Gliding o’er all, through all,
Through Nature, Time, and Space,
As a ship on the waters advancing,
The voyage of the soul–not life alone,
Death, many deaths I’ll sing.
I haven’t been this emotionally annihilated by Walt Whitman since DEAD POETS SOCIETY. The mid-season finale of BREAKING BAD was a a flurry of disturbing montage set against the background of a fidget-inducing stoicism. My initial attempt to put my reaction into words resulted in a series of expletives and onomatopoeia, lots of “F@#KS!” and gagging noises (mostly induced by the prison murder montage). I’ve had time and a good night’s sleep to gather my thoughts and separate them from my feelings. With the shock and awe weeded out, I have a better view of the brilliance and disappointment generated by the finale. The former far outweighs the latter, but it wouldn’t be criticism if I didn’t pick it apart a bit.
The writers of BREAKING BAD have taken subtlety to a new level. Artistically, it’s refreshing and fairly ingenious. From the perspective of an avid viewer, it’s frustrating. Episode 8, “Gliding Over All,” was a pacing through of Walt’s loose ends. Those of us who have paid excruciatingly close attention were ticking off item after item, harboring the illusion we were being diligent. The devil is in the details, though; it’s an uneven playing field when the details are implied rather than, you know, actually provided. Walt pushes himself through the motions in “Gliding Over All,” keeping an eerie distance from what must be done. At first, it comes across as stoicism, but eventually you realize he is numb. He’s alone in the empire he has created, and keeping himself detached may be his only salvation.
After killing Mike, Walt has to pick up the pieces and take care of any loopholes that might destroy his carefully laid plans. In a not-so-clandestine meeting with Lydia, Walt gets the names of Mike’s 9 men inside (10, now counting the lawyer) and gets the heads-up on an international drug trade venture. By moving his product to the Czech Republic, he’ll be able to massively increase his profits. For a man who has proclaimed himself in the “in the empire business,” going international is too tempting to pass up. List in hand, he takes the next logical step. Need 10 men killed in 3 prisons within 2 minutes? Go with the Final Solution in prison-assassination: your protege’s uncle’s Nazi gang.
Afer the hits go down, Walt and Hank have a cryptic and one-sided conversation. Both men sit, facing each other, but neither is actually looking at the other. They’re both numb, both broken. Hank, staying true to the Whitman-themed rhetoric of the episode, begins to describe his first job as a marker for the timber industry. He recounts walking through the forest, marking paths for impending destruction, spray painting bright orange exes on the trees to be cut. Amidst an overwhelming forest of timber, he culls through a small percent of the trees, leaving the others for someone else to mark. When it comes to clues, the writers are beyond subtle; when it comes to symbolism, they tend to be as blatant as can be. Hank has culled his way through all of the minor characters in the Heisenberg plot, but he’s yet to take down Heisenberg. He has no idea how close he has come, time and time again. Walt responds to Hank distractedly; he’s either not paying attention, or avoiding the obvious symbolism. Or, perhaps his mind is on what just happened:
I wasn’t aware I could dry gag so many times without actually throwing up. Thanks for that, BREAKING BAD. This was one of the two amazing montages in “Gliding Over All.” The prison snuff montage sums up the power of Walt’s destruction, even when he’s operating from a comfortable distance. The second montage was more of standard cooking montage, showing Walt and Todd cooking batch after batch of meth. Cook, weigh, bag, deliver money. Repeat. This montage is more than just a visual distraction, though. After pacing the one year story out over 4 seasons, it’s time to speed up the pace. With each batch they cook, money amasses and time passes. After months of cooking, Skyler finally shows Walt the fortune he has accumulated.
For the first time in a while, the reality of Walt’s actions are tangible; he is literally awestruck by the fortune he has attained. He’s made more money than he will ever be able to funnel through a local business. If he were to make any more, his only option would be a vault in the style of Scrooge McDuck. Despite the blood on his hands, the bridges he has burned, the family he has destroyed, the money finally drives the point home: Enough is enough.
Then, it all gets a little more surreal, a little less connected. We are given a brief and tauntingly mysterious glimpse at Walt undergoing an MRI (in case you had forgotten that he takes medication in the cryptic season intro), and then we are quickly scooted along to the next awkward scene. Walt shows up at Jesse’s house, and they have a tense and meaningless conversation, reminiscing about times that can only be considered good if you compare them to the atrocious things that happened after. Jesse keeps a skittish distance from Walt during the encounter, not buying Walt’s sincerity for a second. Walt bids Jesse a good day, and lets him know he left something for him on the front porch. Jesse approaches the abandoned duffel bags with fearful anxiety; you’re pretty sure he is expecting to find a body. Instead, he’s greeted with an absolute shit ton of money. This had been Walt’s attempt to make amends.
With all debts paid, Walt can now move on. He tells Skyler he is “out,” and time lapses once again. Gauging the time passed by the growth of their baby, Holly, it’s safe to say it’s been a couple of months since Walt left the meth game. At least, we assume he left the meth game; it’s honestly hard to imagine his psychotic outer shell was finally broken by something as simple as showing him his wealth. But, if we take the episode at face value, we can assume a month or so has passed.
Walt, Skyler and the family are outside near the pool. The conversation is upbeat and reminiscent of a time that existed before Walt told Skyler about his cancer. In general, it would appear that everything has cooled over. With seconds left in the episode, we see Hank using Walt and Skyer’s bathroom. Hank rummages through the reading material in the bathroom and finally settles upon a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
I will praise nearly every other aspect of the episode, but the last few seconds were completely frustrating. On the one hand, it’s nice to be left with such a decisive direction for the next half of the season. On the other hand, the writers used a plot twist no one would be able to foresee. This was not just a loophole or loose end that Walt left dangling; this was a trivial piece of information that even the most extreme fan would not have been able to identify. True, there were many clues in this particular episode, but there were virtually no references or allusions to Walt’s possession of this book in any of the episodes between “Sunset” and “Gliding Over All.” This wasn’t a clue, it was an allusion to a clue.
I can set my anger aside on this point, and try to focus on what it all means. Walt’s keeping the book definitely speaks to Walt’s inflated hubris. Of course he wouldn’t get rid of an item that contained this much praise. He would set it aside and eventually forget about it, but he would never knowingly throw away something so valuable to his pride. This is the only explanation I can think of. Walt has been so careful to hide or destroy every scrap of evidence, yet he kept this book. When Gale gave it to him, he could have disposed of it. Even at that point in the story line, Walt knew better than to hold onto something so incriminating.
The only thing left to do now is speculate. Is this enough evidence for Hank to justify pursuing Walt? Will he be able to bring himself to arrest his own family, or will he turn to more unethical measures in order to save face. Did he actually leave the drug game, or only convince Skyler he’d gone clean? His cancer, what’s up with that? Fellow writer and VeryAware editor, Brandon Marcus, has made his predictions and they’re pretty damn brilliant. There are only eight episodes of BREAKING BAD left, but there are still so many questions. We can only hope BREAKING BAD will have the decency to tie it all together without taking the same route as LOST or THE SOPRANOS.