Watching that episode-ending confrontation between Walt and Hank, I started to wonder if Hank is not physically manifesting the decrepitude of Walt’s soul. Look at those guys: One is a cancer-ridden, meth-making menace, but he looks positively robust compared to gray-stubbled Hank, his face nearly thin as a hound dog’s, his rheumy eyes barely open. (If you were Hank, would you want to see what was right in front of you, either?) But Hank bloodies Walt up anyway, because he is furious, and also because, for a few more fleeting moments, he still does not fully comprehend who Walter White is.
To me, this is why, strategically inept as it was, the confrontation makes sense. We’ve had five seasons to process and accept Walt’s pure vileness—many viewers self-bargaining about Walt’s redeemability the whole while—but Hank has had three days. He doesn’t totally get it, even if he gets it enough to have a panic attack. For the entire series, Hank has understood Walt in a very narrow way, as a brainy, sometimes troubled, mild-mannered guy who is so much less of a man than Hank is. Hank has been laid low by violence, he has lost much of his braggadocio and swagger, but not so much that he fears taking on nerdy Walter White. Hank has not yet grasped the lie of Walter White in all of its fullness. Punching a guy in your garage? That’s what you do to your brother-in-law, when you’re trying to keep the conflict private, when you think that face-to-face, you are still the tougher one. Most of all, it’s what you do when you think maybe, somehow, you can work it out. Hank, unlike Jesse and unlike us, is not yet fully schooled in the murk of Walter White’s soul. He thinks Walt will bring him his kids, for goodness sake!
Besides, there are all sorts of other wonderful things that confrontation does. Firstly, it lets Breaking Bad do what it likes to do: rev its engines and skid immediately off the map. Everything we could have reliably predicted about what would happen this season, has now, in just the first episode, happened. The Walt and Hank confrontation took place. What the hell comes next? Secondly, it sidelines the drugs. Walt may not have gone back to the drug business anyway, but knowing Hank is onto him makes it a nonstarter. (Lydia is an idiot, and not just for trying to wash a rental car: Is there anything less likely to convince Walt to return than the fact that the product is only 68 percent pure without him? Walt must thrill to hear that he is essential.) And that means neither Walt nor whatever Walt-sympathizers remain can hide behind one of his major delusions, that he is a special chemical craftsman, exceptional because he is the world’s leading maker of artisanal meth. Walt may cook some very potent speed, but his unique talent is actually for being very bright, wholly amoral, and completely egomaniacal. Forget the fun, jaunty montages of him making blue crystals: What makes Walt Walt is his immense capacity for bullying and brutality, and that, TV gods help us, is what we’re going to see.
Yours till a blueberry pie asteroid smashes into Earth,
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