In a show set against the southwest desert, Breaking Bad’s penultimate episode gave viewers something that none of us likely expected: snow. This is, indeed, the winter of Walter White’s disconnect.
“Granite State” revolves around different kinds of captivity. Walt is forced into hiding in an isolated cabin in the New Hampshire wilderness. Skyler is a captive in her own home. Jesse has, without benefit of a conviction or trial, been locked in a remote, secret prison where he is physically abused and psychologically tortured while serving a sentence of indeterminate, possibly unending, length. (The parallels to Gitmo are by no means accidental.) Lydia is a captive to her product while Todd is a captive to his feelings for Lydia. They all, as Bob Dylan might say, gotta serve somebody.
We watched as Jesse attempted to escape from his cell and Todd meted out the punishment. Todd has slowly evolved to become one of Breaking Bad’s most fascinating characters. He started out as a seemingly dimwitted member of the meth-cooking crew but has become a terrifying figure, menacing Skylar and dispassionately executing Andrea as Jesse watches.
In movies and on TV, serial murderers are usually depicted in one of a few ways: those who are driven to kill by some pathological impulse and derive pleasure from the act (lunatics and sociopaths); those who are paid to kill and can separate their work from their private lives (professionals); and those who will kill when they have to but are troubled, even tormented, by their actions (pragmatists). Todd isn’t precisely any of these. He tries to avoid killing (or hurting) people, but when he needs to, he will murder without hesitation or remorse, whether it’s a BMX bike-riding kid or Jesse’s former girlfriend. Todd is especially protective when it comes to Walter and his family. In some strange way, he wants to be connected to the Whites, partially out of respect for Walt or perhaps because they represent the sort of family he never had.
From the confines of a New Hampshire bar, Walt is riddled with cancer and anguished that his efforts have all been for naught. Grasping for a lifeline he desperately calls his son from a payphone, but the conversation with Flynn (why has the school agreed to call him by his goofy adopted moniker?) turns out to be more devastating than Walt’s call to Skyler. (On a sidenote, this episode confirms what we all knew: Walt’s call to Skylar was a calculated attempt to exonerate her.) It’s not until afterward, as he’s sipping his glass of Dimple Pinch (the world’s fourth most popular blended whiskey) that Walt receives his final call to action.
It comes in the form of Gretchen and Elliott, his smug former business partners, who declare on TV that Walt’s only contribution to the founding of their company was to help conceive its name. Finally, Walt is ready to complete the “unfinished business” he mentioned in last week’s episode. But what does that mean?
These sort of scenarios typically end with a showdown—pistols drawn at high noon or whatever the modern, meth-soaked equivalent of that is—but Vince Gilligan dispensed with the classic face-off a few episodes before Breaking Bad’s finale. With Hank and Gomey dead, there’s no high-profile character (i.e. someone whose name we know instead of a redshirt government agent) to pursue Walt and Jesse.
Walt has been adamant throughout the series that whatever he has done, he has done for his family. Hank’s death shattered that family along with Walt’s image as patriarch and protector. With all the energy he can muster, Walt still wants to provide for his wife and children—even if they want nothing to do with him.
For Walter White, and for Breaking Bad, there are only three ways out:
1. Walt survives alone in the wilderness until cancer or some other cause takes him. (That’s not gonna happen.)
2. Walt rides back into town and saves Jesse, his progeny and prodigy, and they become each other’s surrogate family. (It’s a possibility.)
3. Walt makes some sort of sacrifice that likely kills him but helps his family and wins back a smidgen of their respect. (The most satisfying scenario for viewers, which is probably why it won’t happen.)
He’ll either live free or die, but it won’t be in New Hampshire. Our hero has donned the black hat, probably for the last time. Whether that makes him milquetoast chemistry teacher Walter White, ruthless drug lord Heisenberg, or some amalgamation of the two, you will remember his name.