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.

13 thoughts on “To’hajiilee

  1. Damn, your Breaking Bad posts are the first of your writings I have to actively avoid, seeing as how I just started the series recently (in the middle of season 2 now). Looking forward to going back and reading them, when the time comes. Really surprised with the high quality of the show – it’s so much more than its simple, contrived premise had me believe.

    Any plans for more TV series write-ups? Would love to see your take on something as rich as, say, Deadwood or The Sopranos.

    • Hmm. Something has to hook me, first, and it needs to be actively on-air for these write-ups to be worth the trouble. I’ll write up Season 7 of Mad Men for sure, but nothing beyond that really interests me at the moment.

  2. I take it that you’re not a Hank fan, Jeremy.

    (Or at least a fan of Hank when he’s idling in “football n’ beers/corny dudebro uncle” mode.)

  3. In this and the Star Trek thing (among others) I’ve noticed you don’t particularly hem to the idea of praising a particular actors performance, or indeed namin them at all. Nothing wrong with that, I was just wondering if its a conscious choice.

  4. Bill: Hank is probably the only person I’m rooting for. He’s a douche and too obsessed with the Blue Sky case, but underneath it all he’s motivated by good intentions.

    OtherMacGuy: Neither of these articles have been about the actors’ performances. In this case, Walt’s choice was written into the script. Bryan Cranston sells it, but the important choices in this story come from the writers’ and director’s handling of the character, not from Cranston’s. I didn’t mention a lot of things in these write-ups. They’re not episode recaps, they’re focused essays on specific facets of the works.

  5. Interesting, too, that this is the second time the show has reached a natural stopping point (first with the half-season finale, now at To’hajiilee) that was undone by a mistake made by Walt.

    Seems like most people expected Breaking Bad to end with A: Walt walking away from his empire, B: Hank busting Walt, or C: everything crashing down on everyone’s heads, and it’s crazy to see how the creators have managed to have their cake and eat it to by working the first two expected ‘endings’ into the story (with the show still careening towards that last, more final catastrophic ending.)

    That said, are there any guesses as to how this episode matches up with the flashforwards we’ve seen? I’m wondering if Future Walt isn’t planning to use that M60 machine gun to try and free Jesse from Uncle Jack’s gang.

  6. That was not a criticism leveled at these write ups, merely an observation. It does seem to be what you’re going for with your various television write ups, as you say, am analysis of themes and the extrapolated meaning of character motivation and what have you. It provides an interesting companion piece to the Anatomy series, which is very “nuts and bolts,” as it were. I’ll tell you what, if you’re ever looking for something to do, you could maye switch it up a bit. Obviously you’re doing Mario and BB right now, but what about some future exploration of the technical ideas, and what try are trying to convey or the reasons they are done, of some old or movie, be it by the hand of the director, DP, actor etc? Anatomy of The Godfather, District Nine, The Wire, Weekend at Bernie’s? Conversely, while plenty of videos games are very silly as storytelling devices, there’s certainly a few out there that could be develed into for the narrative they are trying to get across. The first (or third), even though it has it’s share of silliness, it is presented in a manner of enough competence that if nothing else you can see what the intention is. Braid has of course been done to death, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be an interesting look, that sort of thing. You get the idea. Just a thought!

  7. So are you stopping in Albuquerque to see some of these locales on your trip to your new home? I don’t watch the show, but the pictures you post stop me every time, and I’m all, “Whoa, I know where that is.”

  8. Smart…we drove and it was a nightmare with two cats in tow. Also you only get to see the outskirts of Albuquerque, although the the freeway is a cool color – you can see it in this very episode! (Or the one before, I forget.)

    Your comments about family are to the point, but more interesting in light of a) Walt’s fatherly feelings towards Jesse and b) Walt’s previous decision to have Jesse offed. Is it because Jesse was a problem, because Hank has always been a “good guy”, or because Walt couldn’t bear to have either (or both) of them killed while he was there? Ordering the hit is one thing, being there is quite another…

  9. @Calories: I think his choices between Jesse and Hank are a matter of self-preservation — he honestly thought Jesse wanted to kill him rather than merely arrest him — and also pragmatism. If Hank dies, his literal family falls apart. It’s clear he thought of Jesse of a son, but Hank is actual family, connected to Skylar.

    I’ve been to Albuquerque a few times, so I don’t need to see it again. Anyway, our landlord had to pay us a stipend to move out that more than covers the costs of having dudes drive our stuff across country without us. Thankfully.

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