Breaking Bad, Ep. 5.08: “Gliding Over All” narrows the possibilities

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Breaking Bad, Season 5, Episode 8: “Gliding Over All”
Written by Moira Walley-Beckett
Directed by Michelle MacLaren
Airs Sundays at 10pm ET of AMC

At this point in its run, it’s plain that there is no better-made show around than Breaking Bad. In terms of its distinctive visual universe, its brilliant performances, its clever, ticksy editing, and its remarkably inventive use of music and original scoring, nothing else on TV is half as cinematic, immediately distinguishable, or aesthetically sumptuous. Every episode drips with atmosphere, crackles with memorable bits of dialogue and characterization, and is rich in both specificity and scope. Its place in the medium’s history is assured.

So why does “Gliding Over All,” the mid-season finale of the show’s final run, feel so strangely airless and disappointing? To figure that out, perhaps the most useful first step is to look back.

For me, the show’s third season remains its apex; it found Vince Gilligan and his writing staff hurtling from one seemingly impossible cliffhanger to another, moving with the most propulsive power the show’s ever had, all while introducing stellar new characters and building each new plot and character thread logically – but, crucially, unpredictably – while also striking a perfect balance between horror and humor. Season Four scaled back its predecessor’s chaotic approach, favoring a very, very slow burn that culminated in some of the deftest plot twists the show has ever employed.

As discussed last week, though, Season Five faces a burden the show hasn’t had to as of yet: it’s all gotta end somewhere. The show can’t escalate much more than it already has; by the midway point of “Gliding Over All,” Heisenberg has officially gone global, expanding to the Czech Republic with the help of Lydia (who seems much more together all of a sudden, no?), not to mention accumulating a stack of money so ludicrous you can almost picture Heath Ledger gleefully setting fire to it. It can’t keep throwing pulse-quickening scenes of Walt-and-Jesse-threatening tension at us, now that the particulars of the business are so thoroughly worked out, all competition has apparently been vanquished or otherwise nullified, and the partnership is no more. Should it follow the path of least resistance, all it can do is gradually dole out the showdowns that need to finally occur.

“Gliding Over All” would seem to indicate that Gilligan and co. are playing the long game much more safely than the previous two seasons have. The episode’s closing sequence is a perfect example of the show’s evolution. It opens with a wide, static shot of Hank, Marie, Walt, Skyler and the kids enjoying a placid get-together, of the sort they frequently had a couple of seasons ago. The sheer banality of the dialogue, combined with the scene’s late-episode placement and the stubbornly un-dynamic camera, makes for a minute or two of incredibly unsettling television. Then…Hank leaves to use the White restroom, and immediately, it becomes clear what must happen: one way or another, Hank must discover the truth. Which he does, by discovering an incriminating inscription on Walt’s copy of a Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.

First of all: really? Hank uncovers the Great Secret of Walter White via a particularly head-smacking bit of dumb luck? And Walt is dumb enough to leave something signed by Gale – even if it’s only initialed – in plain sight when Hank is at the house almost literally all of the time? Nevermind that. What’s frustrating about this development isn’t just that it feels like an obligatory development, but that it happens in a way that isn’t at all connected to anything that’s happened in the last season and a half. Every single one of Walt’s plans – from the destruction of evidence, to the methlamine heist, to this week’s (admittedly spectacular in its grimness) mass murdering of potential squealers – has gone off without any hitches that could lead back to him, with the exception of the swiftly-dealt-with loose ends from the first instance. For all that meticulous planning and ruthless cunning – the latest and greatest of of which is predicated on Todd’s extraordinary prison connections, which feel awfully convenient all of a sudden – Walt leaves a spectacularly obvious bit of evidence lying around? That crosses over from hubris into the sort of straight-up sloppiness that does not currently characterize Walt, but more frustratingly, it doesn’t feel like a development that’s tied in any way to the events of this season or last. It could have happened at any time, thus countering one of the show’s most important resources: the way it manages to advance its master plot in ways that are both symbolically powerful and directly contingent on what’s come before. (Another squandering: Skyler. Her horror-then-flight-then-resumption narrative over the half-season has been incredibly disappointing and tension-dissipating.)

