Breaking Bad‘s penultimate episode of the first half of its final season (deep breath) further developed Bryan Cranston’s Walter White’s character, which is to say, demonstrated how much his character (his moral character, his behavior) is shriveling with each hour of the series. In what may prove to be creator Vince Gilligan and Cranston’s most audacious move, they are taking a character who was once richly complex, and reducing him to a two-bit chiseler — a genius one, to be sure, but a man grown stunted, petty, and cheesily tyrannical.

The episode’s title, “Say My Name,” emphasized the key moment that illustrated what I’m talking about. Early on, in the pre-credits scene that paid off on last week’s “Everybody wins” cliffhanger, Walter doesn’t merely want to make the rival meth dealers agree to his terms, he wants them to say his name — that is, his Big Super-Brain Master Criminal Villain Alter Ego name, “Heisenberg” — to feed his own ego, to bend his enemies to his will by having them acknowledge that they know of Heisenberg’s grand infamy.

Similarly, throughout the episode, Walter tries to demand credit and fealty from his small inner circle. When Mike makes his departure from the little crime ring, Walter is put out that Mike doesn’t thank him and apologize for chaining him to the radiator. Mike is the grown-up in that moment; he’s the true stoic, noir hero whose behavioral code he’d learned by watching countless black-and-white crime films on TV, as we see him doing even as the DEA tossed his apartment. For a while there, Walt was the classic gangster; now he’s a proud purveyor classic Coke — his own comparison to the pure meth he cooks. Some viewers may forget that, in the Scarface comparison Gilligan has evoked, the Al Pacino at the end of the movie is no longer a steely, in-control bad-ass, but a paranoid, desperate-for-power, pathetic sap who’s killed everyone he loves and has seen his original dream of providing handsomely for his family and friends in ruins. Walter really is becoming Tony Montana, when what he should want to be is Marlon Brando’s Godfather, serene and confident in his power, looking forward to getting old in comfort, surrounded by family. As Skyler said to Jesse: “I wish.” By now, Walter’s protestation — “I’ve got a family … people who depend on me” — is a joke; you think he’s thinking about Walt, Jr., and Holly much these days?

“Say My Name” emphasized Walter’s miscalculations and the fact that others are noticing them. When he roared at Jesse about how things are going to be fine now that he’s “in control,” Jesse snapped, “You keep saying that and it’s bull— every time!” A tad exaggerated by Jesse, but a point well-made. Later, Mike would excoriate Walter for his “pride” and his “ego.”

The death of Jonathan Banks’ Mike Ehrmantraut, plugged in the gut by Walter in yet another mistake on Walter’s part (he quickly realizes he could have gotten the names of Mike’s “nine guys” from Lydia) was preceded by some wonderful scenes laying out how Mike has prepared for his inevitable attempt at a getaway by having a stashed car and bag, how he pays off his “nine guys” through the use of a lawyer even considerably worse at his job than Saul. The scenes were filmed with pleasurable detail, even as they served to underscore once again that Walt’s downfall is going to be his crucial decision to expand his meth business beyond the original binary — Jesse and himself.

Much of this episode — all of the Mike scenes plus the safe deposit room moments — reminded me most of Don Siegel’s superb portrait of an old heist man, Charlie Varrick (1973), in which Walter Matthau plays “the last of the independents,” a stick-up man who gets away.

My guess is that during next week’s mid-season finale, Todd will pull something, either by accident or calculation, that will further complicate Walter’s plans, and bring the focus back to Walt-and-Jesse. Your theories?

Twitter: @kentucker

Episode Recaps

Breaking Bad

Walter White descends into the criminal underworld.

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