'Breaking Bad' Deconstruction, Ep. 15: 'Granite State'

RJ Mitte Bryan Cranston Breaking Bad - H 2013
Ursula Coyote/AMC

Have you ever had a nightmare that was devastating and torturous; you wake up, try to shake it from your mind and then go back to sleep -- only to have it return, as consistently awful as before?

This is Breaking Bad in the throes of completing its comeuppance for Walter White and the terrible fallout from the ill-conceived plan of a dying man breaking bad and helping his family. With so much to say about Breaking Bad as a series, sometimes we forget that it hinged on a decision that was a mistake at the time and then grew into an insatiable beast of a bad idea.

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That’s why “Granite State” proves to be an endless succession of the characters we’ve grown to love (and then, for some of us, loathe) on Breaking Bad being unable to wriggle free one last time. This is the episode where fate said no to some wild, unexpected turn for the better. It sends Saul Goodman on his way to Nebraska with three pairs of Dockers and the miracle hope of a terrible low-paying Cinnabon job. It sends Walter White to an icy cold cabin in New  Hampshire, cut off from communicating with the world, left to wither away to the point where his wedding ring just falls off his finger. It sees Skyler taking a job as a taxi dispatcher, leaving baby Holly with the neighbor and hoping her court-appointed public defender can keep her out of jail. It leaves Jesse fighting for his life in absolute desperation, only to have a long-shot escape plan end halfway up a fence, no chance in hell of getting out of hell. It has him witness Todd shooting Andrea in the back of the head with the threat to kill Brock, too, if he didn’t keep cooking. (Jesse’s got the meth in Heisenberg territory -- the upper 90s in purity, and blue, too.)

It renders the White home a “tourist attraction” for punk kids and vandals. The bank has to put a fence around it.

It sees Walt paying $10,000 to Saul’s “guy” who fixes things and makes people disappear (the brilliant Robert Forster) just to spend an hour with him while a makeshift chemotherapy treatment drips into his arm. A weakened Walt asks the guy, if he returned to the dank New Hampshire cabin and found Walt dead, would he give all the money in the barrel to Skyler, Walter Jr. and Holly? “If I said yes, would you believe me,” he replies.

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And finally, it leaves Walt, on the phone to his son, crying because at this point he’s only able to send home $100,000: “I wanted to give you so much more. But this is all I could do.” In that moment, Walt would have paid $10,000 a minute just to hear his son talk, to feel through the telephone the love he has for his first born who has suffered so much through his life. In turn, this is what he hears: “Why are you still alive? Why don’t you just die already! Just die.”

Walt spoke to his son in a weak voice, an animal’s dying desperation. What he got back was the rage and anger of the wronged. That scene was truly difficult to watch because it just put an exclamation point on all that’s gone wrong for Walt after that initial decision to break bad. There’s a wonderful moment in that scene where the sound -- so vital in every episode -- has Walter Jr. screaming in anger at his father and Walt in turn saying, just below the yelling on the other end of the line, “It can’t all be for nothing.”

But that’s it, right? That’s the essence of the Breaking Bad story. It is all for nothing. One good man gets a bad notion in his head, acts on it and his whole world changes -- as does the world around him and the people in it.

“Granite State” is an entire episode of the fallout. Everything that had, not that long ago, been going as planned has been stripped from Walt and gone to hell. It has been tough watching these last eight episodes (indeed, what will be the last 16 of season five in total). Difficult. Mesmerizing but difficult. 

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“Things happened that I never intended,” Walt says to his son. But he might as well be saying it to himself. His new life in New Hampshire is cold, wet and awful. And in a stylistic twist to the series, it went into flash-forward mode right about the 52nd minute. Saul’s guy has sent Saul to Nebraska and Walt to New Hampshire. Walt, disoriented, looks at his current surroundings and what his life on the run has been reduced to and seems to be feeling the cancer rushing up on him faster than ever. “If you look around,” the guy says to Walt before leaving, “it’s kind of beautiful.”

I loved that line. In so many ways that’s about appreciating what the world has to offer you. To find the beauty in nature and life, no matter your scenario. But of course Walt didn’t do that (and, frankly, if you go back to his circumstances in season one, it’s hard to blame him). Hell, he can't do that. But just for a moment, that line was artfully placed in the Breaking Bad chronology -- as if to say life sucks, yet it can be really beautiful at the same time. Had Walt never broken bad, maybe the entire White family would have taken a final vacation somewhere and stood around thinking, "God, this world is amazing in its every detail." But nope. Walt opts to cheat the rules in hopes of a better life for his family, and the karmic bounce-back is pretty damned awful.

In "Granite State," there's a level of bleakness that's pretty damned stark.

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But, like everything else in the freakishly fast-paced Breaking Bad, something happens to shift your thinking. And Walt, devastated by his son wishing that he would just die, purposefully calls the DEA and asks to speak to the agent in charge of the Walter White investigation. “Who may I say is calling?”

“Walter White.”

He then, again, purposefully lets the phone hang down. Come and find me. Make it end. It’s over.

Ah, but it’s not. Walt, having what could have been his last drink at a frozen, god-forsaken bar, catches a glimpse of Charlie Rose's talk show on the TV above the bar. Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz, of Gray Matter Technologies, are pledging $28 million for treatment centers in the Southwest. You know, to clean up Walt’s mess. Rose challenges them about the donation, saying critics think it’s a publicity stunt to increase the declining stock value of Gray Matter because co-founder Walter White is a drug kingpin.

But Elliott says Walt didn’t contribute anything beyond the name. “His contribution begins and ends right there.”

Adds Gretchen, Walt’s lost love: “The sweet, kind, brilliant man that we knew long ago -- he’s gone.”

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Hell yes he’s gone. But now he’s coming back. Pride, ego -- you can get Walt almost to his 11th-hour appointment with death, willing to cede to the cancer now that his son calls him out for the monster he is and for knowing that Skyler is a taxi dispatcher of all things. But whoa. Wait just a minute. Undermine his contribution to Gray Matter? That’s his nerve. That's his pet peeve. His ego igniter.

OK, so we’re heading into the finale knowing already that Walt gets back to the ABQ in about 30 hours, if you just stop to use the bathroom (from a previous episode). We know he has a very, very dangerous machine gun. We know he has unfinished business. But I’ll admit that, with one episode to go, it’s not as clear as I’d imagined, this little return to warfare. Coming to get what’s rightfully his (the money, revenge) from Jack and the Nazi goons? Coming to stitch up the long-festering Gray Matter wound? Will Jesse be freed when the gun goes off? Will Skyler get the money? Does Walt’s family even want his blood money? Is Walt in any shape, physically, to get all the way back across the country?

So many questions. One final episode.

And yes, I think all hell will break loose in the finale. I think it will be sad. I think it will be, in some way, poetic. Because 97 percent of the time Breaking Bad is poetic. But I can’t quite let go of “Granite State” just yet. Part of me thinks that the finale, as Walt’s Last Stand, will be in some ways catering to the fans of the show and giving them some kind of epic blowout ending.

What I loved most about “Granite State,” in contrast, is that it was not epic. It was not a finale we’ll talk about forever. It was a penultimate episode that spoke volumes about bad decisions and failed dreams and having everything you ever tried to do turn to shit. Good people making bad decisions ultimately ends with bad people making bad decisions because that’s all they can do. Those are the only options they have left. Like Hank said about Jack making up his mind to kill him 10 minutes earlier, Walt doesn’t see what the universe has decided on. It’s long been over. The only thing left is the reckoning.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine