There have probably been at least five episodes of this show that left me thinking, “Well, now Walt’s really evil.” Just when you think our antihero has crossed every line he could possibly cross, he goes just a little bit further.
Or, in the case of this week, he goes a lot further.
But that’s only the beginning. “Gliding Over All” is the most epic Breaking Bad episode yet, which isn’t to say it contains one of the huge, iconic water cooler moments the series has become famous for. That happened last week, when Walt killed Mike. (And two weeks before that, with the death of the kid.) There’s no double plane crash, no Gus Fring face-melting — nothing so visceral as all that.
And yet, in its own way “Gliding Over All” feels like the most momentous Breaking Bad episode of them all. It’s a season finale, of sorts (technically a mid-season finale), but for many reasons, it feels more like the series finale, which I’m sure was the intent. After so carefully and richly laying out every twist and turn of these people’s lives over a one-year span (as we learned in “Fifty-One”), “Gliding Over All” is true to its title, gliding over so many events that this hour feels like a whole Breaking Bad season in and of itself. (Which makes sense, because if it took a little over four seasons to bring us to one year, the three months that pass here would be one season.)
Breaking Bad has always been, in so many ways, cinematic, but so much happens in this episode that it actually feels more like a movie, complete with full character arcs, than it does one episode of a TV series. In many ways, it would also be a satisfying last episode; one can imagine an alternate reality in which the series did end just this way — minus that final scene in the bathroom. (I suppose the series could have ended on that discovery, as frustrating as that would be. I wouldn’t it put it past them.)
But since we know there are eight episode still to come next year, what seems like a (too) neat and tidy ending instead culminates in a cliffhanger, one we know doesn’t bode well for any of these characters. The main focus of the series may be the relationship between Walt and Jesse, but the biggest built-in tension has always been Hank as DEA agent and Walt as meth-maker extraordinaire. Just like in a series based on the romantic tension between two leads, we know this show can’t continue long after Walt’s secrets are laid bare, and so now we have it. Breaking Bad is hurtling toward its inevitable end.
(In a year.)“Gliding Over All” begins with a close-up on a fly, an obvious callback to the Season Three bottle episode “Fly,” directed by Rian Johnson, one of the series’ most memorable hours. It’s the first of many shout-outs to previous episodes, which is one of the reasons “Gliding Over All” feels so much like a series finale. Series finales tend to tip the hat to all the stuff viewers loved about the show’s run, and this one certainly does that, both visually and narratively.
As expected, “Gliding Over All” proves that Walt is indeed cleaning up the mess he made of Mike the Cleaner himself, with help from his new protege. It kicks off with an “oh shit!” moment, as Jesse nearly walks in on them disposing of the body. Walt leads Jesse to believe that Mike got away, then coldly kicks him to the curb as punishment for abandoning the business they built together. (And we get a visual reference to the end of “Hazard Pay,” with Walt again shutting the garage door on Jesse.)
Then Walt meets with Lydia, a scene that recalls Mike’s first meeting with her back in “Madrigal.” She’s drinking her precious tea, once again concerned about how their meeting “looks” to outside observers, while Walt (and formerly Mike) could not give less of a fuck. Walt walks in looking super Heisenberg-y in his hat and sunglasses, and Lydia again proves herself one savvy savage, always with a moneymaking scheme at the ready to barter in exchange for her life. Good thing for her — the brilliant button on the scene reveals that Walt was about to slip her the ricin, yet another callback to Breaking Bads past. (Apparently hauling a lily-of-the-valley into the cafe was improbable.) Walt pretends not to go for her scheme, but we know he will. He’s never erred on the side of caution, especially when there’s a lot of money to be made, and since all of his personal relationships are now severed, a big dirty pile of cash is all he’s got to live for.
Sidenote: I must confess, again, that I love Lydia. Breaking Bad is not a show that brazenly adds new characters — with few exceptions (the dearly departed Mike being a major one), we’ve mostly watched the same group of people since the very beginning. The addition of Lydia, I think, was a brilliant move to breathe some fresh air into the series, since she’s totally different than any other character who’s appeared on the show. (She’s a bit like Marie, but only if Marie was heartlessly evil.) Lydia’s pleased that Mike is dead, and she also seems to admire Walt for killing Gus (and we know how proud he is of that accomplishment). She isn’t driven by revenge like Gus, has none of Mike’s morals. In other words, Lydia is one bad bitch.
