TV Recap: Breaking Bad -- "Blood Money"
Note: This article was previously published at Patheos.
“You are the devil.”
This line is uttered only a few minutes into “Blood Money,” the first episode of the final half-season of Breaking Bad, which kicked off the final eight episodes of the series last night. It’s something fans of the show have known for a long time yet the characters onscreen are only now beginning to grasp (and the person who says it doesn’t even mean it). With his bald head and goatee, Walter White even looks like a prototypical cartoon Lucifer, just without the horns and pitchfork.
There have been, and will continue to be, debates among fans about when Walt fully became his villainous alter-ego, Heisenberg. Was it when he let Jane die? Or was it at some point along the chain of lies to Skyler? I’ve always felt that Walter White died pretty early on, in the fifth episode of the first season, when he rejects Elliot’s offer to pay for his chemotherapy. Even though his early attempts at cooking meth led to murder, he still refused to set aside his pride, and it’s that self-centeredness masquerading as bold confidence that set him down this ever-widening path of destruction. At this point in the series, that selfishness has consumed him, and all traces of Walter White are gone. Only Heisenberg—the devil, in a sense—remains.
When we last saw Walt, he had finally found a way out. He trained Todd to be his successor and left his meth business in the hands of Lydia to continue running things overseas. All he had to do was keep running the car wash with Skyler for the sake of appearances and they could live off their millions of dollars in savings. But in the universe of Breaking Bad, there is a God who punishes the wicked. Or at least, there’s poetic justice. This episode picks up right where the mid-season finale left off, with Hank realizing Walt’s true identity as Heisenberg from the comfort of a toilet seat, a posthumous last laugh from Gale Boetticher. He’s so stunned he can barely drive home, but he’s a good cop, and he doesn’t hesitate to start having boxes of evidence delivered so he can put all the pieces together.
At first it might seem remarkable that Hank doesn’t even question what to do—after all, his entire family will be ruined if he sends Walt to jail—but that’s only because we’re so used to seeing characters in film and television bend their morals in the name of family. He’s the antithesis of Walt, a man who won’t use the people around him as an excuse to do wrong or let it go unpunished because he recognizes that it’s better to hurt those he loves than to lose his soul. Despite all his flaws and the inevitable fallout, he’s the guy we all should want to emulate. The final scene in the garage at last finds both men revealing their true selves: Hank, the man who’s committed to stopping Walt without compromising himself, and Walt-slash-Heisenberg, the guy who will do anything to keep from reaping what he’s sown.
It’s here that we finally learn what’s been hinted at for a while now: Walt’s cancer has returned. For most of the series’ run, he was the cancer, infecting everyone around him with lies and violence. Now that he’s no longer playing the meth game, he’ll die, and he doesn’t even seem to care. This isn’t a defeat, it’s a victory. If he dies now, he’ll die on top of the world, having escaped judgment for all his sins. His family will be secure. He’ll have won. That’s what’s at stake when he confronts Hank in the garage, and it’s why Hank still has a tough job ahead of him. The battle lines have been drawn, and as Walt reminds him, even though he knows the truth the odds are against him.
It’s a gripping moment that has already become another meme (though I doubt “Tread Lightly” will have the same staying power as “I Am The One Who Knocks”), but it pales in comparison to Walt’s meeting with Jesse, who’s so desperate for forgiveness that by the end of the episode he’s trying to buy it, tossing wads of cash at strangers’ houses. Becoming the Robin Hood of Albuquerque won’t erase what he’s done, but he at least seems closer to redemption than Walt, who can’t even admit that he killed Mike. Cranston delivers an incredibly nuanced performance in this scene, somehow managing to make Walt seem sympathetic even as he spouts one lie after another. It’s as if Walt isn’t just trying to persuade Jesse of his innocence, but himself as well. He’s so trapped by his own ego, so lost, that he only views himself as guilty as the people around him do—if Jesse (or Skyler, or Hank, or the audience) thinks he’s innocent, then he is, at least practically speaking. Were Jesse to fight back, to claim he still believes Mike is dead, Walt would be forced to come to grips with the monster inside, and he might not like what he discovers.
Denial can only take him so far, though. Lydia isn’t happy with the quality of product her partners are distributing, and she wants Walt to come show them how it’s done. He refuses, but that won’t be enough. His deeds have become chains tying him to other people, and he’ll likely never be able to fully break them. He might be able to deal with Hank or Lydia individually, but the pressure from both could prove too much.
After all, we already know things probably don’t go his way. This mid-season premiere repeats the same technique from the beginning of Season 5, opening with a flash-forward of Walt, disheveled and alone, his outward appearance finally reflecting his spiritual malaise. He visits the dilapidated remains of his home and grabs the vial of ricin he hid there. Maybe he’ll poison an enemy. Maybe he’ll poison himself. Can even Walt be redeemed? It seems unlikely, but I hope it’s not impossible. Maybe the real devils are those of us watching at home, assuming (or maybe even wishing) that there is no hope.