Breaking Bad S5E9: Blood Money

kyra: Fair warning, this is the return of Breaking Bad so it’s gonna be a long review. They’ll be shorter in the future, but we both want to set the stage for the final 8 episodes of the current best show on television.

Wow. That was a tour de force, and I am rock hard to have Breaking Bad back in my life. The story returns with something I expected: a flash forward similar to the one that opened the beginning of this season (remember, this is technically part of the same season as the 8 episodes last summer). Let’s start by dissecting this scene, as its the only clue we have for what happens 6 months from now: Walt is scruffy these days, with hair to boot, but this doesn’t necessarily mean the cancer is gone. Rather, the more likely story is he is not doing chemotherapy anymore–based on his conversation with Hank at the end of the episode, where he seems resigned to death, I think this is the case. There’s no reason to do chemo and feel nauseous all the time if you’re going to die anyway.

Walt has returned to his humble abode in Albuquerque only to find it vacant, dilapidated, and teeming with skater dudes. It’s more than abandoned though, it’s been fenced off. Whoever did this knew exactly who lived inside (also apparent because Carol is scared shitless at the sight of Walt), and tore up the entire place looking for evidence. As Walt walks through slowly, set to typically eerie Breaking Bad music, the secret cellar where he hid his money has been pressed in; all the furniture is gone; the floorboards pulled up, etc. Heisenberg is written on the wall–was this ex post, something written after the house had been abandoned, or a warning of sorts to get out? He is here to pick up the ricin because god knows the M-60 in his trunk isn’t enough firepower. This means he must have had to abandon ship quickly because you would think taking the ricin would be something he wouldn’t forget to do. One brief prediction: I think Walt ends up taking the ricin himself rather than face prison. Buckeye, any other observations on this opening scene?

 

Buckeye: My big takeaway from this second flash-forward (counting last fall’s opener): Here is a man who just doesn’t give a shit. And not giving a shit, well, that is completely antithetical to Walter White. Walt is the ultimate micromanager, the guy who absolutely must be in control of every situation, of every person under his orbit, of every hair on his chin. A scraggly beard? Generously speaking, Walt was never fashion-forward, but he damn sure kept his goatee pristinely trimmed. Parking right in front of his house? Certainly not something Walt would have risked in “Face Off,” when he called on his neighbor to, unbeknownst to her, flush out some henchman he thought might be waiting for him. A few months later? Leave your car right, there, Walt, and say hi to Carol before you drive off. Granted, the house is “more than abandoned,” so it’s doubtful whether anybody would expect Walt to show his face there, but the spray paint on the family room wall says enough: Whoever was last in the White house knew what Walt was up to; if the yellow scrawl of “Heisenberg” was intended to warn Walt, I don’t think Walt’s much for warnings in the (relatively near) future. (So to respond to your question, I’m guessing the graffiti is more a ghostly memorial of a past resident than a word of caution.) When I saw the first flash forward, in “Live Free or Die,” I would have described Walt as appearing humbled. But now, I think the more apt description is yours, kyra. This is a man resigned, which his comments to Hank in their episode-closing standoff seemed to confirm. I, too, wondered if Walt has retrieved the ricin for self-administration; I like your bold prediction, and should it come to pass would complete Walt’s total reversal from prideful to a man downtrodden enough to take his own life in the ultimate act of resignation. (I’m hesitant to join your prediction almost because almost all signs from “Blood Money” point towards Walt dying, and I suspect Vince Gilligan my have a few more rugs to sweep from under us.)

To circle back from the not-to-distant future to the present, it made sense for “Blood Money” to start with Hank’s jiggering the flush and achingly stumbling outside. It’s the shock of a lifetime to Hank, of course, and I love how the episode simulated the effects of a heart attack to convey that shock—the reveal was so startling that Hank’s reaction was physical. (And tellingly, the camera adopted Hank’s point of view multiple times—first as Hank walked through the sliding glass door, second while he was driving home—cluing us in on Hank’s instability; to my knowledge, these POV shots are quite rare on Breaking Bad, though I’d like to know if there are other prominent examples.)

As a viewer, the biggest shock to my system might be that Walt confronted Hank so soon—I’m not surprised that Walt discovered his Leaves of Grass copy went missing, given Whitman’s importance to the show’s themes (and the writers’ room), nor determined that Hank had unearthed his true identity so quickly, but in my imagination (not that anyone’s paying attention) this confrontation was taking place later in the season. The scene itself was riveting—Dean Norris had a pitch-perfect icy glare, and Cranston deployed a range of emotions, from feigned ignorance to a plea for sympathy (though I’m assuming his informing Hank that his cancer was back was his way of gloating) to his episode-closing threat. What’d you make of the Walt-Hank showdown coming so early? We could be in for an intense stretch here—and I’m not complaining in the slightest.

kyra: Not only was Hank’s reaction to his discovery physical, but I think he was seething with anger. Anger both that this monster had been under his nose the whole time and he missed it, but also the knowledge that the pain Hank still feels in his leg is Walt’s fault. All the deaths over the last year were Walt’s fault. He has ruined countless lives, and I think in that moment of recognition Hank felt overwhelming empathy with all of Walt’s victims.

