On August 19th, S5E6 of Breaking Bad, “Buyout,” aired. And it changed the way we viewed Walter and the series up to that point. The Airspace’s resident Breaking Bad fanatics Tony Russo and Vikram Murthi got together with Blake J. Graham for a brief, moderated, yet in-depth, discussion of the episode and what its position within the series.
Blake J. Graham: The season open showed a one Walter White alone on his birthday looking both disheveled and sinister and in the process of purchasing weaponry. This is the Walter we know he must become, so the intermediary episodes serve to plot the points that detail the arc from Walt’s one-year drug lord anniversary to his two-year anniversary. In the most recent episode, we see Walter completely transformed wearing his hubris on his sleeves. Jesse wants out, Mike wants out, Skyler nearly confesses everything. He has the chance to take the $5 million cover any money he lost after Fring’s death, and completely remove himself from the business. But he doesn’t because he can’t. The chilling dinner scene shows us (and Jesse) how little of what Walt intended to defend—namely his family—remains. When Walt tells Jesse, “My wife is waiting for me to die. This business is all I have left and you want to take that from me too,” it seems the closest to honest Walt has been all season.
Q: What authenticity does Walter White have left and what evidence do we have that he isn’t himself caught up in the uncertainty inherent to Heisenberg’s identity?
Tony Russo: “Buyout” was a revelatory episode in many ways. As an audience, we have watched as Walter White lies, manipulates, and deceives even those closest to him. We watched as he steadily became more and more evil, and since the season 4 finale—the unforgettable last second pan—we’ve been skeptical of just about anything he tells anyone. That is to say, until this episode, we’ve known of his deception towards others. What we hadn’t realized was his deception of us: we were under the impression that he was slowly twisting into Heisenberg, when in fact—it’s now apparent—Heisenberg was his core all along.
Anyway, “authenticity” is a tricky game. We thought we knew why Walter was doing things up until the “Empire” monologue—let’s call it—and now we know that his true allegiance is only to his self. That obsession over his buyout and failure, his need for redemption and his drive, all derive from the events at Grey Matter, and it is clear that that has shaped the decisions he has made throughout the series. So in terms of fidelity to his true self, it’s there. 100 percent of the time, he has been looking out for Walter. It comes off as ambiguous and inauthentic because it involves an outward stance that is all about deception and lying.
Vikram Murthi: In the beginning of the series, we sympathized with Walter and wrote off his preternatural ability to lie as a necessity to ensure Walter’s family’s well-being after his cancer diagnosis. But Breaking Bad pulled a ruse on its audience: it slowly began removing all the complications from Walter’s life that initially compromised his moral agency and left Walter in charge of his own destiny. And Walter chose a criminal life, not because of his family or a sense of responsibility, but because of spite against his past self and unremarkable life. Breaking Bad has mined a lot of psychological drama and dark comedy from Walter spinning bullshit to almost everyone he encounters, but when Walter said he “won” at the end of season four, it signaled both an end to Gus Fring’s reign of power and an end to Walt’s illusions. “I’m done listening to this asshole talk,” Mike sneers at Walt in the fifth season premiere, but what Mike doesn’t realize is Walt doesn’t need to talk anymore.
“Buyout” is my favorite episode of Breaking Bad because it serves to crystallize a lot of concurrent themes running through the show and signals a no-return point for everyone of the characters involved. Walter refuses yet another out from criminal life from Mike and Jesse because his business is the only reason his life has any meaning. His kids are gone. Skyler is a hostage in his own home, passive-aggressively smoking and drinking as she waits for his cancer to return. Walter is most certainly in control of his life, but his life is fueled by desperation and misplaced pride. He has nothing to lose anymore, and thus no reason to stop. Jesse, effectively Walter’s surrogate son, keeps returning to Walter for guidance, but finally breaks from him after seeing Walter whistling cheerfully to himself after giving Jesse an emotional talk regarding the murder of a child they are complicit in. The cognitive dissonance of what Jesse wants Walter to be vs. who Walter actually is finally reaches some sort of a breaking point, yet Jesse is forced to return to Walter pleading with him to take $5 million so they can move on with their lives. But this is Walter’s life. There is nothing left he can return to. Walter no long feels any responsibility towards being an authentic husband, father, or scientist, and now only feels beholden to his burgeoning criminal enterprise.
Q: We all know how this will likely end for Walt. We can’t be so sure about the others’ fates. What heroes are left in the show? Is anyone in Walt’s Breaking Bad universe innocent any longer?
