Breaking Bad season 5 episode 15 review: Granite State

Spoiler alert: Breaking Bad has made a subtle switch to Shakespearian tragedy this season. But where will it end?

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The Independent Culture

So we finally know why Walter White started this season of Breaking Bad back in Albuquerque with hair on his head and an M60 machine gun in his car boot. And it's for as miserable a set of reasons as possible.

The second half of this show's fifth and final season is finally playing out like an authentic Shakespearian tragedy - albeit one which has had four-and-a-half series' worth of prologue to it. So if last week's explosive realignment of the universe was Walt's Lear-like fall from grace, this week is his descent into madness. The big question, of course, is the form his redemption will take, if indeed he even gets one.

The Lear comparison holds quite strongly in this episode. Much like the mad king, Walt is forced into the wilderness, his kingdom in tatters and his family deposed. We even have a fool-like character in the form of the extractor, who, in admitting he'll appropriate Walt's money after he dies, is telling him not what he wants to hear, but what the truth is.

Of course, Lear dies at the end of the play, leaving the noble youth to seize power. It remains to be seen whether Jesse will recover anything of himself and do the same, but then again Breaking Bad and King Lear aren't identical stories.

The purgatorial silence of Walt's bolthole - eight miles from the nearest town in the snowy New Hampshire woods, with nothing more than two DVD copies of Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium and a huge barrel full of drug money for company - sets the tone for the episode. The painstaking, unhurried manner in which the show tees itself up for the denouement is emblematic of the confidence and single-mindedness its writers have. Almost nothing happens, but it does so with such deliciousness of purpose that the drop in intensity from last week feels almost more portentous.

The crux of this episode is the unravelling of the Walter White/Heisenberg duality. The show has always been aware of who he is at any one time, his slow journey from nebbish chemistry teacher to merciless criminal mastermind and back again has always been scrupulously planned and portrayed, and here we're finally being asked what the true identity of the man Bryan Cranston is playing is.

It's suddenly apparent that the character's tragic flaw is, depending on how you look at it, the fact that a bit of him is Walt, or the fact that a bit of him Heisenberg, and he can never quite live in one mind. Heisenberg's attempt to overpower Saul into coming with him to New Hampshire is thwarted by Walt's weak coughing fit. Similarly, when Heisenberg puts on his hat in the cabin and strides purposefully away from his cabin, it is Walt's weakness that stops him at the gate and leads him to mutter "tomorrow, tommorrow" - a clear reference to another tragic Shakespearian hero, Macbeth. Of course, we've seen glimpses of this duality throughout, but they're finally spelling it out.

In many ways, though, this episode belongs to Jesse Plemons' portrayal of Todd. A late addition to the cast, he's played him in such low-key fashion it's often been easy to dismiss him as window dressing. We knew he was a s**t when we saw him execute a small boy in cold blood towards the end of the last season, but in the last few episodes he's become a masterful sociopath . It's almost hard to describe his gentle, unassuming inhumanity as 'evil', because he's so genial with it - and that's a reflection of another fantastic performance.

Everything he does in this episode is played with a quiet half-smile on his face, when he's falteringly trying to charm Lydia, or when he's apologising to Andrea before shooting her in the back of the head. He isn't like the other bad guys in the piece; he's not thuggish or boorish or hateful, he's simply cheerfully dead-eyed.

As ever, the show is full of other droll details: the motto of the eponymous Granite State is "Live free or die" - exactly what, after a fashion, Walt is forced to do there. The Extractor's HQ is a shop with the tagline "Best quality vacuum". The phone call between Walt and Flynn is a kind of climax to the episode, ending in the son's rejection of his father - the sum of all Walt's fears and the last thing he wanted. It's a pathetic mirroring of the fierce call between him and Skyler in 'Ozymandias', the moment where he finally hits rock bottom.

Shakespeare's plays usually start with the tragic hero in their position of power, about to commit their act of hubris. What sets Breaking Bad apart, perhaps, is that it started so much earlier along Walter White's rise.

Walt's story is not yet at its end. The last seconds of the episode see his defeat at the hands of his son give way to Heisenberg's reborn lust for revenge, and don't forget that Chekhov's machine gun in the car boot at the start of the run.