Breaking Bad Review: "Gliding Over All"
Breaking Bad Review: The Devil’s In The Details
GLIDING o’er all, through all,
Through Nature, Time, and Space,
As a ship on the waters advancing,
The voyage of the soul–not life alone,
Death, many deaths I’ll sing.
In a season that oscillated between very good and excellent episodes, Breaking Bad saved the best for last with the mid-season finale “Gliding Over All,” which was as close to a perfectly executed hour of television that the show has ever come. The episode, written by Moira Walley-Beckett, and directed by Michelle MacLaren of “One Minute” fame, was completely taut, without a single extraneous scene or line. And despite having none of the explosive violence or sometimes gratuitous action that has defined the fifth season, the final scene builds to a climax that stands as one of the most chilling that the show has ever conjured.
The episode was brimming with wonderfully subtle scenes, several of which hint at the fact that Walt’s cancer has come back. The cold-open finds Walt watching a fly buzzing around the Vamanos office as Todd returns from destroying Mike’s car. It’s an obvious call back to season 3’s “Fly” episode where Walt spends a whole day trying to kill a fly that could contaminate his and Jesse’s cook. The subtext, of course, was that the fly represented the contaminating of Walt’s life–of his morality–that had come from his going into the drug business. The episode was about the regret he felt for bringing that poison onto his family. This time, Walt doesn’t seem to care about the fly so much. He gets up and goes to work with Todd on getting rid of Mike’s body. Later, after an MRI scan, Walt notices the towel dispenser that he pummeled after receiving the good news that he was in remission. This time, he pauses for a moment, then walks right past it. In another scene, when Skyler comes home to make a final plea for Walt to quit the drug business, she finds him sitting in a chair staring blankly into the pool. The Heisenberg bravado is all gone; and, this image of Walt pensively looking out over the water recalls a similar scene in the pilot episode. After his original diagnosis, Walt sat by the pool in a complete stupor, aimlessly lighting off matches one-by-one. The writers of Breaking Bad subscribe to the age-old writing rule: “show, don’t tell.” Each of these scenes suggest, without spelling it out, that Walt’s cancer has indeed returned.
The episode’s two beautiful montages were unmatched by any others this season. The first shows the ten prison murders orchestrated by Walt on the would-be-witnesses against him. The deaths are brutal–multiple men stabbed with toothbrushes sharpened into shivs, one man burned alive–all set, ironically, to the Nat King Cole version of “Pick Yourself Up” (I originally incorrectly labeled it as Frank Sinatra’s version; thanks to Jon Rose for pointing out the mistake). The next montage cuts between images of the well-oiled operation of Walt’s international drug empire–set to “Crystal Blue Persuasion” by Tommy James and the Shondells, a song so apropos it seems as though it were recorded for the episode.
The return of his cancer could also explain Walt’s softening–his decision to pay Jesse and quit the meth business. The impromptu meeting with Jesse is loaded with tension. We’re initially unsure of his purpose in coming to his former partner’s house. It seems, at first, as though Jesse could be another loose end that Walt intends to tie up. They reminisce about their past crimes–the Bounder RV they used to cook in. Jesse is rightly scared of Walt as Saul has told him about the prison murders. It turns out, Walt only wants to make amends and pay Jesse for his partnership. The duffel bag full of money he leaves on Jesse’s porch is brilliantly shot to look like a body bag; it’s a wonderful visual trick, acknowledging all of those who died so they could earn it.
The spectacular final scene recalls the twist ending in The Usual Suspects (1995) where Agent Kujan realizes that ‘Verbal’ Kint was the mastermind, Keyser Soze, all along–that the devil himself was sitting right in front of him. The explosive season ends, ironically, with Hank sitting down on the White’s toilet and picking the copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass that Gale Boetticher had inscribed and given to Walt. The scene also parallels The Usual Suspects climax with its revelatory flashbacks. We see the scene from season 4 where Hank shared Gale’s murder file with Walt. They have a laugh about the W.W. in Gale’s lab notes possibly referring to Walter White. “Ha, you got me,” Walt had said, jokingly putting his hands up. Dean Norris’ acting in this scene is pitch perfect–in the two or three seconds following his realization the camera holds on Hank’s face, and in his expression we see every piece of the puzzle fall into place in his mind. There’s an eerily quiet setup to this moment, which induces as much tension as did MacLaren’s “One Minute” climax. We see Walt, Skyler, Hank, and Marie, and the kids enjoying an afternoon cookout. And because of the way the season has been structured, opening with a flash-forward that sees Walt in semi-disguise, driving a car with New Hampshire plates, we know that the plot will be moving toward some catalyzing event that leads to that future. I honestly expected something more explosive like an assault on the family by any one of Walt’s many new and unseemly partners–indeed, a reprisal for his quitting the meth business would not seem unlikely. The mundane conversation–the women talking about how they used to put lemon juice in their hair, Walt and Hank talking minerals and Schrader Brau–only further seemed to hint at some impending doom. But after all the maneuvering and murder that takes place in the first seven episodes to avoid capture–from the evidence destroying magnet plan to the paying off of Mike’s guys in prison; from the great methylamine train robbery to the killing of the boy who witnesses it; from Walt’s impulsive murder of Mike to his arrangement and payment for the ten prison killings–it is an utterly brilliant flourish that the great Heisenberg would be finally found out by something as trivial as his choice of bathroom reading.
The episode’s title is taken from the Whitman poem of the same name, which is included within the pages of the book that Hank discovers. Perhaps, then, the unnamed subject of the poem is truth itself. The point, it seems, is that it is the truth that is “as a ship on the waters advancing.” No lie can be sustained forever. And the truth will soon spell out the dark voyage of Walt’s soul, and the many deaths he’s wrought. Despite his intense caution at every turn, despite all of his meticulous planning, the piece of evidence that would have been easiest to destroy ultimately becomes his undoing. He could have simply thrown the book away. But there it sat on his toilet lid, “Gliding o’er all, through all,” the whole time.