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TV Review: ‘Breaking Bad’ – “Granite State” of Mind

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Oh, if only Breaking Bad had ended in episode 14, with the image of Walt waiting for the “vacuum” man or granite 5looking at his reflection in the side view mirror of the van, driving off into a sunrise with the dog running across the road afterwards. We could be left to all sorts of thoughts about what happens, what the fate of each character would be, and we would not have to descend into a far more horrific place than depicted in “Ozymandias.” Of course, series creator and executive producer Vince Gilligan is not having any of that. He wants to take us deeper into the nightmare world that Walter White (Bryan Cranston), chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin, hath wrought.

Episode 15, “Granite State,” opens as slickly as any previous one ever, using the device of deflecting us from the scene we are waiting to see for one we get. The “vacuum” guy’s van pulls into a deserted looking warehouse (is there any other kind on TV?). We get a glimpse of him for the first time (an excellent Robert Forster) who slides open the van door to allow – Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) passageway. We were expecting to see Walt and we get Saul, who also is making himself disappear, in his case to Nebraska.

Saul gives the episode brief humor, expressing surprise that the “vacuum” guy does indeed repair vacuums in the vast warehouse. He also changes people’s identities to help them go off the spectrum, and we discover Walt is still waiting downstairs because his case is the most difficult one Mr. Hoover has ever handled.

Saul and Walt have their usual testy exchange. Saul explains that Skyler (Anna Gunn) and the kids are forced to live outside a now gated-off house (recall the flash-forward of episode 9). Walt seems upset by this, thinking that they would be okay with the house and their bank accounts (now frozen). Saul tells him to turn himself in to make it easy on the family, but Walt tells him it’s not over and that Saul is going with him, but Saul wants no part of it. Walt begins having a coughing fit, and Saul takes his cue to grab his luggage and make flight to Omaha where he plans on being a manager of a Cinnabon.

granite 2Meanwhile we see Marie being driven home by some DEA agents, and she is told that they have every intention of finding Hank and Steve. Marie is visually despondent, and then as they pull up to her house, it is obvious there has been a break in (by Todd and Uncle Jack to retrieve Jesse’s confession tape). Marie is whisked off to safety, apparently also as homeless as Sklyer and her children.

Skyler sits with her lawyer and prosecutors, and they are discussing the case. All the details are lost to her as she sort of zones out, thinking about everything that has happened. Walt has exonerated her in the phone call, but she is left with the detritus of his nefarious deeds. With no place to live and working part-time as a taxi dispatcher, using her maiden name, and facing all sorts of obstacles, Walt has left the family he professed to love so much in a precarious situation.

granite 4Later on Skyler will confront masked intruders in her hotel room. Todd and friends have come to give her a message – not to ever speak of Lydia (Laura Fraser) who came to the car wash. Skyler is distraught as the men in black hover over baby Holly’s crib (Hasn’t this kid been through enough?), and she promises that she will say nothing. Todd, in his best Richie Cunningham voice, tells her he will have to come back if she does. Once they leave Skyler grabs Holly and almost breaks down. How much more can she endure?

granite 3Walt arrives in the “Granite State” in the belly of a propane truck, crawling out into the bright New Hampshire sunshine and shielding his eyes like a denizen of hell brought back to earth. Walt has traded one stark landscape – the New Mexico desert – for the bleak, snow covered mountains not far from Canada. Hoover tells Walt it is a nowhere place, perfect for him to relax and think about things. “It’s really kind of beautiful,” Hoover tells him, but Walt is in no mood to appreciate the scenery.

Walt is ensconced in what one could only describe as an alternate prison cell. With no phone, radio, TV, or Internet, he is virtually cut off from the world. In this small wooden cabin he has basic amenities – a wood stove, a refrigerator, and a bathroom – but it certainly resembles a jail cell. This is Walt’s lot because he is a wanted man, his face splashed on every newspaper, TV show, and tabloid. Hoover promises to come back in one month, and warns him that if he leaves the cabin and goes down the road to town that he will be caught.

