10 Things We Learned From 'Breaking Bad' S5E15 "Granite State"

As we promised in "The Ones Who Knock" Kickstarter, I will be doing weekly recaps here for each episode of Breaking Bad. For those of you unfamiliar with my recapping style, it's less of a straightforward plot summary and more a distillation of the most interesting elements of each week's episode.  The recaps will spoil everything up through the current episode (S5E15 "Granite State"), but won't spoil any future episodes or even scenes from the "Next Time" segment of the show.  There will, however, be some light speculation and straight-up crackpot theories.  No theory or speculation is based on foreknowledge of the show.  So hold on to your pork pie hats, because here we go.

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1. Don't Call It A Callback: Not every call back in Breaking Bad's history is intentional.  We learned that just last week when director Rian Johnson told us he had no intention of framing Walt in "Ozymandias" to mimic Gus's despair in "Hermanos."  But this link between Walt learning of his cancer in the pilot episode and Skyler being interrogated this week is undeniably real. So what's the point of such an echo? The point is this. Walter has all along claimed that he was a victim of circumstance, just doing what he needed to do to provide for his family.

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But here's Skyler in similarly dire straits and what does she do? Slap on the black hat? No, in the words of Todd, she "seems like a nice lady trying to look out for her kids." She moves into a smaller home and takes a part time job working taxi dispatch. Boring, right? Certainly not the makings of an outstanding drama series. But her humanity and her completely normal reaction to her circumstances only serve to highlight the monstrosity of Walt's behavior. No matter how much he tries to justify it, it's just not what people do.

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2. It's Not Over Until He Says It's Over: I know a lot of people had a problem with this episode and saw it as a mere place holder or table setter, but I disagree.  For me, this episode was all about the death rattle and resurrection of Heisenberg. There was a theory floating around that after Holly said "mama," last week, we had seen the last Heisenberg. That the man in Denny's and the man with the M60 was Walter Hartwell White, hellbent on redemption. That was certainly my preferred interpretation. But right at the beginning of this episode, we see Heisenberg's first attempt to re-emerge as he tries to intimidate Saul in his old manner. Even calling on the same words. He's brought up short by a cancer-induced coughing fit and Saul declares it "over." That was too soon to call, Saul.

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3.

 Is That The Last We'll See Of Marie? Those of you who were looking for more of a reaction to Hank's murder from Marie were in for some disappointment. All we got was this brief, numb car ride before she was whisked away into protective custody. I hope it's not the last we see of Betsy Brandt, I think she's phenomenal, but I'm not sure what place she has in the finale. In fact, I'm not sure what I want from the rest of Walt's family during the finale. If Walt's coming back for revenge (more on that later) and not to redeem himself, then I think the best we can hope for is Bryan Cranston's bearded face pressed up against a window like a Dickensian pauper while Skyler, Walt Jr., Marie and Holly enjoy a warm (if impoverished) meal. He should be left out and forgotten. That's what he has coming to him.

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4. Hey! Nazis Like Ice Cream And Romance Too: Why do you think Vince Gilligan and company worked so hard in this episode to humanize the Nazis? To make them extra creepy, that's why. There's nothing more unsettling than a monster who enjoys Ben & Jerry's.

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5.  Exhibit A: Todd, That Dead-Eyed Opie Piece Of Sh*t: Because we need to take a minute and pay homage to Jesse Plemons. I mean, credit where credit's due, the writers of Breaking Bad have created a fantastic, slow burn villain in Todd Alquist. He has been incrementally, politely worming his way into your nightmares over the course of these past two seasons and we're at the point now where I might not ever be able to look at Plemons the same way again.

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But with all due deference to the writers, I cannot heap enough praise on the subtlety of this performance. Watch the episode again and ONLY pay attention to Todd's fingers (thumb caressing Skyler's petrified shoulder, curling possessively around the back of Lydia's chair, plucking a bit of lint off her suit jacket).  Terrifying. Which brings us back to Hamlet and the notion "That one may smile, and smile, and be a villain."  His (bashful? sheepish? proud?) smile at the mention of Drew Sharp was the second most appalling smile of the episode.

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Because, of course, this was the first. Was poor Andrea a bit of a sap to open the door to a stranger and walk out into the night? She was. But look at that face! We'll come back to Andrea and Todd's notion that her death is "nothing personal" in a minute. But for now I just want you to soak in the horror of this Walter White fanboy. This good, kind, patient, temperate "dutiful" son.

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6.  The Return Of The Three Sons Theory: I floated the notion a few weeks back that the triptych of Jesse, Todd and Flynn is one of the most important themes of the entire series. These three young men serve as more than mere players in Walt's drama, they're important reflections of the fluctuating nature of our murky hero. Todd reflects the blackest part of Walt and represents his worst, most morally bankrupt tendencies.  Walt doesn't really seem to care for Todd, but who does care for the worst aspects of themselves? Then we have Jesse. The middle son. This is someone who in his complicit criminal behavior and agonizing struggles with remorse and the weight of his conscience represents all there is to Walt. He's known both Heisenberg and Mr. White, the mild-mannered chemistry teacher, and the way Pinkman's been torn to shreds throughout the entire series reflects the inner Jekyll/Hyde struggle ripping Walt apart. Which, of course, bring us to Walt Jr.

