These questions regard last night’s episode of AMC’s Breaking Bad. Please answer the prompts with specific examples from LAST NIGHT’S EPISODE, though supplementary material will be accepted as a secondary source. Please write legibly. No. 2 pencils only. You have an hour to finish this test. See below for questions and sample responses.
1. When the proverbial shit hits the fan out in the desert, we see Walt make his last stab at control when he tries to call off the hit on Jesse because Hank is out there with him. So in the end, Walt did value family over everything else—including the loss of his money—right? Because of his refusal, even in dire times, to order a hit on his brother-in-law … even though that “moral code” of his is so unbendingly rigid that a brother-in-law trumps a partner who was essentially a son. (Hell, even Michael Corleone knew when it was time to kill Fredo, and they were actually blood relatives.) What other reason could Walt have for calling off a hit that would eliminate all his problems simultaneously?
Do we really have to assume that in making this choice Walt is somehow valuing Hank’s life more than Jesse’s? In attempting to call off the hit, it is entirely possible that Walt was simply trying to forestall the shit-fan collision of the episode’s end. It is one thing to call your neo-Nazi pals in to assassinate one dumb kid; it’s quite another to call them in to make war on that kid plus two well-armed and well-trained DEA agents. “Stab at control” is right. Control-freak Walt doesn’t like chaos, and he knows that he could get caught in the crossfire, which was obviously not an unfounded fear.
But it is also true that Saul suggested, at different times, that both Hank and Jesse be dealt with, and Walt only ordered a hit on Jesse. To Walt’s way of thinking, Jesse is simply a loose cannon, and he can no longer find ways of tempering his erratic tendencies. Hank, on the other hand, follows set rules that Walt hubristically assumes he can manipulate. Moreover, while the idea of Jesse’s death saddens Walt—it is very important to him that Jack and co. know that they’re very close—Hank’s death is unthinkable, because Walt still, somehow, believes that the end result of all of this is that he dies of cancer and then everything goes back to normal, or at least the appearance of normality. Jesse is a part of his Heisenberg world and so is in some sense irrelevant to this overarching plan, expendable. Hank is part of his home life, and so even if he is his enemy, it is important to Walt to keep him around to create this diorama of a rich, happy family that he intends to leave behind.
And of course the true genius of Bryan Cranston’s characterization is that his Walt still appears convinced that all of this is part of a consistent morality. Mind-bogglingly, he still believes he is following some kind of code here.
2. As Heisenberg, Walt was able to turn into something of a super-villain: no matter how tightly he was backed into a spot, he was always able to come out ahead through sheer cunning. But this season’s unraveling seems to imply a random chaos behind it all … that Walt wasn’t a genius, but a man who was on a lucky streak and who now has to pay the consequences of its sudden reversals. After all, it’s far more random that Hank found the book in the first place, that Walt would lapse in his judgement and confess everything to Jesse over the phone by taking credit for all the murders and Brock’s hospitalization, that Jesse would never get Andrea’s phone calls, and that Saul’s bodyguard spill to the DEA after seeing a grainy cell phone shot of Jesse dead (didn’t Saul already talk about a possible hit on Jesse, anyway?)—than any string of diversions that Walt has ever been able to concoct by himself.
So maybe Breaking Bad has ultimately been a show about science versus God, or science versus Fate, or science versus nature: the idea that man can not control his conditions, even under the best circumstances. My question is: Should that make Breaking Bad an acceptable substitute for high school teenagers in Texas who don’t want to take AP chemistry because of Jesus?
There is this tendency among television writers of a certain disposition, when a show approaches its final episodes, suddenly to become theological. Not content with simply dealing with the deeper themes already evoked by their shows, these writers turn toward even more fundamental questions of meaning and existence. Frankly, it’s annoying.
But on Breaking Bad, it is less the writers and more Jesse who specifically formulates things in these terms—in the previous episode, he calls Walt “the devil,” and specifically mentions that he is “luckier than you.” And he’s right: this is nothing new. Walt thinks he is always in control, but his path from chemistry teacher to drug kingpin has been paved with lucky breaks. Jesse’s tendency to get all ultimate end-of-times battle of good and evil about this is only one way of reading it, but Walt is never as smart or in control as he thinks he is. If the writers are using his reversal of fortunes to show us something about the wheel of fate, they are certainly not being heavy-handed about it. When the trap snaps shut around Walt, its inevitability is less about divine judgment than it is temporal justice swooping in when your luck runs out—and if you flip a coin enough times, eventually it is going to come up tails. So if students want to learn anything from this, the apparent arbitrariness of it all would certainly lend itself to an anti-religious argument as easily as a religious one.
