Wednesday, Sep 5, 2012, 10:08 am
Breaking Bad Recap II, Season 5, Episode 8: The Book of Walt
My esteemed colleagues at the Orange Couch loved the cliffhanger that capped off this week's episode of Breaking Bad, but I found it disappointing.
In the final scene, Hank figures out that Walt is Heisenberg while perusing Walt's copy of "Leaves of Grass" on the toilet. The book is inscribed: "To my other favorite W.W. It's an honor working with you. Fondly, G.B." G.B. was Gale Boetticher, the hapless vegan libertarian chemist that Walt and Jesse conspired to murder in Season 3.
I thought this was a deeply unsatisfying way for Hank to finally learn Walt's secret. A meticulous guy like Walt simply wouldn't let a book like that float around unsecured. I could see him stashing it in the lab, but he wouldn't keep it in his bathroom. He's arrogant, sure, but he's not reckless.
On the Orange Couch, Amanda and Marc argue that Walt kept the book for the same reason Todd kept the spider after he shot the boy during the methylamine robbery: They're both psychopaths who like to keep momentos of their crimes. True, but even stone crazy Todd doesn't let his tarantula crawl around when he has company.
The psychopathy parallel is important because it's a reminder that Walt's evil now. He can't just close up shop, pay his debts, and go back to being Mr. Chips.
Defenders of the "Leaves of Grass" twist argue that keeping the book isn't as reckless as it seems because Hank's the only guest who could decipher the cryptic inscription.
Maybe Walt assumed it was safe to leave the book out because his knucklehead brother-in-law would never crack anything weightier than Playboy. That dismissive attitude is in character and besides, it's funny to see the Great Man unmasked by a guy taking a dump.
But the unmasking of Heisenberg is a moment, if not the moment, we've been waiting for since beginning of the series. In order for this plot twist to feel satisfying rather than contrived, Walt's fatal mistake must be a predictable outgrowth of his personality. The book gambit is charming, funny, and a rich source of literary allusions, but it doesn't meet that basic criterion. Quite simply, Walter White would never do that.
If Walt kept the book as a memento, he would be accutely aware of its potentially incriminating character. It would be exactly the kind of salient loose end he'd want to tie up. Walt is arrogant, but he's also paranoid. As soon as he starts to think of something as incriminating, he'll stop at nothing to neutralize the threat, however remote.
Hank's the only regular visitor who could crack the code, but Walt knows perfectly well that his home could be raided at any time. He also knows the DEA has Gale's notebook because Hank showed him. Hank has even joked about W.W. standing for "Walter White."
We've seen that Walt is hyper-vigilant about incriminating evidence in his house. He even junked the lily of the valley plant that he used to poison Brock. When he must keep incriminating evidence at home, like the ricin this season, or the cash pre-car-wash, he goes to great lengths to hide it.
I could see Walt keeping the book at work. Keeping a book inscribed to W.W. in Heisenberg's lair would still be gratiutously risky, but it would be easier for Walt to rationalize.
Even if Walt kept the book at home, he wouldn't leave it in the bathroom. That book is dangerous and precious and Walt wouldn't let it float around like that. A meticulous book lover would never keep a cherished volume in a steamy bathroom where it could get warped.
It's also odd that Walt chose a token from Gale. For Walt, killing Gus was a triumph, but having Jesse kill Gale was a shame. There was no glory in shooting that sweet, trusting nebbish in the face. They only did it because it seemed like the only way to save themselves from Gus.
Maybe Walt kept the book simply because he found the inscription flattering, especially coming from a fellow chemist. Who wouldn't like being compared to Walt Whitman? Over the last year, Walt has come to see himself as "master of nature and passion and death, and of all terror and all pain."
Walt isn't the world's most consistent criminal and sometimes he makes stupid mistakes. It would be plausible for Walt to simply forget that Gale wrote in the book. But in that case, it's not much of a momento. In order for the book to sustain the critical parallel between Todd and Walt, and empitomize Walt's fatal flaw of arrogance, Walt has to know the book is incriminating and keep it anyway.
There's a Catch-22: If the book is a momento, Walt wouldn't leave it lying around. If he'd leave it lying around, it can't do the necessary symbolic work.
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.