He’s saved his marriage, against all odds. He’s successfully hid his secret from his children. He’s made his peace with Jessie. He’s out of the game.
After four and a half seasons of doing all the pushing – of being the one who knocks – Walter White finally put to rest the demons that had driven him to take numerous lives and put countless others in danger. The reigning meth kingpin of the Southwestern United States and, curiously, the Czech Republic has put down the crown, and against all odds, it’s on his own volition.
Now someone else is knocking.
“Blood Money,” the first of the final eight ‘Breaking Bad’ episodes, set the chessboard in the series’ traditionally meticulous manner, then delivered a gut punch of a conclusion to remind everyone that A) this is the most badass show on television, and B) Vince Gilligan isn’t f*cking around.
Not that he ever has, but certainly not with the end in sight. And after “Blood Money,” the ramp up to the end might already be over; the end might already be here.
The episode opens with a flash-forward to a bearded Walt, the same way last year’s season premiere did. Back then, Walt was celebrating his 52nd birthday with clever bacon arrangement and by purchasing heavy ordnance; now, he’s surveying the wreckage of his now-abandoned house, and removing Checkhov’s ricin capsule from its well-concealed hiding place behind an outlet cover. That ricin has been around since season two, and its appearance here reassures everyone that ‘Breaking Bad’ is not going to pull a ‘Lost’ and leave with a bunch of unanswered questions.
Back in the present day, the story picks up right where it left off, with a stunned Hank lifting the Walt Whitman poetry book and shuffling away from the party. Poor Hank is so shaken he can’t navigate the roads, driving into a neighbor’s yard.
A handwriting comparison between Gale’s previous note and the one in Walt’s book confirms what Hank already suspected, though more evidence is required to actually move on the information. Hank conveniently takes advantage of Marie’s concern over what she understandably believes is a medical condition by turning it into an excuse to spend a few days at home combing through the Gus Fring files for clues. Nothing conclusive, but Hank knows what’s up.
Meanwhile, Walt is throwing himself into his new life as the world’s most eager car wash employee. Walt’s in the “empire business,” after all, so it makes perfect sense that he’s pushing Skyler to use their near-infinite wealth to purchase more car washes. But Walt’s still not fully escaped his prior life, as a visit from panicked-as-always Lydia proves. He and Skyler shoo her away, but Walt can’t stay away when he’s told by Saul that Jesse is trying to give away his $5 million stake.
Oh kind-hearted, guilt-riddled Jesse. He’s never been able to enjoy the fruits of the meth business – especially since kids started dying – and is now stuck in a life where Badger is full-on Patton Oswalt’ing long fan fiction tales about Star Trek while Skinny Pete eggs him on. Out of the frying pan and into the fire, as always, for young Jesse.
Looking for some way to clear his conscience, Jesse asks Saul to split his $5 million between Mike’s granddaughter and the family of the motorbike-riding boy that Todd killed. Saul calls Walt, and Walt shows up at Jesse’s door for a monster-to-man conversation. Jesse has figured out that Walt killed Mike, and Walt does what he always does – lies directly to Jesse’s face. Walt’s repeated refrain of “I need you to believe me” is in fact true, though even if it works on Jesse, he doesn’t show it. Jesse comforts himself by giving out a stack of money to a homeless man. I dearly hope this story ends well for Jesse, but I’ve got a sinking feeling that it won’t.
So everything’s going more or less how one would expect, given where the first half of the seasons left off. Then Walt shows up on Hank’s driveway, and all hell breaks loose.
Granted, it wasn’t some kind of firefight. But Walt, who has now realized that his Walt Whitman book is missing and has his suspicions about Hank, observes Hank’s behavior, connects the dots, and provokes him. Hank attacks Walt, laying his cards on the table and revealing what he knows. Walt, stuck between his desire to deny everything and his massive ego, issues a meek half-denial, pleading that he’s a “dying man who runs a car wash,” asking Hank “What’s the point?”
“I don’t even know who I’m talking to,” an almost-scared Hank answers.
The smart response would, of course, be “Walter White” or “your brother-in-law”. You know, things normal people would say. But Walt’s pride remains undefeated in its war with Walt’s common sense, leading him to coldly end the conversation with, “If that’s true, and you don’t know who I am, then maybe your best course would be to tread lightly.”
With a set end date (8 episodes from now) and a somewhat set conclusion (the inevitable Walt/Hank showdown), I for one did not expect Walt to find out about Hank’s suspicions so soon. In the version of this final stretch that I had constructed in my head, there would be a good 2-3 episode lead-up that involved surveillance, covert questioning, and all the police stuff we’ve come to expect. But no, as “Blood Money” firmly establishes, we’re diving right into that Walt/Hank showdown.
“Blood Money” was a superb opener for this final run of episodes – though if you expected anything less then you clearly haven’t been watching this show for 4+ seasons: Wonderfully shot (the garage showdown was beautifully staged), flawlessly acted (the Walt/Jesse scene, man), and filled with the kind of funny, human moments (Badger!!) that separate this series from the neverending darkness that’s becoming more and more pervasive in “quality” television.
On the large scale, what impresses me most about ‘Breaking Bad’ is its ability to surprise while remaining so tethered to its own building block approach to storytelling. ‘Mad Men,’ for example, can be all over the map thematically, stylistically, and tonally on an episode-by-episode basis, which naturally imbues the series a thrilling sense of uncertainty. But ‘Breaking Bad’ tells its story like a student writing a lab report. Each plot development bubbles up from all that has come before it. Nothing is introduced out of the blue, no loose ends left untied. ‘Mad Men’ is watching a fireworks show; ‘Breaking Bad’ is manufacturing the fireworks. The way the series is able to use its characters and play with the pacing of the story to still create excitement and uncertainty is masterful.
And now that we’re nearing the end, ‘Breaking Bad’ can finally launch all the fireworks it’s spent many hours crafting. Judging by “Blood Money,” the grand finale is already about to start. Buckle up.