In the flashback that jolted this tooth-drilling of an episode to life, Walt stood in the middle of the desert before the old white RV in his underwear, Jesse hopping and cursing behind him while Skyler ordered him to buy pizza and told him she’d chosen a name for their soon-to-be-born daughter: Holly. She was boss and he was the jester. And June, as you pointed out while we were watching together, the sound of Holly’s name was a clue that she would be at the heart, somehow, of the action to come.
My inbox is full of howls of despair for Hank. I was just glad ASAC Schrader got to die with dignity, the way he wanted to. Walt tries to negotiate with Uncle Jack like the outmatched novice he is, but Hank is a professional, and even lying on the desert floor, he is thinking clearly. Bargaining is futile. “You want me to beg,” he says to Walt. “You’re the smartest guy I ever met and you’re too stupid to see he made up his mind 10 minutes ago.” It’s Hank’s strength and weakness in one line: A crisp assessment of Walt and the fatal error that brought him to the desert, his contempt for his brother-in-law as a criminal mastermind.
What Walt has—the claim he makes on Jack and on us—is his keen sense of family. It makes the difference for him between trying to save Hank and trying to off Jesse. Yes, I get that Jesse betrayed Walt, but I think mostly we’re supposed to see him sink to his own moral bottom. Also, the writers give us Todd’s reprieve for Jesse, good for the remaining two hours of plot and a spasm of relief in the moment, pulled off when Todd says to his uncle, taking care to sound a little offhand, “Me and him. We got history.” It’s Todd’s history with Jesse, not Walt’s, that has the quality of mercy. Though by the end of the hour, when we know Todd saved Jesse to be the teacher of the cook, Todd (and of course his uncle) look like the scary new Heisenberg. I bet if you watch that episode carefully there is some visual tie to Todd’s murder of the boy on the bike in that other spot of lonely desert. Or maybe we got our cue last week when he was reminiscing about the train heist with unadulterated amusement, as if the killing is wiped clean from his memory and his moral universe.
It seems prettifying to mention amid the carnage, but there was some beautiful photography in this episode, which was directed by Rian Johnson (Looper). The New Mexican butte, orange against the blue, blue sky.* The antler horns, one curved and one straight, that frame Walt’s approach to the Indian’s house. Skyler in white and Marie in black, on opposite sides of the desk, when Marie makes her fleeting bid to be the sister with the upper hand.
I think Walt took Holly because she’s the only one left he can work into his deluded remaining fantasy: “We are a family.” I think he gave her back because he’s coming to his senses. I thought the hour would end with Skyler’s despair. She has to (finally!) suffer Flynn’s condemnation—never again can she tell him to put on his seatbelt, because she’s the one who ripped safety out from under him. And then she is in the pose of the ruined penitent when she sinks to her knees in the street while Walt drives away with Holly. But then we got 10 more minutes.
Vince Gilligan and his writers used the end of this episode to pull Walt back from the brink, and maybe play with our moral sensibilities one more time. June, I agree that Walt’s terrible phone call to Skyler was theater for the cops. That doesn’t mean there wasn’t truth in it—he really wallowed in the megalomaniac muck, and “You never believed in me” was from the heart. But I think he called to save her. And I think he decided to leave Holly in the fire station because his moment of sheer insanity, in the struggle for the knife and to bend Skyler and Flynn to his will, passed. Walt is a family man, in his twisted way. Him and Tony Soprano and pretty much every other bad guy who’s interesting enough to sustain our attention on screen. I’m not sure what he has left to do, but I bet it has something to do with getting some of the money in the barrel to Skyler and his children.
It seems to me we did you a solid,
* Correction, Sept. 17, 2013: In describing the cinematography in this week's episode, this article misstated the location where Breaking Bad is filmed. It's filmed in New Mexico, not Arizona.
TODAY IN SLATE
Smash and Grab
Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?
Even When They Go to College, the Poor Sometimes Stay Poor
Republicans Want the Government to Listen to the American Public on Ebola. That’s a Horrible Idea.
The Most Ingenious Teaching Device Ever Invented
Tom Hanks Has a Short Story in the New Yorker. It’s Not Good.
Marvel’s Civil War Is a Far-Right Paranoid Fantasy
It’s also a mess. Can the movies do better?
An All-Female Mission to Mars
As a NASA guinea pig, I verified that women would be cheaper to launch than men.