What makes the tragedy of Walter White so sad and horrifying — so Greek in sweep and tone — is not the depths of its sadness but the inexorability of its march down into that sadness. Walt’s suffering is not some accident, some random thing meant to evoke pity. If he just had lung cancer, that would be freakish and grim, but watching him die a slow death while trying to come to grips with the small man he’d become over the years would be a different story altogether. No, what makes “Breaking Bad” so gorgeous and sorrowful is the way Walter invites his doom through his actions. This is the business he’s chosen. This is the life he’s built. Even before he was sick, he was a repressed, unhappy man — look at the way he swallowed his resentment at selling his share of Gray Matter and turned it into a bitter stone lodged forever in his chest — and his increasingly wicked decisions along his path to criminal royalty have been amplifications of that petty jealousy. The world doesn’t owe anybody anything, but Walt feels he deserves more than he’s been given. His greed, his anger, his feelings of wretched smallness, have driven him over and over again to do evil and claim it good. And hubris brings us all down in the end. Even if Vince Gilligan and his storytellers hadn’t teased us this season with flash-forwards showing a rugged Walter White who was on the run after being branded a criminal, we’d have to know that’s where things were going. He wanted to succeed, but his blind greed could never bring him anything but failure.
But his true suffering comes in what his greed does to the world around him. I’ve talked a lot about causality this year because, though it’s been the show’s guiding hand all along, this season has felt the most shocking and cold in its presentation of what it means for Walt’s actions to affect a dark change in everything else. He’s always been fighting to stay in control, but now he’s having to deal with what happens when he loses that control. He told Todd and the thugs to kill Jesse for money, but they wanted him to cook. He told them not to come out to To’hajiilee, but they came anyway. In his haste to shore up his forces, Walt has taken on the services of men he cannot control. His screaming pleas to stop them from opening fire on Hank and Gomez were met with predictable silence. Who is he, after all, to command these men? He’s just a sad old cook, wasting away from cancer. They need him for precisely one thing.
Watching a tragedy like this one is not always pleasant. I’m not even sure it’s ever pleasant. What it does offer us, though, is a chance to reckon with real sorrow and awe as we watch good men suffer for the deeds of the bad. Walt’s howls of fear when he realized he was about to watch his brother-in-law take fire from a gang of murderers were likely real — for all Walt’s hatred, he’d rather bluff his extended family into silence than see them come to real harm — and that’s the point. The cost of Walter’s actions is that he winds up suffering, too. None of this, not a single bit, would have happened if he hadn’t gone looking for a criminal quick-fix to his money problems. And watching it all happen, we feel a sick guilt at knowing we can get this close to evil and survive, and we feel an ache for those who tried to do right and were beaten back at every turn.
Writing this in the moment, though, it’s hard to know how they’ll be beaten back. One of the (many, many) shortcomings of trying to review or cover a weekly television series is that larger narrative goals and cathartic moments are parceled out over the course of multiple episodes, so we can only ever talk about small pieces. This little chunk of story, though, was as predictably riveting as you’d expect from a series that’s been operating at this level for years. Director Michelle MacLaren, who’s helmed several of the series’ episodes, kept this one at a gut-churning level of suspense precisely because she knew what we knew — that Walt would have to soon be free, and that there are still a few episodes to go before the show closes its run — and she leaned on that and let scenes generate suspense simply by unfolding at a normal pace. This is the same expert control she brought to, among others, “One Minute,” in which Hank was tracked and nearly killed by Tuco’s cousins. In “To’hajiilee,” the really outstanding work wasn’t Walt’s frantic race out to the desert, or even the stunning moment when he walked out to face Hank and Jesse; it was the agonizing minutes after that, as Hank went about his duty while we waited for Todd’s crew to show. Because they had to, and not just because we (the viewers) have a few weeks to go before the finale. It’s because we (the participatory audience) know that those villains can’t be bought off or stopped with a phone call, and that Walt is not done reaping the whirlwind.
The sad irony isn’t just that Walter caused all of this, but that the way he abused Jesse inspired Jesse to fight harder to catch him, which in turn pushed Walter to bring to bear the forces of men he could not control. Walt has always found a way to shield himself from blame, but now he’s being forced to learn what happens when he gets what he says he wants. How greatly do we suffer, and how the righteous do pay the price.