"Breaking Bad" — "Gliding Over All": Many Deaths I'll Sing
"Gliding Over All," the midway point of the final season of "Breaking Bad" and the last new episode we'll see for about a year, had the feeling of a man recalling scenes from his life in the moments shortly before his death. Part of this manifested itself in Walter's surprising jaunts down memory lane, from his chatting with Jesse about their days in the RV to the fact that, almost a year later, the paper towel holder in the hospital men's room still bears the marks of Walter's rage from the second season's "Four Days Out." (He'd spotted a white mass on his charts and had been convinced he was not long for this world. Four days later, after being stranded with Jesse in the desert, he learned that he would live. Consumed anew with grief and anger at his actions and his thin justification for them -- this was when Walt could feel such things -- he whaled on the towel dispenser.) But on a broader level, it was the series itself that seemed to be doing its share of recalling those moments and tying them together, and there was a feeling with this midseason-finale-of-sorts that the time had come to remind everyone where we'd been. Walt's obsession with a fly in his office, the oblique references to events dating back to the pilot, even the additional uses of stylistic flair like time-lapse and pop montage that have come to define the show: they all made for a very "Breaking Bad"-ish episode, as much about its own existence as anything else, as if those responsible for making the series wanted to prove to viewers/themselves just how strong their voice has become.
This makes sense. There are eight 47-minute chunks of story left (with credits), give or take a few minutes here or there, so with the story coming to its inevitable end soon, it's understandable that the show would begin, however gradually, to wrap up matters by thematically and narratively circling back to its earliest days. Longtime series writer Moira Walley-Beckett and director Michelle MacLaren did fantastic work here, especially given how much stuff they had to cram into this episode, from Walt's expansion into the Czech Republic and subsequent decision to quit the meth game to the biggest chronological skip (three months) we've had in the series' main timeline to date. In an earlier season, or even just earlier in this one, the overseas play could take several episodes, but we got it in half an hour. More than any other, this episode had a feeling of "Wait a minute, we've got to start jamming ahead on this stuff." Yet it worked, which is to say, there was a balance between the things that were happening and the emotional reasons they were happening. It didn't once feel like the characters were just hustling through the motions, or that the creative team had simply decided to just start throwing more crap at the wall to see what would stick. For instance, this is a show that takes narrative details very seriously, so the decision to push the narrative ahead three months in one episode was not one made carelessly. A move like that takes Walt into new territory, gives him reason to quit, and ushers in the events of the final harrowing minutes that promise to explode the story and take it in a damning new direction.
It was that final sequence where MacLaren (who also helmed this season's stunning "Madrigal") really got to show off. On series like this one, there's nothing so unsettling as people acting as if nothing is wrong. Finn slowly pushing Molly around the pool, the adults making small talk over lunch on the patio, the total boringness of the scene: the whole thing was surreal in its normalcy, the kind of moment that makes you wait for the other shoe to drop. The energy kept things off-kilter, too, with the camera cutting from close-ups on Finn and the baby to wide shots of the two couples surrounded by so much empty space you almost thought another plane was going to drop wreckage in Walt's pool. That's another sign of how much the show and Walter have changed over the years. Such lunches used to be the safe place away from a world of crime and torture. Now they're charged with tension, while Walt's criminal dealings have never been smoother.
And then, to finally pay off Hank's investigation of Gale and "W.W." after all this time, and to have it hinge on something as stupidly overlooked as Walt's own copy of Leaves of Grass -- that was a devastating, stunning moment. You'll forgive me if I can't right now remember if Hank ever seriously suspected Walt or was just willing to latch onto any clue he could in his dogged pursuit of Heisenberg and Gus Fring, so I'm not sure if his revelation confirmed his worst fears or merely introduced them. But this moment had to happen, given how long Walt and Hank have been dancing around each other, and it couldn't have been executed more powerfully. Because again, this is the way things go. You don't die in a blaze of glory in a gunfight; you get shot by a chemistry teacher and left to die by a river. You don't outsmart your foe; you tip your hand accidentally while he's on the john. All that work, undone by laziness, arrogance, and chance.
