Breaking Bad Recap II, Season 5, Episode 8: The Book of Walt

Lindsay Beyerstein September 5, 2012

(The first install­ment of this week’s Break­ing Bad recap.)

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​.hill​man​foun​da​tion​.org/​h​i​l​l​m​a​nblog), a pub­li­ca­tion of the Sid­ney Hill­man Foun­da­tion, a non-prof­it that hon­ors jour­nal­ism in the pub­lic interest.
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