Vikram: A distinction needs to be made between someone who’s “an innocent,” in which innocence is determined relative to other actions in the morally bankrupt world of Breaking Bad, and someone who’s “purely innocent,” in which innocence is determined against real-world morality. Out of the main characters (Walt, Skyler, Jesse, Hank, Marie, Mike, and I’ll throw in Saul), I don’t believe any one of them is purely innocent (I’m counting Marie’s shoplifting and Hank’s violent assault on Jesse in season 3 as strikes against them), but there are more than a few “innocents” in the universe. In fact, Breaking Bad is pretty much trying to position every character to be “innocent” compared to Walter.
I’ve been watching The Sopranos this summer and a structural constant in that show is that whenever an innocent citizen takes money from or befriends mob boss Tony Soprano, that citizen is forever indebted to Tony Soprano’s criminal operation. The key was to not get sucked in to Tony Soprano’s life by any means necessary. I feel like the same thing can be said at this point about Walter White. This season of Breaking Bad is underscoring what’s been bubbling up to the surface the last four years: Walter is the toxic center of his operation, his family, and his life. I don’t think anyone that has come across Walter’s path can ever get out from under his shadow. Hank is on a wild goose chase after Heisenberg, unaware that it’s his brother-in-law and he’s three steps ahead of him. Jesse and Skyler are deeply involved in Walter’s burgeoning Scarface-esque criminal empire and, as a result, have committed or have been complicit in terrible crimes. There’s no turning back for them and there’s no happy ending. Skyler knows this as much and has been reducing to her current state of hoping Walter dies while numbing the pain with wine and cigarettes. On the other hand, Jesse naively still believes in Walter, as he’s the only one who took any chance on him, and isn’t aware that Walter only cares about himself and himself alone.
“Buyout” posited that if Jesse and Mike permanently severed their business relationship with Walter, they might be able to save their souls, but by the end of the episode it becomes clear that everyone has gone around the bend with Walter. This season, Mike has been elevated from quiet, dangerous “problem solver” to the voice of reason in Walter’s operation. “Just give him a chance,” Jesse tells Mike at one point, but Mike is acutely aware of what the audience already knows: Walter has nothing to lose and once someone has nothing to lose, they cannot be stopped. “Boy, you’re working real hard not to make $5 million, Walter,” Mike says grimly knowing once and for all that money isn’t driving an ego trip that is bound to drag everyone to Hell.
Tony: First, I’d like to say that Walter’s fate is not necessarily set. “Buyout” proved one thing that changes the thematics of the series for Walter that has caused me to reconsider this presumed death. From the start, Breaking Bad has been about “change”—like Walter’s speech about chemistry—and the choices that comprise the change. It was then assumed that Walter was changing from his mild mannered self to Heisenberg, when in fact—if we can take his “Empire” monologue as fact—he was hardly changing at all. Suddenly he is a much more static character, and this downward spiral he seemingly fell into does not appear so steep or spiral-y anymore.
The S5/E1 cold open left it unclear. The line about the gun, that “it’s never leaving town” sounds suicidal, but Walter has had many near-death experiences and extraordinary risk that he has pulled through. Perhaps he does die, perhaps his inner darkness becomes so exposed that the series simply cannot continue with him as a main character—I can’t say just yet.
It is clear, though, that some heroes do remain. Other characters have acted with more dynamism, making choices in Breaking Bad’s harsh, grey universe. The audience still silently roots for Walter at this point, but it openly roots for Jesse and Hank. Hank for the obvious reasons: he is rather friendly, jovial, and he has a strong sense of justice that he will selflessly pursue. Vikram mentioned his attack on Jesse, but that was primarily at the defense of his wife, a crime of passion out of love and frustration. We can forgive him for that, and that forgiveness was spurred by his attack at the hand of the cousins. Jesse, on the other hand, has been a relatable human since he dropped drugs. In a series with as much evil as Breaking Bad, acting with some amount of decency is enough to be seen as noble.
As I talked about in my episode 5 recap, the dividing line between the truly, totally morally corrupt and those who just make self-serving choices are the children. The sanctity of children’s innocence and position outside the harsh reality of the show has been respected and pushed by most everyone. The exceptions are Walter, Todd, those street hustlers, and Gus. For Mike and Jesse, this is what humanizes them and turns them into sympathetic (i.e. redeemable) characters—potential heroes. Skyler, no matter how much we hate her character (which I submit is mainly from her being boring in comparison), we can recognize as withholding some decency in her passionate defense of her children.
