Breaking Bad Season 5

Walter White’s Ego Isn’t a Bad Thing, Necessarily
Talking television.
Aug. 27 2012 11:10 AM

Breaking Bad Season 5

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Mike dismissed Walt’s ego at his peril.

I’m a Diet Coke fanatic who thinks the real stuff is just too damn syrupy, so on the one hand I sympathize with the passionate pursuit of soft-drink excellence but on the other hand am all too willing to imagine a world without Coca-Cola. What I liked about this scene is that it did a better job than last week’s “Gray Matter” whining of conveying to me what Walt’s all about: the demonstration of skill and the quest for acknowledgment of that skill. It’s easy to dismiss this as “ego” the way Mike does, but as a professional writer I would be a bit hypocritical to do so. I’m in this line of work while lots of my classmates from college are toiling away in lucrative obscurity at some law firm or consulting outfit, in part, because I like the idea of having my byline out there in the world and relish positive feedback.

It hardly justifies murder, but this “ego” is a very normal human motivation, and sometimes good things come out of it. Why did Neil Armstrong go through all that trouble to get to the moon, after all, when he could have just had a nice quiet life as a pilot?

Breaking Bad, Season 5.
Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Mike (Jonathan Banks)

Photograph by Ursula Coyote/AMC.

Walt’s demand for recognition from Declan—“Say my name”—helped bring home that, on a practical level, his effort to obtain the recognition he craves through the meth trade is doomed. It’s tragic, even. After all, the first rule of running a successful drug-trafficking enterprise is precisely to not have your name out there for everyone to hear. The only real superfan Heisenberg has is Hank, and Hank’s obsession with cracking the case is deadly to Walt’s operation. It’s just not possible to be a famous and widely admired meth kingpin. To last in the game you need to do what Gus did and stay very, very quiet. Walt doesn’t have it in him.

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Now Mike. It’s interesting that Walt chooses to see this as a kind of tragic misunderstanding, while everything else that’s happened has been basically a beyond-his-control logical playing out of events. If anything, that seems backward to me. Todd really didn’t need to shoot that kid. Letting Jane die, poisoning Brock—that stuff didn’t have to happen. But if there’s one thing that years spent watching organized-crime TV dramas have taught me, it’s that you can’t just “cash out” of an ongoing criminal conspiracy. As soon as I heard the lawyer had flipped, I thought Walt was going to kill Mike in cold blood; I was genuinely surprised to discover that it took provocation. Having Mike out there, with the DEA knowing his name and absolutely (and accurately) convinced that he knows more, is a huge risk whether or not he skips town. The guy had to go.

I was also glad to see Mike taken down a peg in the audience’s eyes by the way he abandoned his granddaughter out on the playground to beat the cops. He’s been built up a bit as a kind of sympathetic counterpoint to Walt’s mania, and this was a good reminder that the dude’s a cold-blooded killer with a longer criminal CV than Walt’s. I’m sad, though, that with his untimely demise we’ll probably never find out what happened in Philadelphia.

Which I think leaves me punting on Todd. Miriam, I wonder where you think this is going and why Walt doesn’t seem more suspicious of his lack of interest in money. After what’s gone down already, surely he realizes that teaching the cook to others is a source of danger. Right? Maybe he’s got a plan?

Just look out for yourself,

Matt

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.