What’s so great about Breaking Bad? Well, sometimes episodes end like “To’hajiilee,” for one.
No, I’m not talking about the nail-biting shoot-out at the end, the cliffhanger “no escape” scenario that can’t possibly end well. Although that was a heck of a finish, yeah.
What I mean is the events leading up to the shootout. Someone finally pulled one over on Walter White, and it was Hank Schrader. Walt had a way out — a house full of heavily armed white supremacists with a financial incentive to take out Hank’s collaborator Jesse and anyone else threatening Walt’s safety — but after realizing Hank’s involvement he chose to call off the hitmen and surrender.
This is what makes the show so interesting. It’s tempting to paint Walt as a one-dimensional, power-mad, amoral sociopath; certainly he appears to be those things at times. His Heisenberg persona and the drug empire he created under that alias definitely point to those as his defining traits. And yet, that’s not the entirety of what constitutes Walt. Heisenberg is not his Batman, the “true face” that wears Walter White as an alias a la the vapid Bruce Wayne persona. Walt is Heisenberg, yet he is also Walt. While he will doggedly go to nearly any length to get his way and calmly rationalize his ruthless behavior, he has boundaries. He has aspirations beyond impossible wealth, too.
Walt’s boundaries and aspirations overlap where his family is concerned — even his strutting jerk of an alpha male brother-in-law. He got into the meth business for his family’s sake, and their safety is the one line he won’t cross. Despite Walt’s distaste for Hank, he doesn’t bear him any ill will. Certainly he’s savored his small triumphs over Hank, the moments where he’s slipped beneath the DEA’s notice by hiding in plain sight, even going so far as to subtly brag about his skills as a kingpin to Hank’s face. But he’s also gone out of his way to protect Hank when necessary, giving him warnings of impending hits or curtailing potential retribution by other drug lords. Here, we see just how far Walt will go to uphold that ideal. And the answer is, all the way.
Even though it means the dissolution of everything he’s worked for, Heisenberg loses out to Walt in this crucial moment. The only way out of Hank’s trap is to have his thugs gun Hank down, and while Walt could certainly have gone that route he chooses not to. Instead, he surrenders, knowing that in doing so he’ll end up in prison for the rest of his life and the DEA will eventually find and claim his vast fortune. Even though it galls him to have lost, and to have been outsmarted by his frat-boy brother-in-law, and to have been turned on by Jesse, Walt ultimately chooses to suffer those indignities rather than accept the assassination of family.
Of course, everything goes to hell moments later, but we know the score: Hank won. But he only won because Walt isn’t some one-dimensional cartoon villain, but instead chooses family over victory at any cost. Which isn’t to say Walt doesn’t deserve any and everything coming to him, because he’s still a monster. But he’s a monster with values, which ought to get him a few years in Purgatory, at least.