You can’t go home again.
At least that’s how the old saying goes. What it may really mean is that home may have changed so much in your absence that when you return it’s not even the same place. That’s what Bryan Cranston’s newly-follicled Walter White — hair bursting through his scalp as if it’s been at least six months or more since his last chemo treatment — discovered when he returned to his Albuquerque home at some unspecified point in the future at the start of Breaking Bad’s final run, “Blood Money.”
His little bungalow was fenced off, full of graffiti, its pool filled not with water or pink teddy bears but with skateboarding punks. Using a crowbar to get inside, Walt entered what used to be his family’s sanctuary. Returning to a place you know well, only to see it irrevocably altered…it’s like excavating the Titanic. You recognize familiar sights, but you don’t recognize the context in which you’re seeing them. “Heisenberg” was now tattooed in spray-paint on his living room wall. But one thing Walt knew would still be there: the ricin capsule in a light socket. That’s what he returned to the scene of the crime to retrieve. But on whom is he planning to use it? It’s a poison that simulates the effects of a terrible illness, like a lethal flu, and sometimes isn’t even detected as a poison. My feeling is that he’s planning to use it on himself. But time will tell.
The beginning of “Blood Money” was, in essence, a metaphor for Breaking Bad itself. It’s a show that creator Vince Gilligan conceived from the start as being entirely about change, about the gradual moral decay of a high school chemistry teacher until Mr. Chips has become Scarface. Breaking Bad has kept us in a kind of perpetual limbo. Even if we rooted for Walt for much of the series’ run, eventually most of us turned against him. We truly cannot go home again to the buoyant “Yeah science, Mr. White!” days of Season 1 without knowing what is to come, what compromises will be made, what betrayals endured. We’re just like Walt breaking into his own home, seeing what a dark place it has become, forcing ourselves to think about the circumstances that led to this. “Blood Money” once again showed Breaking Bad’s incredible capacity for change. There was no meth cook, no shootout, no train robbery, no dead kid, no golden-toothed dealer, no artful playing of “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” Just the most stressful things of all: Walt’s determination to live a normal life, Jesse’s desire to “break good,” and the fact that Hank’s newfound realization will make both of those goals impossible.
Gilligan treated us to a long, slow Antonioni-style tracking shot into Walt’s bathroom door, on the other side of which we knew his fate had just been sealed. Yep, after the “flash forward” we returned to the present: that party at the White family home, during which Hank picked up a copy of Leaves of Grass while sitting on the toilet — because who doesn’t read Walt Whitman on the throne? — and saw Gale Boetticher’s inscription to W.W., exactly like the inscription to W.W. he’d left in his notebook so long ago. His brother-in-law is Heisenberg. In that moment, Hank’s world changed forever. Evil had penetrated his family, not from without but from within. And he revealed to himself that he’s the myopic, insulated DEA agent we always knew he was. All the little banalities in which he’d taken pleasure — seeing Walt and Skyler play with the baby, firing up the poolside grill, hearing Marie make plans to go bowling — were now forever tainted.
Walt’s desire for a normal life was over before it had even begun. Hank backed off to think through all the evidence against Heisenberg in light of his revelation about Walt, couched in his typical big-baby demeanor about “not feeling well.” The next day the past continued to haunt Walt when Lydia came to the car wash appalled that the new manufacturers of meth in Walt’s absence were only capable of producing a product with 68% purity. He told her to scram, followed by an even more vehement Skyler telling her to do the same. Something tells me that isn’t the last we’ll be seeing of her.
Jesse, as he is known to do, had fallen into a deep depression over the death of Drew Sharp, the kid who their associate had killed during the train robbery. He had become an accomplice to the murder of a child. He had become the very thing he hated most. And it was time to atone. He just didn’t know how. He ended up spending his days lying face-down on a glass table pondering his crime, or if he were unlucky enough, having to endure listening to Skinny Pete and Badger talk Star Trek while staring off in a comatose silence.
It was a perfectly surreal conversational tangent. First Skinny Pete, after talking about how he’d mack on Yeoman Rand, said he thought the Federation’s transporters, the sparkly tech that causes you to be dematerialized at the atomic level in order to be beamed to another location, don’t work at all the way Starfleet claims they do. Showing a remarkable affinity for entanglement theory the same way he was revealed to be a piano prodigy last year, Skinny Pete suggested that every time someone beams on Star Trek, they aren’t transported, but rather are killed…with a copy of them, complete with their memories but not the same person, rematerializing at the other end. That means there could be 147 different Kirks throughout the course of the series. Badger dug that idea and said that he had written a spec script for The Original Series, even if The Original Series has been off the air for 44 years. In it he staged a pie-eating contest between Spock and Chekov. Tulaberry pies. Skinny Pete objected, saying that tulaberries were from the Gamma Quadrant, which wouldn’t be explored until Voyager. (Actually, Skinny Pete is wrong. The Gamma Quadrant was explored on Deep Space Nine. Voyager explored the Delta Quadrant. Unlike Skinny Pete, I haven’t been high while watching most of Trek.) Chekov would have a deal with Scotty, where Scotty would keep beaming the pie out of his stomach so it’d appear like he could keep eating forever, until finally he starts coughing up blood because Scotty had beamed his guts out into space.