3. Todd … oh, precious, creepy Todd. What the hell is he thinking, sniffing around Lydia’s teacup like a creep-o? In fact, the whole White Power side of Todd’s family is a combustible, unstable force, as proved in the final act of this week’s episode. Even knowing that Walt is in the car and that he’s called off the hit (which they are only carrying out because they need him to cook again) and that they are potentially killing police officers, Uncle Jack and Todd start a mass shootout in the desert, hitting the van with Walt in it approximately a billion times and leaving the car with Jesse alone. What, if anything, can we conclude about the White Power clan’s motivations in the scene? And if they have no clear objective, well, then what is the show’s point?
Refreshingly, the motivations of Uncle Jack seem pretty simple here. Walt is clearly in trouble on the phone, and they need him to cook, so no matter whether he says to come, they’re coming. Once they’re confronted with cops, though, the situation changes. (They’re under no illusion that these are not actually cops; asking to see their badges is a ruse to try to get them to lower their weapons/guard.) First priority: gtfo without getting arrested and charged as part of Walt’s drug empire. And that means killing the cops (or possibly just getting Walt out of their custody so that he can’t be flipped on Jack and co.). If Walt survives the whole thing—bonus, he can cook for them. But they can continue making drugs without him; Lydia wasn’t pleased, but she also didn’t say “no deal” and walk out. They didn’t contact Walt and say, “We need you to cook. Who can we kill for you?” He called them, and they decided to use the opportunity to their advantage. Now that they are confronted with DEA agents with shotguns, that opportunity is quite a bit less opportune, and their need to keep Walt alive is far outweighed by their need to survive to cook another day.
4. Hank basically signs his own death warrant with that phone call to Marie; a case of the “Last day on the job before retirement, here’s a picture of my wife,” trope if I’ve ever seen one. (I was sure Jack was going to roll up and shoot him in the middle of the call.) But knowing how this show likes to always be one step ahead of whatever you think might happen, Vince Gilligan would never insult his viewers by giving such a ham-fisted tip-off that Hank’s call to Marie include the line, “It might be awhile before I can get home…I love you.” So does that mean we can assume Hank makes it out of the desert alive and at home in time for dinner? Or have we been conned into falling for a totally generic death scene because its in exactly the one place we’ve learned not to look?
The fact that we don’t know is exactly the point. By this late date, Breaking Bad has become a show that not only doesn’t insult its viewers, but has the fact that it doesn’t insult its viewers as such a fundamental part of its DNA, and more importantly, as such a fundamental part of the cultural conversation around it, that it can actually intentionally play with familiar tropes like this right out in the open without detracting from the show’s tension in any way. For all of its suspense, Breaking Bad doesn’t rely on cliffhangers very often, but here it not only does so, but draws attention to the fact that this is what it is doing, switching to slo-mo and then fading out during the action. Together with Hank’s phone call, it is almost as if the writers are saying: look at what we did to you; your modes of predicting what is coming next on a television show have been so thoroughly subverted that we can basically tell you what is going to happen and you have no idea whether to trust us or not!
Which, of course, cleverly puts us in the same paranoid position that the show’s characters, especially Walt, find themselves in lately. They thought they had tools for interpreting the world, for understanding one another’s motivations, based on past experiences, but now they are not sure at all. The old tropes suddenly seem hopelessly out of date.
5. I know Walt Jr. is a distracted teenager and everything, but at what point in this whole charade did it become unfeasible to believe he’s still blithely unaware that some shady shit is going down? I know his home life hasn’t been stable or anything, but maybe when the lawyer from TV shows up with a broken face and five minutes later your dad goes running out the door screaming “Nooo my meth empire money!!” (basically), Walt Jr. isn’t going to be able to claim willful blindness for very much longer. If this case ever gets to court, and assuming Walt Jr. will be 18 by the time we catch up to the flash-forwards, how likely is it that he will be charged in the case, and what would he be charged with?
Junior/Flynn is guilty of nothing more than not being able to see outside of his own frame of reference. His parents are his parents. Seeing them as the heads of a drug empire or as stone-cold killers is impossible for him; he could barely imagine it, much less believe it. And our minds are able to do amazing things to maintain our frame of reference. Believing his parents’ lies is hardly difficult for him, as to do otherwise would be to totally overturn his world. And frankly, though Walt is not the world’s best liar, he’s good enough at it that Walter Jr. doesn’t exactly have to ignore overwhelming evidence. Plausible explanations are sufficient.
One of the scariest and most interesting things to look forward to in the last three episodes of this series is the moment when this very sweet kid finally does see through things and experiences the tremendous sense of cognitive dissonance that will have to go with it. It is hard to imagine how it will happen, but seeing as their home is abandoned and “Heisenberg” is grafittied on the wall, it appears inevitable.
At this point, though, one look at the open joy on his face at seeing “the guy from our billboard!” in the flesh, is enough to make us know that Junior is still just an innocent kid who thinks the worst thing about his parents is that they’re kind of a drag.