Much of what makes this final stretch of Breaking Bad so fascinating comes from watching people make bad decisions that will ruin them. Granted, Walt has been making bad decisions since the beginning, but he’s always managed to talk, wheedle, scheme, and otherwise slip his way out of them. This time around, though, there’s a sense that his time has come.
It’s hard to shake off the sensation that Walt’s biggest screw-up was in refusing to work with the international cartel and thinking he could simply walk away from a massive , multi-billion-dollar drug business for which he was the primary provider of supplies, then brushing off the organization’s contact when asked to return. But we’ve yet to see exactly how that will play out… though it certainly would go a long way toward justifying the extreme measures seen in the flashes forward.
Here in the now, he makes a far more crucial mistake in refusing once again to treat his long-suffering assistant Jesse Pinkman with even a shred of respect. Jesse refuses to turn on Walt during interrogation — but only because, like Don Salamanca before him, he has no desire to work with the DEA (and Hank Schrader specifically). When Walt and Jesse reunite in the desert in the wake of their attorney Saul’s intervention and posting bail, Jesse makes it clear that he’s absolutely terrified by Walt, whom he’s come to realize is willing to kill anyone who complicates his life. But Walt doesn’t rage at his erstwhile collaborator or show anger at his poor judgment in chucking money into the streets. Instead, he takes a fatherly approach, warmly suggesting Jesse leave town and set up a new life for himself far away. (Far, far away. “Alaska sounds good,” Jesse muses later, his voice quavering.)
But in his fear, Jesse finally sees all the way through Walt’s fatherly act and calls him on it. Maybe he finally has nothing to lose, as he implies when he suggests Walt’s veiled ultimatum is “leave town or die.” In his state of anger and terror, he tells Walt to play it straight with him for once and simply ask Jesse for a favor instead of trying to talk the younger man into thinking Walt’s schemes come from anything besides pure self-interest. “Tell me you need this,” he demands.
But Walt can’t humble himself before Jesse; his ego and pride simply don’t allow for him to be anything but the alpha male in their relationship. Rather than ask Jesse for help, he silently gives him a hug, and Jesse bursts into tears. But they’re not grateful tears, just as the hug isn’t one of comfort and protection; they’re the tears of the powerless, as he realizes he has to go along with the relocation plan, and there won’t be a word of thanks for uprooting his life to save Walt’s butt.
Unsurprisingly, when the time comes to leave Albuquerque and begin his new life far to the north, Jesse snaps. The catalyst: A pack of cigarettes — seemingly the same pack that once contained the ricin cigarette, which Saul’s muscle Huell has swapped into Jesse’s pockets in place of a bag of weed. The realization of Huell’s skilled skullduggery provides a connection for Jesse, who thinks back to the disappearance of the ricin in the first place and realizes Saul and Huell have played a key role in Walt’s systematic habit of destroying everything good in his life. (All that and he still doesn’t know the truth about Jane.) As foretold by Yoda, fear leads to anger, at which point Jesse makes a leap directly to the dark side, rushing to the White residence to take his revenge.
How differently might things have turned out if Walt had simply been straight with Jesse? It’s impossible to say, since this is how the story has to go, but that patronizing hug was clearly the final straw. Walt lost his ability to be a compassionate human being around Jesse long ago; his sneering, scheming Heisenberg persona is the only way he knows how to relate to Jesse, and the younger man has long since ceased to be anything for him other than a pawn and a nuisance — one he won’t directly harm out of some lingering sentiment, perhaps, but whom he’s unafraid to manipulate, and whose loved ones he constantly destroys. In the stark light of the desert, everything clicks for Jesse, and his sense of guilt (succinctly symbolized by the tarantula that scrambles toward him across the sand — a callback to the tarantula caught by the boy who was murdered during the methlyamine heist… the same heist the boy’s killer brags about in the opening sequence) transmutes into an outraged sense of betrayal and a desire for vengeance as he refuses to let himself be talked into accepting any more self-destructive actions by Walt’s gilded tongue.
But Walt’s not the only one making bad decisions; Hank continues to refuse to go public with what he knows about Heisenberg, and his stubbornness will clearly be his own undoing. Certainly it gives Walt an opening for leverage, as he records a stunning “confession” that doesn’t so much implicate Hank as paint him as the show’s primary villain. While meant as a warning to force Hank to leave Walt’s kids alone, it demonstrates not only the horrifying fluidity of Walt’s own moral code (family’s off-limits… unless Walt needs to destroy their lives for his own ends) but also (again) the awful, convincing elegance with which he can present the most bald-faced lies.
Despite the violent and potentially explosive cliffhanger ending, perhaps the most important moment in this episode was also its quietest: Skyler’s seeming catatonia as she sits in her office, obviously contemplating the horror of the video she helped Walt record. Her glassy-eyed stare while sitting at a desk in a small, dark room (and the involvement of a video camera, even) mirror Jesse’s time in the interrogation room, and it’s not hard to imagine her ultimately coming to the same conclusion that he did.
Especially once their house burns down.