Mike is gone. It seemed inevitable given the collision course he and Walter White were on from Episode 1 of Breaking Bad’s fifth season. It sucks because Jonathan Banks played Mike, the fixer’s fixer, with such brilliant rough-concrete surety as to be the compass of the ad hoc crime syndicate White (Bryan Cranston) presumed to create after assassinating their meth-kingpin boss, Gus, with jaw-dropping horror at Season 4’s end. Yet it is par for Breaking Bad because creator Vince Gilligan has a similar surety when it comes to finding those nerve-nexuses in narrative tension and seemingly following his characters’ natural inclinations, ego and avarice to their inevitable horrible crashes.
Breaking Bad rocks because Gilligan doesn’t mince about trying to mine redemptive traits out of his mostly awful characters, and sometimes that means even awesome ones like Mike die.
Mike saw it coming, pointed out to Jesse (Aaron Paul), White’s meth-cooking partner from their cottage-industry days — when high school science-teacher Walt was just hoping to garner some quick cash to pay for his cancer treatments — that Walt was “poison.” But Walt did what Walt has done so slickly as he has morphed into his criminal alter-ego Heisenberg. He shamelessly manipulated people to do things their common sense screams at them not to do, silver-tonguing them back into his agency.
Mind you, it’s less couched in his previous feint at just trying to be a good guy by doing bad things. Skyler (Anna Gunn), his wife, can no longer play along, has gone overtly crazy in the first half of this fifth and final season, telling Walt she fears him and loathes his touch before attempting to kill herself by drowning in the perfect-middle-class-backyard-pool. When Walt corners her on her complicity in their criminal enterprise, she delivers one of the most ruthless gut-punches television has witnessed: she will bide his familial charade until his cancer returns.
I wouldn’t feel bad for Skyler but for Walt’s snowballing psychopathy. He goes so far as to feign guy-angst over his teetering marriage to crocodile-tear his way into the office of his brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris), a DEA agent, to bug his phone-line. His world-shorn narcissism peaks when an accomplice from Gus’s parent front-company Madrigal, Lydia, a deliriously manic corporate climber played by Laura Fraser, puts them onto an epic caper to obtain effectively a lifetime supply of their key (and legally restricted) ingredient, methylamine. They use her information to effect a nerve-wracking great-train-robbery of a methylamine shipment in the middle of the desert, which goes off except for a boy who stumbles by on his bike and is subsequently, coldly, shot dead by new babyface associate Todd.
They shot a kid. Then they chemically melted down his corpse. Walt whistles. Jesse’s conscience cannot abide this. He wants out. So does Mike, his prognostication eerily crystallizing. By simply selling their methylamine haul to other operators, they can cash out now and big. But Walt won’t give up his production slice. He tells Jesse how he once sold out his interest in a start-up that went big and thereby lost control of his future. Not again — he will have control at all costs. That includes closing out Mike’s prudently paid “legacy costs,” e.g. payments to former Gus associates in prison for their continued silence. The DEA on his tail, Mike finally bags in Episode 7, but refuses to give Walt the names of those associates before he does, and offering some telling final words:
“We had a good thing, you stupid son of a bitch. We had [Gus]. We had a lab. We had everything we needed and it all ran like clockwork. You could have shut your mouth, cooked and made as much money as you ever needed. But no, you, you just had to blow it up. You and your pride and your ego. You just had to be the man. If you’d done your job, known your place, we’d all be fine right now.”
This is just before Walt shoots Mike to cap Episode 7. In Episode 8, Walt contracts Todd’s neo-Nazi contacts to implement a massacre of the “legacy” employees in prison — in an absolutely fitting homage to the climactic montage in The Godfather. Then Lydia sells him on a farflung export plan, tapping Madrigal’s Byzantine transportation resources to ship his meth overseas. We see what she is all about, a corporate animal who runs free in global digital transfer wires and mainlines cash. The operation, sans Jesse, goes global. So much money flows in that Skyler shows Walt a cache of it she is unable to launder and has shunted off to a storage locker.
“I want my kids back,” she says. “I want my life back. Please tell me how much is enough. How big does this pile have to be?”
Walt’s white-knuckled manipulative drive for control, his single-minded imperative to get everything his way, damn all others, for stuff he doesn’t need — Gilligan has hewn a contemporary archetype of American capitalism. Walt is Howard Roark with gak.
Walt tells her he is getting out. He visits Jesse, just in the neighborhood, he says. They hash over old times, awkwardly. Jesse finally says he is not coming back and asks why Walt has come.
The real answer is never spoken. Jesse is the only real human connection Walt has left. Walt reaches out, upon exiting, the only way he knows how anymore, leaving bags of cash. Jesse, on the other hand, collapses in his house, breathing heavily and setting aside a gun he had at the ready the whole time.
Flash forward to a back-patio idyll, the perfect-middle-class-backyard-pool again hosting a perfect middle-class get-together of two families. Whether Walt is really out of the business we don’t know. Hank, per a typical Gilligan curveball, finds a key to the elusive Heisenberg amid a visit to the Whites’ bathroom. When the Season 5.2 hits, the game, we can assume, will be afoot.
The fifth and final season of Breaking Bad concludes Summer 2013.
Images from Breaking Bad Season 5 Episode 8 & video: AMC Photos: Ursula Coyote