Throughout its run, Breaking Bad has contemplated the horror of a seemingly good man’s transformation into a monster. But the show’s penultimate episode, “Granite State,” digs deeper and asks which is sadder: that conversion, or the subsequent station of a man who fancies himself a monster, yet can no longer pull it off? In the bunker that Walter White shares with Saul Goodman before they part ways for the last time, he formulates a final, desperate plan to hit Jack’s gang and “take back what is mine.” But that plan is out of his reach—those are the people he gets to execute that kind of assignment, not receive it—and when Walt tries to threaten Saul into helping, he collapses in a coughing fit. The brilliant drug kingpin can no longer even intimidate his squirrely lawyer. Later, he stands at the gate of his survivalist cabin, stashed away in snowy isolation; his parka is stuffed with cash, his Heisenberg hat has been retrieved from his bag and symbolically returned to his head. But he coughs and hacks, and can’t go any further. “Tomorrow,” he assures himself. “Tomorrow.”
Jesse’s prospects aren’t much sunnier. He’s first revealed (aside from pouring out his heart on the confessional videotape swiped from Hank and Marie’s) brooding in his pen, staring at the photo of Andrea and Brock—and its paper clip. Truth be told, a good 75% of my anxiety while watching the show is wondering what will become of Jesse, and surely I wasn’t the only one who, for at least one scary moment, was afraid he was going to use that paper clip to slash his wrists or something. Quite the opposite, it turns out—if the photo was meant to frighten him to work, it instead inspired him to escape. That sequence is possibly the episode’s most tense; we want him to pull it off, so badly, and it’s tough to find rooting interests at this point in the grim story. But it’s not that easy, and when Todd appears at Andrea’s door with his Eddie Haskell smile, the horror that follows is shocking but not surprising.
In fact, if there is a unifying visual motif to “Granite State,” it is Todd’s general creepiness: his cold, dead eyes behind the ski mask as he threatens Skylar, that long shot of him pulling a piece of lint off Lydia’s blazer in the coffee shop, and, worst of all, the sheer nightmare fuel of his odd, tight little smile when Jesse describes the murder of Drew Sharp. And here’s a question worth asking: How much of these last two episodes’ events will be an result (either directly or indirectly) of Todd having the steaming undies for Lydia? The heart wants what the heart wants, as noted by Uncle Jack, the least likely Emily Dickinson fan on television.
Performances are remarkable all around (as usual), with particularly fine work by Robert Forster (whose presence alongside Michael Bowen’s Uncle Jack amounts to a Jackie Brown reunion), Aaron Paul (seriously, that beaten, groggy, weathered voices as he pleads, “I just wanna see the stars”), RJ Mitte (whose rejection of Walt is so forceful that the potentially hard-to-swallow call to the DEA works), Bryan Cranston (more on him later), and Bob Odenkirk, doing his most understated acting to date, his hushed line readings confirming the considerable gravity of his situation.
The patience of “Granite State” is kind of amazing; it is commendable that, at this point in the show, its creators (in this case, writer/director Peter Gould, who has written ten other episodes since season one) are willing to keep experimenting with structure and pace. Unsurprisingly, Walt doesn’t flee his Unabomber cabin tomorrow, or the day after that, or the day after that. An unspecified but significant amount of time passes, enough for Forster to bring hefty updates from home, and for Walt’s beard and hair to grow back. How’s he still alive? we ask, and the question is answered quickly enough: Frontier chemotherapy (“Watched a couple of YouTube videos, it’s all about finding the vein.”). Once that process begins and Forster puts on his coat, Walt’s sad request that he stay a little longer, that he contribute a bit of company, is denied until proper payment is offered.
In that scene, and in those moments with Saul and at the gate, we’re seeing a circular return to Walt’s weak, humble, doormat origins—the man he was the first time he was sick, before he discovered this darker, more forceful self. And in that deserted bar, he is visited by two ghosts from that time: Gretchen and Elliot, his one-time partners in Gray Matter Technologies. But they don’t just represent his past—they also remind of his pride, which prevented him from taking their money to help with his treatments, insisting on taking the path that has led him here. And when he sees them on Charlie Rose, disavowing his contributions, it lights that fire in him again. Earlier in the episode, there are those little hints of some kind of redemption for Walt, or at least a shedding of his monstrous shell. But as Gretchen tells Charlie Rose, “Whatever he became, the sweet kind brilliant man that we once knew long ago, he’s gone.” And his eyes go cold. Their slight, and that reminder, may well be what it takes to bring Heisenberg back after all.