It's nice to be right for a change.
I've been wrong in almost every supposition I've made about Breaking Bad's final eight-episode run, perhaps nowhere more dramatically than in extrapolating from the accidentally leaked news that Charlie Rose would make an appearance on the show's penultimate episode. I was all but certain that Rose's mystery guest would turn out to be Hank Schrader, who in locking up Walter White would gain the recognition Walt sought but never gained. And then, when that theory was shot down and buried under six feet of desert sand, I thought it would be Skyler, promoting the tell-all memoir that ironically gave her family the financial stability Walt could never provide.
Nope, and also nope.
But by bringing back Gretchen, and by making her dismissal of Walt's contribution to Gray Matter the thing that brings him out of hiding and stiffens his resolve to put things right himself, "Granite State" vindicated the idea that Walt's defining characteristic is his vanity, and that his whole life since has been an attempt to make up for the credit he felt he was robbed of when he sold out his interest in Gray Matter, the shot at greatness he let get away. It's the insult that made a meth kingpin out of Walt.
Gretchen, who got a flash of Walt's dark side in their final face-to-face encounter, isn't wrong when she says, "the sweet, kind, brilliant man that we once knew log ago.. he's gone." As I wrote last week, Walt died out in To'haijilee, where his body on the ground mimicked the position of Hank's corpse. But the question that remains is, what's left? Like any self-styled patriarch, Walt worries about his legacy -- as he puts it, "my life's work" -- but once he's installed in his off-the-grid cabin in the New Hampshire woods, Saul's fixer, Ed (Robert Forster!), hits him with the hard truth: The money that Walt's worked so hard to make, that he's murdered and schemed to amass? They'll likely never see a dime of it, and as his phone call to Flynn makes clear, it won't fix anything.
Uncle Jack and his Nazi band already have more of Walt's money than they can spend, but that doesn't shut them down: They're still holding Jesse hostage to the ever-rising yield, and to Todd's simmering crush on Lydia. The death of Andrea, casually shot dead in the street after one of Todd's cold-blooded apologies, wasn't the worst thing that's happened on Breaking Bad, but it shocked me more than almost anything. She wasn't doing anything wrong, wasn't even in the wrong place, like poor, tarantula-hunting Drew Sharp. She just meant something to the wrong person.
Chemistry, as Walter White put it in Breaking Bad's first episode, is the study of change. But the title of "Granite State" -- obviously more than a mere nod to Walt's temporary home -- evokes stasis, the unyielding, elemental gray of rock. Walt's surroundings are different, the cold, white light of the New Hampshire winter jarring after so many seasons of yellow southwestern sun. But he is who he's become, and maybe who he always was. The hurt, the humiliation that he's nursed for decades is still there deep inside him, like a vein of ore running through the Earth. "Granite State" is full of ironic nods to the American idea of reinvention: Walt's pioneer cabin, Skyler working as a part-time taxi dispatcher like some single mom squeezing in night classes; even Todd's impromptu ice cream delivery, which features the Ben & Jerry's flavor Americone Dream. But the reality is far bleaker: a frozen one-room hut with only Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium for company; an underground prison you escape only to be stopped by a barbed-wire fence. There's no way out. The only place to go is back where you started.
Donna Bowman, A.V. Club:
The name Walter White still means something.... He may not be able to help his family or prop up his failing health or even spend the money that's in that looming, accusatory barrel. But he can defend his name against the charge that a name is all he is. He can demand respect for the science he owns and that he alone (he believes) can wield.
Alan Sepinwall, HitFix:
[T]he Nazis aren't the show's most glamorous villains, but this is the point. They are here to reveal the fantasies of Breaking Bad for exactly that. The meth game isn't a quippy buddy comedy full of macabre slapstick and surprise escapes and thrilling improvised plans. It is cold, it is brutal, and it is inhuman. For a moment, it seems Jesse will be having one more adventure, as he picks the locks to his handcuffs and circus acrobats his way out of his dungeon, but it's just setting him up for one more devastating slap of reality.
James Poniewozik, Time:
[T]here is still too much to reckon with for Breaking Bad to end things this way.... As the suffering rolls out in this bleak, bleak episode, you can almost see the paper being crumpled up on the "Walt dies alone in hiding" idea and thrown into the wastebasket. Breaking Bad is not an elliptical show, and these things must be confronted.
Todd VanDerWerff, Los Angeles Times:
There's no way around this: "Granite State" is a weird, weird episode, filled with odd structural choices and some leaps in character motivation that typify some of the problems the final season has had in making all of its character arcs count.
Matt Zoller Seitz, Vulture:
Walter suffers in his snowy woodland cabin... Meanwhile, though, everybody else in Walt's former orbit has it as bad as Walt or worse -- but they aren't so much doing penance as enduring the punishment that Walt escaped by getting in that van.
Tim Goodman, Hollywood Reporter:
That’s the essence of the Breaking Bad story. It is all for nothing. One good man gets a bad notion in his head, acts on it and his whole world changes -- as does the world around him and the people in it. “Granite State” was an entire episode of the fallout. Everything that had, not that long ago, been going as planned has been stripped from Walt and gone to hell.
Scott Meslow, The Week:
From the very beginning of the series all the way back in 2008, this has been the obvious and inevitable tragic arc of Breaking Bad: Walter, in his desperate attempt to save his family, would end up destroying it. But that Drama 101 idea, which sounds so banal on the page, has been absolutely devastating to watch over the past two episodes of the series.
Alyssa Rosenberg, ThinkProgress:
I wouldn’t be surprised if Breaking Bad finds a way to surprise and gratify me next week. But sometimes the requirement that if you pack a giant gun in the trunk of your car in the first act of a season, it must be fired by the final act seems less like a tense, frightening promise, and more like an obligation.
Andy Greenwald, Grantland:
Yes, there's still an episode to go -- and a Holly-size machine gun left to be fired -- but "Granite State" served as a sobering buffer between the internal reality of Breaking Bad and the sweet escape of fiction... or the grave.
Alison Willmore, Indiewire:
We've caught up with the future -- all that's left is for Walter White to meet his destiny, and anyone it involves saving is going to be gravy. This is all about revenge, proving himself and going out with a bang.