Live Free or Die: Breaking Bad recap “Granite State”
“The sweet, kind, brilliant man that we knew long ago—he’s gone.”
Penultimate episodes of seasons have gotten a bit of a reputation for being where the action happens, thanks to shows like The Wire and Breaking Bad itself, which have used the next-to-last episode of a season or the entire series to wrap up resonant thematic or emotional elements. “Granite State” isn’t quite that—it’s a fine episode, but more a game of chess than anything else, moving pieces around the board to set up the final checkmate. And, frankly, thank God. I couldn’t have taken another “Ozymandias” this week or—God forbid—three of them in a row.
We now know the target of future Walt’s artillery fire—Big Head Todd and the Monsters. They ransack Hank and Marie’s home and find Jesse’s confession tape, and gather around to heckle it (“does this pussy cry through the entire thing?”), but when Jesse spills his guts about Todd’s murder of Drew Sharp (Todd smiles as he mentions this—he actually smiles), Jack grabs his gun and heads out to the cage to end Jesse once and for all. Todd again stays his hand, and it’s specifically stated this time that it’s out of Todd’s desire for Lydia and her “woodchipper coochie”. Jack playfully musses his nephew’s hair—though this might be a little more than we can buy. Jack probably should kill Jesse just like Jack should have killed Walt in the desert.
Jesse Plemmons really comes to play here. Todd has never really been given more than a few scattered scenes throughout the series, and as such has never been a truly convincing foil or villain, but in this episode he transforms into a smirking, soothing menace—as unhinged and dangerous as any of the villains the show has ever featured. It’s hard to believe this is the same actor who was so endlessly charming as Landry on Friday Night Lights. But, then again, Todd’s charm is precisely what makes him so creepy.
Meanwhile, Walt himself spends the episode trapped in his own cages. We first see him in the basement of Saul’s disappearing vacuum man (who actually does run a vacuum repair show, as it happens)—played by Jackie Brown’s Robert Forster—pacing his tiny room and smacking the light fixture in rage. Soon he’s forced to bunk with Saul, also on his way out of town (and unless Better Call Saul focuses on the sleazy world of Cinnabon managers in Omaha, it’s likely a prequel). Walt explains his plan for revenge, and that he’s done his best to keep his family clear of the charges, but Saul scoffs. It’s Walt that the feds want, and unless she can deliver that she’ll bear the brunt of the charges. Walt tries to muster up one last Heisenberg threat of Saul but soon, like the dainty, doomed heroine of a 19th century romance, Walt’s coughing. It’s been weeks at this point since Walt had his last treatment, and his body is deteriorating.
And, yeah—Skyler is f**ked. Not only does she have nothing to bargain with the feds with, she’s not even safe in her own home while under federal protection. Todd and the Nazis break in to Holly’s room (which may stretch plausibility, but makes for one hell of a jump), and Todd in his creepy monotone, makes sure that she doesn’t tell about Lydia, which, sadly, is the one bit of information that Skyler could have offered the feds in Walt’s absence. Now she has absolutely nothing.
Speaking of absolutely nothing—how about Jesse’s life? Chained and beaten and tortured and forced to keep cooking meth (he’s managing 92% purity, which seems to keep Lydia’s woodchipper whirring). But Jesse’s learned something from Walter White after all—he fashions a makeshift key from the paper clip on Andrea and Brock’s photo and breaks free from his cage, only to be caught immediately. Then he’s driven to Andrea’s house (oh, a field trip!) and forced to watch as Todd shoots her in the back of the head. It’s an ice cold moment. Aaron Paul is magnificent here, but hey, calm down guys, because Bobby Canavale is apparently, like, a way better actor than he is.
The sequence is important to provide further motivation for Jesse in the finale—now Walt is responsible for both of the girls we’ve seen Jesse in love with over the course of the series (no word on the whereabouts of the housewife he was fooling around with in the pilot)—but also because running away is one of the only active things Jesse has been able to do all season. But he remains as trapped in this world as ever.
Jesse may, in the sort of universal law/Biblical moral code of the Breaking Bad universe, be due some karmic debt for the murder of a (relative) innocent like Gale Boetticher, and for his role in hank’s death, and for even cooking meth to begin with, but whatever it is, he’s paid for it—and many times over. But the one who really needs to pay, as we all know, is Walter White. And yet.
While we may wish for the death of someone so vile, it’s quite another thing to witness it. After this episode everyone in the White family has told Walt that he should just die already, except for baby Holly (and she was probably thinking it in that fire truck), but Walt’s slow, wasting death alone in a cabin in New Hampshire (state motto: “live free or die”), paying strangers to spend an extra hour with him, is still hard to watch. Even for a son of a bitch like Walter White. I mean, seriously, all he has to watch is Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium. At least Jesse got Ben & Jerry’s.
Still, Walt chose this life. He could have faced his diagnosis alone with his family, but he chose to break the law. He could have walked away at any point (except, arguably, when Gus had him working for him), but he chose to keep going. Now, he dies alone. And that family he claims to care so much about? They want nothing to do with him. When Walt calls Flynn to try to find a way to send even a fraction ($100,000) of the fruits of his labor to the family, Flynn tells him to f**k off. To leave him alone. To die. It’s a predictable beat, but that doesn’t make it any less satisfying.
Walt hangs up. It really has all been for nothing, then. He calls the DEA and asks for the agent in charge of the Walter White case. Who may I say is calling? Well … Walter White. He lets the line dangle, allowing an easy trail for the feds to come and get him, in some dingy dive bar in the middle fo nowhere, New Hampshire. But as Walt sits at the car, ready for one last drink of freedom, he hears a familiar voice on television—it’s Gretchen and Elliott, co-founders of Grey Matter, on The Charlie Rose Show.
The two have come on to promote their new drug outreach initiative, but Rose would really like to talk about their involvement with the notorious Walter White—a name so famous that Rose doesn’t need to preface it to his audience in any way. Gretchen goes on to explain that the only contribution that Walt ever actually made to the company was the name. So calm down, stockholders, it’s all under control.
The name? Just the name? Walt can’t believe what he’s hearing. Earlier in the episode he warned Saul that he wouldn’t let those Nazis steal his “life’s work” and now, just as he’s about the give up, he gets a cold reminder of the last time his life’s work was stolen out from under him. Just the name?
Walt won’t lose credit for another empire—especially if there’s blue meth again on the streets, as Rose suggests. When the cops arrive at the bar (to a stirring, extended rendition of the jangly, Western theme song) they find only that drink Walt was about to take, still full. Walt’s gone. Back to Albuqeurque. To eat at Denny’s, to visit the old house, to say hello to Carol, and to points unknown but soon to be revealed.
Season Five, Episode Fifteen
“Granite State”: B+