Walter White effectively lays out the thesis and authorial game plan for “Breaking Bad” in the show’s pilot, when he declares that while chemistry is technically the study of matter, he prefers to see it as the study of change. Change in the sense that a meek high school chemistry teacher can go from (in the words of creator Vince Gilligan) “Mr. Chips to Scarface,” and moreover, change that is documented in frequently painstaking detail.
Yet the latest variation on display in Gilligan’s repertoire is a formal one; in this latest season finale (really more of a mid-season finale as we wait for the show to conclude in a year’s time), Gilligan has changed the way that we as an audience perceive change.
“Breaking Bad” is as much about the nature of consequence as it is about variation – a simple scene in which Walt takes down two drug-dealing threats in the pilot becomes a multi-episode study on just how difficult it is to not only kill someone, but also dispose of the body. (Somewhere out there, Alfred Hitchcock is smiling.) Yet in the central montage of “Gliding Over All,” once Walt has comfortably attained his status as the top of the empire business, the same show that took four-and-a-half seasons to depict one-year jumps across three months over five minutes.
Yep, three whole months. That’s three months for Walter Jr. and Holly to watch Pixar movies with Aunt Marie and Uncle Hank, and three months for cash to accrue in that storage locker. Three months equates to enough tented and fumigated houses-turned-meth labs to seemingly cover an aerial display (in the episode’s most playful visual flourish) – and yet for the man who would be king, there’s just no more joy in it. When there was more ground to cover, and more power to be had, there was always the possibility in Walt’s eyes that those close to him would come to understand.
So maybe that’s why he throws in the towel after those three months. Well, that and the storage locker full of cash. The Walter White once full of enough piss and vinegar to punch a paper towel dispenser has now given way to the Walter White who can only look at that same dispenser and sigh. It’s all looking impossibly rosy for the White group though – that is, until Hank decides he needs to hit the can, and stumbles upon Chekov’s volume of Whitman poetry (from which this episode derives its title).
But now what happens? Hank surely can’t tell his superiors at the DEA without looking like a buffoon, and at the very least least getting fired; not only have the great Heisenberg’s kids been crashing at his house for the last three months, but that blue crystal cash paid for his physical therapy too. Could he anyway, though? If there’s any character in this show destined to fall on his own sword, it’s Hank. Or maybe the mindgames between Walt and Hank will culminate in that damn vial of ricin meeting a batch of Schraderbrau. And, of course, we’re still a good eight months or so away from Walt’s next birthday, where he’ll acquire that M60 in a Denny’s parking lot, toward what ends that we can barely even begin to speculate.
Yet all speculation feels similarly fruitless, because this is a show that time and time again has written itself into corners and darted out of them in ways previously unimagined. Who knows what Gilligan will be willing to change next.