Breaking Bad has a good history of treating us to personal post-apocalypses in its season— or in this case, half-season— openers. But season 5B immediately put itself in the running for most heartbreaking yet.
Unlike the infamous floating teddy bear from a few seasons back, “Blood Money” starts with a stylistic fake-out, as we’re dropped into the middle of a skate video that we eventually figure out is being filmed in the Whites’ backyard pool, now empty and fucked up nearly beyond recognition. From there we see Walt pulling up in his decrepit Denny’s mobile, and the severity of the situation becomes a little clearer: the White household, which we’ve spent enough time in to feel like a member of the family, is a hollowed out shell, the kind of depressing abode that occasionally appears on otherwise placid suburban blocks.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Walt has only returned to its ransacked setting in order to locate that hidden vial of ricin, bringing us inside the suburban post-apocalypse itself. Walt pauses momentarily to look at the emptiness of his house, but it’s not the type of pause you’d associate with a victim or someone besot by tragedy— it’s the gaze of someone who knows they’re in full-on scorched-earth mode now and they don’t give a shit.
We, the viewers, are the more likely victims, and like the season premier, Vince Gilligan and company are hellbent on driving home the point that Walter White is far, far past any hope of salvation or redemption.
The episode of course moves backwards from there, returning to where the previous episode left off in order to show us the immediate aftermath of Hank’s discovery. Season 5A ended with Walt and his family in a scene of relative normalcy, enjoying a little get together; but it was clear then that Walt was bored out of his mind. Hank’s visit to the bathroom and his discovery of Walt’s all too conveniently placed Leaves of Grass, a gift from Gale, got a mixed reaction when it aired because some people called foul over what a stretch it was for Walt to have left it there and for Hank, not exactly literary minded, to have come across its inscription.
But Walt’s tragic flaw has always been his desperate need for recognition— it’s not enough for him to be the best chemist, or the baddest drug boss, he has to gloat about it somehow, and he got small but key pleasures in slipping declarations laced with hidden meanings his victims and peers couldn’t get. So it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine he’d leave that book there, even subconsciously, in the hopes that Hank would find it – because Hank stands as the lone viable threat to his life’s work.
After all, he told Hank just enough before to make that inscription click.
The bulk of the rest of the episode is devoted to showing Walt’s frustration with his return to the less-exciting life of the less-involved partner in a small business: making suggestions about how to better display “high margin” items like air fresheners, concocting plans to open a second car wash in order to launder money more quickly, and generally feeling out of place. The only excitement he gets at this point is a brief visit from Lydia, who is attempting to coerce him into fixing her operations now that the quality of the blue crystal has dropped so much lower without his involvement.
You can tell Walt’s real satisfaction comes from Lydia’s admission that her people just aren’t as good as him and Cranston plays up the smugness perfectly. Like a lot of other viewers, I expected this minor conflict to drive the next few episodes, switching between Lydia’s not-so-covert badgering of Walt at work (seriously, Lydia continues to be one of the show’s most annoyingly inept characters— one of the few flaws in the narrative of the season has been her role, it’s almost impossible to believe someone who is as oblivious to subtlety as Lydia could get so far) and Hank’s attempts to silently build a case against Walt; one that would stand up in court in a way that a vague book inscription wouldn’t. But Breaking Bad has never been most shows, and it shattered that expectation fairly quickly.
Not long after some requisite Jesse remorse and guilt-fueled actions of misguided stupidity, Walt figures out Leaves of Grass is missing and he begins to suspect what that might mean before finally confirming those suspicions with the discovery of a GPS tracker, like the one he and Hank used on Gus, underneath his car.
Even then, I thought this would play out over a few episodes, with Walt testing and teasing Hank, but instead we get full on physical confrontation in Hank’s garage that culminates in Walt’s confession that his cancer is back and he is almost certainly going to be dead in 6 months, maybe less. Up until that point, this was a relatively slow episode that played out less like a premier than the mid-season point it technically is.
But that slowness also helped increase the final stakes, ramping up the tension and effectively putting us in Hank’s perspective, as the painful slowness of his investigation— which was punctuated by brief moments of hideous, brutal violence— finally led to a bittersweet conclusion. We may have known more than Hank, but like him and Walt both, we’ve also known that Walt has been on the verge of death for some time, and that his end days have been fraught with frustration at the universe and his lot in life.
Walt’s final, most effective threat against Hank is the revelation that family doesn’t mean as much to Walt as it means to Hank, and Walt tests that by letting Hank know what his position is: Walt is not scared of what Hank knows, because there’s no way it would hold up in court and all it would do is tear apart the family, while Walt almost certainly wouldn’t live long enough to truly see justice. That also means Hank’s demand that Walt surrender his family to him for their own protection is met with a firm no, because Walt is equally certain Hank won’t move on it. And besides, Hank underestimates the involvement of Skylar.
Nothing in the episode is truly shocking, because most of us suspected Hank would be Walt’s final nemesis, and it was only a matter of how and when it would play out. But there are still some surprises in store: who is that gun meant to be used against? What about the ricin? Why would one of these targets need to be taken out slowly and quietly while the other warrants an explosive shooting death? And where will Jesse land in all of this? Is he going to turn state’s evidence? Or will he die simply because Walt knows he is buckling and might therefore be more likely to turn state’s evidence?
We’ve already seen Jesse acting rashly, tossing bundles of money out the window in the bad part of town, and it’s not too unreasonable to suspect that might put him on someone’s radar, but if anyone on the show has been pushed towards a semi-redemptive arc, it’s Jesse. Is that the happy ending Breaking Bad has in store? Or is that simply the happy ending that will be stolen from us by the end?
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Comics Bulletin, or at Panel Panopticon, which he started as a joke and now takes semi-seriously. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd rants about his potentially psychopathic roommate on twitter @Nick_Hanover and explore the world of his musical alter egos at Fitness and Pontypool.