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Breaking Bad: “Say My Name”

Illustration for article titled Breaking Bad: “Say My Name”
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“This whole thing could’ve been avoided,” Walt babbles to Mike, as his former partner, the only person in their organization with actual expertise in running a major drug operation, sits dying of a gunshot to the stomach. It’s quite possibly the most inadequate apology imaginable for killing somebody. Notice the passive voice. And then recall what Mike just said to Walter that sent him into an unthinking, murderous rage: “All of this falling apart is on you.”

Passive or active? It’s the choice Walter puts to Jesse, when Jesse keeps on insisting—far longer and far more stubbornly than Walter can understand—that nothing has changed and he’s still cashing out. Walt offers Jesse all the things that drive Walter White: being the best at something, making a lot of money, looking down at the rest of the world from a lofty spot as king of the hill. And when Jesse stares at Walter in disbelief, unable to comprehend that his former mentor has misunderstood him so badly, Walter turns to ridicule. “What have you got in your life? Nothing! Nobody! Video games, go-karts!” And as Jesse slams the door behind him, Walter plays his final card: “If you leave, you get nothing!”


Nothing. Arguably the most important concept in philosophy. The most basic question with which a theory of reality must grapple is: Why is there something rather than nothing? And if something must be treated as a given, how does its ever-present shadow side of nothing, against which it is defined and juxtaposed, qualify and relativize it? When we first met Walter, he was staring into the abyss of nothingness, with his life about to end and his dignity long ago having been abandoned. Seeing the little he had left—his family—slipping away as his existence trailed off to its end, he acted to turn the time he had left into something that would live after him: money to buy his family security.

But now the money has become something, bigger than family, bigger than cancer. It’s the winning score in the zero-sum game of existence. And what makes Walt shoot Mike, mere hours after he promised Jesse that no one else will die because of the two of them, is Mike pointing out that he could have made all the money he ever wanted if he’d just put his head down and worked for Fring. There’s something more that Walter wants. Mike calls it pride, and certainly that’s what it looks like when Walt is sneering at having to do things the way ordinary mortals do. But this season, with its references to Jesse James, suggests a different word for that thing beyond money that Walt craves.

“Say my name,” he demands of Declan and his henchmen in the Arizona meth operation. There, revealing his plan, he gets exactly what he wants: the outlaw’s notoriety. The legend. “I’m the man who killed Gus Fring,” he boasts, and it’s clear that Declan and his crew can’t believe it until they see Mike give a head tilt of confirmation. Heisenberg pulls it off with icy confidence, getting $5 million to buy out Mike’s share of the partnership, a new distribution system, and even the end of the ersatz blue that Declan’s been peddling (a product whose 70 percent-pure sloppiness offends Walt to the core).

He’s sure, too, that he can talk Jesse back into the fold. “We’ll figure it out,” he promises breezily when Jesse reminds him that another $5 million is owed his other departing partner. But Jesse’s sudden insistence on thinking for himself begins to strike Walter as not only inexplicable, but also insubordinate (that handshake he sees between Jesse and Mike certainly gives him pause). In a beautiful reveal, Walt suits up for his next cook alone, then enters the tented lab where Todd is waiting for orders. To the strains of the Monkees’ “Goin' Down,” they cook together, and although Walt seems exhausted by the effort of going back to teaching (“You applied yourself,” he offers as rather faint praise), he’s pleased by Todd’s diligence as a student—reviewing his notes during the break, even refusing to discuss his increased cut of the profits until he’s learned enough to have earned it.


That last detail ought to worry Walter, focused as he is on money as the ultimate motivator. Some people, however, are driven by different forces. Hank, for example, hasn’t let his promotion stop him from pursuing the Fring case even though he gets a dressing-down from his boss and has the budget for tailing Michael Ehrmantraut cut to zero. When Walt goes back to the weeping-in-Hank’s-office-about-his-failing-marriage well to retrieve the bugs before a DEA sweep catches them, he hears that Hank and Gomie have managed to get around that obstacle by following the lawyer who takes care of Mike’s nine guys’ families (by putting bundles of cash in nine safe deposit boxes for them regularly). He warns Mike that the lawyer has flipped and the cops are coming for him. And in an agonizing sequence, Mike, forced to run, has to say goodbye to what has been motivating him.

Mike’s always known that day could come, though, and he hesitates only for a long last look, because he’s taken care of his granddaughter in one of those safe deposit boxes (the big one, completely packed with bills). He’s stashed a car with money and a weapon at the airport. If only Jesse could have retrieved it for him instead of Walt. But no. Walt ridicules the whole notion (“Besides, you’re out, right?”), and instead of Mike disappearing into the desert alive, he disappears dead. One gets the sense that, except for the goddamn waste of having the perfect criminal business undermined and dismantled by loose-cannon Walter, it’s all the same to Mike; he and the one thing he loved, his granddaughter, were going to part ways forever one way or another.


Now there’s no more Mike the Cleaner to clean up. The lawyer doesn’t know Walt, but the guys at the laundry have seen his face. Threats from the past are multiplying, just when Walt was sure he had put the Fring era behind him and moved on into a brave new autonomous future. He seems to realize after shooting Mike that he has bitten off way more than he can chew; he may even have one of those twinges of moral regret for which he sneered at Jesse earlier. It seems possible that we have seen the apex of Heisenberg’s rise when he struck awe into the visitors from Phoenix. The unravelling may have begun.

In other words: Walt hasn’t seen nothing yet.

Stray observations:

  • While Mike endures the DEA tearing through his house (and how disappointed does Hank seem that he doesn’t get to use the battering ram on Mike’s door?), he watches Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat, in which, among other things, a crime syndicate unravels when a homicide detective doubts an official verdict of suicide, and finds out the dead man had been living well beyond his means.
  • Walter tells Declan that his knockoff blue crystal is “some tepid off-brand generic cola,” while the Heisenberg product is “classic Coke.” And while Declan could take the real stuff off the market and secure a monopoly for his stuff, “Do you really want to live in a world without Coca-Cola?”
  • Jesse looks at Skyler with new interest when Walter arranges for him to show up at the car wash with a truck to retrieve the methylamine he hid there. As an astute reader pointed out to me, they have a potential bond. Both are incensed by “shit happens” excuses. And Jesse is now realizing that Skyler isn’t letting Walt off the hook for involving her in a business where killing and being killed is part of the job.
  • Another terrific week for Aaron Paul, by the way, whose despairing outrage when Walter fails to take responsibility for taking Andrea and Brock away from him, leaving him with that nothing Walter thinks should be so motivating, cuts right to the heart of the matter.
  • And speaking of Aaron Paul reaction shots, the deadpan dinner scene, starting with the microwave beeping to signal that Walter’s dinner is ready, plays out like an illustration of Jesse’s description of his sad frozen lasagna diet from last week.
  • It’s possible Walt will go back once too often to his old bag of tricks. Repeating the waterworks performance in Hank’s office, for example, is just lazy and sloppy. He even has to prompt Hank to go get coffee this time.
  • “I don’t need you to be Antoine Lavoisier,” Walt tells Todd, seemingly admitting by making that reference that he’s not even trying to talk to his new partner, but instead is just rehearsing the argument to himself.
  • “Shut the fuck up. Let me die in peace.” R.I.P. Mike Ehrmantraut.

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