it’s not wrong to want it

theres something interesting in our being reminded of Walt the Teacher at this particular moment in the season. for years now the slogan “breaking bad is about turning mr. chips into scarface” has been uttered in just about every interview and commentary on the show, yet the pithy statement is as reductive as it is misleading. as bryan cranston has observed with similar frequency in interviews, walter white’s transformation is not one in which he climbs into the transmogrifier with the dial set to “METH” then pops out with a goatee, but one which is enabled by context. as walt reveals to jesse in the previous episode, just as his pride and fragile ego were both with him in the days of grey matter, so are his abilities as educator and chemist-extraordinaire with him now. they are two sides of a coin: the nearly-nobel-prize-winning scientist who boasts a methamphetamine with 99.1% purity; and the ambitious rationalist who is unable to perceive the disconnect when he declares “no more killing” under the reign of heisenberg. for walt, that he traffics in and sanctions death is simply opportunity cost in the expression of his “potential”.

’say my name’ sees walt making good on his designs on empire. the gleefully perverse opening scene indulges in western imagery, yet what we’re seeing is not a standoff; it’s a merger. walt is not arguing in gangster threats and posturing, but economics. he is unfazed by declan’s threats and his crew – though they outnumber walt’s by two – such is the power of the cold, capitalist logic he wields. it’s heisenberg in peak form, where his chemistry genius and bottom-line rationalizing win the day. declan’s disdain at the notion of being walt’s “errand boy” cant surpass the prospect of no longer having to compete with Big Methamphetamine. the success of walt’s proposal allows him to flex a little, leading to one of the show’s more gif-able moments: “you’re goddamn right,” he snarls through gritted teeth Extremeley badassly.

jesse, on the other hand, is the only character in the episode who is able to turn away from walt’s promise of extravagant, ethically sustainable riches (though it is worth noting that of all the characters, jesse is relatively untethered from responsibility to others). unlike declan, jesse has experienced firsthand the ways in which walt’s amoral theory of meth dealing does not hold out. walt lashes out at jesse, questioning his self-worth and mocking his moral “purity,” yet it is clear that he does so because he perceives jesse’s rebuke as an indictment of his own. “it’s not wrong to want [the money],” walt says, yet it is not entirely clear who he is trying to convince.

the ways in which the influence of money is to obscure or outright negate moral questions runs throughout. “the surveillance budget for ehrmantraut is now zero,” ramey tells hank, after a search of mike’s home turns up nothing. as usual, hank’s hunch is correct, yet in his new role as asac he is quickly discovering that he is less an arbiter of morality than an allocator of funds. the scenes between the lawyer and the bank clerk are a brief but poignant echo: the relationships being built in this show – whether through the exchange of money or bacon-filled cookies – are tenuous, utilitarian, and largely empty.

by episode’s end, walt’s victory from the opening has been severely undercut: jesse is out, mike is dead, and the arrest of the lawyer means mike’s guys are off the leash. walt’s desire for power has allowed him to manipulate and mistreat others with impunity, yet it has left him more isolated than he’s ever been. the heisenberg empire is off to a shaky start; at the very least, it can no longer claim to operate on a morally clean slate.

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