Back in New Mexico Jesse (Aaron Paul) is desperate to escape Todd, Uncle Jack, and all the rest of the Nazi Cunninghams that have taken him prisoner. Using a paper clip, his figures how to undue his shackles, and manages to flee the hole that he had been cast into. Unfortunately, as he tries to run for it, his image is caught on a security camera, and Todd and crew are hot on his trail. He begs them to kill him, but they have a better idea.

granite 1At this point Jesse has suffered more slings and arrows than anyone since the Biblical Job. You have to wonder how much more he can take, and then they bring him (all beaten up again) to Andrea’s house and force him to watch Todd execute Andrea on the front porch. Jesse’s torture has reached what could be a breaking point, as he is reminded that little Brock could be next (I shivered as I thought of this child waking up for school and finding his mother dead).

All of this horror leads back to Walt. We can accuse Jesse of not leaving – how many times did he have the chance and did not? We can blame Skyler for forming an alliance with her Macbeth, and we can say that Hank’s hubris drove him to death just as much as Walt’s alliance with the neo-Nazis; however, it all comes back to Walt. The family he said that he did everything for is now in tatters, and his legacy is irreparably damaged.

Back at the cabin Walt does put on the Heisenberg hat, in a scene that is shot from behind. It is the moment we have been waiting for now for weeks – Walter White is completely subsumed now; he is Heisenberg completely. Yet he still clings to some hope that he can help his family, dumping $100,000 into an Ensure box (Hoover brought the drinks there to beef up his withering frame) and wrapping it to send off to Skyler.

Walt’s plan is to send the box to one of Junior’s friends. He shrewdly enlists the aid of a barmaid in town to call Junior at school and pretend to be Marie. Once Junior is on the phone, Walt tells of his plan to send the cash to the friend. Junior (RJ Mitte in another fine performance) explodes at his father. He tells Walt that they don’t want or need anything from him. Echoing Marie from earlier in the season, he says “Just die.”

Walt hangs up and then calls the police. He tells the operator that he is calling about the Walter White case. When asked who he is, he says, “Walter White.” He leaves the phone off the hook, goes to the bar for a drink, and waits for the police to come and get him. After speaking with Junior it is clear the only thing he can do for his family is turn himself in.

Then the oddest twist of fate happens – the bartender switches TV channels and Walt sees Elliot and Gretchen Schwartz on Charlie Rose. He watches in horror as his old “friends” denigrate his contribution to their company; in fact, they say all he was responsible for was the name. When Gretchen goes even further, saying that the real Walt was a good and sweet man, Walt stares at the screen with deadly Heisenberg eyes. Yes, that Walt is dead and gone.

By the time the New Hampshire police arrive on scene, Walt has gone (but does not forget to leave his bartender a tip). Apparently seeing the celebrity of the old friends on TV is salt in the wounds, as he is almost relegated to nothingness – no contribution, no recognition, no family, and even no name. Whatever else we can say about Walt at this point, we know he is not going to go quietly into that good New Hampshire night.

What comes next is up for debate, but we can imagine that we will revisit the scene of Walt going into his ravaged home to retrieve the Ricin cigarette, seeing the name “Hesienberg” spray painted on the wall. This is not the notoriety he wanted, not the legacy he expected, and we can envision that he will use that M60 in the car trunk to make sure everyone will say his name.

As we reach this point Team Walt may still stubbornly cling to the false sense of Walt being a victim here, but I wonder how long anyone can keep deluding him or herself. Will Walt make a last stand – perhaps comparable to Al Pacino in Scarface – as he tries to wipe out an evil greater than his? Will he free Jesse from imprisonment and then allow Jesse to free him from the mortal coil? I wonder how easily Jesse will be able to shoot Walt, even after Jane and Andrea and Brock and everything else.

