Can anyone honestly say they didn’t look upon this work and despair? Breaking Bad crossed a lot of lines with this antepenultimate episode, as is only fitting for a story with such high stakes as it enters its final narrative stretch, but to my thinking the most important was the moment when Walt Jr. — well and truly Flynn, now — finally learned the truth about what his father has been up to over the past 70 episodes or so. Walt’s schemes have long hinged on both his and Skyler’s determination to keep Flynn in the dark about his drug business; by preserving his son’s innocence, Walt could hope for some sort of happy outcome no matter how upside-down his dealings turned out. And, perhaps more importantly, protecting Flynn gave him a lever for manipulating Skyler, not to mention an effective smokescreen for keeping Heisenberg’s business secret.
With that last scrap of camouflage burned away, Walt has nowhere to turn. Hank’s stomach-churningly unavoidable outcome drives the final wedge between Walt and his family — and the fact that he bartered for Hank’s life at the end means nothing to them, nor should it, as he was the one who set those dreadful wheels in motion to begin with — and his deal with the devil (in the form of an amoral white supremacist militia) has come around in the only way it really could have. They stole his family from him, and then his money. Walt is broken, a man with nothing.
Sure, $11 million in cash doesn’t exactly seem like “nothing,” but what good is money to a man for whom everything else lies in ruins? Walt’s family despises him, the authorities surely have the full story on him and have him pegged as both a child abductor and cop-killer, his brother-in-law is dead through his foolishness, and his determination to lash out and twist a spiteful knife in Jesse’s belly by revealing his complicity in Jane’s death has guaranteed that there can be no reconciliation there… though of course he has no reason to believe Jesse will live long enough to do anything about it. Honestly, his final, vindictive decision where Jesse is concerned is at shockingly craven and brutal, undermining any last lingering sympathy for Walt. Taking his revenge for Hank’s death by giving up Jesse to die while grieving afresh over the loss of his love could be the single nastiest act Heisenberg has ever committed. And yet, it may prove to be the final act of Heisenberg as well. Or next to last — the final being the abduction of his daughter, a spur-of-the-moment impulse abandoned midway through.
Once again, when it comes down to the well-being of his family, Walt’s needs ultimately supersede Heisenberg’s megalomania. His desperate attempt at redemption by sparing Hank’s life at the cost of his own freedom may have gone horribly wrong, but holding Holly as the girl plaintively calls out for her mother catalyzes something inside him. His call to Skyler initially seems like the wretched last act of a condemned, powerless man lashing out to hurt the only people he still can, the final destructive revenge of a man who gave up his former partner to die and shattered his own family by stealing a child. The ones who hurt him with their murderous betrayal are beyond his reach for now, and it appears as though Heisenberg is so desperate to exert some last measure of dominance in his final descent that he’s willing to abandon even his bedrock conviction that family comes first.
And then you realize that behind his venomous tone and cruel words, Walt is selflessly providing for his family the only way he knows how: By shielding them from the blame for his actions. His words pierce Skyler, Marie, and Flynn to the heart, but they also paint his wife as the victim of a domineering, abusive criminal. While that’s not entirely wrong, it’s also not entirely true, either. In perhaps the most powerful scene in a series defined by them, Walt plays the part of power-mad, revenge-driven villain aloud while shedding an unseen tear at the realization that he’s crossed the Rubicon, and that his attempts to provide for and protect his family have separated him from them forever. By destroying any sense of nuance, he’s created a simple narrative that provides an out for his family and brings the axe down on his head. Heisenberg has finally lost, well and truly defeated by circumstance, but Walt at least aims to uphold his original mission. Redemptive seems too optimistic a term to describe his actions, but at the very least they demonstrate some integrity. Maybe even a hint of morality.