As Breaking Bad nears its final episode, viewers have become preoccupied with who will live and who will die—an inevitable way of processing a series as it draws to a close, as we can't help but wonder how a beloved pop cultural institution will consciously account for its ultimate mortality. So it's probably worth reaffirming that Breaking Bad is less a tale of accumulating death than a despairing study of a character who succumbs again and again to the temptations that arise from his feelings of having been betrayed by a world that can never appreciate his talent and genius. Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is a pathologically egotistical man, and all of the atrocities he's wrought have their origins in this mania.
"Granite State" doesn't have the flamboyant water-cooler moments that seemed to arrive every few minutes in last week's "Ozymandias." The tone, this week, is hushed and contemplative, presumably affording creator Vince Gilligan the opportunity to have a pause before an ensuing storm. The episode allows us to take a moment to register just how profoundly damaged a man Walt is, and to see how far he's fallen as he grows literally and figuratively less substantial, to the point of threatening to vanish in the wind.
"Granite State" is also another classic Breaking Bad parable of hubris. I can't imagine that Todd (Jesse Plemons) won't suffer some sort of nearly Biblical wrath next week, as creatures of hubris never fare well in this universe, and this series has always been conscious of ironic circular plot structures that return characters to the puniness they desperately sought to transcend. Look at Walt, or Gus, or Tuco way back in the beginning; the examples are endless, and Todd has grown far too big for his britches in terrifyingly short order. Plemons allows you to see the self-absorbed amorality that lurks under his dead-eyed oh-gosh courtliness. No one takes him for a true menace earlier because Gilligan and his writers have played with our own sense of snobbery and condescension toward people we feel to be intellectually inferior to ourselves. But Todd's a snake in the grass, and it's obvious that he wields considerable power with Uncle Jack (Michael Bowen), power with which the latter might not even be entirely aware. Todd keeps surprising us because he doesn't puff himself up in the obvious macho ways.
Todd certainly has his limitations, though, which parallel Walt's. He's a show-off and he especially likes to grant random acts of kindness to primarily assuage his personal sense of himself; acts that repeatedly jeopardize his and Jack's operation. In terms of cold, hard, bad-guy logic, there's no reason Jesse (Aaron Paul) should still be alive. He nearly escapes from Todd's captivity this week (due in part to another act of idiotic Todd kindness), and besides, Jesse has already helped to get Jack and Todd's meth up to Heisenbergian levels of blue purity, and so what of the meth anyway? As Jack himself says at one point, they just fell into the fortune that Walt had buried out in the desert.
But Todd is in love with the idea of being the next Heisenberg, and he has a sexual jones for Lydia Rodarte-Quale (Laura Fraser), a tendency that informs one of this week's best scenes. Todd, dressed to his idea of the nines, meets Lydia for tea in her usual pointlessly anal-retentive manner, and we learn she orchestrated the elaborate veiled threat that Todd carried out on Skyler (Anna Gunn) and her baby earlier in the episode. Except that she didn't want it to be so veiled, and Lydia's ready to dissolve their partnership until Todd tells her of the Heisenberg purity levels they've recently reached. Lydia's reaction is unmistakably sexual, as she breathes in and subtly sucks on her lips in a wonderfully perverse moment that wouldn't be out of place in a Fritz Lang or David Lynch film.
"Granite State" coolly navigates a rich variety of tones as Gilligan goes about steering Walt toward final oblivion. The writers confirm that, yes, Walt's much-discussed phone call last week to Skyler was a bit of theater intended to get her off the hook for her part in his drug empire, but no, that doesn't much matter, despite the nuances that viewers might want to mine. As Saul (Bob Odenkirk) takes pains to explain to Walt while the two are briefly hiding out in the basement of the vacuum cleaner/disappearance expert (Robert Forster) who's been alluded to in the past, Skyler was in it too deep, and even if she totally evades charges, she's the broke wife of a now nationally recognized drug lord who disappeared and left her to the remaining wolves.
As funny, poignant, eerie, and remarkably desolate as many of these moments are, it's the scenes of Walt wasting away of cancer while hiding out in the snowy landscapes of New Hampshire that are most resonant. The writers have nearly brought us up to last year's flash-forward that showed a gaunt, bearded, fully haired Walt purchasing that weapon at the diner. Once a big swinging-dick drug manufacturer, Walt is reduced to reading old papers in a cabin bartering with the disappearance expert for another hour of his company. Cranston is wonderful here, and he doesn't overemphasize the pathos: We never lose sight of the amount of pride that Walt is forcing himself to swallow as more pressing and directly human concerns engulf him.
But that pride reemerges with powerful suddenness in the episode's stunning conclusion. Having called the DEA and tipped them off to his location, after having been understandably and severely spurned by Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte) on the phone, Walt finally wills himself to wave the figurative white flag...until he sees Gretchen (Jessica Hecht) and her husband on Charlie Rose steadfastly minimizing his contributions to their billion-dollar company. At that point, the signature Breaking Bad theme can be heard on the soundtrack as Walt's face twists into its now trademark murderous rage. And so when the DEA storms the bar a few minutes later, Walt's gone, his drink only partially sipped.
The crowd-pleasing dimension of this scene warrants comment, because we find ourselves exhilarated by a drug dealer and mass murderer's decision to revoke his surrender in favor of what's almost certainly a killing spree of unknown swath and severity. The simple explanation is the need for conventional dramatic catharsis and closure: Come on, we knew that Gilligan wasn't perverse enough to pay off an epic five-year arc with a finale chockfull of dry prison sentencing. Less simply, Gretchen's surprising re-appearance makes perfect, hideous sense because, as I've said before, everything Walt's done has been a reaction to his feeling cheated out of the Gray Matter fortune and, more importantly, accompanying sense of accomplishment. Breaking Bad, in an explicit sense, can be read as the chronicle of a prolonged, large-scale act of transferred vengeance against an ex-lover. Even less simply, Gretchen has always been profoundly smug and disingenuous, and she stirs a resentment in us that triggers our empathy with Walt, however problematic that empathy may be. As stark and merciless as "Granite State" often is, it subversively restores Walt to us as a misleading proletariat avenger. And something tells me that Gilligan's going to make us pay dearly, next week, for indulging that wish-fulfillment.
Chuck Bowen is a freelance film and TV critic living in Richmond, Virginia. Check out his website, Bowen's Cinematic, and follow him on Twitter.