Spoiler Alert

Granite State, the Penultimate Episode of Breaking Bad, Is Walter White’s Final Act

Sunday’s episode of ‘Breaking Bad’ seemed relatively uneventful—unless you watched closely.

Ursula Coyote/AMC

Not all that much happened on Sunday night’s Breaking Bad. Jesse Pinkman is still a prisoner. Skyler White is still a suspect. Hank Schrader is still dead. As episodes of this particular series go, “Granite State” seemed relatively uneventful.

Unless you watched closely. It turns out “Granite State” wasn’t about plots being hatched or people getting shot. Instead it was about something subtler: a conflict of identity. On Sunday night, the protagonist of Vince Gilligan’s grand cable drama finally came to grips with the question he’s spent the entire series trying to answer, in one way or another:

Who am I? The family man Walter White? Or the meth kingpin Heisenberg?

By the end of the episode, he had his answer. And so did we.

The plan at first was to be neither. The fellow who emerged near the beginning of the episode from the dark storage hold of a blue propane truck into the snow-bright daylight of New Hampshire—the “Granite State” of the title—was supposed to be “Mr. Lambert.” Last week Walt called the Vacuum-Cleaner Guy, and now the Vacuum Cleaner Guy had come through. New name. New IDs. And a new home in the wintry hills of New Hampshire, with “about a month’s worth of food on hand, mostly canned”; “a generator outside that works on LP”; and not one but two copies of Mr. Magorium’s Wonder Emporium to keep him entertained.

“You paid good money for this,” says the Vacuum Cleaner Guy (brilliantly played by an avuncular but ruthless Robert Forster). “Two acres, lots of woods ... Nice spot. Seems like just the place for a man to rest up and think about things.”

For a moment or two, it looked like Walter “Heisenberg” White might actually become “Mr. Lambert.” Back in Albuquerque, in the Vacuum Cleaner Guy’s basement, we saw Heisenberg stomping around on the security camera, then ranting to Saul Goodman, his fellow fugitive, as if he were Hitler in the Führerbunker during the final siege of Berlin.

“My money goes to my children,” Heisenberg growled. “Not just this barrel. All of it. I’m going to kill Jack and his crew. I’m going to take back what’s mine ... Then and only then, I’m through. Got it?”

But up in New Hampshire, Heisenberg begins to fade. When he spots his crumpled black pork pie hat in a duffel bag, he puts it on and storms down to the property line despite the Vacuum Cleaner Guy’s warning: “If you leave this place, you will get caught.” But as Walt leans on the gate, he realizes he can’t go on. “Tomorrow,” he says. “Tomorrow.” Then he returns to his cabin and (literally) hangs up his hat on the antler of a stuffed buck. One month later, when the Vacuum Cleaner Guy returns, the hat is still hanging there. Heisenberg, it seems, has finally retired.

At the same time, Walter White—the father who wants to protect and provide for his family—is withering as well. Wracked by cancer, alone in the woods, he’s losing weight at an alarming pace. His beard is growing out. His hair is back. His glasses are broken. He no longer looks like the man who left Albuquerque a month ago. Before the Vacuum Cleaner Guy leaves, Walt asks him a simple question.

“One of these days when you come up here, I’ll be dead,” he says, gesturing to his last barrel of cash. “My money over there: what happens to it then? What if I ask you to give it to my family? Would you do it?”

The Vacuum Cleaner Guy’s answer confirms what Walt has begun to fear. That if he lives out his days in New Hampshire as Mr. Lambert, his meth money will never wind up with his family, and his whole adventure will have been meaningless. “If I said yes,” the Vacuum Cleaner Guy replies, “would you believe me?”

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As Walt sleeps that night, his wedding ring—the last remnant of the husband and father he once was—slips from his finger. The next day he tries to send a package containing $100,000—“it’s all I can fit into the box”—to one of Walt Jr.’s friends and to alert Junior to its existence with a surreptitious phone call. But Junior’s response only reinforces the demise of Walter White.

“I wanted to give you so much more, but this is all I could do,” Walt says. “Do you understand?”

“You want to send money?” Junior says. “You killed Uncle Hank!”

Walt tries to protest. “It can’t all be for nothing,” he says. He’s crying now. “Please.”

“I don’t want anything from you,” Junior shouts. “Why are you still alive? Just die already. Just die.”

And with that, Walt gives up, placing a traceable call to the Albuquerque DEA. “Who is this?” asks the agent on the other end of the line. “Walter White?” is the response he gets, from somewhere up in New Hampshire. It sounds like a question, too.

Near the end of “Granite State,” I realized that each of the episode’s fluctuations of identity—from Walt to Heisenberg to Lambert—had been accompanied by the same little marker: Walt’s cancerous cough. We heard it for the first time when Heisenberg was in the bunker with Saul. It returned a few minutes later, when he paused at the gate in New Hampshire. And it bubbled up again when Walt’s wedding ring fell from his bony finger.

I’m assuming the cough wasn’t a coincidence—nothing on Breaking Bad ever is. So why was it there? What was Peter Gould, the episode’s writer and director, up to?

My guess? The cough is a sign of Walter White’s mortality—and Heisenberg’s, and Mr. Lambert’s. Every time it arises, the man torn between those three identities has to ask himself how he wants to die—and who he wants to be when he does.

Mr. Lambert is a dead end. Walter White is too. Devastated, Walt sidles up to the bar and orders one last Dimple Pinch, neat. And then, as the bartender flips through the channels, Walt sees it: his former chemistry assistant (and girlfriend) Gretchen Schwartz and her husband, Elliott. The co-founders of Gray Matter, the pharmaceutical company he invented and was then elbowed out of. On Charlie Rose.

“What was Walter White’s contribution?” Rose asks.

“He was person who was there early on but who had virtually nothing to do with the creation of the company and still less to do with what it is today,” Elliott says. “As far as I can recall his contribution begins and ends there.”

“Is Walter White still out there?”

“No, he’s not,” Gretchen replies.

“You sound very sure of that.”

“I can’t speak of this Heisenberg people refer to—whatever he became,” Gretchen continues. “But the sweet, kind man we once knew? He’s gone.”

She’s right, of course. As Walt watches the Schwartzes on TV, he realizes who he is. Not Walter White. Not Mr. Lambert. Heisenberg—fully, utterly, completely. The idea that all of his cunning, his power, his genius would amount to “virtually nothing”—that his “contribution” would begin and end there, with the Schwartzes on Charlie Rose and him in prison—was too galling to bear.

And so Heisenberg leaves his dram of Dimple Pinch on the bar and heads back to Albuquerque—where, as we know from the flash-forward that started the final season, he will purchase an M60 machine gun at Denny’s and remove a ricin capsule from his abandoned home.

The official motto of the Granite State is “Live Free or Die.” Heisenberg knows he’s on the verge of dying. So he decides to live free in the meantime.

Presumably the poison and the bullets are intended for Uncle Jack and his merry band of Nazis—the ones who “stole” Heisenberg’s “life’s work.” Perhaps once he’s back in New Mexico, Heisenberg will again team up with Jesse, who tried and failed Sunday night to escape from his torturer Todd. Honestly, who knows—trying to predict the next plot point on Breaking Bad is a mug’s game.

But here’s the kicker: in terms of the ultimate arc of the series, what’s important now isn’t what Heisenberg is going to do next. The important thing is why he’s doing it. Not for his family. Not anymore. His family doesn’t want his money. His son wants him dead. Even he can see that.

For the first time, what Heisenberg does, he does—knowingly, consciously—for himself. Mr. Chips has finally realized that he’s Scarface.