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 7. "Why Are You Still Alive?": In an echo of Season 1, Episode 4 "Cancer Man," Walt Jr. wishes death on his father. Flynn represents how Walt always wanted to be seen. He wanted to be the paterfamilias, the clever and brave provider. He wanted to look at his son see, literally, hero worship reflected back. In this aspect, at least, we can agree with Saul. It's over. That side of Walter, the white, blameless facade, is dead and gone. What remains? That's what's left to be seen.

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8. So That's What Happened To The White House: Speaking of wake-up calls, one of the more shocking images of the series so far has been the way Walt's house of lies, the structural representation of his fictional life as the good husband and father, was destroyed and turned into a more accurate mirror of his destructive, criminal lifestyle. I loved this episode, I thought it was phenomenal, but I will be the first to admit I was a little let down when Robert Forster (amazing casting choice!) revealed it was just a bunch of vandals. Where's my poignant symbolism, Gilligan!?!

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9.  Was This Really Necessary? The major bone of contention in this episode, however, seems to be with Andrea's death. Many feel it was pointlessly brutal and didn't serve to advance the plot. Jesse knew the dangers of trying to MacGyver/Air Jordan his way out of that cage and did it anyway. The stakes haven't changed for him, his refusal to cooperate still means a loved one may die. Do we think Jesse didn't understand/believe the implications of that photo? Did we really need more evidence that Todd and his merry band of ice-cream eatin' psychopaths were not to be trifled with? No. So what's it all about? Well, and no offense to Andrea and the lovely Emily Rios but I think it all comes back to Walt and Jesse. What we see go down between those two in the final episode is what will determine the entire moral thrust of the show. Is Walt still even capable of redemption? After Jane and Andrea, is Jesse capable of forgiving him? Andrea's needless, senseless 100% innocent death is a reminder to all of us of the corruptive influence of Walter's actions. (He's the one, after all, who tipped the Nazi's off to Andrea's location.) Did we need that reminder? Well, you know what, some of you do.

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10.  And Like That, Pffff, He's Gone: And then we get to my favorite moment of the episode, maybe of the series. Because it surprised me. Because it was a deep cut. And because it brought us right back to the beginning. I had assumed, as we watched Heisenberg struggle to reemerge all episode, that this 75 minutes would be about the end of Walt's darker side. What with the chemo and the oppressive cold, Heisenberg couldn't even work up enough steam to walk to town. And that's exactly where we were headed with Walt tenderly fondling his wedding ring and, after the phone call with Walt Jr., giving up his location to the police. Heisenberg would never.

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But then as fate would have it, Gretchen and Elliott reared their smug, legacy-snatching heads and in a complete reversal, Walter Hartwell White bowed out and Heisenberg took the wheel. Gretchen may have said a lot of sh*tty erroneous things in her attempt to distance Gray Matter from Walt, but she's on the money when she says "the sweet, kind, brilliant man that we once knew long ago.. he's gone." That's what we've been seeing in the flash forward and what we'll see in much of the finale. Heisenberg's last stand. I hope it gets more complicated than that. I'm sure it will.  But for now we're dealing with wounded pride and "righteous" indignation. Do we have any sympathy left to muster or are we just going to watch in shock and horror?

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Crackpot Theories Of The Week:  Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium is about a dying man who spends the film trying to ensure the survival of his legacy. When he dies (which he does) he cites the stage directions of King Lear (you know, the story of a demented man and his three children each of whom make a case for being his legitimate heir...eh? eh?) which simply read "he dies." Is Walter White headed this way? Yes. Was Vince Gilligan making a pointed comment on Walt's fate or just a joke about how terrible an eternity with Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium would be? Maybe both.  

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Is the gun for the nazis and the ricin for Gretchen and Elliott?  Maybe slip a little powder into Elliott's Ramen? Many folks seem to think so...

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...but they keep bringing up the tea, so my money's still on Lydia (or maybe her tea-drinking proxy, Todd). After all, if we're headed for a Shakespearean ending, then it makes sense for the poison something to go into the lady's cup. After the way Lydia was talking about Skyler this week I'm all for a Rodarte-Quayle hunt. Yeah, she's gonna need more Stevia.

Musical Moment Of The Week: How could you even ask? The first (and last?) use of Dave Porter's AMAZING theme from the opening credits. This was my favorite moment of the episode.

Finally, congratulations to Breaking Bad and Anna Gunn for their Emmy wins last night. Cranston and Paul? You'll get them next year. 

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