By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist September 23, 2013 at 10:32AM
What happens to a king when he no longer has a kingdom to rule? That's the central question in "Granite State," the penultimate episode to "Breaking Bad" that after some truly heart racing episodes from the rest of the season, is intriguingly subdued. It puts in the center a dying Walter White (Bryan Cranston), literally isolated, lonely and seemingly without options, left with a barrel of money and his destiny, which is presumably death from cancer, incarceration or if he somehow survives his disease and lays low, a chance to start over. But without Skyler (Anna Gunn), Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte) and Holly, everything he's done is worthless, and as we know, Walter is not a man known to travel down the easy road or give up without a fight. Though he comes very close it to it this time around.
But first, the episode opens with one of two really well played cameo appearances, this one by Robert Forster as Saul Goodman's (Bob Odenkirk) until now invisible fixer. This time his client is the lawyer himself, who is ferried to a vacuum cleaner repair store which serves as the front for the fixer's business. Saul is packing it in and getting out while he can, but until his details are sorted out, he'll be bunking in a basement with another man on the run: Walter White. Stewing and fuming, Walt doesn't waste any time in trying to get Saul to help him hire some mercenaries—at least five men—to take down Jack Welker (Michael Bowen) and his crew for killing Hank (Dean Norris) and stealing his "life's work." He even tries to rope Saul into coming with him on the run, pulling out his Heisenberg persona for one last attempt at threatening the lawyer into helping him. But it ends in a fit of coughing, with Saul wisely taking his bags and getting out, moving on to life in Nebraska, where he quips, that if he's lucky, he'll be managing a Cinnabon (and now you know why the spinoff show will have to be a prequel).
But before he left, Saul advised Walt to simply face the music rather than go on the run, because even with last episode's blistering phone call, the feds aren't going to let Skyler off the hook, especially with two missing and presumed dead DEA agents. And his prediction is correct. With a team of prosecutors facing off against her meek public defender, they want Walt or any information that will lead to him. Declaring that she has no idea where he could be, Skyler is sternly advised to "rack her brain" for anything she can tell them. But even at home, she's not spared a moment's rest. Going to see why Holly is crying, Skyler is greeted with three masked men, led by Todd (Jesse Plemons). And the message is clear: don't say a word about Lydia (Laura Fraser) to anyone or else they'll be back. Pushed in on both sides, it's the last we see of Skyler for the episode, though one wonders if she has any moves left that will keep her out of jail.
Curiously, it's actually Todd who becomes a bit of central figure in this penultimate episode, and in many ways this could've been called "Breaking Todd." Over the course of the season, he's become as much of a monster as his uncles, albeit in a much younger, more youthful and unassuming guise. So why the visit to Skyler? Well, the uncles retrieved Jesse's (Aaron Paul) video confession after ransacking Hank and Marie's house (more on that later) and watched it, learning of Todd's slaying of Drew Sharp during the train heist. But that's not all. While Jack is eager to kill Jesse, and just enjoy the tens of millions they've stolen from Walt, Todd continues to plead to keep him alive to help with the cook, and keep the money flowing. "This is millions, Jack. No matter how much you got, how do you turn your back on more?" he asks rhetorically. But Jack isn't dumb. He realizes that Todd has a thing for Lydia, and while he doesn't understand it, he agrees to keep Jesse alive for now (though that strains credulity a bit; even if Jack likes Todd, his streak of ruthlessness would seem more predisposed to eliminating a potential threat, than keeping it around for sentimentality's sake).
Either way, with Jesse cooking, the quality of the meth is now over 90% pure, spurring the interest of Lydia (who sent Todd to kill Skyler, though the crafty young man rightfully figured that scaring a mother looking to protect her kids was enough) who was ready to put their business relationship on hold. But now with product to supply her Eastern European clients, she's intrigued. But things almost go awry when Jesse manages a rather brazen escape attempt, one that ends in front of a fence topped with razor wire, and the uncles at his back. He begs for death but gets a worse fate. He's driven to Andrea's (Emily Rios) house where he watches in horror as Todd punishes Jesse by shooting his former girlfriend in the back of the head on her front porch. Jesse, who had been cradling that photo in his makeshift dungeon, is understandably inconsolable. He's caught in a purgatory of his own making, where his only salvation may be Walter White, a man who has already tried to kill him.
