Gliding Over ‘Breaking Bad’s’ Final Season

By Blake Baxter (@bbax2)

WALT

What do you do when you have it all? Not just everything you ever wanted. No, this is something you never dreamt of because it would be insane to even fathom. You’ve always been brilliant and you’ve known it, but the world isn’t fair and it doesn’t always reward brilliance. You were ambitious, but you caught some bad breaks along the way and things didn’t necessarily work out the way you planned. Your friends and colleagues weren’t any better than you were, yet they are the ones that became multi-millionaires, while you stopped following your passion and essentially settled. And, the most self-damaging effect: you stopped taking risks.

You take up an admirable but unglamorous position and, deep down, you never forgive yourself for it. Sure, you have a stable, if modest life, complete with a nice home and a loving family, but if you’re being unflinchingly honest with yourself, you’re trapped firmly within the bottom rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. And, you have a long way to get to the top of the pyramid. In other words, on the outside, it looks like you have an adequate assortment of ingredients to live a happy life. However, there’s this nagging feeling that you need an ambiguous sense of more. Obviously, nothing could be more unattainable. At this point of your life, you are who you are and nothing is going to change.

Then suddenly, something does change, only it’s not a good change. In fact, it’s a tragedy. But whether people know it or not, you have always been creative; a problem solver, a genius, even. And so, you come up with a solution. You decide to take a risk and it’s an enormous one. You make a decision and commit to it, without fully considering the consequences. In reality, there’s no way you could even grasp the repercussions, at this point. That sole decision sets off an incredible chain reaction of events, decisions and risks that lead you to this moment right now –- the one where you have it all. Everything that has happened is inextricably linked to that very first decision that was unlike any of those made before it.

If you want to be frank, not everything that has gone down has been positive. Personally, you’ve had your share of highs and lows. Other people’s lives have been irrevocably altered; some even –- more than you care to remember –- have been lost. But what does it matter? What’s done is done. “It had to be done,” you like to say, to justify the means. And besides, you have it all. So what now? When is enough, enough?

If you don’t know whom “you” are by now, then you probably shouldn’t be reading this, but I’ll say it anyway. You are Walter White: the fascinating protagonist turned antagonist of AMC’s groundbreaking series Breaking Bad. For the last four and a half seasons, (or five, honestly whatever way you want to categorize it works) you have been gradually rising to the top of the crime world, while drifting towards the dark side, losing your humanity in the process. You are one of the last symbols of TV’s Golden Age, and, like all things, you are coming to an inevitable end.

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Breaking Bad returns this Sunday for a final run of eight episodes to conclude the Walter White sage once and for all. Officially, this run will be known as the second half of season five. Whether or not this makes sense is up for debate, but that is neither here nor there. The first half came last summer in the form of eight exceptional episodes that told the story of the aftermath of Walt’s victory over the ruthless crime lord, Gustavo Fring. But, as killer with a conscience Mike Ehrmantraut once said: “Just because you shot Jesse James don’t make you Jesse James.” Walt may have taken out the biggest threat, but he had a lot more to take care of before he could start building and running his unstoppable drug empire.

The things that he had to do (and did) were not things that Walter White was capable of. However, the journey to his triumph over Fring permanently transformed Walter White into his alter ego, Heisenberg. Heisenberg was capable of the machinations that enabled him to rise to the top. Heisenberg threatened his loved ones, double-crossed his partners, orchestrated mass murder and manipulated every variable and person that he could, all with a monstrous zeal.

He obsessively checked every box on the list and grinded through every step necessary until he created a system that worked seamlessly, like a machine (like well oiled, yo!). The meth artist formerly known as Walter White was not only the greatest meth cook in the world, he was the overseer of a multi-country drug monopoly. Not all that long ago, he was broke and didn’t just have one foot in the grave; his whole body was underground, trapped in a bleak crawl space. Suddenly, he was overlooking an uncountable, un-launder-able, amount of money.  What was there left to achieve? He had reached the pinnacle of success –- at least, in his mind.

