you’re no boy scout

i was reminded of one of the introductory scenes from breaking bad’s pilot, where walt is trying to explain to his students what chemistry – and essentially breaking bad itself – is all about: change. “growth, then decay, then transformation.” walt has gone through several phases which might be described as growth, decay, or transformation. however, it seems to me that season 4 is, in the broader scope of the series, walt’s point of decay: he has faced humiliation after humiliation, been scorned by perhaps the only true friend he had left in jesse, been reduced to pleading for his life, and finally (once again) resigned to his inevitable death.

and that is part of what makes the events of ‘face off’ so shocking. when walt spins the gun in ‘end times’, pointing twice at himself, and then once at (what we know now is) the lily of the valley, regardless of whether or not we understand the implications of that plant, we get an impression of just how limited walt is in his options: to accept his fate, or to take that gun and face the world head-on.

walt spends a great deal of ‘face off’ appearing desperate and frantic. it’s a testament to the show’s brilliance that, having seen firsthand the horrible things walt is capable of, we still see him as the same hapless, bumbling, in-over-his-head chemistry teacher. when the two officers confront jesse in the hospital, they completely overlook walt nervously clutching the bomb concealed in his daughter’s diaper bag (echoing a similar scene from season 1 in which a police car drives right past walt). when saul’s secretary attempts to extort walt, he takes a while to come around to the fact that the $20,000 she demands is not, in fact, for repairing the glass on the front door (he may or may not have been playing dumb in this situation). or the scene where walt escapes his house from gus’s men, clumsily tumbling over his backyard fence.

part of the genius of walt’s plan is in the way he exploits the means of his oppression and turn it against his enemies. those omnipresent surveillance cameras, gus’s proxy, frustrated walt at every turn this season. yet walt manages to use the cameras to his favour, when he is trying to convince jesse that gus is responsible for brock’s poisoning. when gus shuts the lid of the laptop displaying surveillance footage, i was reminded of that scene from the matrix where the agent torturing morpheus takes out his earpiece – it’s a moment where gus leaves himself exposed, blinded by his hatred for hector.

in ‘end times,’ walt told skyler that he intended to accept the consequences of his actions. throughout the series there have been various points which offered walt a way out of the destructive path he’s chosen, and each time he has rejected it. now, walt finds himself in a position where the only escape left to him is accepting that he will be killed. by choosing to kill gus – to protect his family, perhaps, but largely out of self-preservation – he denies himself what may have been his only true redemption. before now, walt has never really seemed to fit into the role of heisenberg, fancy black hats and door-knocking notwithstanding. ‘face off’ is a crucial turning point, perhaps the exact moment of walt’s transformation into heisenberg. with gus out of the way, he no longer answers to anyone. yet if there’s anything that the downfalls of people like gus and don eladio can teach us it’s that this sort of victory is never permanent, no matter how smart you are. how much longer can walt prolong the inevitable?

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