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Breaking Bad – Recap: Live Free or Die

Recap video and review of Breaking Bad – Season 5 Episode 15 – Granite State:

After weeks of breakneck pacing and wall-to-wall carnage, Breaking Bad scaled it back for a more meditative hour (well, hour and 15 minutes). Yet even in those moments of quiet reflection, we got some fairly insane developments as we ramp up towards next week’s series finale. “Granite State” is an episode that serves as a launching pad for climactic finale that could see damn near every character in the series ending up dead before the episode ends. Yet Breaking Bad still manages to find poignancy in a situation that only gets more and more deliriously screwed up.

Walt (Bryan Cranston) has hit the proverbial wall now that a nationwide manhunt is underway for the former “Heisenberg”. He wants to go after the Nazi gang, but has no choice but to go on the run, with the help of Saul’s “guy,” the man who helps people “disappear”. Saul’s Guy (played by Oscar nominee Robert Forster) helps Walt get to New Hampshire, and even sets him up in a roomy cabin with cable, internet, a drop phone and a hearth fire. Walt initially tries to get Saul (Bob Odenkirk) to come with him, attempting to intimidate him with a reprise of the “It’s over when I say it’s over” speech, but he’s overtaken by a coughing fit. Saul advises Walt to simply turn himself in and make it easier on everyone, especially his family, but Walt’s ego and thirst for vengeance, to get back the money the Nazis took and to force them to answer for Hank, serves as motivation for him to keep running. Saul, for his part, wisely opts to go his own way, receiving a new identity and a fresh start in Nebraska. The former partners in crime part ways, as Walt continues to find himself alienated from every ally he’s ever had.

Credit: AMC

Credit: AMC

Yet Walt’s decision to run doesn’t make his family any less of a target, as Saul astutely points out that Walt’s phone call last week now paints Skyler into a corner. His choice to portray her as having no knowledge about the meth empire means that she can’t offer anything to police in a plea deal without revealing that the call was a lie. Worse, she’s now under threat of physical harm, as Todd (Jesse Plemons) busts into the White home with a gang of thugs and threatens to hurt Holly. He interrogates Skyler (Anna Gunn) about what she told the police, and tells her things will end badly for her if she so much as mentions word one about Lydia (Laura Fraser) to law enforcement (a threat that is motivated as much by Todd’s crush on Lydia as it is his desire to keep her meth operation running smoothly). It’s an utterly chilling scene, as Plemons portrays Todd as a coldly logical man, a murderous pragmatist who kills people in lieu of finding more democratic solutions. It’s a weird contrast with his scene in a cafe with Lydia, as he tries to flirt with her by revealing that he’s got Jesse (Aaron Paul) imprisoned in the gang compound and is forcing him to cook meth of 92% purity. Lydia tries to brush Todd off, but the increased meth purity has her rethinking her stance. Although whether she’s rethinking her stance on the business or on Todd is uncertain. But one thing is for sure: Todd is cold as ice, as he reveals in the most devastating moment of the episode.

Jesse, fed up with his captivity, comes up with a plan to escape by using the buckets for his food/waste that have been lowered into the pit he’s been thrown in to form a ladder up to the steel grating keeping him in. He convinces Todd to leave the tarp off the grating under the pretense of wanting to look at the stars. But once Todd leaves, Jesse uses a paper clip to undo his handcuffs, then climbs up and reaches freedom. But it’s a short-lived freedom, as he’s cornered by the gang at the fence surrounding the compound. Jesse is nearly as fed up with living as he is with being forced to cook for a bunch of crazed psychopaths, and truthfully, they’re not too fond of him either, sharing beer and having a good laugh while holding a viewing of Jesse’s confession video, stolen from Hank’s house. Jesse implores the gang to kill him already and have it over with, but they aren’t about to make it that easy on him. Instead, they drive him over to Andrea’s house and force him to watch as Todd baits her into coming outside, and then shoots her in the back of the head. Aaron Paul is outstanding, all the more so for not uttering a single word (his mouth having been bound for the scene), and the scene really sells not only the depth of Jesse’s loss, but also Todd’s sociopathic detachment, as he tells Andrea that what he’s about to do “isn’t personal,” as if it matters one bit. Jesse is devastated, but his reassured by the Nazis that, hey, at least the kid is still alive. But Brock now has nobody, just as Jesse has nobody.

