That Breaking Bad‘s damn-near patented “holy shit!” factor is back in full force this week is not the only thing that makes “Salud” the best episode the show’s produced in some time – but it certainly doesn’t hurt. In a bravura sequence with obvious nods to The Godfather, Gus and Mike make a last-ditch effort to wipe the cartel off the map with a deviously simple plot that seems to reveal just what Gus’s designs have been for Jesse over the last few weeks. After all, if Jesse’s cook hadn’t gone perfectly, the plan would obviously have fallen apart. Jesse needed to feel like Gus was behind him every step of the way in order for Gus’s long game to come off properly.
More on Gus, Mike, Jesse and their futures (or lack thereof) in a moment. What might get lost amidst all the hour’s excitement is the other significant corner turned here. Post-beating, utterly humiliated and left behind by his surrogate son, Walt has seemingly crash-landed back among the mortals, no longer dreaming up murders or playing spiteful mind games. Instead, when he’s approached by Walt Jr. (giving RJ Mitte his meatiest scenes in what feels like forever) on the evening of his 16th birthday, he barely has the capacity for deception, passing off his injuries on a “gambling”-related fight (true enough!) and urging his son not to report the sad fact back to Skyler. Cranston digs deep here to find Walt’s lowest low, a place so pitiful that – God damn it – one can’t help but feel a little sorry for Walt. Yes, just one week after we all sat appreciating the fact that he finally got the beating he’s had coming so long, we’re faced with the sad aftermath – and it’s not pretty.
The startling fact of any level of sympathy towards Walt remaining a remote possibility might have been enough, but it’s what happens the following morning that’s truly a canny bit of writing. Walt wakes to find Walt Jr. asleep on his couch, and when his son awakes, Walt does something I’m not sure we’ve ever seen: he tells his son a story about his life; his real life. In a detailed bit of character history I’d very much like to know how long ago was in the offing, Walt recalls his only concrete memory of his Huntington’s-addled father, who died when Walt was only six years old. Walt’s fear is of his son’s lasting memory of his father to be of a broken, frail man, but Walt Jr. is just thankful that he got to see him be “real” for once.
The idea that the Walt we saw this week is the “real” Walt is a tremendously loaded one. As Chuck Klosterman noted some weeks back, Breaking Bad seems ultimately to be about a man coming to a set of decision points and making the conscious choice do to the immoral, incorrect thing at every single one of those points. “Salud” doesn’t erase those choices from our collective memory; rather, it reminds us that Walt is not merely the sum of those choices. He’s also a father, an ex-husband, an ex-scholar, and a man with a lot of dreams that went unrealized. (That he dashed most of his own hopes through hubris only serves to amplify the hurt.) This week he seems to find some measure of humility, one he’s been missing perhaps since his initial diagnosis (or even well before that). Is that attributable to the status of his cancer? Walt’s health has been an open question this season since we’ve been shown none of his actual consultations. It would be precisely the devilish thing this show would do to humanize Walt just in time for the last, and likely least pleasant act of his career as a would-be master criminal.
But back to the ending. (There’s also the Skyler / Saul / Ted stuff, but that all leads me to the same conclusion I came to last week: Ted’s a total goner. Though maybe Skyler’s willingness to admit her meddling is a sign he might make it out. Maybe.) After the delightfully symmetrical sight of Don Eladio collapsing into the pool, echoing Gus’s flashback, we get the electrifying moment of Gus’s command to Don Eladio’s remaining enforcers, an instant of incredible triumph – only to see him collapse. Then, nearly escaped, Mike gets shot at least once on the way into the impromptu getaway vehicle. And so we have Jesse (who dispatches the remaining gunman in a very tense, quick set of jump cuts) driving off with a bloody Mike and an ailing Gus, with the cartel apparently in ruins, along with most anyone’s preconceptions of just where this season might have been headed. Three weeks left and a million moving parts; bring on the endgame.