Moreover, it reinforces the feeling that, increasingly, the options for where the show can go from here are finally narrowing rather than expanding. Though it’s the last season, that’s not a good development for a show that’s always been predicated on unpredictability. Obviously, Hank doesn’t just walk out of that bathroom and arrest (or shoot!) Walt for his many crimes against humanity; he’ll need to be more deliberate. Perhaps he’ll flip Skyler. Maybe he’ll form a surveillance unit to firm up some hard evidence. Maybe he’ll just be content with having the answer and go back to tree-marking. The possibilities were never endless, but they now feel narrower than ever, and if they continute to play out in as arbitrary a fashion as they do in “Gliding Over All,” the show risks going out with a whimper. That’s not something that should befall a show this frequently brilliant. In this episode alone: the reappearance of the Fly of Doom; Hank’s sad, stunning monologue; the aforementioned montage of gory shivvings; the obvious-but-satisfying deployment of “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” The list goes on, and will continue to go on. But it may not be enough to make the show’s endgame rank with the greats.

Simon Howell

  1. Duke. says

    These sound like edible words.

  2. Curtis says

    The fact that he finds out that way is what is hilarious and strangely fitting, given the fact that his tactics over the past year have yielded nothing but dead ends and dead suspects. But of course there is no pleasing everyone. Life’s rough, huh?

  3. stan says

    I agree completely, Simon, that the way Hank found out was very disappointing. We’ve seen him ask questions, study photographs, do stellar detective work, and none of it led to anything. Moreover, now our allegiances have shifted and most of us are rooting for Hank to catch Walt, which completely upends the dynamic. It’s hard to see how Jesse gets worked in, as well. BTW, did anyone notice this is the episode where Holly ‘broke bad?’ Walking around without sunscreen? Even Heisenberg wears a hat!

  4. tmack says

    One thing I knew once I started watching the last episode this season was that Hank would have to find out about Walt. I thought cameras would be Walt’s undoing, however-not toilet reading. But I can understand the writers wanting this to be Hank’s discovery only, off the job, out of the office, locations that would trigger “protocols.” Hank has made a personal discovery and now he is responsible for either keeping it to himself or bringing in the cavalry.

    There are repercussions to arresting Walt or even bringing him in for questioning as Ian states above. Exposing Walt brings down his entire family, probably including him and his criminal-light wife Marie. How does Hank explain all the money he and Marie spent on his therapy, on health care that his policy did not cover? (It always comes back to health care insurance.) Suddenly Hank’s covering up Marie’s crimes looks suspicious. Yes, I think having Hank discover Walt in a personal setting makes sense.

    I wonder if the writers didn’t want to make a comparison between Todd, who kept the tarantula in a jar belonging to the boy he murdered, and Walt, who’d actually smile when unpacking his books when coming across Leaves of Grass belonging to the man he had killed. Walt & Todd are equally soul-less and sociopaths.

    While I didn’t really like the last 3 minutes, I did love the episode. I agree with you about the pacing and the insertions of Astonishing Moments, but they do have to keep things moving and keep raising the stakes. Terrific analysis of the show, Simon.

  5. Matt Marquissee says

    I quite enjoyed the episode. It’s at the pinnacle of Walt’s success. Things are convenient now. Walt is ego mad, so an oversight like the book is possible.

    Hank has a loooong way to go to catch Walt and a lot else may happen. I trust Vince Gilligan has more tricks left.

  6. Ian says

    I think it just shows how even though he’s been elusive this whole time, something as careless as to leaving a book of the person he had killed, in his house, after the fact, Walt knew they were investigating the death. Was just careless on Walt’s behalf. His ego has sprung to large, to the point where he thinks he is untouchable, and something as careless as that, is what brings him down. It shows something more than Hank being smart. He hasn’t caught him this whole time. Walts been a step ahead at every turn, and this portrays to me that Hank is a smart cop, but not smart enough for Heisenberg. Thus being the way he found out, working for me, because it just shows that even the best make mistakes. This one happens to be a very big, big mistake.

    I do think Hank might actually not do anything about it. Now that I think of it. Hank will realize that it’s not only Walt, and that Skylar is in on it too. Like Saul Goodman said. DEA agents brother in law is the elusive Heisenberg drug kingpin they’ve been tracking? Thats just got channel 12 new cover story written all over it. Hank I think is too smart to go open a case up on his brother in law. How bad will that look for him? Walt’s been too the office, they’ve had a donation cup for Walt and his cancer treatment. He’s been to their office. I think it will just be too much for Hank. He will either commit suicide? Maybe get bought out with money, and become a DEA mole? Fuck i hope so!

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