Like Walt, Lydia is motivated entirely by making money, and this scene makes it clear that Walt and Lydia are a match made in Hell. I half-expected some sort of skeezy sexual hate-fuck relationship to develop between them, but there’s no time for that. Instead, they’re busy distributing blue to the Czech Republic, since apparently 5% of the population uses meth. (Yikes!) And yet I wonder if maybe Walt and Lydia are a little too much alike. We can’t be sure what drives Lydia toward her dubious financial goals, but this much greed and ambition will not likely end in mutual trust and friendship.
And while we’re on the subject of the soulless, Todd doesn’t even bat an eye at the death of Mike, a man he worked closely. Yes, we already saw him kill a kid, but to not even react to Mike’s death? The guy clearly has something wrong with him.
So Walt sets another seemingly impossible plan into motion — offing all ten of Mike’s “guys,” some of whom have indeed started to turn against their former bread and butter. We see them dispatched in a rather brutal montage, one I found distasteful but not inappropriate. The cheerful music makes light of the demise of ten people, but Breaking Bad isn’t a series that takes death lightly. It’s Walt who’s taking it lightly. After agonizing over a number of deaths, including his rash decision to murder Mike last week, Walt has finally become so desensitized to murder that he orders this hit without hesitation. While it’s true these guys are criminals, Mike was willing to vouch for them, so they can’t be all bad. And yet all die in horrifying ways, all because Walt said so. While Walt has committed several irredeemable acts, including his unforgivable sin from last week’s “Say My Name,” in “Gliding Over All” he finally becomes the sadistic Scarface-type he’s always selling himself as (but several shades more complex). The transformation is finally complete.
Which may be, in part, why we are reminded so often of previous episodes. We are constantly aware of how far we’ve come with all of these characters, Walt especially. Now, when we see Walt playing with his infant daughter as news of his ten-person killing spree plays the background, we just want to snatch poor Holly and run as far as we can away from this man. Her father.
All that is plenty exciting, and would make for a solid if not mind-blowing episode on its own. But we’re only midway through “Gliding Over All.” We get another montage, one that takes us three months into the future — on some shows that wouldn’t be so momentous, but on Breaking Bad, it is. Todd becomes a suitable replacement for Jesse, Walt and Lydia make piles of money, Skyler launders said money, Saul drinks away his guilt, Holly takes her first steps. Big changes are happening for everyone — but what about Jesse? He’s not even in the montage, because he’s “out.” Though as we later learn, he’s the one character for whom nothing much at all changes. (Maybe that’s a blessing?)
In “Gliding Over All,” Walt achieves his material goal, which is having boundless Fring-like power and the bankroll that comes with it. After a brief interaction by the pool (a callback to this season’s submerged Skyler in “Fifty-One”), Skyler shows Walt that he is now the proud owner of a pile of money so bountiful it can’t even be laundered (or counted, for that matter). In a lesser series, it might feel like a cop-out to use a montage in this way, since it was only a few episodes back that we learned exactly why wealth meant so much to Walt. Now his goal has been achieved so easily — and yet, at such a cost. The kids? Gone. Jesse? Gone. Skyler? Gone, in spirit, at least. So where does that leave Walt?
At the hospital, apparently. It’s left ambiguous, but I assume Walt’s received bad news, considering the major changes he makes in his life after (and the pills we saw him take in the flash-forward from “Live Free Or Die”). After spotting the paper towel dispenser he punched back in Season Two (yet another homage to the past — and a nice reminder that Walt’s angry outbursts of violence have an ever-lasting impact), Walt pays Jesse a visit.
One of the biggest surprises of Season Five is what a small role Jesse has played, considering. Jesse has been a pivotal part of every other season, and last season, he really came into his own, proving to Gus and Mike that he was capable even without the guidance of Walt. He even became something of a threat to his beloved Mr. White, and Walt’s betrayal of Jesse in poisoning Brock seemed to suggest more to come in Season Five.
