Monday, September 17, 2012

Meth Monday No. 9: Reactions

Well Readers Mine, a couple of weeks have gone by in which folks have been digesting Breaking Bad's mid-season finale, "Gliding Over All" as it relates to the rest of the season and to the series as a whole. There are a lot of opinions out there, and who knows how many blogs, reviews, recaps, Tweets, Facebook postings, reddits, etc, etc, ad infinitum. Today I thought I'd engage with one of the more thoughtful writers out there, Think Progress's Alyssa Rosenberg, and her article "Why the Season finale of Breaking Bad Didn't Work." If you haven't caught up on Season 5 yet, be warned, HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!!

Breaking Bad official art by Christopher Monroe DeLorenzo
Ms. Rosenberg's issue with "Gliding Over All" (5.08), is that the reasons behind Walt's apparently sudden decision to quit cooking meth are left unexplained, which is a bit of a shock after this season's build up of Walt as a megalomaniac hell-bent on going into "the empire business," as some kind of twisted revenge on a world that he thinks has used him badly, and especially on Gretchen, Elliott, and Gray Matter. As Rosenberg points out:
"There are a number of possibilities here: that he’s bowed to Skyler’s reasoning, that in that pile of money, he’s finally found satisfaction, that having gotten the meth business running smoothly and efficiently, he’s no longer attracted to or challenged by the prospect of perfecting his operation. That, or it’s possible that he’s lying, and he intends to continue cooking."
I'd like to offer another theory, and one that I think is very likely: that Walt only thinks he's out. Judging from the cooking and distribution montage preceding Walt's announcement to Skyler that he's out, Walt and  Todd have been busy little drug-makers, enough so that, possibly there is a bit of a surplus of Blue Magic built up and/or still moving though the supply chain. Walt can declare that he's out pretty easily at this point, but besides making monetary amends to Jesse, we haven't seem him delivering the news of his decision to Todd, Lydia, or Declan, and somehow I doubt all (or any) of them are going to be too willing to shake hands and walk away from what is just an insane amount of money, and a market that can never be more than temporarily surfeited.

So okay, there are some complications likely heading Walt's way, but Rosenberg is right, none of that explains the why of Walt. She's also right in that the only real clue we have is Walt's reaction to that pile of money. Which Skyler keeps sprayed for silverfish. Because she has to store it. Because she can't keep up with laundering it. Because there's so much money there she doesn't even bother to count it any more. Is it the sheer visual impact of all that money that finally, finally hits home with Walt? Does that combine with the fact that the only way Skyler is going to let his kids back in the house is to stop cooking meth? Or is it just that things are running smoothly, and Walt's no longer getting the adrenaline rush high of leaping from one deadly mess to another anymore? Of course, we know that Walt has a tendency to find an excuse to walk away from things once he gets dissatisfied with them - see Gray Matter, so maybe being emperor isn't all he though it would be, and he's just bored.

In any event, as things stand now, Rosenberg is right: we're missing something here, some further twist in Walt's character and his thinking. Where I tend to disagree with her is in her analysis of whether Walt's moral state at the time when Hank finds him out really matters:
"If he’s Heisenberg, still confident and arrogant, Walt’s moral reckoning will involve the utter dismantling of his identity. But if Walt’s grappling towards decency, his reaping of the whirlwind will involve different kinds of pain, shame, and disbelief. If it’s to be the former, we need to know how Skyler came to be able to live with him, to laugh through dinner with Hank and Marie, to enjoy watching her children play together. If it’s the latter, we need to know how Walt found his way to a third self, neither the emasculated Mr. White nor the dominating Heisenberg."
I think we'll be dealing with the latter of Ms. Rosenberg's character sketches. I don't think Walt's personalities are truly divisible any longer. There is no telling anymore where Heisenberg ends and Walter White begins, but I think we've seen how that gestalt emerged, and I think it happened in Season 4. That was the season where Walt went from a terrified man about to puke as Gus slit Victor's throat in front of him to a man who could coldly calculate the murder of his two greatest enemies and afterward calmly tell Skyler "I won." Walt's frightening self-assurance throughout Season 5 has not been the result of climbing fully into the Heisenberg personality, but rather of reconciling the various parts of his character into a (relatively) smoothly functioning whole. We've not been dealing with "Heisenberg" all season, nor have we been dealing with "Mr. White," but with a disturbingly self-actualized and virulently violent Walter Hartwell White. The arc of this change is signaled back in Season 3 where the newly-sober Jesse latches onto the seeming paradoxical idea of accepting who you are, but while Jesse claims to be "the bad guy," he can never quite accept that, whereas Walt, who once said "I can't be the bad guy," now most most definitely is, and has truly accepted that. Just as there was no split between Pablo Escobar the murderous cartel-king and Pablo Escobar the philanthropist, so too there is no difference between Walt the meth-king and Walt the married man. It is all Walt, and the whirlwind he reaps will involve everything Rosenberg posits and more, because it will fall upon the whole man.

So that's it for this week, Readers Mine. Click back here next week for the next installment of "Meth Monday," and don;t forget to head over to my partner, K. Dale Koontz's blog, Unfettered Brilliance come Wednesday for another one of her "Walter White Wednesdays." Meanwhile look me up on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ for all the Breaking Bad news and tidbits that pops up in my browser. See you next time!

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