Last week's episode of Breaking Bad, "Ozymandias," was lauded by nearly everyone as one of the show's finest episodes. No less of an authority than the show's creator, Vince Gilligan, dubbed it the best episode of the series — including the final two episodes. The first of those two, "Granite State," aired last night. Was it a letdown? Well, no, I wouldn't call it a letdown. The emotional crescendo that was "Ozymandias" would have been impossible to duplicate, and it probably would have been a mistake to try to do so.
So "Granite State" didn't. While it had its share of gut-punch moments, this was an episode about fallout and setup. The fallout was mostly in the form of Walt's new life in New Hampshire, the pitiful existence his actions have wrought. He's holed up in a cabin, his barrel of money useless except when he can bribe the vacuum cleaner repair guy to spend another hour with him. And the setup, of course, was for Walt's return to Albuquerque, which we've known about all along thanks to the flash forward at the beginning of season five.
There was, of course, more than that in this extra-long episode . But like Breaking Bad as a whole, "Granite State" was, above all else, Walt's story, so it's fitting that we ask our usual question.
What Was the Worst Thing Walter White Did This Week?
Walt spent much of tonight's episode both literally and figuratively wasting away, to the point that you almost feel sorry for the guy (for example, the moment where his wedding ring falls off his finger — presumably because his body is so ravaged by cancer and chemo that it's withering — leaving him to tie it around his neck).
"Almost" is the operative word, though. Once again, Walt gave lip service to the idea of family, but proved that the only member of his family he really cares about is himself. Consider the desperate phone call to Walt Jr. (sorry, Flynn), in which Walt describes a scheme for sending the family an Ensure box filled with $100,000. Walt's convoluted plan — mailing the box to Flynn's friend Louis so as not to arouse police suspicion, and asking Flynn to stay completely silent about it — is clearly more trouble than it's worth. Walt could best serve his family by staying the hell away from them.
So why can't he bring himself to do that? Insecurity — the same insecurity that Gus expertly preyed on with season three's "a man provides" speech to get Walt to start cooking meth again. Walt talks about providing for his family, but what he really wants is for them (and, ideally, as many other people as possible) to see how great he is. If he's completely cut off from the world, and even his family won't take his cash, the monument to his meth business achievements, then who will remember his name? Walt fears that his life will be both unremarkable and uncelebrated. It's a fate he'll stop at nothing to avoid, even if it means doing something that's more likely to hurt his family than help it.
Thoughts On the Episode in General:
For all the loose ends that seemed to be tied up last week, a lot remains uncertain as we race toward the finish. Saul is seemingly out of the picture. We still don't know how Walt will put the machine gun and ricin into action (is he so overwhelmed with rage at Gretchen and Elliott that he's forgotten about his plan to blow away the Nazis?). We don't know Jesse's ultimate fate. We don't know if Skyler works her way out of her legal bind. We hardly saw Marie at all tonight; that can't be it for her, can it? There are lots of questions to answer, and if Gilligan's proclamations about the ending are correct, next week's episode will address just about all of them.
Speaking of Gretchen and Elliott: at the moment, not sure I like the idea of them as the impetus for Walt's final act of retribution. True, Walt's resentment over whatever happened with Gray Matter is one of the root causes of his foray into meth cooking (and I loved Walt's speech to Jesse in the first half of this season about his regret over taking a buyout and leaving the company, a moment that didn't work for everyone). But suddenly bringing Gretchen and Elliott back, and making them seem like the driving force behind the show's conclusion? It feels too abrupt, even though we've known about these characters for years. On the plus side, the question of what, exactly, Charlie Rose was doing on Breaking Bad has been answered.
A couple other things I wasn't crazy about: First, the extended shot of Walt's incensed face after he sees Gretchen and Elliott discredit him. As the shot went on, I started thinking, "OK, he's mad, I get it." Second, playing the theme song over the last scene, which struck me as a heavy-handed way of saying, "We're gettin' close to the end, folks!"
I shouldn't dwell on the negative, since I liked "Granite State" a great deal, and might like it even more after I get a chance to re-watch it. So let's talk about one of the big stars tonight: Todd. His creepiness has been building and building all season, but when he very politely warned Skyler never to tell the police about Lydia, I couldn't take him anymore. All I could bring myself to write in my notes was, "Jesus, Todd is the creepiest motherf**er, oh my jumpin' Jesus god almighty." (It's a credit to how well Jesse Plemons plays him.) I both can't wait to see and am dreading Todd's role in the finale.
Robert Forster's performance as a vacuum cleaner repair and person-disappearing specialist was also top notch. Not everyone was wild about this character, but I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to finally get a look at the guy, his operation, and the quietly intimidating professionalism Saul hinted at when describing him.
Oh, and the Emmys were last night, and Breaking Bad and Anna Gunn won! In truth, while it's really good, the first half of season five might have deserved an Emmy less than either season four or the second half of season five, but hey, I love Breaking Bad. I can't complain about the wins.
Bonus: the Most Heartbreaking Jesse Pinkman Moment of the Week
When Todd shot Andrea as a powerless, tied-up Jesse was forced to look on (his screams of agony muted by that cloth tied around his mouth), I could barely bring myself to watch. All I wrote down was "nooooooooooooooooooooooo." For a fleeting moment, it looked like Jesse would make a great escape along the lines of Walt's in the first half of the season, when Walt cut through the plastic zip tie. But as Alan Sepinwall stressed in his "Granite State" review, there's no escape now. The ending won't be pretty. We can only hope it's as brilliantly upsetting as the rest of this final half season.