Tuesday, 24 September 2013

BREAKING BAD, 5.15 – 'Granite State'

Tuesday, 24 September 2013
"You really don't want us coming back here." – Todd to Skyler
written & directed by Peter Gould

Last week's "Ozymandias" deservedly registered with most people as a gold-standard classic, and one of the best episodes of television I've seen in years. It was always going to be hard to top that, and "Granite State" didn't manage to. But that's fine, because this episode had completely different intentions. "Ozymandias" detonated a narrative bomb we've been waiting to see go off for five seasons, so "Granite State" was about seeing where the wreckage fell.

As we've known for awhile, Walt (Bryan Cranston) is being smuggled out of Albuquerque by the mysterious "vacuum repairman" (Robert Forster), but we never knew he'd be joined in his holding pen beneath the repair shop by corrupt lawyer Saul (Bob Odenkirk). It seems things have become so dicey now that Walter White's become Public Enemy No1 that even Saul can't smart-talk his way out of jail for his participation in Heisenberg's drug empire. It was nice to see the two characters back together, but it highlighted that Walt's power is slipping due to his ill health. The moment he turned on his full Heisenberg scowl to frighten Saul into joining him on his trip, to plot his revenge on Uncle Jack's (Michael Bowen) thieving gang, he was reduced by a coughing fit into a defeated man who doesn't seem to have realised the game's up.

Most of this episode dealt with Walt's exodus to the titular Granite State of New Hampshire; smuggled away in an empty propane gas truck, to take up residence in an isolated log cabin with no TV or internet (but two copies of Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium), instructed to steer clear of the local town because he'll be arrested in a heartbeat should anyone recognise him. All Walt had to keep himself warm at night was the thought of his money barrel's contents eventually finding its way to his family, before he dies of cancer, so all of the terrible events he's been through will have been worth it on some level. It was very humbling for Walt to become a recluse, completely cut-off from civilisation and his family, reduced to paying the "vacuum man" $10k to stay an extra hour and play cards. Naturally, things couldn't stay that way for long.

Walt's trip to the local town was inevitable, but I was nevertheless surprise he reached out to his son (RJ Mitte) by getting a barmaid to pretend to be Aunt Marie and pull him out of class. What followed was actually one of the best scenes of the entire episode, as Walt outlined his clever plan to smuggle $100k to Walt and Skyler (Anna Gunn) via one of his son's school friends, only for Flynn to lose his temper and breakdown over the phone. It's been obvious to viewers for a long time, but Walt Jr and Skyler never needed the money he's always promised them. They just wanted a husband/father to beat his cancer and continue to live a normal, happy existence. Flynn's outburst certainly appears to have caught Walt off-guard, as he realised no amount of money will ever be enough to make up for the fact he was indirectly responsible for killing his son's beloved Uncle Hank. Mitte and Cranston both did terrific work in that scene.

I'm jumping ahead, but Walt's phone call not going the way he expected was swiftly followed by him catching a Charlie Rose episode on the bar's TV, featuring his old work colleagues and friends Elliot and Gretchen Schwartz—whom long term viewers will have instantly recalled as the co-founders of Grey Matters, the multi-million dollar business Walt was involved in very briefly. That company's astonishing success without him, as he laboured as a modest high school chemistry teacher, was a key part of the reason he decided to cook meth to gain respect in the first place. It was nice to see those characters brought back in some way; and they appear to have flipped a switch in Walt, with their words about the Walter White they know being dead and replaced by this shameful Heisenberg alter-ego. Walt had called the cops to give himself up, but this TV interview has riled him and brought Heisenberg back to the fore. He can't let his cherished blue-meth be copied for other people's profit, or for people like the Schwartz's attempt to rewrite history in his absence. He can't go back to being a meek little man dying of cancer again. He's come too far. As we know from the flashback, it's time to go out in a blaze of glory—avenging Hank's death, perhaps dismantling the drug empire he built, and who knows what else. Rescuing Jesse looks likely, but can a bridge ever be rebuilt between those two?

Oh, Jesse. It doesn't get any better for Mr Pinkman. This episode gave us a greater perspective on his life a meth-slave for Todd (Jesse Plemons); cooking the blue stuff to 92% purity, pleasing Lydia (Laura Fraser) enough that she's decided to continue her arrangement with Todd, and spending his nights chained up in an underground pit. We've had plenty of reasons to hate Uncle Jack and Todd this season, but "Granite State" is where they rose to such a despicable level I'll be fist-pumping the air when they get their comeuppance. Jack spends his time laughing at Jesse's confession tape they've stole from Hank's house ("does this pussy cry through the whole thing?"), while Todd demonstrated more twisted psychology by feeding Jesse ice cream as a treat for his good work recently. He even kept the tarpaulin off the pit at Jesse's request, unaware that was to Jesse's benefit as part of an escape plan.

Ah yes, the escape plan. That left a hollow feeling in my stomach, when Jesse's ability to pick locks using a paper-clip and hotfoot it across Jack's compound came to nothing because of a razor wire fence and CCTV. For a second there I was convinced Jesse was going to escape and take the show in an unexpected direction, but instead his agony was doubled with his punishment: being taken to witness Todd assassinate his ex-girlfriend Andrea (Emily Rios) on her front doorstep, and told that little Brock's next if he tries to escape again. It was truly agonising stuff, and Aaron Paul's tortured reaction was so believable it made it twice as harrowing. I just can't see a good ending for his character, because even if his escape comes thanks to Walt mounting a rescue (even if saving Jesse doesn't appear to be part of the primary goal), how can he ever forgiven what Walt has done? It's maybe feasible that Walt could have sweet talked his way out of being brandished a monster for poisoning Brock, but now that Andrea's been killed the whole thing's beyond repair.

Overall, it's hard to fault "Granite State" too much. This is television at its finest; capitalising on the years of work to beautiful effect. I can't imagine next week's finale putting a foot wrong, and despite the flash-forward I'm still not sure exactly how thing's will resolve. I just know it'll be ugly, heart-wrenching, and thoroughly gripping.

  • One thing this episode has to address is why Uncle Jack is even bothering to continue cooking meth, now he has Walt's $80m. The explanation wasn't too implausible (that there's more easy money to be made, so why stop now), but it seems Todd's infatuation with Lydia is a bigger factor. Jack may be the alpha male, but he's happy to go along with whatever his brighter nephew wants. What else is a man like Jack going to do? I doubt he has the ambition or ability to put that $80m to good, or even nefarious use.
  • Todd becoming the "new Heisenberg" is working quite well. I like how he dressed up to meet with Lydia, and the sequence where he sneaked into Holly's bedroom with his accomplices to scare Skyler into silence was absolutely chilling. It seems Lydia's colder than we imagined and wants Skyler dead because she's a loose-end who has seen her face, so my guess is part of the finale will involve Walt preventing that from happening. Will he be seen as a flawed hero in his wife's eyes by the end? I'm not sure. I doubt it, though. Breaking Bad's more complicated than that. Walt's a scoundrel and a monster in some ways, but he's also just a seriously wounded middle-aged man who made a series of bad decisions because of greed and pride.
  • Yes, the man sitting across that office desk from Skyler was the actor from the long-running Orange Wednesdays cinema adverts: Brennan Brown. (Only Brits will get this.)
22 September 2013 | AMC