All of this Trek talk took up a remarkable amount of time in “Blood Money,” and, aside from being awesome on its own terms, you gotta think there’s something going on here on a bigger thematic level. Is this some kind of foreshadowing? Some intricate symbolism? Not to mention that, after Paul on Mad Men, this is now at least the second character on an AMC show who’s written a Star Trek spec script.
None of this was going to fill the void in Jesse’s soul. But there was one thing he could do: get rid of the blood money. He showed up to Saul’s law firm with two bags filled with $2.5 million each. One was to go to the parents of Drew Sharp, whose disappearance had become a state-wide media obsession. The other would go to Katie Ehrmentraut, Mike’s granddaughter, since it seemed pretty clear that Mike must be dead. He was giving it all away. He had broken good. If this show is about how a man can discover his capacity for monstrosity, in Jesse it’s also about how someone can recognize the toll of their actions and try to repent. Of course, Saul wasn’t having it. “You’re still two miracles away from sainthood,” he said to Jesse, after closing his barn door at the advice of his masseuse. I mean, he could give this money away…but not to those people, around whom criminal investigations are currently proceeding! The only thing Saul could do was call Walt. He said he’d handle it. But after he hung up we saw Walt was back in a clinic, receiving chemo from an IV.
It had been some time since Walt and Jesse had seen one another when Walt stopped by for his pep talk. “This is your money,” he said to his former student. “Come on! You’ve earned it.” But Jesse wasn’t having it. Even Walt had called it blood money when he gave it to him. Nothing was going to ease Jesse’s pain, even Walt’s insistence that “You need to stop focusing on the darkness behind you.”
That last comment picked at another thematic strain Breaking Bad’s been developing for awhile: that, along with a man’s growing awareness of his capacity to do anything can develop his ability to blissfully forget or ignore the consequences of what he has done. It’s the theme of one of the greatest of all Westerns, 1959’s Ride Lonesome, directed by Budd Boetticher (the namesake for Walt’s rival meth cook Gale Boetticher, according to Vince Gilligan). In that film, bounty hunter Randolph Scott has been pursuing outlaw Lee Van Cleef with furious vengeance. Except that at the end, when they have their final showdown, Van Cleef confesses that, until Scott reminded him, he had totally forgotten the crime for which he was being pursued. That crime was the murder of Scott’s wife, and he’d blocked it from his memory, maybe out of necessity but more likely out of indifference. He had forgotten taking that woman’s life. “A man can do that,” Scott said in reply. A man can forget all too easily the terrible things he has done. Walt certainly can. Remember his chilling whistle last year after he’d just talked about the fallout from killing Drew Sharp? Jesse is asserting the idea that remembering a crime and feeling the guilt of it is, in its own way, a moral act.
When Walt threw up in his toilet at his house later, he noticed that Leaves of Grass, the book Gale had given him, was missing. He searched everywhere, but it was gone. Someone must have taken it. So in his bathrobe and underwear he went outside to his driveway, where terrible, terrible things usually happen. Thinking back to when he and Hank had placed the tracking device on Gus Fring’s car, he went over to his own vehicle and felt around the undercarriage…and there, right there, was a tracking device of his own. Hank must be on to him.
It’s a mark of how truly satisfying Breaking Bad is that they decided not to delay our big Walt-Hank showdown. Not that this will be the only Walt-Hank showdown to come, of course. Walt showed up to check in on Hank, who had missed a week of work because of his “illness.” They exchanged some small talk, and then, just as he was turning to leave, Walt decided to go for it. He told Hank he’d discovered the tracker on his car. Hank calmly, but decisively, lowered the garage door and trapped his quarry. He finally had Heisenberg. Except that this was his brother-in-law and he still didn’t know what to do to avoid destroying his family. He punched Walt and slammed him against the wall, immediately accusing him of killing those 10 former employees of Mike who had all been murdered so they couldn’t testify against Heisenberg or expose his operation. When you wade so far into a river of blood, you have to cover yourself with even more blood before you can get out again.
Walt, not knowing how much evidence Hank had on him, played it cool. He didn’t outright deny it other than say it’d be tough to prove in court. He did say that his cancer had returned and he’d be dead in six months no matter what. Hank was beyond furious, but it was obvious that he didn’t have enough for a case just yet and that he probably wouldn’t proceed because it would destroy the fabric of his life too. But it’s fascinating to see how personal Hank made it right away, accusing Walt of being the one who’d arranged for that phone call that made it seem like Marie had been in a terrible accident way back in Season 2 — which, of course, he was. The scene ended with Walt subtly threatening Hank, that if he pursued this any further he could destroy all he holds dear too.
What a fantastic premiere. Gilligan & Co. showed right off the bat that they are not going to pull any punches this season. They’re not going to delay the forward momentum at all of one of the small screen’s all-time greatest character studies.
What did you think of “Blood Money”?
Follow Christian Blauvelt on Twitter @Ctblauvelt