Turning to the confrontation, I loved the way it was played because Hank is a terrible actor. Walt visits him roughly a week after making the discovery–while in the meantime the show does one of its famed montage sequences with Hank poring over old evidence including all the dead people in Walt’s wake and the incredibly damning sketch drawing of Heisenberg (essentially serving as a quick and dirty recap for viewers of all the carnage)–and yet Hank carries the same demeanor as when he first read Gale’s fateful note. Hank is still visibly shaken by the realization, and he’s flustered even more by Walt’s presence snooping around. To the viewer, it seems like it should be obvious to Walt by this point that Hank suspects him (the missing copy of Leaves of Grass + the tracking device* + Hank’s visual appearance and tons of boxes), and it turns out the viewer is right. Walt draws first blood by showing the tracking device, and this is all the confirmation Hank needs to accuse Walt. Hank clicks the automatic garage, and it goes down slooooooowly, keeping the viewer on the edge of their seat as they wonder what’s coming. What comes is an awesome punch to the face. In contrast to you, Buckeye, I don’t think Walt saying the cancer has come back is gloating. Rather, Walt at his core is still bound by logic. He is hoping to paint the picture for Hank that the process of going through investigating and prosecuting him is a waste of time because he’ll be dead soon anyway. If he can convince Hank of this then he can spend his last months free from worry (or so he thinks, but Lydia’s “moving parts” will have something to say about that). That being said, Walt’s warning of “tread lightly” reminds us that although Walt may be out of the empire business, he is still Heisenberg. When pushed and needled, his hubris is always revealed (see: the dinner party scene with Hank mocking Heisenberg; Mike calling him an idiot for screwing up a good thing with Fring; him telling Jesse the whole point of running the meth business is to fulfill his “potential” after he squandered his Gray Matter fortune; etc.). I am firmly in A.O. Scott’s camp that Heisenberg and Walt were one and the same all along, and this scene proves you can take the man out of the meth game, but you can’t take the meth game out of the man.

*As an aside, I loved how Walt reminded Hank about them tracking Gus Fring together using a similar tracking device. I had forgotten about this, and it made me think about just how far we have come since then.

Blood Money begins the process of revealing secrets. Hank is the first outside the criminals to know who Heisenberg is, but there is still a lot more coming. Many of these secrets are things Walt has hid from Jesse (Jane’s death, Brock’s poisoning), who we see this episode in a holding pattern. He sits in a barren house backlit by a trippy visualizer and surrounded by drug-addled friends that spend their days dreaming up new episodes of Star Trek.* The titular blood money sickens him, and I have to confess when the camera opens on a shot looking at Jesse through the glass table as a cockroach moves about, I thought he was high on heroin. Both the makeup team and Aaron Paul’s acting do a great job showing Jesse’s listless life these days. What does he have? He broke up with his girlfriend to prevent her from getting wrapped up in his dirty business, his family disowned him, and he has no marketable skills to get another job. All he has is the blood money, burning in the corner like his eyes appear from all the crying over Drew Sharp’s death. Buckeye, where does Jesse go from here? And another question: I’m curious about your opinion on the phrasing Walt uses when he remarks to Jesse that he “has to believe him” that he didn’t kill Mike. I have my own thoughts on the matter, but want to hear your take.

*This hilarious story recitation by Badger served as a reminder that Skinny Pete is actually a very intelligent and able guy who’s sadly been wrapped up in a world of drugs. Last season we saw him tickling the ivories in a music store like a concert pianist, and here his memory of Star Trek is so impressive that he catches Badger in a continuity error.

Buckeye: I really enjoyed your take on Hank as a bad actor, that his moment of realization is not a fleeting moment but a source of lingering anger and confusion that he can’t really contain. You’re right to note the tracking device that Hank attached to Walt’s Chrysler—though you’d think Hank, being onto Walt, knowing he asked Walt to attach the same device to Gus’ wagon, would’ve checked his car as soon as he discovered that Hank was on the scent. In thinking about it, it makes sense that Walt and Hank would lock horns (and eyes) so soon: Walt’s hubris and vanity emerge when driven to extremes, and Hank, however good an investigator he is, must suffer some anger and, I’d add, embarrassment, that his personal Jean Valjean has been in such close proximity for so long.

