Jesse is in a bad, bad way; Walt is in a bad, bad way; and Todd is very much in love.
There was no telling where last night's Breaking Bad, the second-to-last episode of the series, would begin. Going into "Granite State," there was no shootout to resolve, no race against time needing its last leg covered. Like coming into a new season of Mad Men, the return could've landed us anywhere. And that's how we met Robert Forster.
We've all been curious about Saul's vacuum man. Because of the show's tight focus, there aren't many opportunities for big moments of stunt casting—peace to DJ Qualls—but last night, curiously, had two. Robert Forster, best known for playing John Cassellis in Medium Cool and Max Cherry in Jackie Brown, was perfect. Even if you aren't familiar with Forster's cult status, his thin hair and craggy mug, like the crow's feet around Walt's eyes but everywhere, made for one of last night's most striking images.
The opening ended on a great image, too. Saul, also in need of an out, arrives at the Vac Man's, where he's told he'll need to rest for a few days before he can re-emerge with a new identity. He'll have a bunkmate: Walt. Via a security camera, Saul and the Vac Man watch Walt raging in his window-less holding cell in the basement of the repair shop. He has his barrel of money but no peace.
Like the chains worn by Jacob Marley in A Christmas Carol, the barrel goes with Walt everywhere. The cost of his greed requires a dolly to be moved.
Unburdened as ever, the neo-Nazis are having all the fun, watching videos together and joking about love. Beyond being entertained by their chilling and weird banter, I fundamentally do not understand these humans. Who is the man who can hear that his kin shot and killed a young boy without flinching, and that man's response is to want to kill the person most troubled by the cold-blooded murder? And what's more, Jack's death march to off Jesse is stopped when he realizes his nephew Todd is in love? Who the fuck are these people, except the best late-game addition to a show ever? This dude really says, "The heart wants what the heart wants," while holding a gun he meant to use to kill only a second ago, and after joking about the wood-chipping power of his nephew's beloved's vagina. Uncle Jack, you are a terrible creation. May you continue to fascinate right until the instant of your hopefully savage death at the business end of Walter's trunk cannon.
Speaking of Walter, he is in a bad, bad way. He wants to kill Jack and the neo-Nazis, and tries to enlist the help of Saul. And by enlist, I mean growl at him in the threatening voice of Heisenberg. Except—and this was especially brilliant—it fails him, the voice. He breaks into a coughing spell while telling Saul that everyone's favorite lawyer is in this situation and he can't get out. I've always been a little uncomfortable with how the show has it both ways re: how we're instructed to look at Heisenberg. On the one hand, there are times when the show reminds us that Walt isn't a great criminal, like when he realizes he didn't need to kill Mike. But the show also revels in Walt as a badass (see: Walt's Destiny's Child "Say my name" moment with Declan). With last week's terrifying phone call and this coughing spell, what I initially thought of as having it both ways is finally revealing itself as complexity. The show is tearing down the aspirational image of Walter the show's bad fans have built up. (Not without the help of the show, of course.)
During Walt's coughing jag, Saul leaves him to start a new life in Alexander Payne's Nebraska. Meanwhile, just as Saul had predicted, Skyler is under the intense scrutiny of the law, despire Walt's efforts to direct attention away from her. In a scene that recalls an early conversation between Walt and a doctor about his cancer, Skyler doesn't listen to the suits. She hears only a wash of white noise. Yes, Skyler's gone catatonic again.
She snaps out of it when Todd and the most efficient neo-Nazi ninjas break into her place, discrediting the law enforcement officials of Albuquerque yet again. (They probably write Vince Gilligan Christmas cards about this gift to them.) Todd, in his perfectly calm, boyish voice, tells Skyler that she shouldn't ever talk to the police about Lydia because it would a) break his heart, and b) get her family killed. He only implies point a), but is rather explicit about b).
Todd's subsequent meeting with Lydia was a bit of a let down. No Mike Ehrmantraut, Todd obeys his cautious sweetheart and sits facing away from her in the cafe. It must hurt Todd's sociopathic heart that only the mention of blue piques her interest. Lydia is only out for one thing, and it isn't Todd's #feelings. But the dialogue here didn't vibrate with weirdness and the tonal shifts the white supremacists usually bring. Still, I will continue to ship Todd and Lydia. (Did you see the way he picked the lint of her back? He probably took that home and masturbated with it. That's love...when you're a neo-Nazi.)
Across the country, the Vac Man deposits Walt in New Hampsire, the Granite State with the motto "Live free or die." Has Breaking Bad been criticizing libertarianism this entire time? I've never been able to get a handle on it. Certainly Gale Boetticher, the only explicitly libertarian character on the show, was made to look foolish. But is BB at large a critique of that belief system? Walter's an angry white man, which either makes him a Tea Partier or a Randroid—possibly. More on this at a later date.
In New Hampshire, Walt will spend his days watching Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium and waiting on the Vac Man, whose montly visits bring supplies and DIY chemo. Sometimes a game of cards and conversation, if Walt is willing to pay the Vac Man for his time. (He is.) Eight snowy and hard miles from town, and laid up with increasingly aggressive cancer, Walt has little choice in the matter. He's a prisoner.
Jesse, in his prison, has little choice and increasingly little to lose. In what must be the most sadistic moment in the show's history, Jesse is punished for trying to escape from the neo-Nazi concentration camp. Trapped and gagged in a van parked nearby, Jesse watches Todd visit a spell with Andrea. After he promises her that it's not personal, Todd shoots her in the back of the head. Jesse watches. It's more torture-pornographic than actual torture porn. Who will raise Brock?
There's a lot of watching on this episode: Saul watching Walter on the security monitor. Jack watching Jesse on DVD. Jesse watching Todd from the car. Walt watching Charlie Rose. On an episode about confinement and tight spaces and situations, there's nothing smaller than the rectangle of a screen, where the viewer is powerless to affect change. We're powerless, strapped into Gilligan's ride. Jack tries to act upon what he sees on the screen, but is dissuaded. Walter, after trekking into town to make a phone call from a local bar, is primed to act when he catches Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz on Charlie Rose. They're discussing a recent charity venture, outreach for addicts, and Rose asks them if it has anything to do with their connection to Walter White, meth king. Gretchen and Elliott are certain: no. Because White made no real contributions to Gray Matter, other than the name.
Exhausted and defeated after a bad converstion with Junior, Walt starts boiling during the telecast. Gray Matter's been a sore spot for Walt for years, one of the things that's conspired to make an angry white man out of him. Like Jack, what he sees on the TV screen sends him into a murderous rage. Jack has his family around him, though, and that family pursuades him to stop. Walter has no family now. There's no one to talk him down. No one will stop him. The gun is in the trunk, and Walt has his mission.