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Walter tries to close the meth chapter of his life, but Hank opens it back up while reading 'Leaves of Grass'

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September 03, 2012 at 07:12 AM EDT

Breaking Bad finales tend to end with wrenching oh s—! moments, and as Hank’s toilet trip proved, the same is literally true for the show’s midseason finales.

But let’s start at the beginning. The episode is packed with references, explicit and implicit, to the show’s past. It opens with Walt looking reflective, staring at a lone fly buzzing around the Vamanos Pest Control office. It’s a keen, appropriately timed reference to the love-it-or-hate-it hour from the third season called “Fly.” (it’s one of my and many others’ personal favorites, but when you search “breaking bad the fly,” Google suggests “breaking bad the fly worst episode” as the second autofill result.) In that introspective bottle episode, Walt and Jesse are trying to control a pest in their underground superlab, but they wind up engaging in a deep dissection of their moral behavior and asking themselves why they still do what they still do — and what their appropriate punishments should be. It hits home a point about irrational obsession — Walt refuses to work until the fly is dead — and by now, Walt’s meth business is exactly that.

Enter Todd, who’s ready to help with Mike’s corpse, the latest product of Walt’s megalomania. “It’s pretty cool how they do that — turn a car into a cube,” Todd says, referring to his visit to the junkyard to dispose of Mike’s car. “So, should we do that other thing now?” That other thing, though, is pretty similar to compressing an automobile into a raw block of metal — they’re about to reduce a human body into slush. That’s right, it’s time for Todd’s first second body melting! They grow up so fast.

As if on cue, Jesse drops by to ask if Mike made it out safe. “He’s gone,” Walt replies tersely, and then reminds his ex-partner that the remaining nine (or ten… or eleven…) loose ends are no longer his problem. Says Walt with finality, “I’m the only vote left.”

Lydia, however, is smarter than Jesse. She knows that if Walt is asking her for the names of those nine legacy employees (plus the lawyer), as he is at their cafe meeting, Mike must be dead. She also knows that if she gives him that list, she will be dead too. And, furthermore, she knows a lot about international product distribution, and that knowledge is exactly what she offers Walt in exchange for her life. It works: they shake on it, and he lets her walk out Ricin-free.

So, Walt’s blue-meth business is going international now. Higher pay means higher risk, and so many more ways to get caught and/or killed. As for now, though, there’s Hank, who’s working on those current loose ends of Walt’s. Through his lawyer, ground-level superlab employee Dennis offers to fork over valuable information in exchange for immunity. But Hank, high on confidence, walks out on the deal. “This here is a buyer’s market,” he remarks condescendingly. “I’ve got eight other assholes just like you.”

Those words are going to sting later! In a seedy Albuquerque motel, Walt is negotiating a deal with Todd’s contract-killer uncle. Nine murders in multiple prisons within two minutes — that’s what Heisenberg wants. And as is usual, Heisenberg gets what he wants, resulting in a bloody montage of prison killings. Most of the victims suffer death by shiv, Dennis goes up in flames, and it was all soundtracked to Nat King Cole’s “Pick Yourself Up.” It’s an equally gruesome but less grand cousin of another great murder montage, the terrific scene in Goodfellas that glides over a series of mob hits to the tune of “Layla.”

And so Hank loses all of his leads at once. Dejected, he goes home to drink away his sorrows with Walt. “I’ve been thinking of this summer job I used to have,” he tells his brother-in-law. “I’d spend my days marking trees in the woods with this orange spray can. Crews would find the trees and cut them down.” We can see why that would be on his mind these days; after all, he essentially marked a group of criminals with orange prison suits, rounding them up just so that they could be disposed of by others. Every day, Hank continues telling Walt, he’d go back in the woods and start all over again, which sounds like a familiar process. But his time in the wilderness proved to be more satisfying than his current line of work. As he puts it, “Tagging trees is a lot better than chasing monsters.” The monster in his living room considers this and replies, “I used to love camping.”

NEXT: The beginning of the end

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Walter White descends into the criminal underworld.
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