And don’t forget about Walter, Jr. Imagine the storyline as ‘Flynn,’ Walt’s actual son, and Jesse, his surrogate son, team up to stop Walter.
Vikram: Creator Vince Gilligan famously pitched Breaking Bad to the AMC executives with one line: “This is a story about a man who transforms himself from Mr. Chips into Scarface.” Now, if films and TV have taught me well, typical pitch meetings are known to be rife with vague, reductive statements ladled with ass-kissing in order to sell a product to heartless suits. Keeping all of that in mind, Gilligan was unusually forthright about his intentions even at such an early stage in the process. But what “Buyout,” and really this entire season, demonstrates is that line refers to purely a superficial transformation. In Breaking Bad’s final year, Gilligan has moved away from merely illustrating Walter’s moral decay by pushing him to new personal lows motivated by bitterness and desperation and towards illustrating how entrenched that decay really is in Walter’s soul. By killing off main antagonist Gus Fring and leaving Walt, Jesse, and Mike in financial straits, Breaking Bad effectively reset the show’s original status quo. This isn’t because the audience has any doubts about whether they can acquire, cook, or distribute meth, but instead it’s because we know that they can, allowing ourselves to ask the difficult, rooted questions about Walter and his operation. And once you start asking yourself these questions, you start to realize something Tony addressed that I completely agree with: Heisenberg was within Walter the entire time. He has always been resentful and frustrated about the way his life turned out, and it only took a cancer diagnosis to channel that energy into something potentially bigger than himself, an empire. The transformation from Mr. Chips into Scarface is an outward one at best: Walter has always been Scarface (Heisenberg), but now he no longer has to pretend otherwise.
In order to make this palatable television, Breaking Bad is packed with sympathetic characters and what Tony describes as “potential heroes.” It’s hard not to root for Hank or Jesse or Mike (who is pretty much tied with The Wire’s Omar for the title of Most Badass Television Character in History) because they exude human qualities, like love, guilt, regret, etc. In one of the more interesting turn of events in the series, Hank (who, just to clarify, wasn’t unjustified in beating Jesse in Season 3, but I pointed it out to demonstrate he’s not “purely innocent,”) has become Breaking Bad’s “hero” figure, an ironic evolution seeing as Walter has so desperately tried to seem heroic compared to his brother-in-law to secure Walter Jr’s respect and adoration. But even though Jesse and Mike are still criminals in the traditional sense (its easy to forget that both are guilty of murder), the show feels no need to underscore that point because Walter is so much worse in comparison. Shows like The Wire and The Sopranos made television safe for multi-faceted criminals, but never failed to constantly remind their viewers that many of the characters they found charming and likeable were really anything but. Breaking Bad, on the other hand, allows the viewers to make the choice for themselves who they are theoretically willing to forgive. I don’t have trouble believing most would “forgive” Jesse because he’s the emotional rock of the show, but it becomes a much easier choice to do when you have Walter, a man who has expressed no regrets for any of his past transgressions, as a main point of comparison.
The one point Tony brings up that I would like to address is the idea that viewers “still silently root” for Walter at this point in the series. While I don’t doubt that is true, I think it’s a problematic choice to make seeing as I have lost all human sympathy for Walter as a character. Breaking Bad achieved what I believe The Sopranos never could: truly making their protagonist a full-fledged “anti-hero,” i.e someone you root against. I like to believe everyone has that breaking point with Walter, where his lies and cruelty finally hit a point of no return. For me it was near the end of season two when Walter shows his newborn daughter the stacks of drug money hiding behind the insulation in his house and he mutters “Daddy did that for you.” The appalling gesture proved once and for all for me that Walter’s myopia regarding his criminal activity has deluded his mind past a point of clarity. Television has always succeeded in manipulating its audience’s emotions in both subtle and not-so-subtle ways, but the best television points out the gap between our manipulated emotions and the untouched ones lying not so far below. Of course we want Walter to MacGyver his way out of captivity like he did in “Buyout” because it’s awesome to watch and he’s the protagonist. But once you start thinking about why he does the things he does, you begin to break away from television logic that dictates “the protagonist is always right,” and start to form conclusions on your own that illustrate not only why that’s wrong but how dangerous it is to think that way.
Blake J. Graham: As viewers, we’re held as witness to Walter’s fall. Whether a raw anti-hero who no longer has our sympathy, or as a man turned beast who we hope can come back, we watch because we need to know: what will happen next? It is all the more doubtful there will be a satisfying conclusion to the series. Come what may, there will be a discussion to follow. Thank you Tony and Vikram for thinking with us.
Find more Breaking Bad coverage here.