TV Club

Breaking Bad recap, “Buyout”: Walt doesn’t make sense.

Has Walt stopped making sense?

Breaking Bad Season 5.
Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul).

Photo by Ursula Coyote/AMC.

I’m a sucker for a good cliffhanger ending, and this one certainly has me salivating to hear about Walt’s new plan. But first things first: The fallout from the kid’s death was … more understated than I’d expected, at least at first—though I did like the scene where the dismemberment of the bike stood in for the more gruesome process of dismantling a life. And the initially low-key response was merely laying the groundwork, it turned out, for Jesse’s mid-episode change of heart.

I was also glad to see the persistent tailing of Mike play a key role. The lack of DEA interest in his comings and goings has been bugging me for a while, and the writers, to their credit, tried to explain why such tailing hasn’t played a role in previous episodes. But is it really so easy to dodge a tail like that? I’m skeptical. The specific gambit we see Mike use works well enough, but it depends entirely on the cops having limited manpower. And once the subject of surveillance proves himself to be actively evading it, the case for throwing more resources into the task would grow stronger. Especially since Mike continues to be both the DEA and local law enforcement’s only real lead into multiple murders.

That said, Mike’s view is clearly that he can’t keep this up forever, so on some level he and I are on the same page. And his exit strategy makes sense: Sell the methylamine for $15 million, take his $5 million share, pay his guys off, and that’s still plenty of money for a comfortable retirement.

But Walt says no.

I was glad they pulled the curtain back a bit more on Gray Matter to help explain Walt’s intransigence in this matter. The fact that he wouldn’t go into the details of the falling out was frustrating for me as a curious viewer, but also spoke volumes. Perhaps the origin of the problem reflects so poorly on Walt that even at peak megalomania he can’t think of any way to make himself look good without glossing it over. Or perhaps the falling out had something to do with megalomania—maybe Walt wanted to take some wild risk, and an accurate accounting of the history would thus undermine what he’s trying to tell Jesse.

Either way, to state the obvious, his decision-making doesn’t make a ton of sense. He whines to Jesse that the business is all he has left. But taking Mike’s exit strategy would give him a great chance of getting his kids back—and an opportunity to rebuild some kind of relationship with his wife. With the one car wash he already owns profitable, and $5 million in extra capital laying around, he could look to build an Albuquerque car wash empire. Not as thrilling as methamphetamine production, I suppose—but, as Jesse says, a meth empire is perhaps not something to be proud of.

Obviously Walt can’t take that option—there’d be no more show. But it’s interesting that Gilligan didn’t really give Walt any reason to turn Mike down. In the past, there’s always been some press of external events—some demand from someone, somewhere, for either more money or more meth—to keep Walt in the game. This time there’s nothing, and he didn’t even consider it for a moment. There was no list of pros and cons, no argument, no nothing. Just: “I’m in the empire business.”

I didn’t love it. The evolution of Walt from sympathetic protagonist to anti-hero to outright villain is the core of the show. But the best villains usually get the really good lines and make a certain kind of sense. When Michael Corleone tells Kay she’s being naive for saying the difference between a mafia boss and a politician is “senators and presidents don’t have men killed,” he’s obviously rationalizing his behavior. But it’s sort of a good point! Walt’s reasoning, by contrast, gives me nothing.

That said, as soon as Mike has Walt tied up to the radiator, the old Breaking Bad magic is right back on. Walt is never better than when he’s cornered—dogged and resourceful. And the show brilliantly manipulates TV conventions so that we root for him. We hope he can reach the coffee pot, we wonder what he’s doing with those wires—and then we’re excited to see him free. Excited, even though—as we just saw—the world will be a much better place if he can’t get free. Bravo, Breaking Bad.

Emily, I wonder what you make of the legal moves around the surveillance. That all seemed kind of fishy to me—a bit of a contrivance to get Saul some screen time and make the plot work. Is there anything to it? And what do we make of Skyler? I don’t want to blame the victim here, but she really is a bit of a drag at this point. Her storyline also highlights the limits of the medium: On television, meaningful scheming and plotting and weighing of options pretty much has to happen in the form of dialogue with other people, unless you want to resort to a voiceover. Denied anyone to talk to, Skyler becomes not just a sad person, but a very odd kind of character: We have no access to her thoughts. It’s the most dramatically ambitious element of the show, but I don’t think it really works.

Whatever happened to truth in advertising?