Breaking Bad TV Roundtable: “Granite State”

granite stateThe following is a written conversation between Editor-In-Chief Evan Tognotti and Senior Editor Matthew Milewski about this week’s episode of Breaking Bad. Spoilers, you guys. Obviously. 

ET: I don’t envy the role “Granite State” has to play in this season.

It’s a penultimate episode, which means it has to both be engaging on its own while intoning that the best is yet to come. It’s faced with tying up a lot of threads to save room for the finale. It also follows “Ozymandias,” the best episode of the show according to many, myself and Vince Gilligan included.

So in a way, “Granite State” is set up to disappoint, and I think it does in a couple ways. Let’s start with the good stuff: the ending is absolutely killer. Walt’s conversation on the phone with his son doesn’t quite top last week’s with Skyler (but really, what could?), and the way they incorporate the opening theme into the show was positively chilling. I found myself engaged pretty fully most of the time I was watching. Very little wasted space. Also, Bryan Cranston totally says “Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium” with the appropriate amount of venom and scorn that should be in effect whenever the name is uttered.

My concern with “Granite State” is like my concern with this season, but encapsulated and accelerated: it’s all about the getting there. I’m going back and forth on the Gray Matter interview, because I think it exemplifies the worst impulses of this writing staff (Walter needs motivation, I dunno… he sees something convenient on a bar’s television!). On the other hand, it’s edited beautifully and executed near perfectly.

I’m decidedly less unsure of my opinion on Andrea’s death, which I found cheap, vulgar, and almost entirey unearned. I don’t know if I’m emotionally oblivious or something, but I sensed no chemistry, even one-sided, between Todd and Lydia. When they brought that up as the reason to keep Jesse locked up, I was willing to forgive it. When it’s so imperative that they kill Andrea in front of him, I’m less inclined to let it slide. It just felt unnecessary. Like, “we’ve killed almost everyone, so let’s try to find someone else to kill for this episode.”

That really soured my opinion, in retrospect, but I think “Granite State” is by and large really efficient and entertaining. Thoughts?

MM: Personally, Evan, I’m a big fan of the Gray Matter interview myself. I’ve always viewed Walter’s relationship with Gray Matter as a pretty important part of the show’s internal history, particularly after last year’s excellent “Buyout”. I believe Walter’s feelings of anger towards his old company were part of the reason he joined the meth trade to begin with; it’s fitting that they also play into how things are resolved.

I think I mostly share your other concerns though. Andrea’s death could be seen as an extension of how Walter sets events into motion that he barely even considers, but it’s hard not to view it as a little crass regardless. I think I’ve warmed up to Todd a bit more over these past couple of episodes (his overly cheerful line about ice cream was a good one), but his relationship with Lydia continues to feel a bit out of place. I might give this stuff the benefit of the doubt if a few more episodes remained, but as it is I’d rather have a few more minutes of Walter sulking around the cabin instead.

If “Ozymandias” was the boot that stepped on Walter’s dreams, “Granite State” is where they’re scrapped on the sidewalk. Walter’s slow realization that he can’t get any of what’s he worked for to his family is pretty excellently done. It’s a pretty gradual process (foreshadowed excellently when a wracking cough interrupts an angry tirade towards Saul), and it reaches a pretty harrowing conclusion when Walter Jr. rejects him completely.

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t Robert Forster as Ed, the Vacuum Cleaner repairman, who plays the part with a perfect amount of grave detachment. Walter’s clearly in a pretty rough spot if he can only get the guy to stay an extra hour for ten thousand dollars.

So, on the whole, I think this episode was a success when it came to catching us up with the flash-forwarded version of Walter, and maybe a little less successful with the other stuff. How are you feeling about the finale right now?

ET: I’m feeling pretty good about it. The ending, despite my feeling that they could’ve reintroduced Gray Matter a lot more fluidly, is incredibly promising, and I really don’t know what Walt is planning. Did the interview inspire him to go kill the Neo-Nazis himself? Is he more directly paying a visit to his former business partner? The opportunities are close to limitless, especially now that he’s all but thrown away his one chance to end this with dignity.

I have to agree that I’m warming up to Todd. Certainly not so much that I can excuse the contrivances with Lydia, but he’s a lot more interesting than I think I was giving him credit for.

Earlier this season, I was starting to fear that we were going to end Breaking Bad incredibly far from where we began. I prefer series finales that tie back to the beginning, or at least acknowledge roots, so I’m delighted that Gray Matter is making a return. How that’ll manifest is a big question mark right now, and an unexpected one to boot.

But I think they greatest trick Vince Gilligan and Co. have pulled this half-season is with Walter himself. Eight episodes ago, I would’ve stood by my claim that he’s one of the most morally bankrupt characters on TV. He still is, probably… call me crazy, but I’m starting to feel like Walt may not have broken as bad as everyone thought. That’s especially evident for me in these recently climactic telephone calls.

He’s spouted a lot of nonsense about just wanting to secure his family’s future, but now that everything’s fucked, it really does seem like he’s keeping that promise. Or trying to, at least. Am I too sympathetic, or what?

MM: No, I don’t think you are. I predicted that Gilligan would be giving Walter some semblance of redemption from that flash-forward way back in the season premiere. The writing team have been walking a pretty fine line this season with Walter; I feel simultaneously disgusted by his actions, while retaining some sympathy for his situation.

What I most like about this setup for the finale, besides what you’ve already mentioned, is how it’s come entirely from Walter’s actions. “Granite State” partly explores what happens to the ABQ area when Walter leaves a power vacuum. No one is forcing Walter to return; the motivation comes entirely from his own pride. In a way though, Walter’s now increasingly likely death seems like a mercy; “Granite State” paints such a depressing picture of a Walter with no delusions of grandeur that it’s hard to think there’s even a chance for a happy ending for him.