By Dave Bunting, Jr. | Press Play July 15, 2012 at 10:55PM
In the months since Breaking Bad's explosive season 4 finale, and Walt's certainly premature declaration of victory, we've had a long time to ponder what exactly he meant by saying, "I won." Sure, he had won the most obvious victory in outsmarting Gus Fring, who, at least with Mike as his right hand, had mostly been able to stay a few steps ahead of the erratic and unpredictable Heisenberg (well, except for the whole Gale thing). But really, what Walt thinks he has won is his own freedom: freedom from the inconveniences that having a boss like Gus Fring brought; freedom to do things his own way; freedom to be the Southwest's real meth kingpin. We've been passing through the looking glass of Walt's need to cook meth to support his family after his presupposed demise from cancer for a few seasons now; it's obvious this guy has found something he's not only good at, but truly enjoys, except for (or more likely because of) all of the inevitable drama, chaos, and destruction he leaves in his wake as a result. And all of this havoc is completely worth it to him as long as he finally gets to be "the man" at something.
But in the drug game, being "the man" is like having a target on your back, and Walt will realize soon enough that his problems have most likely been more augmented by Fring's murder than solved by it. In fact, below, in a callback to Season Two's predictive pre-credit scenes, we see a Walt with a full head of hair distractedly chit-chatting with a Denny's waitress, while nervously checking over his shoulder every few seconds. Breaking Bad’s signature sense of dread is almost overbearing (just watching the scene made me feel like I was about to have a panic attack), and as soon as we see that Walt is actually there to meet Lawson (his black market dealer for all things sidearm-related, played perfectly with cautious resignation ["Good luck, I guess."] by Deadwood's Jim Beaver), we know things can't be going as swimmingly as Walt thought they would when he said, "I won." When Walt uncovers the M60 machine gun Lawson has dropped off for him, it's obvious that something has gone severely pear-shaped.
There could be a few causes of such nastiness, knowing what we know now. Perhaps Hank has finally uncovered his brother-in-law's secret life as Heisenberg, and Walt is preparing for an all-out battle with the DEA. Perhaps the German conglomerate that was funding Fring's operation through the back door is more than a little annoyed that Gus has died, and has come to collect on their lost revenues. There is really no way to predict what Walt will have to defend himself against in the future, given writer Vince Gilligan's propensity for throwing viewers for a loop with left field plot twists. But, whatever has Walt packing such heavy heat is definitely formidable, and watching Walt dig himself deeper into whatever hole he's in will no doubt be equal parts terrifying, hilarious, and beautiful.
For now, Walt is on top of the world. The drug trade in town has been decentralized, and is just waiting for someone to step into power ("There is gold in the streets, just waiting for someone to come and scoop it up.") His cancer's been in remission for some time, Gus can't kill him, and as much as Mike might want to put a bullet squarely between Mr. White's eyes, he can't until one last issue remaining from Fring's empire (the laptop containing all of the super lab video surveillance) is taken care of. In dealing with the issue, Walt buys himself enough time for Mike to consider joining Walt and Jesse in their proposed partnership. Mike clearly wants nothing to do with Walt; he hasn't ever, really. But the way he sees it, if he doesn't help clear up the hard drive issue, he's equally as "boned" as Jesse and Walt; naturally, in taking part, he inadvertently will be screwing himself somehow. Mike even tries to tell Jesse to take the money he's made and "skip town, today," knowing full well this White guy is rotten. But Mike's already in too deep, and it is not going to end well for him, especially if Gus's broken picture frame has anything to do with it, and I'm sure it will.
Walt's proclivity for self-destruction is exemplified perfectly in the electromagnet scene (posted below), when he (of course) decides to crank the amperage to maximize the likelihood that the hard drive will get wiped, making the box truck topple into the evidence building and putting Jesse and himself directly in danger. Of course, with Mike around, they're able to get away unscathed (for now), and Walt's new level of hubris makes itself painfully apparent when Mike asks how they can be sure the plan worked: "Because I say so." This isn't Walt saying something like this to pump himself up and convince himself it's true (a la "I am the one who knocks."); Cranston's delivery is almost flippant, making it clear that when Walter White is truly comfortable with the level of power he now has, he doesn't need gravelly-voiced machismo to sell it. He seems amused, which is far more terrifying than he ever was before Gus's death. Walt doesn't have to fake it 'til he makes it: he has arrived.
And of course, there's Ted Beneke to consider. I suppose I should have known that without seeing a body in a coffin that then closes and goes into the ground in one shot, there's no guarantee of a character's death on any television show, but I was quite sure that Ted had gone the way of Lindus from Terriers. It seems as though I was incorrect, and Gilligan and Co. aren't quite done with Ted. I'm certainly curious about this decision; perhaps Beneke, despite claiming that he's going to keep his mouth shut, could be the guy to unravel Walt's meth business, intentionally or not, directly or not. It's more likely that Walt, now knowing what he does about the situation, is going to give Ted the dirt nap I suspected he was taking all along, and in doing so yet again leaving more problems to be solved.
Finally, Anna Gunn's portrayal of Skyler has made a subtle but significant shift. We have grown accustomed to seeing Skyler act by turns distant, skeptical, spiteful and angry with Walt, at times unrelentingly (and perhaps cruelly) so. But Walt's new freedom seems to have come at the cost of Skyler's. In Gunn’s spot-on portrayal, Skyler now acts like an abused animal, trapped in a cage partially of her own making, with no escape possible. She slinks around, defeated, and speaks to Walt only when spoken to. Her knowledge of Walt's hand in Gus's death has shaken her to her core, but not as much as the knowledge that she essentially drove Walt to it by giving all of their potential escape money to Ted. Skyler hasn't always been the most sympathetic character, and her involvement with Beneke's cooked books has essentially brought the White family back to square one, financially. But now it seems she has broken under the combination of her psychic guilt at her own complicity and her fear of the husband she thought she knew until recently. Gunn’s performance stands out painfully against Cranston's portrayal of Walt’s overconfidence and obliviousness to Skyler's fragile mental state. In the scene below, Walt tells Skyler he forgives her for the Ted situation, replaying a familiar trope: Walt needs to use Skyler as an emotional punching bag, because if he has nobody to demonize, he's forced to look inward and come to grips with the monster he's created in himself. The hug at the end is so unnatural, I could barely watch. Barely.
Dave Bunting is the co-owner (with his sister and fellow Press Play contributor, Sarah D. Bunting) of King Killer Studios, a popular music rehearsal and performance space in Gowanus, Brooklyn. He plays guitar and sings in his band, The Stink, and dabbles in photography, video editing, french press coffee, and real estate. Dave lives in Brooklyn with his wife, son, and sister.