If Walt does take out Todd and Jack and crew, is there any redemption there? Or is it a case of Stalin helping to take out Hitler, one evil defeating another? And, when the dust settles, will Skyler and her children ever be able to live normal lives again, or will the money still come into play? I have a feeling Skyler is going to want to wash her hands of everything, take her kids far away, and hope for some kind of redemption for herself. But will that be possible with the heft of Walt’s actions weighing on her and the kids for the rest of their lives?

“Felina,” episode 16 and the series finale, is one of the most anticipated shows in recent memory. Will Walt go out with a bang or a whimper? Place your bets, but my money is on the big bang theory ending things for the chemistry teacher who aspired to be greater than his lot, only to see everything wasted away, and thus makes one last effort for everyone to know his name.

Photo credits: AMC

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About Victor Lana

Victor Lana has published numerous stories, articles, and poems in literary magazines and online. His books In a Dark Time (1994), A Death in Prague (2002), Move (2003), The Savage Quiet September Sun: A Collection of 9/11 Stories (2005) and Like a Passing Shadow (2009) are available online and as e-books. He has won the National Arts Club Award for Poetry, but has concentrated mostly on fiction and non-fiction prose in recent years. He has worked as faculty advisor to school literary magazines and enjoys the creative process as a writer, editor, and collaborator. He has been with Blogcritics since July 2005, has edited many articles, was co-head sports editor with Charley Doherty, and now is a Culture and Society editor. He views Blogcritics as one of most exciting, fresh, and meaningful opportunities in his writing life.
  • scumby

    Vacuum guy told Walt about the house being gated off. Skyler was still at the house when Todd and his guys came., not a hotel room. “Team Anti-Walt” still stubbornly clings to a false sense that Walt is morally worse than anyone else.

  • Victor Lana

    Thanks for the comment.
    Morality is a tricky thing in Breaking Bad, and that is why I think Vince Gilligan has said it is like a modern western, only here there are reversals and anti-heroes and no one wears a white hat – not even Hank.
    Could we say that Lydia is morally worse than Walt? Where do we draw that line? Mike was morally better than Walt? Jesse morally better than Todd? In fact, I am wondering about Jack as well. Is he the equivalent of Gus? Where can we draw the line in the sand?
    My problems have always been that Walt says one thing but does soemthing else. Even saying it is all for nothing – because his family doesn’t want him or his money – really is less about his family and more about the money and him.
    I don’t know what is the lesser of two evils at this point, though I know I myself have rooted for Walt. In “Granite State” when he is in that cabin alone (and basically dying) it’s hard not to feel bad for him. I think Gilligan knows exactly what he is doing here.
    Walt returns to town like with a big gun and a plan. Sounds like a western to me, but I’m riding the fence because is Walt no better or worse than his enemies? Do Gretchen and Elliot deserve a ricin cocktail? Note “deserve” here.
    I don’t have the answers but I love thinking about them.

  • bliffle

    The Gretchen/Elliot denunciation of Walt on Charlie Rose, national TV, is a nice touch, since it reflects the common denouement of a successful startup company and the ‘winners’, wherein, after having cheated the ‘losers’ of their rightful share of the success, then set about thoroughly denouncing the losers as no good, never doing anything, not knowing their stuff, etc. This story has been repeated over and over so many times here in Silicon Valley that it is cliche. It’s just another step up the ladder of success. No success ladder is complete without it. Yes, those nice cleancut, neat people celebrated in the public press are capable of vicious assassination.

  • bliffle

    Walt is no more immoral than anyone else in this parable. Does Jesses weakness and ineffectuality make him more moral? I don’t think so. And how about Skylers faithlessness? When she betrays Walt and finances her lover is that less immoral than anything Walt did?

  • Victor Lana

    Bliffle, morality on Breaking Bad is a muddle. A bloody one at that. I do have a hard time thinking about who got away with what, but the finale tied together fates of those who required some kind of justice – morality aside.