This final half-season of Breaking Bad has been like a game of ten-pin bowling at times. That may seem like an odd metaphor, but bear with me: there’s so many pins to knock over in this final stretch that we need to have a break every couple of episodes to line them up again – as we did back in “Rabid Dog,” which set Walt and Hank/Jesse onto a collision course, and we do again tonight in “Granite State.” I admit I was hoping for a guns-blazing, Sopranos-esque big episode prior to the finale, giving us time for a more reflective finale, but Breaking Bad has never really gone down that path, reserving its final episodes for its big moments.
“Granite State” slows down things considerably after the detonation of “Ozymandias,” exposing its players to the nuclear fallout. Walt gets his very own nuclear winter, a secluded cabin in the snow that gives him nothing to do but dwell on his failures. He repeats his refrain, “this can’t have been for nothing,” but it’s increasingly clear that it has been for nothing.
All of this has left him with nothing, paying thousands of dollars for an hour of human company. And why wouldn’t he? All he has to keep him company are news clippings that detail the despair he’s left his family in. These clippings are his only legacy, aside from that gunmetal grey barrel of money that looms in the corner.
The episode systematically breaks Walt down, chipping away inexorably at his stony façade of pride and masculine posturing until there’s nothing left but a ragged, broken man. A man who has nothing, a man whose attempt to reach out to his son with $100,000 is met with the disdain and anger it deserves. Walt thinks of this gesture as insufficient because it’s simply not enough money. Flynn’s reaction is one of anger and disappointment, not because of the quantity of money but because a man who has betrayed him and left his life in ruins can only think to give him cash.
Rejected, alone, Walt finally goes to turn himself in … until, of course, the one remaining shard of his legacy returns in the form of Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz. What exactly this has awakened in Walt (and how, exactly, it involves a machine gun and ricin) will have to wait for next week, but there are plenty of pins very much ready to be bowled over.
There was a lot to like about “Granite State,” even if it was never going to live up to its momentous predecessor. It had its shocking moments – like Skyler walking in on black-clad neo-Nazis, circling Holly’s crib like a horrifying coven, or Andrea paying the price for Jesse’s aborted escape attempt – but for much of the episode, the strings were visible. It’s inevitable that Walt will spend months at the cabin, because we know he doesn’t return to Albuquerque until his birthday.
As much as this final season has been outstanding, the short timeframe has forced the writers’ hands, and some sacrifices have been made to set up the finale. Of course we want to see the full scale of Walter’s misdeeds weigh down upon him. Of course if Uncle Jack and Todd are going to be key players, we need to spend more time with them to solidify their motives. But I remain disappointed that again and again, the show has been forced to make sacrifices at expense of Jesse’s character.
Aaron Paul’s character has been the heart of the show since he took on a more prominent role in season two, and he was as significant to the series across season two, three and four as Walter White himself. The sidelining of Jesse in the first section of season five was understandable; this half-season was the rise component of a rise/fall narrative, and it was necessary for him to participate as a willing sidekick and eventually, when Drew Sharp met his end, as the conscience that Walt now lacks. But Jesse this season has felt like a character in service to the plot rather than a driving force, lacking any eal agency. His partnership with Hank may have been inevitable but it’s also, in retrospect, increasingly questionable. I could buy his need to punish Walt, but by pairing with law enforcement? Specifically, with the man who beat him bloody?
Maybe this is me being picky. But at this stage, with Jesse’s role over the last two episodes to be tormented and tortured, punished in every way possible, he feels less like a person than an incarnation of the tide of destruction and misery left by Walt. His one attempt to control his fate this episode is met with tragedy, a flat gunshot dropping Andrea to the ground. It feels like a betrayal of Jesse’s increasing maturity and assertiveness over his own fate over the last couple seasons – it’s not that Aaron Paul isn’t making all this anguish heartbreaking, but it almost feels like tragedy for the sake of tragedy at this stage.
When I spoke above about hoping for a more reflective finale, I admit I was hoping that this penultimate episode would resolve Walt’s storyline one way or the other, leaving the final episode to deal with Jesse more substantively. There’s still time of course. Not much of it, but I have enough confidence in the makers of Breaking Bad to hope that Jesse Pinkman will receive a more fitting ending than an eternity chained in a dank dungeon.