Breaking Bad is not a series generally noted for its lightness of tone, but Vince Gilligan and his collaborators have always managed to wring humor and quirk out of what would seem to be a hopelessly grim set of story beats. That’s what makes “Granite State,” the series’ super-sized penultimate episode, so hard to watch. Save for a few passing moments of sewer-downhill-from-the-gallows “humour,” “Granite State” is a relentlessly bleak hour of TV, wherein even the glimpses of “hope” are really just (in all likelihood) presaging more carnage.
With misery as our starting point, the first topic has to be poor, poor Jesse, whose ordeal goes from miserable to quite literally hellish in the span of one fateful evening. After making a serviceable attempt at an escape from the clutches of his grinning neo-Nazi captors, they make clear that no matter how hopeless he may be, they can always make things worse – by shooting Andrea, for instance. (They spare Brock, though. Just in case they feel like killing him later to make Jesse’s life even more unbearable.) If “Granite State” makes one thing clear, it’s that if “Felina,” the series finale, doesn’t pull off some truly impressive narrative justification, Jesse must survive Breaking Bad. We’ve seen him undergo too much just to perish.
In the midst of all this misery is the ever-present Todd. “Granite State” is a kind of showcase for Jesse Plemons; over the course of the hour, we get Todd at his most terrifying (balaclava’d in the White House) and his most bumbling (attempting to woo Lydia), and he’s never less than utterly convincing, despite his barely-moving features. Plemons is the real deal, able to stand toe-to-toe with the cast’s heavyweights, which helps to make up for the fact that his neo-Nazi cohorts err a little too far on the side of mustache-twirling. Their chortling brand of evil – most prominent in the scene when Uncle Jack embraces his nephew just for being so damned greedy and awful – is laid on thickly compared to past Bad baddies.
Of course, the true meat of the episode, which takes place over about a month, is devoted to the disassembling of Walter White, who finally meets Saul’s mystery man – and it’s Robert Forster! The veteran character actor’s appearance is one of the few pure joys of a very dark episode, as Forster’s patented world-weary, seen-it-all delivery is beyond perfect both for the character and for the heightened universe of the series itself. That sense of joy wears off, of course, the longer Forster sticks around. “Granite State” threatens to make some viewers who wouldn’t normally be inclined to do so begin to kind of sympathize with Walt, not because he does anything virtuous (he doesn’t, unless you count conning his way into a phone call with Walt Jr., which you shouldn’t), but because his circumstances are so dire that it’s difficult not to feel anything for him on a basic human level. Cranston is always amazing, but he’s even better than usual here, if only by virtue of the fact that he gets so many notes to play, all of which are, well, depressing: rage, frailty, despair, spite, desperation, loneliness.
As expected, “Granite State” mostly exists to set up the series’ final hour and get us to the point of the season’s initial flashforward, and it does so admirably, but a few key moments don’t land with the usual panache. Skyler’s interrogation sequence is hampered by a tired cliché – her disassociation is made clear through down-pitched voices and blurred vision, a too-familiar visual shorthand from a series that’s been consistently innovative elsewhere. Walt’s phone call to Walt Jr. should be devastating, but RJ Mitte’s performance isn’t quite up to the task. More troubling are the closing moments of the episode, which feature a rare scoring misstep and an even rarer groanworthy final shot. The reappearance of the series there, albeit in remixed form, while Walt gathers his wits (and rage) in order to (presumably) charge on Jack’s crew, is a strained attempt to get a rousing moment out of a thoroughly downcast episode, undercut by the fact that we already knew where this was all going.
Peter Gould wrote and directed this episode; that’s noteworthy because he’s also being put in charge of Better Call Saul, the apparently-forthcoming Saul Goodman spinoff series that’s meant to be a prequel. Bob Odenkirk gets what we can safely assume are his last scenes of the series this week, assuming a new identity and getting himself as far away from Walt as possible. (Ever the shrewd tactician.) I’ll be surprised if Gould and Gilligan only announced Better Call Saul as a prequel in order to tease fans who might read into that news as a hint towards Saul’s fate on Breaking Bad; now that it’s clear he makes it out relatively unharmed, barring some truly insane plot contortions next week, I see no reason for it not to take place after Breaking Bad, with Saul continuing his dirty work on the sly. It’s something to consider, anyway, as we wait for the end. I, for one, am done speculating. Let’s just take in a little TV history, shall we?