Monday, 3 September 2012

Television - Breaking Bad 'Gliding Over All' mid-season finale review

In the third episode of the season, 'Hazard Pay', Walter White brings up the Icarus myth when considering whether Mike was going to prove too difficult a partner to keep alive. Mike is dead now, a common fate among Walt's associates. So many have been lured in by the promise of Heisenberg's blue meth, willing to go higher and higher despite knowing the risks. Walt is not Icarus, but Daedalus, the boy's father and the engineer who built the wings to allow his son to escape Crete. Daedalus is a genius perpetually betrayed by his own hubris: he is locked away in a labyrinth of his own construction, then later creates the instrument by which he sends his son to his death.

Walt's blue meth is a creation of equal magnificence, and bears no less deadly a curse. Watching Mike die needlessly at his hand was the first moment Walt felt something approaching awareness of the horror he had dedicated so much of himself to creating.
Walt wouldn't be Walt if it only took one death to open his eyes, though. At the moment of Mike's death, he understood Jesse's pain at knowing so many have died because of his actions, but still believed that his genius would set him free. Extending the parallel with the myth, Mike's death represents Daedalus being freed from the labyrinth and subsequently exiled to Crete with his son as punishment for his folly. The wings he created to escape are his crowning achievement, yet in his moment of glory, the cost of his arrogance and lack of foresight is made fatally clear.

Where Jesse is often referred to as Walt's surrogate son, the meth empire is what Walt has really been nurturing all this time. He has given up everything to keep it alive, and soon his claims of doing it all for his family only rang true because he wasn't referring to Skylar, Walt Jr or Hollie anymore. The blue meth is a product of no-one but Walter White: his passion for chemistry, his genius-level intellect, his desire to create new life (by financing his cancer treatment, buying more time alive). It is his real child, far moreso than Walt Jr., or Flynn, who doesn't even want to bear the birth name his father gave him.

Walt has always been at his most ruthlessly cunning when aware of the danger facing him. He did nothing but stall and complain last season as Gus Fring plotted quietly in the background, yet as soon as he was taken out into the desert and his life placed in real danger, he masterminded the plan which would see him emerge victorious. Now, with the futility of Mike's death weighing on his mind and Hank closing in, Walt again combines the elements at his disposal to create an unlikely exit route. Many people underestimate Walt because ninety-nine percent of the time he's acting a blundering fool. He's able to survive because people assume they've won when ninety-nine percent of the way to the finishing line, and during that false sense of security, caught in the belief that the remaining one-percent of the journey is a formality, Walt strikes.
Hank assumes nothing can go wrong. Nine gang members and a lawyer are bidding against each other to reveal their secrets and frame the elusive Heisenberg. Walt, though, now has to take the initiative as well, and using the criminal links Todd (or Meth Damon, as the internet has flawlessly labelled him) previously mentioned, puts into play a Godfather-esque countermeasure which sees all his problems cleared away in precisely two minutes. Finally, he's won: Hank has nothing on him, his empire is expanding courtesy of a lucrative foreign trade in the Czech Republic, his domestic distribution is sending the blue to Philadelphia - meaning, as Lydia pointed out, he now has the safety net of great distances between him and his product - and money is rolling in faster than Skylar can launder it.
It's everything he thought he wanted, yet like Daedalus, his moment of triumph brings the knowledge of his own short-sightedness. He has enough money to last countless lifetimes, but can't spend it. His business is booming, yet there's none of the risk and excitement which drew him in as an escape from his dreary old life. It's a return to routine, locking him into a life as a single part of a vast operation with nothing but boring clear skies ahead. Standing on the summit of his personal mountain, he realises the journey, not the destination, is what counted. His adventures with Jesse in the battered old RV; the thrill of realising his cancer was in remission, captured as a fist-print on a hospital hand-dryer; the familiar painting on the hotel room wall; the fly, such a potent symbol for the series, again reminding him all was not right in his perfect world.

Extensive referencing can feel laboured and self-indulgent, yet 'Gliding All Over' beautifully integrated it as part of a representation of where Walt is at in terms of mindset and status, with nowhere left to go but back, and where the audience find themselves on their travels with the character. The journey we signed up for with Walt is over. He has gone from Mr. Chips to Scarface, as Vince Gilligan promised. The episode felt like a series finale, similar to how Chuck found his perfect end with Sarah by remembering all they had been through. The series most beloved tropes were all wheeled out for a final hurrah, with not one, but two, wonderfully edited musical montages.

Michelle MacLaren has directed some of the series' finest episodes, including 'Salud', 'One Minute' and 'Four Days Out', and it felt appropriate that she should helm this ominous celebration of the series' history. She did a beautiful job once again, packing meaning and mood into every iconic shot, like Skylar's immovable and imposing block of money in the storage room. If 'One Minute' inexplicably only bagged her an Emmy nomination, 'Gliding Over All' deserves to bring her the prize.

It's not over, though, and as ever, Walt is at his most vulnerable when feeling the safest. In a final scene which, unbeknownst to him, turned his whole world upside down, he assumed he'd claimed the win with ninety-nine percent of the race won. He'd repaid his debt to Jesse and supposedly given up his life of crime - a little too easily for me to believe, personally - and returned to the things that mattered, his real family gathered around a table, with a smiling wife and children playing by the pool. Yet with one percent of the race to go, he slowed to enjoy his anticipated victory and neglected to see the tiny crack in the ground about to trip him up.
The Walt Whitman poetry book bequeathed to him by the late Gale Boetticher is discovered by Hank, and the inscription inside the jacket triggers the realisation that has been under his nose for so long, evoked in a stunning piece of wordless acting by Dean Norris. The advantage of inside knowledge which Walt once wielded over Hank has now been reversed. Walt believes he's home and dry, but his most fierce competitor is back in the race. And was it a coincidence that his decision to retire came shortly after a trip to his cancer clinic, which we haven't seen in a long time? In one of the most perfectly constructed episodes of one of television's greatest series, the finishing line Walter White thought would be his salvation now looks like a gateway to hell.

Eight episodes to go. For everyone but Walt, 2013 can't come soon enough.


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