I’m still undecided about the finale of Quentin Tarantino’s “Kill Bill”. I go back and forth as to whether his gamble, narrowing a splashy three-ring circus down to an intense conversation between The Bride and Bill, really paid off. Sometimes I like it, while at other times their last confrontation seems to rest on a foundation that’s never completely settled. But Tarantino certainly had the right idea. After everything The Bride had gone through, talking, rather than combat, was the more compelling option. The Bride and Bill were having a sort of domestic squabble, so it made sense to finish up with a mostly verbal confrontation between estranged lovers, in a living room, with their child asleep in the other room. Tarantino trusted the audience would care more about the characters than a spectacular blood-soaked climax.
Nearly three episodes into its home stretch, it felt as if “Breaking Bad” was taking a similar route. In comparison to the previous seasons, Episodes 55, 56, and 57 have been three of the more straightforward, conversational, dramatically underwhelming episodes of the series. They’ve been very good, but they’ve also had a slow-paced, deliberate, valedictory tone. The game is ending, the players are taking up their final positions. After so long in the dark, the major characters are allowed to confront each other about whatever harrowing secret has just come to light. There’s a lot of talking-head stuff, verbal sifting and sorting, a departure from the off-kilter, creepily anxious, twistedly funny style of previous seasons.
Until the end of “Confessions”. When enlightenment comes to Jesse like a bolt of lightning, seconds before he’s off to his new life in Alaska– or who knows, Belize (has a minivan ever appeared so sinister?)– the entire series felt as if it kicked into its usual high gear. I figured Vince Gilligan intended the beginning of this half-season to be the calm before the storm, but I was wondering just how many sit-down conversations we’d have to endure before things heated up. Well, they heated up pretty nicely there, at the end– heat is certainly the word–and now we’re locked in for the white-knuckle ending to the series we’ve been expecting all along.
What’s admirable about the way Gilligan is ending the series is his emphasis on the internal struggles of Walt’s inner circle. Walt hasn’t just exploited Hank, Marie, Jesse, and Skyler in order to carry out his master plan. He has set their internal weaknesses in motion so that they’re now in a death struggle with Walt and themselves. He’s victimized them twice-over. This is gruesomely apparent when Hank finds out Marie took a huge chunk of Walt’s money to pay for his physical rehab. Walt not only put them in a compromising position, he did so in a way that implicated each of them as accomplices. He looms over them as the devilish villain, but the look on Hank and Marie’s faces suggest they’re fighting their own demons, too. If Hank looks like a broken man, later in the episode, it’s because he probably feels he’s beaten himself, not that Walt has won. Walt’s fall from grace spreads virally, duplicating itself in everyone he touches.
Walt remains at the center of the dirty deeds, of course, and for my money there hasn’t been a more chilling pair of scenes in the entire run than the ones in which he manipulates Walt Jr. and Jesse. He has done worse, for sure. Murder, mayhem: yeah, yeah. But I have never seen Walt’s two personas, Mr. White and Heisenberg, merged so seamlessly. Usually, as he bounces between his two lives, there’s a discernible switch in Walt’s demeanor. It got more subtle as the series went on, but usually you could see him putting on the mask, as it were. Gradually man and mask kept switching places. At first he was a suburban schmuck putting on the costume of a criminal. Later he seemed more like a criminal putting on the costume of a suburban schmuck. We lost track of the real Walter Hartwell White, and so did he.
The scenes in “Confessions” with Walt Jr. and Jesse are blood-curdling precisely because of how he is not seen to move between his two masks. The “real” Walter White has emerged. It’s telling that he abandons his attempt to use Skyler’s make-up to cover his wound so he can catch Junior on the way out of the house. It’s a sign he’s beyond simple theatrics. To manipulate Junior, he merely has to stop his son and tell him the truth about his cancer. He knows how his son will react. In manipulating Junior to keep him away from Marie and Hank, he is speaking as both Mr. White and Heisenberg. There is no longer any real tension between the two halves of his personality. We’ve seen hints of this before, but never with such a noitceable lack of friction.
Similarly, when Jesse unloads on him in the desert, accusing him of faking the father-figure angle to get him to disappear, Walt responds by hugging Jesse in a fatherly way. It’s an ambiguous hug: Walt is actually giving Jesse exactly what he wants, by laying off the bullshit for once, and yet in the hug there is, maybe, some real fatherly feeling. Jesse’s sobbing indicates he’s aware of the terrible contradiction: Walt is telling him he needs to leave town, as Heisenberg, but he’s also saying it as a father figure, Mr. White. The two halves have blended together. Walt’s identity is no longer separable from the snarl of lies he’s told; he has become the lies. The father and the wicked parody of the father are the same. On a psychological level, this is more frightening than the violence and the drugs. Walt has truly lost himself.