A month passes, and Walt remains stowed away in his cabin in the snowy hills of New Hampshire, with Saul’s Guy occasionally visiting to check in on him and to administer a kind of homemade chemotherapy, although Walt has all his hair back and has grown a “Man Who’s Lost Everything” beard. In a particularly sad moment, Walt actually pays Saul’s Guy $10,000 to keep him company for two dollars, to simply play cards. It’s clear that Walt isn’t much longer for this world, and so he decides to put his last few days or weeks on this Earth to good use, making a package to deliver home to Skyler, who is facing a Grand Jury over her involvement in the Heisenberg empire. He makes a call to Junior’s school under the guise of Marie (Betsy Brandt), getting the principal to pull Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte) out of class to accept the call. Junior, once again going by “Flynn” to break off association from his father, takes the call and listens as his father tries to justify his involvement in the criminal empire that’s sullied the Whites’ once good name. Junior hardly has a response as he listens to his father detail how he’s going to send $100,000 to them via a package sent to the home of Junior’s friend Louis. But at the intimation that his father is trying to send dirty money, Junior explodes. He roars at his father to just die already, and to leave them alone once and for all. Though Walt has done plenty to deserve this treatment, it’s heartbreaking to see him plead with Junior over the phone not to let all his sacrifice have been for nothing. I actually feel it’s Bryan Cranston’s best scene of this half-season so far. Just remarkable stuff that really illustrates Walt’s desperation, and the misery that comes from the knowledge that this really has all been for nothing.

Credit: AMC

Credit: AMC

After Junior hangs up, Walt decides enough is enough. He calls the DEA and essentially turns himself in. But something happens in the moments between the phone call and the arrival of the police: Walt regains his desire for vengeance, his urge to finish what was started and gain some measure of redemption. It’s an epiphany that is prompted by Walt seeing the Schwartzes on Charlie Rose. Gretchen (Jessica Hecht) and Elliott (Adam Godley), Walt’s former founding partners in Gray Matter Technologies, are questioned about a $28 million grant they created for drug abuse recovery programs, with Rose suggesting that they’re doing this to offset the damage to their image that’s resulted from their association with the infamous Walter White. In trying to separate themselves from the suggestion that Walter was involved with them, Elliott downplays Walt’s contributions to the founding of Gray Matter Technologies, saying that he contributed nothing but the name, while Gretchen mournfully reflects on the loss of the “sweet, brilliant man” that Walter White once was, having been replaced by the notorious “Heisenberg.” But most tellingly, the interview segment reveals that Heisenberg’s product is still circulating, perhaps prompting Walt to realize that not only is Jesse still alive, but the gang is likely still profiting off of his creation. And if nothing else, Walt cannot abide other people taking credit for his work. And so he hightails it out of there, just before law enforcement arrives to storm the bar. Bring on the finale.

Granite State is a quieter episode than viewers might have expected, given the last several weeks of explosive bombast, but there is still a lot worth savoring here, from the muted performances of Anna Gunn, Jesse Plemons, and Betsy Brandt (as newly-widowed Marie), to the more gutting work of Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul and RJ Mitte. Whether the finale delivers on the incredible setup it’s been given seems incidental to the fact that, for five seasons, Breaking Bad has turned in some remarkable television, laying the groundwork for characters of shifting morality placed in situations of irreducibly complexity and peril. Let’s all just savor the 75 minutes we have left when they come next Sunday.

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