There’s an ever-present sense of tension in the final season of a good drama, and it’s not necessarily related to fear over the plight of the show’s protagonists. The tension is born of fear that an otherwise great show might not stick the landing; that it might fumble important storylines, or simply run out of time to do its characters justice. Instead of thinking “this is an interesting insight into the relationship between these two characters,” the audience’s thought process can instead trend towards “There’s only six episodes left, how are they going to cover all this in time?”
I imagine some people felt that way about the latest episode of Breaking Bad, “Buried,” in which the plot development is relatively slight: Skyler throws her lot in with Walt, who reacts to last week’s confrontation by burying his fortune, while Lydia orchestrates the death of Declan’s men. I remain unconcerned, primarily because there’s only so much story left to tell. We know that Walt will fail – we know he’ll be reduced to a ragged man with a machine gun, some poison and little else – and while the exact details are unclear, this is not a show that seems likely to spring an unexpected plot twist in its final episodes. Hank and Jesse will surely play a part, and it’s increasingly obvious that Walt’s (ex)partnership with Todd and his neo-Nazi uncle (not to mention Lydia) will have ultimately dire consequences.
One of the things that this episode underlined was the complete lack of leverage that Walt now has, in stark contrast to his ascent to unquestioned power in the first half of this season. He still has enough of a reputation as “the great Heisenberg” to steer Huell and Kuby away from treachery (and it’s not undeserved) … but it’s clear that if those white supremacists coming knocking, he’s nothing more than an old man with a lot of money and little else, now that he’s out of the game. This shines some light on what is looking like the biggest weakness of this season’s storytelling – the flash-forward that saw Walt leave the meth game. There’s still a big question mark hanging over this decision, which seems to fly in the face of his stated aim to establish an empire. Neither returning cancer nor a giant cube of money seem like a sufficient explanation; perhaps the upcoming episodes will shed some light on the issue, but I’m beginning to think that the gap here is in service of giving the writer’s time to wrap up all the remaining issues.
The same uncertainties surround Skyler’s decisions in “Buried.” Skyler felt like the protagonist of this episode, as her loyalties and moral fibre were repeatedly tested. Her confrontations with both Hank and Marie were some of the best moments of the episode. Hank’s hasty assumptions and need to “beat” Walt sabotaged his efforts to get real evidence; it seems very plausible that Skyler had good intentions attending the meeting, good intentions that curdled as Hank’s lack of perspective became apparent. Maybe not, though – her conversation with Marie shed some light on how comprehensively Skyler has become an accessory to Walt, and the sheer length of time that she has enabled his “empire.” As great as both these scenes were – and the subsequent scene by Walt’s bedside – they were limited by a lack of insight into Skyler’s motivations for taking Walt back in the first place. Is she still frightened of Walt, or has she truly forgiven him? Or does she have another angle?
These are important questions, and while this uncertainty doesn’t sink the episode (which was great, by the way), it is frustrating that some of the most significant decisions of the series – Walt’s decision to quit the business, Skyler’s decision to take him back and support him – are thoroughly ambiguous. Ambiguity isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and it’s hardly the first time the show has kept its distance from its protagonists’ decisions (see: Walt’s poisoning of Brock, which was shocking not just because it revealed the depths to which he could sink, but also because it occurred entirely off-camera). But the stage that has been set – for a tragedy, apparently – is seemingly contingent on these two decisions, so I would appreciate some insight into the path that has led the show to here, the path that will take us to a broken man in the shell of what was once his home.
These uncertainties remind me of Heisenberg’s namesake’s famous uncertainty principle, which describes how increasing the certainty in measurement of one attribute of subatomic particle – say, its position – will lead to a corresponding increase in another attribute – say, its velocity. A related, core concepts of quantum mechanics is that until such measurements, a particle exists in a superposition of all possible states – a probability wave that describes all the places it could be rather than a discrete, actual location (bear with me, there is a point to all this). This collapse of a probability wave is an apt metaphor for any character in a narrative, where critical decisions narrow their possibilities, but is especially true for Breaking Bad.
In Breaking Bad, choices have consequences. This is not a television show where convenient dei ex machina rescue characters from poor decisions or adverse situations. There’s an inevitability; an inescapability to the show. I’ve seen the show described as “intensely moral” and this is evidenced in the inability of anyone in the show to escape the consequences of their actions. If you do bad things in the Breaking Bad universe, there’s no breaking away from their aftermath. Per the title of the episode: you dig yourself a hole, and then you’re stuck in it.
“Buried” was a showcase for the collapse of many probability waves; characters are given a brief moment to choose a lighter path, with the wrong choice leading to damnation. It would have been so easy for Hank to think through his approach to Skyler, to recognise that his own need to defeat Heisenberg might be in conflict with her interests. Equally, it would have been easy for Skyler to share her story, to annihilate her marriage with indisputable finality. But instead, the probability wave collapses – and each finds their paths diverging. It’s evident in smaller decisions, like Declan in his conversation with Lydia who, when rejecting Todd, couldn’t have possibly have been aware of the gravity of his decision.
So while I remain unconvinced by Breaking Bad’s decision to elide some significant moments of characterisation, I can’t deny its commitment to the reality of its universe, the consequences facing its characters. It’s for this very reason that I’m not concerned, watching these final episodes, that there won’t be enough time to tell the story well, that the producers will botch the final moments. These characters are on fixed trajectories now, spiralling descents towards ruin. The details remain uncertain; but one thing is certain: there are no happy endings here.