If Hank was tracking Walt’s movements, then I’d think the device captured Walt’s visit to Jesse’s house to return the titular blood money, which brings me to your question. Jesse’s not on heroin, but his face wears a similar glazed-over visage; Jesse is most certainly numb to reality, trying to rid himself of his pain by ridding himself of all the reminders of the pain he’s caused to others. I, too, loved the shot of Jesse, forlorn, under the table—many characters last night were seen through something (Walt staring at himself in the cracked mirror, Hank bewilderedly watching Walt through the curtain, Jesse under the table), as if to obscure our view of them. It’s growing increasingly impossible for the characters on Breaking Bad to see each other clearly.

As for Jesse’s actions, particularly his urge to drive through a rough part of town and throw his money out of the window (a friend compared him to Robin Hood), I thought they fit his characters. Jesse is literally trying to shed his baggage by emptying the suitcase of its green contents (especially when Jesse suspects the man who delivered the suitcase of lying through his teeth—the conversation between Walt and Jesse shared much with the closing scene of Crimes and Misdemeanors). Walt—pre-flash-forward Walt, that is—would deem this reckless and irresponsible, but remember too that Jesse walked out on this exact sum of money in the first part of Season 5, earning Walt’s ire. If Jesse can’t direct the money to the people he’d like to receive it, he still wants it out of his possession as soon as possible.

Jesse’s not in a good place, and I think at least for the immediate future we’re due for more of the same from him: silence, depression, drug use. We spoke tangentially above about Walt possibly using the ricin vile to stage his own suicide, but if we’re thinking long-term I’d venture that Jesse is the most at-risk candidate for suicide. Everything about Jesse’s story is tragic—he has a streak of kindness within him that not only hasn’t been nurtured, but has been exploited by other people. I highly doubt it’s going to end well, however it ends for Jesse, even if he survives, especially if he’s on deck for Hank’s investigation. Where do you think Jesse’s going next?

kyra: Much like you think it might be too obvious for Walt to use the ricin on himself, I think Jesse’s suicide might be the same. There have been numerous instances where Jesse seemed more than capable of taking his own life, be it through drug overdose, following the loss of a loved one, or after a plan has gone awry. However, he’s never done the deed.

I want to get back to the question I posed to you though, which still concerns Jesse’s death. When Walt comes to return the blood money Jesse smartly intuits that Walt must have killed Mike. Walt urges, nay pleads with Jesse, that Jesse must believe him when he says he didn’t do it. What I think is being left out is the second part of this sentence: “because if you don’t believe me, I’m going to have to kill you too.” I think at some point Walt will be confronted with all his past wrongs on Jesse, and will believe he has no choice* but to kill Jesse to save himself. As for what Jesse does over these next couple weeks, I don’t think much. This is Walter White’s story, and I think it’s going to take center stage here. Maybe drugs serve as the impetus for Jesse to confront Walt? Other than that, I see him stuck in his despair for a while.

*As I said earlier regarding Walt’s exceeding reliance on logic, every single murder throughout the show has been rationalized as there being no other option. Every other scenario has been extinguished except for the one that involves killing. Of course, we know this not to be true, as the real reason behind many of the deaths is Walt’s ego could not stand for them to live. We are dealing with a sociopath here.

Buckeye: All good points—we’ll be keeping our eyes open for sure. Walt, Jesse, and Hank dominated the episode, but we should mention Skyler’s interaction with Lydia briefly, I think. Breaking Bad sometimes deserves criticism for its treatment of female characters, who can often be described as flighty, Lydia most of all, perhaps (though, as far as Skyler’s concerned, her uncoolness is the product of circumstance because of all that Walt leaves in his wake). Ever since last year’s “Fifty One,” in which Skyler confessed that she was waiting for Walt’s cancer to come back, Skyler has turned the tables ever so slightly on Walt (it was Skyler, after showing her husband the pile of money in storage, who convinced Walt to drop out), and I enjoyed seeing her tell Lydia off. There’s irony now that, although Walt’s cancer has returned, it’s probably the first time in a good while that Skyler may not be wishing for her husband’s death—she’ll find out the cancer’s back at some point, I’m guessing.

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2 Responses to Breaking Bad S5E9: Blood Money

  1. davecrewe says:

    Nice review, though I disagree that Walt’s a sociopath; he’s a messed-up guy, but he’s certainly demonstrated the capacity for empathy and remorse, which is not typical of a sociopath. He’s a bad guy, but bad guys don’t have to be sociopaths to do bad things.

    • kyra says:

      Demonstrating the capacity for empathy and remorse doesn’t make someone not a sociopath. Maybe if he was doing these things consistently it would be a different story, but I don’t see him feeling bad at all about the murder of Andrew Sharp (and countless others). After telling Jesse how bad he feels, he goes into the meth tent whistling while he works. That strikes me as a sociopathic tendency. Orchestrating the murder of 11 people people because it “had to be done” also is quite disturbing.

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