hank (who has only been promoted to Special Agent in Charge of the Albuquerque field office of the DEA!), when Agent Schrader stumbles on Whitman’s book of poetry while on the toilet, Gale’s homage to his “other W.W.” awakens Hank in a flash to what had been in front of his face the whole time but he could never quite figure out – that the man married to his wife’s sister was the elusive “Heisenberg.” And in that moment, it all made sense – a trained chemist with a sudden run of good fortune, money enough to buy a car wash and two new cars, whose wife had suddenly grown distant and remote and handed their children off to Hank and Marie, was also New Mexico’s “blue meth” producer.
Of course, Vince Gilligan’s storytelling has never been entirely linear, so an Easter egg of sorts, a flash forward in time to Walt’s 52nd birthday, launched the first half of the final season and foretold Walt’s downfall. In that scene, a now bearded Walt, with a full head of hair but a homeless person’s affect, has slipped back into Albuquerque under an assumed name driving a beat up Volvo with New Hampshire plates for a reason that requires the use of a high caliber machine gun. As the rest of the entire eight episode run unfolds, those 2 minutes looms ominously in the background, a foreshadowing of events to come, the steps by which we get there, entirely unknown. Hank’s accidental discovery of Walt’s secret is both bookend to that scene and the first domino to fall, until we reach Walt’s inevitable demise.