The episode touched on so much that had come before because it's all led to this: the final push between Hank Schrader and Walter White. In the words of "Crystal Blue Persuasion," "A new day's coming, people are changing." For a show marked by so many points of no return, this feels like the biggest and most dangerous yet because it's got the potential to endanger not just Walt but everyone he knows and loves. What Hank will do with his hunch -- his knowledge -- isn't known yet, but he's a dogged investigator and damn smart. Can he catch the real Heisenberg, though? I don't know. In another nine months or so (within the show's narrative), Walt will be celebrating his 52nd birthday with scrambled eggs and assault weapons, so there are plenty of narrative turns I couldn't begin to predict. I have faith that the story's final chapters will be just as powerful as those that have come before, though. "Breaking Bad" has proven itself time and again to be one of the most adept, moving, stunning dramas on the air (to say nothing of all time), and "Gliding Over All" was like a siren call, a statement of purpose, a promise not just to take things to their logical if brutal end but to do so in a way that feels whole, and right, and of a piece with the every frame that's come before.
• During the final scenes, I kept thinking of the closing moments of the "Slapstick" episode of "The Wire." It's when things calm down that I get really nervous.
• So much happened in this episode that it's almost easy to forget that the hour started with Walt and Todd disposing of Mike with the same chemical melt used to eliminate everyone from low-level dealers to the child Todd murdered in the desert. This was another awful milestone for Walt, so much so that he didn't even want to acknowledge it was happening. Yet he was willing to keep the murders going. He scoffed at Lydia's paranoia that he'd off her in the coffee shop, even though he had a vial of poison at the ready. What won't he do?
• The title comes from a poem in Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Text available here.
• Walt also had another Michael Corleone moment, this time ordering the mass executions of Mike's former crew spread across three prisons. This, I think, is the biggest set of killings he's orchestrated so far. It also shows just how far he's come that he doesn't have to work out the details himself, instead telling Todd's uncle to "figure it out" and simply paying for services rendered. The executions were horrifying, too, set in a gruesome montage to Nat King Cole's "Pick Yourself Up." This show does montage better than just about everyone else.
• Case in point: The fantastic sequence scored to Tommy James and the Shondells' "Crystal Blue Persuasion." It hit the standard "Breaking Bad" twofer -- lighthearted pop backing brutish criminal activity, plus lyrical commentary on said activity -- but went a step further by showing the connections between everyone united by Walter's intercontinental criminal empire. It was slickly done and wonderfully expansive.
• Fun seeing Kevin Rankin, aka Devil from "Justified," show up for a few minutes.
• The series remains relentlessly dark -- visually and morally -- in ways that are pretty rare even in the heyday of the grim-drama renaissance we've had these past few years. There's almost none of the (admittedly sporadic) comic relief there was at the beginning of the series' run, and even moments like Jesse's awkward dinner with the Whites are more about their pain than anything else. I think this is why so many people wind up remixing the show in new ways online to create humor or parody based on it. It's a chance to take a break for a moment and let off some of the emotional weight that can build up from watching the show. (Here are two darkly comic riffs based on "Curb Your Enthusiam," and one based on old Mentos ads.) A friend of mine at work said he just got into the show and has been watching several episodes at a time, like I did. He said it's amazing, but that after a few episodes, he's in dire need of a breather. "Breaking Bad" is an unforgiving show, and one that commits to the nature of crime and punishment, of cause and effect, in cold and heartbreaking ways. Its pleasures, if you can call them that, come from the sheer power of the story and the manner in which these nuanced characters do terrible things to each other while lying to themselves about what's really happening. I think that's part of what makes the show so gripping, even if the specifics aren't relatable for 99.9% of the viewing audience. We all know what it's like to tell ourselves that the rules don't apply to us, that it's OK for us to do something others label as "wrong" because we've got special circumstances. We pretend not to know what's happening, and we pretend not to cause the pain we see ourselves inflicting. Maybe we didn't set out to be this way or do these things, but we are, and we did. "Breaking Bad" is bleak, but it's also true in ways we rarely get in anything, let alone televised entertainment. Even when we want to look away, we can't, because we see ourselves and we want to know what we're going to do next.
• I'll see you next year.