Note: The following review, as you should probably expect, is filled to the brim with spoilers. If you care about that (though you probably shouldn’t), don’t read it. If you have seen the episode or don’t care about that, feel free to hit the jump and read on.
Breaking Bad has always been the master of the cold open. At the beginning of last year’s streak of eight episodes, we were given a glimpse into a future about a year off, as Walt gazes contemplatively into a plate of eggs, bacon lain on top in the shape of the number 52. This was a broken Walt, and the cold open served as a chilling reminder that Walt – too far gone at this point for redemption and security to be a possibility – will not make it out of this unscathed. By the end of the series, he will be broken, and this will be his fate.
This season we’re shown more of that grim future, but its effect is far more potent. With the knowledge that Hank has apparently stumbled upon Walt’s secret life at last (last season’s agonizing cliffhanger), Walt’s fate has become decidedly less safe than it appeared. This cold open serves as an assuring (?) counterpoint that yes, Walt will survive and escape prison, even if only for a while. But his ruined home, spray painted with all sorts of incriminating graffiti, does a lot less to exude confidence. What’s more, Walt’s procurement of the hidden ricin – which remains in the wall socket – robs him of his ace-in-the-hole going forward. Whenever he had gotten in over his head in previous seasons, there was always that small vial of ricin that he could turn to, vanishing all of his problems in a single act of poisoning. But with the foreknowledge that the vial goes unused until this future has come to pass, we’re forced to watch as Walt operates and tries to hold the house of cards together, knowing full well that he has no ace-in-the-hole to turn to this time.
The episode that follows the title card only shows us how dire Walt’s situation has become, and makes it abundantly clear that the ace-in-the-hole is going to be necessary. For the first time in five seasons, things are actually falling apart beyond Walt’s control. Even as Gus turned on him in season four, Walt was able to talk his way into and out of things, his skills at manipulation granting him increased survival. Even as he was about to be replaced by Gale and Jesse at the end of season three, he was able to make a power play and ensure his place in the organization with a well-timed murder. But now, he has none of these things.
His lies don’t work anymore; Jesse, without even speaking to Walt regarding Mike’s fate, has already worked it out and is wracked by ever greater guilt. Walt tries to assuage Jesse’s fears, saying several times “I need you to believe me.” Note the necessity in those words. Walt isn’t trying to make Jesse feel better, as he has in the past. The father-son bond that the show has created in these two individuals is absent in this scene: Walt is in full businessman mode, trying his best to cover up the loose end that is Jesse. He doesn’t want Jesse to believe him so he is free of guilt; he needs Jesse to believe him so that he stops trying to give unlaundered money to those who have lost somebody to Walt’s meth operation. Jesse says he believes Walt. But it’s abundantly clear he doesn’t. Walt’s manipulation has failed.
Throughout the show, Hank has come very close to cracking the Fring case and exposing the whole operation – but he has always been stopped. But at last, he has done so, and is fully aware that Walt is Heisenberg. Walt is unconcerned at first – after noticing the Walt Whitman book is missing, he shrugs it off, saying “It’ll turn up” – but grows increasingly so as the episode wears on, building to that final confrontation at the end. But the episode had drawn clear lines between Walt and Hank before that. It sets up a number of subtle reversals within the two characters throughout the episode. Hank, when setting up his work desk, gets a brief montage not unlike the cooking montages that have been interspersed throughout the show. But Walt has been in slow gear all episode, with longer shots and more tense setpieces rather than quick and zippy investigative work. Hank is pretending to be sick after a brief panic attack (like the ones he had in El Paso earlier in the show) so that he can work on the case in privacy, but he is actually rather well after his first incident. Walt, however, is pretending to be well, covering up the fact that his cancer has returned. The return of his cancer (yet another indicator that things are finally falling apart completely for Walt; the element of the show that has been absent since season one returns all of a sudden) leads to him vomiting into the very toilet that led to Hank’s epiphany (as he vomits into the toilet, he places a towel on his knees and positions himself on it as if it were a prayer mat; of course, he doesn’t pray, but rather vomits).
This episode is sending a clear signal: Walt and Hank are opposing forces for the first time in the show’s history. Hank isn’t a secondary antagonist gradually wearing down the Fring organization’s careful layers of subterfuge; he’s onto Walt at last, and he’s gunning for him hard.
The only person that doesn’t seem to understand this is Walt. Throughout the episode, he’s still showing the signs of the power-mad drug kingpin that he became during the first half of the season. He mentions to Skyler that successful car washes expand; he wants to build an empire of car washes (“I’m in the empire business,” as he boasted in “Buyout” last year). He still believes he has manipulated Jesse. He even believes he can manipulate Hank, despite knowing that Hank has all the evidence he needs. He casually brings up the tracer Hank put on his car – leading to what is sure to become a classic scene as the garage door lowers behind Walt – and then attempts to convince Hank that he isn’t Heisenberg. When that doesn’t work, he appeals to sympathy, revealing that his cancer has come back. When THAT doesn’t work, he turns to thinly veiled threats. “Tread lightly,” he says.
He’d do so well to take his own advice. Despite all the clear signs that things are falling apart around him, he’s living in his own past, when he had power, when he could manipulate and lie and get away with it all. But he can’t do that anymore. “The past is the past,” he says. Wow – he’s just a beacon of useful advice that he refuses to take, isn’t he? A