The title of this midseason finale of “Breaking Bad” — “Gliding Over All” — is a fairly big hint as to where the episode ends. It is, after all, a Walt Whitman quote, and Whitman is one of the few tangible pieces of evidence that could connect Walter White to the criminal empire he’s built in the mind of his brother-in-law, the one who always overlooks him because, hey, who’s going to suspect Walter?
Yet as the episode reached its climax and Hank picked up the copy of “Leaves Of Grass” that would draw a direct line between Walter and the long-dead Gale Boetticher, everything snapped into place in a beautiful, elegant way. If last week’s episode strained for that feeling of pieces you always knew would snap into place actually doing so here and there, this week’s was a moody, contemplative piece of work that pulls Walter back from the edge just enough to make it all the more tragic when his hubris does him in yet again.
One of the questions I’ve been contemplating in this final season of the show is what, exactly, Vince Gilligan and his writers might do once they’ve proved that they could take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface (as the now-famous pitch for the show went). Since they’ve proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that, yes, they could take this once seemingly good man and open up the cacophonous pit of bitter resentment at the center of his soul until it might seem as if that man had been all used up, it became ever more important that the creative voices behind the show have something else to say beyond just, “Hey, we’ve all got this darkness inside of us,” or “Crime doesn’t pay,” or some other pat moral.
So in “Gliding Over All,” the creative team takes a decidedly unexpected direction: Crime pays, but now what?
It’s a good question. Once Walter begins working with Madrigal to ship the blue crystal to the Czech Republic (in a strikingly shot and edited montage set to Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Crystal Blue Persuasion”), the cook turns into just another workaday job. Once he tidies up all the loose ends that could tie him to Gus Fring, what’s left? Just clocking in every day to cook with Todd. Just making sure the shipments get out at the right time. Just building a pile of money that grows larger and larger, until Skyler has to hide it away in a storage unit, as she has nowhere else to even put it. (And wouldn’t that make the best episode of “Storage Wars” ever?)
These are the things people do, the things they do to keep putting food on the table, so they might do the things they really enjoy. Yet very few of us love our jobs. They eventually wear us down, until they’re just a series of rote routines we press through to get to the other side. That’s what the cook becomes to Walter, as surely as hiking deep into the woods to mark trees for clearance became for a college-aged Hank. The people on “Breaking Bad” who really love what they do tend to be people who find some greater fulfillment in their occupation, some greater purpose. Think of Hank and how he used to relish catching bad guys (until Heisenberg was too much for him). Or think of Lydia and her evident pride in how good she is at what she does. Or Gus, who found evident satisfaction in hiding who he was in plain sight. Or Mike, who found a kind of honor in the code among criminals.
For Walter, the cook was never enough. Creating a great product was never enough. Even having everybody know the name “Heisenberg” was never enough. What he needed was for everyone to know who he was, for everyone to be in awe of his capabilities. Somehow, he became addicted to the danger, to the sheer thrill of doing whatever he wanted and forcing the rest of the world to play catch-up. He pulled off more and more daring schemes. He killed the criminal kingpin of the southwest and robbed a train without anybody knowing about it. In this episode, he has 10 men killed in prison within two minutes of each other. He's gotten terrifyingly good at this. He was careful not to leave dangling threads that could lead back to him, but there were times when you could see how this ate at him, when he came so close to revealing the truth, just because he wanted someone to be in awe of him. (We got a flashback to one of those times tonight.)
The Walt Whitman poem concludes with the line “Death, many deaths I'll sing,” and it’s hard to read it as anything other than a signpost for where we’re headed. Is there any way to read those shots of Walter sliding into the CAT scan machine as anything other than the return of his cancer? (Remember those pills he swallows in the prologue to the whole season?) Walter ran so far and killed so many people and still ended up exactly where he began this journey. Death is coming for him, and he can do as much about it as anybody can. It’s the one corner he’ll never escape, no matter how many improbable schemes he comes up with. He cooked meth to mute death’s power, then cheated death for at least a little while. And now it’s come calling again.
So he tries to make amends. He gives Jesse the money he’s owed, in a moment that seems to almost shatter Jesse, who feared Walter was there to kill him. He gets out of the game, to let Skyler feel safe enough to allow Walt, Jr., and Holly back into their home. He tries to pull back, enough money now to live out dozens of lifetimes in any style he wanted.
But that’s the thing: Even if you accumulate enough money for 1 million lives, you only get the one. You keep pitching whatever you can find — be it cash or possessions or connections or power — into the big, black void at the center, and you hope something sticks long enough to make you feel good about yourself, to make you feel a little less powerless in the face of what is coming. And even if you pull an about-face and try to be a better person when you’re once again humbled by death, it doesn’t matter. The person you were before that realization is always lurking out there somewhere, ready to bring you down.
The chastened Walter of the episode’s final moments is a Walter who’s still undone by his earlier hubris, by his decision not to throw out a book dedicated to him by a once dear friend whom he ended up having to kill. It’s tempting to read this final moment as setting up a final series of episodes where Hank pursues Walter and becomes the one man he can never escape. But that’s not really true. The one man Walter could never escape was himself.