“When is enough, enough?” his wife asked desperately as the two of them stared at a mountain of hard-earned, though bloodstained, cash.

The scene reminded me of two different things. I thought of something the protagonist (antagonist?) of Breaking Bad’s sister Golden Age series, Mad Men, once said. “But what is happiness? It’s a moment before you need more happiness,” Don Draper said. Walt had attained an inconceivable, unparalleled level, so what can he do to prevent everything that comes next from feeling dull and unfulfilling?

It also prompted me to think about Pat Riley’s “Disease of More” theory. In Riley’s 1988 book Showtime, the Hall of Fame coach posited, “success is the first step towards disaster.” After you win a championship, everyone on the roster wants more playing time, more money and more opportunities. Sure, the journey to reach that success was great, but you need to up the ante if you want to get that high again. Walt has developed an addiction to more. He yearns for more. More, though, will ensure his destruction.

However, for whatever reason, Walt doesn’t choose more. Instead, he agrees to cut himself off from the underworld at long last. When we last saw him, Walt was chatting animatedly with his family, appearing genuinely happy in his return to the role of stable family man — or at least he looked that way. We, the audience, know by now that Walt is an acting virtuoso so he could just be putting on a performance. There’s a possibility that he’s secretly craving the world of risk, power and dominance that he left behind. But perhaps, he is just relieved that he somehow managed to make it through everything relatively unscathed. What he doesn’t know, though, is that the damage has already been done.

DEA Assistant Special Agent in Charge Hank Schrader has discovered the truth about Walt’s life due to Walt’s uncharacteristic carelessness. Walt’s meticulousness once empowered him in pulling off such a tremendous ruse, but during his transformation to Heisenberg, he replaced his knack for fastidiousness with ego. The new version of Walt absentmindedly, or perhaps daringly, left out an incriminating piece of evidence in the form of a copy of Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. Hank’s revelation opened the door to a bizarre new reality where Hank knows that his seemingly harmless, kind and timid brother-in-law is not whom he appears; a whole new world where Hank knows that Walt, whom he has consoled, confided in, looked out for and, most crucially, provided access to intimate details of his occupation, was playing him for a fool the whole time. Hank has already proven that he is a force to be reckoned with; he will stop at nothing to get revenge for a betrayal so impactful and so personal.

Yes, Walter White is going down and most would agree that he fully deserves it. It is rough to see a man that was introduced in such an empathetic and endearing way crumble before our eyes, but he did this to himself. Some will find solace in the monster that Walter White has become finally being slain, but if you think he is the only body that is going to fall, then you haven’t been paying close enough attention. On Breaking Bad, every action and event has a consequence.

It turns out, it doesn’t matter that Walt chose to walk away from his life of crime. His actions didn’t happen in a vacuum. He shouldn’t have thought he could simply jump to the next phase of his life, with no strings attached. The question that should have been on his mind: how am I going to deal with the inevitable consequences?

In the past, when he was threatened and backed into a corner, Walt tapped into the persona of his alter ego. That is when Heisenberg was at his most dangerous. That is when people got killed. Heisenberg is bound to return this season. Who, if anyone, will be safe? Last summer, Mr. Ehrmantraut summed up Walt’s fate before he fell prey to Heisenberg: “You are a time bomb tick, tick, ticking. And, I have no intention of being around for the boom.” We may not know who is going to get blown up, but the boom is imminent. And what a boom it will be.

BREAKING BAD

Blake Baxter is a native of Illinois and a 2013 graduate of Eureka College. He currently covers the Carolina Panthers for Football.com and previously covered college basketball for ESPN Louisville during the 2012-13 season. He has also written about sports, pop culture and politics for The College FixThe Wine and Cheese Crowd and an assortment of newspapers. Blake works in the communication and marketing field for Technical Solutions & Services, but aspires to write full-time someday. 

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