Breaking Bad, Season 5, Part 2

Why Did Walter White Leave Gray Matter? And Do the White Supremacists Have Any Real Goals?
Talking television.
Sept. 23 2013 12:58 PM

Breaking Bad, Season 5, Part 2

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We know how Walter White became Heisenberg. But how did a brilliant young chemist become Walter White?

Skyler White, Season 5, Episode 15
Anna Gunn as Skyler White in Breaking Bad

Photo courtesy of Ursula Coyote/AMC

I share June’s concern that the television encounter was a little too contrived. But after an episode that mostly felt like a post-shootout letdown to me, I thought it was brilliantly executed. Walt’s central message to anyone who asks—even his central message to himself—has always been that his meth empire is about his family. And he holds to that posture pretty consistently. It’s not insincere. He really does beg for Hank’s life. And when Flynn rejects his money, he really does give up on his efforts to evade the law. Walter White is many things, and a family man is high on that list.

But that’s not, ultimately, what it’s really about.

In the very first episode Walt went out to the desert as a desperate man trying the only thing he could think of to provide financial security for his family. But out there he rediscovered some element of dignity and self-esteem that he’d lost years before getting diagnosed with cancer. And it quickly boiled over into egomaniacal rage. Elliot and Gretchen offered to help Walt out. But he chose to go back into meth cooking to avoid accepting their charity. He didn’t want to have to be grateful to people who he clearly and profoundly believes screwed him over in some way.

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The bar scene closed that loop again. Family mattered to Walt. Mattered so much that without it he was willing to give up. Willing, that is, until he remembered about Gray Matter.

I hope that we really get the backstory on this, but I fear that we won’t. I’m curious, obviously, about what happens to Jesse and the Nazis. I’d like to know whether Lydia gets away with it, and even whether Huell ever leaves the hotel room. But there are no real mysteries left about Heisenberg. Whether he dies of cancer or of gunshot wounds or commits suicide by ricin is somewhat immaterial at this point. We’ve seen, in exquisite detail, how Walt became Heisenberg, and we know that Heisenberg is out of allies and out of time. What we don’t know is how Walter White, brilliant chemist, became Walter White, beaten-down high school chemistry teacher. It’s a real and profound mystery. Why did he leave? Why did he get so little money? Why did the circumstances of his departure leave him unable to get a corporate job or a university position? 

My biggest fear about the show at this point is that there are no answers to these questions. The pitch was that Mr. Chips becomes Scarface. But it only takes a handful of episodes before you realize that Walt isn’t just some guy who happens to know some chemistry. He’s brilliant, driven, and egomaniacal. So what was he doing in that high school in the first place? If we haven’t been told already, it may be because there was never a reason.

The other question that I’m sure won’t get answered is: What’s the story with Uncle Jack and his gang? They’re awfully good at violent crime. And yet they don’t seem to have any real goals. Shouldn’t they be doing more racist stuff? Or articulating some kind of plan? How come Todd doesn’t get some swastika ink if he’s so into torture and murder?

We’re not Western Union,

Matt 

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