Instead, Jesse has taken a backseat. He had a couple brilliant ideas (“Yeah, bitch! Magnets!”) and his confrontation with Walt last week was plenty meaty, but none of the major storylines have really involved Mr. Pinkman. This isn’t a complaint, mind you, as much as I love the character — I’m sure the final eight episodes will give him plenty to do. For now, though, the sad fact of the matter is, Jesse isn’t a big part of Walt’s life.
What we do get of Jesse here is a heartbreaking scene in which we can clearly read his distrust of his former mentor. He won’t even answer the door until he has a gun handy. (Walt is the “one who knocks,” after all — and his knock here is full of foreboding.) Walt’s reason for stopping by is to wax nostalgic about the RV (callback number #846, approximately) and deliver a big pile of cash. Money-grubbing Walt is finally able to part with his precious green.
Then he tells Skyler he’s out.
What? Just like that?
And that’s what I mean about “Gliding Over All” being a series finale. It was a cancer diagnosis that got Walt into this mess in the first place, and yet this second (presumed) diagnosis is what motivates a long-awaited decision to get out. Already the Walt who decided to kill ten men he didn’t even know to save his own hide earlier in this episode feels like a distant memory. And if Breaking Bad were a more mediocre show, perhaps it would end like this, allowing Walt to complete this arc and redeem himself so cheaply.
The episode ends with one of the most uncomfortable Breaking Bad scenes I’ve ever seen. It’s a happy sunny day at the White residence, with Walter Jr. playing with Holly, Skyler and Marie blabbing about hair care, and Walt and Skyler exchanging a smile as they sip wine poolside. If you have half a brain, your brain is screaming, “Danger! Danger!”
Because clearly this mid-season finale won’t end with fun in the sun and leave it at that. We haven’t jumped forward three months just to see Holly zoom around in a plastic car. Something terrible is going to happen, so throughout the final half of this episode, we’re just waiting for it. Will some long-forgotten bad guy show up and shoot Marie? Hank? Walt Jr.? Will the police burst in and arrest Walt?
As it turns out, it’s nothing so broad as that. It turns out the most iconic moment thus far in Season Five may be Hank, on the toilet, selecting some life-altering reading material. Who’d have thought? (Walt Whitman and Walter White share the same initials, after all, and it’s a Walt Whitman poem that gives this episode its title.)
I will confess that “Gliding Over All” cheats a bit by implying that everything would be hunky-dory if only Hank hadn’t felt the urge to have a bowel movement at this precise moment; Walt has killed too many people to go back to being the mild-mannered family man, and I’m not sure his ego is so easily tamed. Is he really out? What about his pride? What about Lydia? What about all those Czech people hooked on blue? Walt Whitman poem or no Walt Whitman poem, there’s no way things would end this neatly. (And it’s a stretch to believe that Skyler could forgive and forget so easily, either.)
It’s a bit of manipulation on the part of Vince Gilligan & co., a false sense of security when, really, this show has already proven that such a happy ending is impossible. This may serve as the series finale for those who like happy endings, who want to see Walt get off scot-free. Turn it off as soon as Hank gets up to go to the bathroom and you’ll be satisfied.
For the rest of us, things are going from bad to worse very rapidly, we can assume. As of this moment, Hank only has a hunch, and no actual proof, that Walt is Heisenberg, so I’m willing to bet he spends a few episodes testing theories and gathering evidence. Will he tell Marie? For the sake of her inevitable freakout, I hope so.
No matter what’s to come, “Gliding Over All” is a riveting hour of television — and a painful one. Few episodes of TV have made me feel so thoroughly like I’ve been on a complete journey, and for all its callbacks to the past, this one stands out as a distinctly different episode than any other. I found hard to watch (and impossible to look away), as we see Walt at both his most cold and callous, and then witness him taking a belated stab at redemption.
Though there were two episodes this season that didn’t fully do it for me, overall Season Five continued Breaking Bad‘s reign as one of the greatest television dramas of all time, with a handful of episodes still ranking as near-flawless hours of TV. Credit “Gliding Over All” for giving me that series finale comedown without actually being the end.
I can’t wait for the next episode!
And yet, I have to.