So where's Walt this episode? In a remote rural cabin in New Hampshire in winter, eight miles from the nearest town, with an unusual deal for Saul's fixer to arrive once a month to provide supplies (he usually provides his clients with a new identity and never sees them again). There's no telephone, no Internet, no reception for the TV and in the show's lone moment of humor, two copies of "Mr. Magorium's Wonder Emporium" on DVD. And while Walt initially seems like he'll go against the advice of his fixer, and stroll into town with an armload of money and continue his mission of vengeance, he ultimately backs down, defeated, knowing that he'll spotted given the headlines that he's made nationally.
What emerges over the course of the episode is Walter tasting the bitter fruits of his labors as Heisenberg. He's lonely, and in one wrenching scene, pays the fixer $10,000 to stay with him for just an hour longer. But more crucially, the family he fought for no longer wants him. Another phone call is crucial to this week's episode, this time to Walt Jr. Using a waitress posing as Marie to call him out of class, Walt tells his son of his plan to send $100,000 to Walt Jr.'s best friend Louis for the family, after learning that Skyler is now working at a taxi dispatch. But Walt's son isn't having it. "You killed Uncle Hank!" he yells, before asking his Dad, "Why are you even still alive? Why don't you just die already?" It's only then that Walt gives in, hangs up the phone and places his next call to the DEA, turning himself in and leaving the phone off the hook so they know where to find him.
Enjoying one last drink at the bar before awaiting the inevitable, he tells the channel switching bartender to stop on "Charlie Rose" when he sees two very old colleagues: Elliott and Gretchen Schwartz (Adam Godley, Jessica Hecht) of Gray Matter Technologies. It's a huge whiplash back to season one, a pretty damn surprising late game element to toss into the mix of the show. The duo are speaking to the talk show host about their new effort to open drug rehab centers across the southwest, with Rose wondering aloud if it's only to deflect from the criticism they've received that a wanted drug kingpin founded the company. But the duo downplay Walt's involvement, claiming he only helped come up with the name. But as fans of the show know, Walter long ago accused the pair of stealing his research and getting rich off it, refusing to take their money to help pay for his cancer treatment. As the cops roll in to arrest Walt, he's nowhere to be found ...
So, of course, with exactly one episode left, there is still a lot of ground to cover. Who's going to get the wrong end of an M60? Who's going to get the ricin? Does Walt want to kill Elliott and Gretchen or does his yet undisclosed research he did for them have an application that he can use to help bring down Jack Welker and co.? Is there a way he can frame them as Heisenberg and clear his own name? Is the late game reintroduction of these two ancient characters a logical or reasonable motivation for Walt to keep moving? How on Earth is this going to wrap up in about one hour?
Other things to remember and consider: we can presume the authorities are tracking down whoever broke into Schrader residence (though we wonder why Jack and co. were so clumsy and obvious doing that job, when they were so cautious in visiting Skyler—seems a bit odd considering both moves would bring equal heat). And we suppose that we'll no longer be seeing Saul, but if anything, "Breaking Bad" has taught us that the obvious answers aren't always the right ones.
There is no doubt "Granite State" was thoroughly gripping, but ultimately, it served as a table setting effort for the last show. And in that regard, the structure is certainly open to questioning. The equal focus on Todd as much as Walter, particularly as things are ramping toward the end is interesting, especially given how much story there is to get to. But through five seasons—and particularly over these final episodes—the team of writers on the show have continually not just subverted expectations, but delivered drama and thrills by taking the storylines in bold, sometimes dazzling directions that are both surprising and satisfying.
We're not going to bother with predictions for how this will end because we've been wrong every step of the way. But here's hoping Vince Gilligan and co. deliver the sendoff we've been waiting for, one that answers all the questions, closes the door and wraps up the saga of Walter White. [B]