Last week, the estimable Todd VanDerWerff wrote about Breaking Bad’s season five (part two) opener in an essay for the Los Angeles Times titled “Walter’s New, Old Disguise”:
Walter White is in beige again.
In the pilot for “Breaking Bad,” creator Vince Gilligan famously put his protagonist in an endless succession of beige clothing items. He even painted the man’s Pontiac Aztek beige, all the better to underline just how little influence Walter had on the world around him. As the series continued, however, Walter’s wardrobe and world began to shift to reflect the new life he had built for himself. The colors became darker and sharper, and he stood out more from his surroundings. He might still drive a pitch-black car, but in “Blood Money,” the first episode of the second half of “Breaking Bad’s” final season, he’s back in beige.
Endings have the power to ultimately define a story, and the most powerful endings generally harken back to their beginnings. The end of “The Wire” acknowledged the cyclical nature of the show’s systems and institutions: the schools, the cops, the pushers, the politicians through a time-lapse montage. “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” explicitly made its seventh and final season about going “back to the beginning,” by re-setting its scene at the newly reopened Sunnydale High and pitting the slayer against The First evil.
“Breaking Bad” is also a show explicitly about change, but more than that, about MEASURING change. Walt is a scientist, a chemist, and so part of the fun of “Breaking Bad” is about more than cataloging Walt’s sins: it is quantifying and qualifying them.
It’s fitting that “Breaking Bad” used an episode structure that explicitly set us up to make these comparisons. While audiences waited a full year between the two halves of season five, the arc is one looping story. For our final look at Walter White–our last chance to truly judge him for his sins–we see all his selves at once. He is the bumbling chemistry teacher, the absent (or soon-to-be absent) husband, the “small, out of focus figure,” the cancer patient, the hubristic monster.
The splicing of scenes in these past two episodes has also been extraordinary. There is a palpable tension, especially as the flash-forwards make clear that not all is well in Who-ville, but we can’t ascertain exactly why. Each scene begins with a thrilling sense of “Where are we?” – whether following an old townie picking up stacks of cash in Albuquerque, or lazily panning through the White bedroom to the closed bathroom door.
And the elements, too, are shockingly reminiscent of the start of the series. In this episode, we have the same elements: a beige Walt fumbling due to impatience, a terrified but active Skylar, the pressure of family and pride and a bunch of money.
The series subverts viewer desire. If all you’ve been wanting is for Hank to finally catch Walt, how much does your stomach sink when Hank cluelessly slides his tape recorder onto that diner table?
The most striking element of “Breaking Bad” has always been how it’s used Heisenberg’s theatrics as a foil to Walt’s personal, domestic manipulation. The most explosive scenes in the past two episodes have been – to an outside viewer – almost mundane family moments. Walt’s confrontation with Hank was a simple fistfight and shouting match in a closed garage. Marie slapped Skylar in the face, and that hit caused a bigger commotion than a “Crazy Handful of Nothin.”
And, of course, the episode underlined the moment, and how far we’ve come since Walt’s initial diagnosis, by placing him external to the scene. While Skylar deals with Hank and Marie, Walt is off literally digging a grave to hold the money that was supposed to save his doomed family.
There are big firefights happening elsewhere in the episode, but the continued machinations of the global drug war are not nearly as interesting as what’s going to happen to the Whites and Schraders.