Walter tries to close the meth chapter of his life, but Hank opens it back up while reading 'Leaves of Grass'
Credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC

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

That wonderfully low-octane yet quietly revealing moment was definitely one of this season’s many God, I love this show! moments, and it only got better thanks to a clever cut that seamlessly took us from Walt hanging with Hank to Hesienberg cooking with Todd. The ensuing montage — the episode’s second, this time backed by the on-point pick “Crystal Blue Persuasion” — speeds through weeks of hard work as the gang take their blue-crystal empire global. Money, meth, Madrigal: all are moving unhindered, and at great speeds to boot. By the end of it all, Walt’s daughter is almost walking, and Skyler (with a kick in the butt from Marie) tells her husband that enough is enough: she wants her children back. It’s time for Walt to hang up his black porkpie hat.

To drive the point home, she drives him away from home to a rented storage space, where she shows him a cube of cash so large, she gave up counting it long ago. Not even a hundred car washes could launder this much money, she tells him — it’s more than enough for ten lifetimes. And that’s when we get back to the questions posed by “Fly.” Why is Walt still working? He began this new career to make sure his family would be taken care of when he died. Why keep upping the ante (and body count) when he already has enough to leave behind for a Big Love-sized household, let alone his own four-person unit? As Skyler asks, “How big does this pile have to be?”

This is when Walt seems to finally, finally realize that it doesn’t have to be any bigger. In fact, he knows that it has to be smaller — five million smaller, to be exact, due to his debt to Jesse. This realization is triggered during Walt’s visit to the oncologist’s office, where he sees the still-dented towel dispenser that he punched to death in “Four Days Out.” That’s the second-season episode in which he found out that his cancer was in remission, eliminating any moral justification he may have had for staying in business. It’s also the other bottle episode where he and Jesse get stuck in their meth lab, though back then it was an RV. This prompts him to pay a visit to his former colleague’s house. Jesse is at home, alone and stoned, visibly afraid of the one who knocks unannounced. The two don’t even take a seat the entire time. They stand around in the living room and reminisce about the old days, dating back to those bullet holes the RV gained all the way back in the pilot episode. And while their remember-when session was mixed with some nervous laughter here and there, it didn’t look like Jesse took a breath the entire time. And who could blame him? For all he knows, he’s just another of Walt’s loose ends. Judging by his disconnected phones and elongated pot-smoking sessions (not to mention the gun he kept on his person), he’s been on edge nonstop ever since he last saw Walt. Thankfully, it’s all over now: When his scary visitor leaves, Jesse finds himself with more money than he’s ever had in his life.

And with that, Walter’s out. He tells Skyler this, and soon enough, they’re with Hank and Marie, celebrating their children’s return home. But like all soirees set near the White family pool, there’s a hitch: during a trip to the bathroom, Hank finds Walter’s copy of the Walt Whitman poem Leaves of Grass. You know, the book Gale gave to Walt, the one that’s been referenced with increasing frequency and from which this episode gets its title? Yeah, that’s the one. “To my other favorite W.W.,” Gale wrote on the title page. “It’s an honor working with you. Fondly, G.B.” Hank reads this and flashes back to that time he looked Walt in the eye and joked that maybe he was the meth kingpin the D.E.A.’s looking for, Gale Boetticher’s beloved W.W. By the look on Hank’s face right now, it’s no longer a joke; he’s got the smoking gun, and it is piping hot. Good thing he was on the toilet when he found it, because he might’ve soiled his pants otherwise.

NEXT: Whitman passages and a Squeeze song

So, where does the show go from here? We’ll have to wait until next summer to find out, but it looks like Walt’s alleged exit from the game won’t prevent him from getting in trouble (which we know he will somehow, thanks to the flash-forward in this season’s first episode). There’s a chance he’s sincere about giving up his Heisenberg life, especially since we know that he’ll stop shaving his head at some point. But as they said in the Godfather trilogy, “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.”

Until then, some stray observations from Breaking Bad‘s midseason finale:

–We all learned something new about the Czech Republic tonight!

–After meeting with Lydia, Walt puts the his cigarette-rolled ricin behind his ear. But speaking from personal experience, that’s by no means a safe method of storage — those things fall out all the time!

–Hotel art is sort of the best art. Also, it’s remarkably easy to steal (don’t ask). Update: As one clever commenter points out, the painting Walt saw in the motel was the same as the one at his doctor’s office after he faked a mental breakdown. Callbacks aplenty in this episode! It’s almost shocking that we didn’t hear the Salamanca ding! somewhere, but perhaps that audio callback ended when Hector did.

–Was the other contract killer guy, the one that wasn’t Todd’s uncle, played by the actor who was also the weird R.A. on Undeclared? If so, the guy’s got some impressive range! Update: You guys are so smart! As a few commenters noted, it was Kevin Rankin, who was Lucien the R.A. from Undeclared, as well as characters from Justified, Big Love, and other quality shows. Range indeed!

–It was faded into the background, but the song playing during the White’s backyard get-together was Squeeze’s terrific “Up the Junction,” which the Killers’ Brandon Flowers (along with myself and many others) consider among the most well-written songs around.

–Here’s the Leaves of Grass passage that produced the episode’s name:

Gliding o’er all, through all,

Through Nature, Time, and Space,

As a ship on the waters advancing,

The voyage of the soul—not life alone,

Death, many deaths I’ll sing.

I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen an actual replay-the-scene flashback on Breaking Bad. Was Hank’s bathroom moment the first?

Well, this will be it for a while, but there’s enough to talk about until next year. What’s on your mind? Sound your barbaric yawp in the comments!

Episode Recaps

Breaking Bad

Walter White descends into the criminal underworld.

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