Breaking Bad, Season 5, Part 2

We’ve Got One More Episode to Find Out Why Walter White Really Left Gray Matter 
Talking television.
Sept. 23 2013 11:44 AM

Breaking Bad, Season 5, Part 2

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Finally, we might find out how Gray Matter lost its White.

Saul Goodman and Walter White
Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) and Walter White (Bryan Cranston)

Photo by Ursula Coyote/AMC

If there was one takeaway from this week’s episode, it’s that things can always get worse. Jesse’s pit of hell at least came with occasional servings of Americone Dream ice cream (Stephen Colbert’s signature flavor), but after his attempted escape, he learned that the Aryans knew how to really hurt him—by killing Andrea and threatening Brock. Walt thought that his snowy retreat was an open prison, a place so lonely that he’d pay $10,000 per hour for the vacuum king’s reluctant company. (At that rate, his $11 million would only buy a month and a half of 24-hour companionship.) Then he discovered that being rejected by his son and erased by his former collaborators at Gray Matter Technologies was far more painful.

It was also an episode of callbacks. I see that Lydia hasn’t learned a damned thing about blending in. Way back last season, when she demanded a meeting with Mike, he nixed that whole talking-while-sitting-at-different-tables thing. And he was right, it does cause the parties in the conversation to stick out like blue meth. Then again, Lydia is alive and well and running an international narco-trafficking organization while Mike’s dead and not even buried, which might well be an endorsement of her odd brand of caution.

And then there was the magical sighting of Elliott and Gretchen Schwartz on the Charlie Rose Show. I’ve been begging for more background on how Gray Matter lost its White for years now, but I have to say that TV trick felt a little too contrived: A man with no connection to the outside world finds himself in front of a television set for the first time in months, and while the bartender is changing channels, he just happens to spot his old chums on a national talk show, and the barkeep tunes in just in time to hear a chunk of exposition about Walt himself? (I’m probably the only person in this dialogue—heck, perhaps in the known universe—who has begged a bartender to tune a TV set to a non-sports channel. They never do it, even when the bar is empty, and don’t even try to convince them that English soap operas will draw a big crowd. Then again, I’ve never had Walt’s access to crisp $100 bills.)

The way Walt discovered the Schwartzes’ rewriting of history might not have been particularly convincing, but I absolutely buy that Gretchen’s post-mortem for “the sweet, kind, brilliant man we once knew long ago” would impel their egomaniacal former partner to one last demonstration of his brilliance. Walt told Saul that the Aryans had stolen “his life’s work”—by which he meant the fortune he’d accumulated—but we know he never really cared about the money for its own sake. It was his need to prove that he could be just as much of a success as the Schwartzes that drove him. That early episode when the Whites take a lame-o gift to Elliott’s lavish birthday party may well have been the ultimate motivation for Walt’s empire-building ways. And maybe he won: Sure, the Schwartzes can afford to give away $28 million to help drug addicts, but Walt’s contribution to a bunch of white supremacists was much more generous.

We know that Walt is on his way back to Albuquerque and the vial of homemade ricin, but who’s he going to use it on? He clearly hates the Aryans—who wouldn’t?—but slipping it to Uncle Jack wouldn’t be a big enough shocker for a show that has always managed to pull off a true WTF! in its season finales. Lydia? She’s the key to the meth supply chain, but Jack was right—they already won the lottery, they don’t need to keep cranking out meth. She’s disposable once Todd’s crush burns out. (Though if Lydia stomped hard enough on Todd’s heart, maybe that dead-eyed Opie would join Mr. White’s quest to bring her empire down. That’s extraordinarily unlikely, though—Todd might lack the tats and evil demeanor, but his loyalty to his uncle’s gang has never wavered. However, I can’t help noticing that Kevin Rankin—he plays Jack’s son Kenny, and it was his presence at the end of last season that convinced me the Aryans would be back—has been criminally underused this season.) Or is the ricin intended for the Schwartzes? That would be one way for Walt to soothe his raging ego before he checks out for good.

No matter how much you’ve got, how do you turn your back on more?
June

June Thomas is a Slate culture critic and editor of Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section. 

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