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Duly Noted

Tuesday, Oct 11, 2011, 1:01 pm

Breaking Bad Season Finale (Spoilers)

By Lindsay Beyerstein

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Lily of the Valley.   By Leo-setä, Creative Commons.

In the season finale of Breaking Bad, Walter White wins the ugliest custody battle of all time.

Season 4 is a battle of wits between Walter White and Gus Fring for the soul of Jesse Pinkman. Jesse is the only person, besides Walt, who knows how to cook the super-pure blue meth that inspired Gus to eliminate his old suppliers in Mexico and bring manufacturing jobs back to the United States, so to speak.

It became clear from an HR perspective, that for all his chemical accumen, Walt had serious behavioral, medical, and family issues (including an ex-DEA brother in law) that made him a liability to Gus's organization. Gus would have liked to eliminate Walt, but Jesse swore he wouldn't cook if anything "final" happened to Mr. White, as Jesse calls him.

So, Gus bided his time and focused on driving a wedge between Jesse and Walter. Gus sensed that, above all, Jesse craved approval. Jesse wasn't getting that from the cantankerous Mr. White, who never missed a chance to berate his younger partner.

Without revealing what he was doing, Gus contrived to coax Jesse out of his downward spiral of drug addiction and groom him to be an effective head chemist after he fired Walt. Jesse blossomed under the care of Gus and his ex-cop henchman Mike who grudgingly became a father figure to Jesse. In Jesse's eyes, Walt began to seem increasingly pathetic compared to the unflappable criminal mastermind and the uber-tough guy.

Gus fired Walt and threatened to kill Walt's entire family if he ever came near Jesse again.

Earlier in the season, Walter had enlisted Jesse in what proved (for Jesse, at least) to be a half-hearted plan to poison Gus with ricin. Jesse carried the poison-tipped cigarette around all season, passing up several opportunities to poison Gus. The cigarette became a symbol of Jesse's divided loyalties. We saw him carefully transfering the poison whenever he cracked a new pack of cigarettes. As long as the cigarette was there, we knew Jesse still hadn't made up his mind.

Walt knew that Jesse's ultimatum to Gus was the only thing keeping him alive. If Gus could get Jesse to denounce Walt, Walt was dead.

In the last episode, Jesse's de facto stepson Brock fell deathly ill. Jesse noticed that his ricin-tipped cigarette was missing and jumped to the conclusion that Walt had poisoned Brock to get back at him for staying on and cooking for Gus. As Jesse held Walt at gunpoint, Walt persuaded Jesse that it was Gus who poisoned Brock, in an attempt to frame Walt and drive the final wedge between the two partners.

Once Jesse believed that Gus had poisoned Brock, his mind was made up. He joined with Walt in a final, desperate bid to take out Gus. Despite an early misstep, Walt's plan proved spectacularly successful.

Last week, I predicted that Brock wasn't poisoned with ricin, or at least not with ricin from Jesse's cigarette. The timing was wrong. Within the world of Breaking Bad, ricin is a long-acting poison that makes its victims suddenly collapse three days after they are dosed. Brock was healthy in the morning and on life support later that night. There wasn't enough time for someone to steal Jesse's ricin and poison Brock with it.

This week, we're told that Brock was sickened by Lily of the Valley, a common domesticated plant. Jesse tells Walt that, according to the doctors, kids sometimes eat the plant's sweet but toxic red berries.

Jesse concludes that Gus didn't poison Brock after all. He's a little taken aback, because he has just helped his old partner kill his boss to avenge a poisoning Gus probably didn't commit, but he figures Gus had to go, regardless.

The final sequence takes us back to Walter's deserted back yard. The camera zooms in and focuses long and hard on a delicate potted plant with tiny white blossoms. The label stuck in the dirt says, "Lily of the Valley."

Maybe this is a clue that Walt poisoned Brock after all. Amanda Marcotte hints at this possibility when she says that "[Walt's] now, I believe, the most evil protagonist of a major TV show ever." Amanda thinks that it's too much of a coincidence to accept that Brock would poison himself on the very day that Jesse lost his ricin cigarette. I tend to agree.

It seems implausible that Walt would poison a kid out of pure spite, as Jesse initially surmised. He's a bad guy, a killer even, but we've never seen him kill solely for revenge. Walt is instrumentally rational. But, at this point in his character's moral trajectory, I could see him poisoning Brock as part of an elaborate scheme to win Jesse back, especially if he could tell himself that the child wasn't actually going to die.

All that would matter for Walt would be that Jesse think Brock was dying of ricin poisoning and that Gus did it. That would explain why Walt stole Jesse's cigarette and poisoned Brock with something less lethal than ricin. Walt is perfectly capable of hurting an innocent person to manipulate a third party. We've seen him do it over and over.

Still, I wonder if the final shot is an exculpation. The plant is Lily of the Valley, but there's not a red berry in sight.

Lindsay Beyerstein is an award-winning investigative journalist and In These Times staff writer who writes the blog Duly Noted. Her stories have appeared in Newsweek, Salon, Slate, The Nation, Ms. Magazine, and other publications. Her photographs have been published in the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times' City Room. She also blogs at The Hillman Blog (http://www.hillmanfoundation.org/hillmanblog), a publication of the Sidney Hillman Foundation, a non-profit that honors journalism in the public interest.

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