Kudos to people who predicted that it was Gray Matter that was the final bit of business that Walt has before he dies!
This was inevitably going to be an episode that fast forwards a bit through time and catches us up with some exposition, but I was impressed by how much of the exposition was accomplished through actual plotting. I think the only thing we really learn though a dialogue info-dump is what’s happened to Skylar. Even then, it was relatively brief, because Saul—being an actual lawyer, duh—already told Walt that there’s no way the DEA won’t squeeze the only available person they have as hard as humanly possible.
Breaking Bad is mostly renowned for its WTF awesomeness, but this episode was a nice reminder that while it’s not as deeply invested in these themes as a show like Mad Men, it still has interesting things to say about the emptiness of masculine power fantasies and particularly the rhetoric around “family values”. Walt is forever going on about how he does everything for “family”, but this episode laid out in the most stark terms ever how much of a lie that is. As Saul noted, if Walt really cared about his family, he would humble himself, turn himself in, and let Skylar off the hook. Instead, he clings to the image of himself as the provider in order to justify what is ultimately a selfish act of running from the law and forcing her and his children to pay the price.
The irony here is that his desire to maintain the illusion of control results in him being sent to live in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, with no entertainment and no freedom. Robert Forster’s character says that his only goal is to keep Walt out of custody, but what we realize quickly is that Walt is in custody, and Forster is basically a prison guard. Except it’s actually worse than prison in a lot of ways, because in prison you at least get TV and people to talk to.
I thought a lot about the parallels between this storyline and the endless, idiotic discourse about “family values” in our society. “Family values” is a code word for maintaining a patriarchal society where men rule over women and children. Like Walt, those invested in this system justify it by pretending that they just want what’s best for everyone—that it’s about making men take responsibility blah blah blah. But this is the reality: The responsibility for providing for the family is all too often a cover story for a system that is actually geared towards protecting male egos and power. If there’s a conflict between women and children’s actual well-being and maintaining the system of male power, then male power will win. If there’s a conflict between men’s emotional and human needs—like the need for love and companionship that we all have—the men’s needs will be sacrificed. Everyone loses in a system geared towards preserving the power structure.
This episode was an amazing visual representation of that kind of logic. Walt and Jesse isolated and alone. Skylar threatened with prison. Walt Jr. and Marie torn apart with grief. Andrea shot in the head. Walt wants to send a package of money—a symbolic representation of the male duty to provide that has always justified a system built around male control of the family and society—and Walt Jr. violently rejects it. Walt sits alone with the pile of money, and yep, he has that, but he has nothing else.
By the way, you’ll notice that Skylar and Walt Jr. also rejected patriarchal naming traditions, with Skylar taking back her “maiden” name and Walt Jr. calling himself “Flynn”. The deliberate way attention was drawn to that suggests that this is how the creators want this all to be read.
All that said, none of this gives me the first clue about how this will resolve. Breaking Bad is a show that is all about surprises, and I can’t wait to see what they come up with next.