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Watching Stuff: "Breaking Bad" and the Dark Night of the Soul

By Rich Heldenfels Published: September 23, 2013

My schedule has for the most part meant that I have been seeing "Breaking Bad" episodes as much as a couple of days after their telecast. This usually had to do with my schedule, since I teach early Monday mornings and that means that Sunday night contains lesson prep. But last night, as we go into the final episodes of the series, I did watch it in real time and realized another reason why I've tended to catch up during a day.

After watching "Breaking Bad," it is very hard to sleep. (Spoilers will follow.)

The series has been horriifically soul-wrenching as it heads toward its series finale on Sept. 29. I think back to Hank's "confession," an act of epic betrayal of family, and of the Sept. 15 horrors including Hank's death, Jesse in captivity, the destruction of Walt's family, Walt's call to Skyler, the baby scenes -- it was an unending trail of brutality, all showing not that Walt was a monster but that he was, in the end, a delusional fool. He had sacrificed his family, which was supposedly the reason for his criminal empire, and lost his soul. Not even his small attempts at redemption -- like the phone call and giving up the baby -- made up for what he had done. Unlike Todd and the Nazis, he still had a conscience. Only it did not matter in the wake of his horrible deeds.

And then we come to Sunday's episode, and everything gets worse.

Think of the episode as a story of two escapes and their consequences. Jesse gets out of his cage, but is caught. And when he tries to a Hank moment, a gasp of dignity in death, instead he creates another disaster: the death of Andrea. At the same time, Walt manages an escape all the way to New Hampshire but the consequences are also dire.Just as Jesse has been separated from the outside world, with one more connection -- Andrea -- severed, so Walt is isolated. No phone, no Internet, no letters. His money cannot be spent except for himself. His family is under constant DEA scrutiny; a trial looms, Skyler is getting by as a taxi dispatcher -- and when Walt thinks of a way to get money to them, his own son spurns him not for abandoning the family but for getting Hank killed.

Walt in his New Hampshire isolation recalls scenes from the first two "Godfather" movies: the one at the end of the original where Michael has taken power and the door closes on Kay (when I think of that closed door, I think of Walt as the One Who Knocks, wanting to get into the power room), and the one at the end of "Godfather II" where Michael has been stripped of his family, even killing Fredo, and is a solitary figure filmed with the blank eyes of a statue (and that statue, then and in "BB," is Ozymandias). Even if we ended with Walt in that situation, we would have a potent, tragic conclusion.

But that's not enough to punish Walt -- and, no matter how the saga ends, no matter if Walt somehow pulls off one last redemptive act to save Jesse and/or Skyler, he needed to be punished. Instead, we get the additional moment when Gray Matter Technologies denies his importance. For Walt, this may be the most cruel thing to happen. It's the equivalent of Vic's final punishment in "The Shield" where, like Walt, Vic has given up his famiily amd his friends for the sake of self-preservation, only to be stripped of the one thing that matters most: being a lord of the streets. Vic at a desk, under bad lighting, is the parallel to Walt sitting at the bar, hearing himself denied and diminished. Heisenberg, my ass, says the conversation on "Charlie Rose." And, just as Vic's final act is to run from his desk, gun in hand, to reclaim his power and ego, so goes Walt at the end of the "Granite State" episode, out and back to reclaim something of his own.

I have wondered more than once if we are heading toward a "Taxi Driver" moment, a bloodbath that appeals both to the psychotic violence in Travis Bickle and Walt, and to their visions of themselves as heroes of their own stories. After all, Walt had a chance at another kind of heroism, to give himself up and end his family's suffering -- and, in the end, that did not satisfy because it would not carve his name in stone. He is still fighting not to be Ozymandias, even as we see how much more harm he has done.


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