Many TV shows kick off a pop culture meme or two, and a brilliant few invade your dreams. "Breaking Bad" invaded reality a couple of weeks ago, as Alabama authorities put an alleged meth cook named Walter White on their most-wanted list. That the arrest of a real-life Walter seemed unsurprising was an interesting data point in understanding just how much this AMC drama about a cancer-stricken chemistry teacher turned badass meth kingpin has gotten under my skin. So it's going to be a bear waiting until next summer for the show's final eight episodes. (SPOILERS AHEAD!)
The 2012 finale on Sunday night ended with a classic "Breaking Bad" moment. Walter (the amazing Bryan Cranston) hosted a family party a few days after he told his wife he was out of the meth biz. The unspoken theme was a return to normalcy. But then Walter's DEA agent brother-in-law, Hank, sat down for a little bathroom reading and picked up a volume of Walt (!) Whitman. Inside he found a hand-written inscription that made his jaw drop to match his pants, linking Walter to a murdered meth chemist. I worried Hank was going to have a stroke right there on the can as he faced the absurd truth that he has subconsciously suspected for a long time: Suburban milquetoast Walter has a double life as the evil Heisenberg! Walt is Heisenberg!
DEA agent brother-in-law? Whitman? Toilet? Heisenberg? What? All this may sound like gibberish to the non-fan, but we are so far down the rabbit hole with this show that it's way too late to bring newcomers up to, ahem, speed. Suffice to say that the moment's ruthless plotting, painfully mundane setting, literary touches and wonderful acting (by Dean Norris as Hank) were all expressions of what makes this show great.
Music cues, always a biggie with this Vince Gilligan show, were off-the-charts fun on Sunday. He must have been waiting a long time to use "Crystal Blue Persuasion" for a meth-business montage, which brought a laugh of recognition. But setting the brutal prison-murders sequence to silky-voiced Nat King Cole was stone-cold perfect.
The more I mull these last eight episodes, though, it seems there weren't quite as many of those classic "BB" moments as in the four previous seasons. They've moved the plot along after last season's literally mind-blowing "Gus face" finale, but no train robbery or pallet of cash could match that. Some letdown was inevitable.
Walt's sidekick Jesse (the also amazing Aaron Paul) was increasingly sidelined; Gus Fring no longer looms over the proceedings; and minor characters Todd and Lydia took on larger roles, in Walt's operation and in the show. Even the dementedly corrupt attorney Saul (Bob Odenkirk) wasn't his usual hilarious self. So this year hasn't offered many of the you-laugh-because-it's-so-insanely-right moments of wrongness that we're used to. At least until that final shot.
The season's other great moment was the previous week's death of Mike, the former Fring henchman and Walter's exasperated criminal skills tutor. He managed to stagger down to a scenic spot for his final line, after Walt put a bullet in him. Sitting on a log, Mike listened to Walt's apology briefly, then said, "Shut the ---- up and let me die in peace." Cut to a long shot of the two of them sitting side by side, one mississippi, two mississippi, and then Mike keeled over.
Mike was played by Jonathan Banks, a wonderful actor who has now played the gravelly voiced cynic on two TV cult crime classics, "BB" and "Wiseguy." He's never been better than he was here.
Hank's bathroom revelation gives a hint where the eight episodes next year will go. The law will catch up with Walt, and I wonder if he will take Jesse down with him. There have been hints that Walter's cancer may be coming back, too, and it would be ironic - and too easy, I think - if that got him instead of the consequences of his actions. I don't believe he's truly out of the business, no matter what he told his wife. His ego would not want to stop being Heisenberg, instead of poor henpecked Walt. There's no going back, anyway. The storm is gathering, which is maybe why even Saul isn't so funny anymore.
And then there was that mysterious flash-forward at the beginning of this year's first episode. A bearded, tired, quiet-loner-ish Walt pulled into a diner and bought a machine gun from some guy's trunk. There hasn't been a hint about it since, but it's a sign that Gilligan knows exactly where he and Walt are going.
Waiting is tough.