‘Breaking Bad’ Season Five: “Say My Name”

(Read about the previous episode here.)

“You actin’ kinda shady
Ain’t callin’ me baby
Why the sudden change?
Say my name, say my name
If no one is around you
Say baby I love you
If you ain’t runnin’ game
Say my name, say my name…”

When Breaking Bad began, everyone — including the audience — was under the impression that Walter White was a pretty decent guy having a bad stroke of luck, turning to cooking meth only out of sheer desperation. Since then, one by one, nearly every character has had to grapple with the fact that they’ve drastically underestimated the mild-mannered chemistry teacher. Hank and Marie are still primarily in the dark, but Walter Jr. saw his dad’s crazed vulnerable side last season, and Skyler, of course, has had the hardest-hitting reckoning with Heisenberg. As for us — well, the moment Walt lost our sympathy varies from viewer to viewer. Jane’s death in Season Two? Gale’s murder in Season Three? Brock’s poisoning in Season Four? By now, though, it’s hard to imagine any viewers thinking poor Mr. White is still a pretty stand-up guy underneath it all.

But the central relationship on Breaking Bad is between Walt and Jesse, and that’s the one that hasn’t changed all that much. We can’t be sure where Jesse would have landed without Mr. White’s involvement — he might have descended further into junkiedom or gotten himself imprisoned or killed in some small-time crime. Instead, Mr. White has served as Jesse’s mentor, giving him a sense of self-worth (illegal, but still). We the audience have been privy to a number of unscrupulous things Walt has done to Jesse, but Jesse is blissfully unaware of most. Jesse wised up a couple of times and temporarily refused to follow Walt down the road to Hell, but Walt has always managed to appeal to that special bond they share, always managed to come across like he’s got Jesse’s best interests at heart, always managed to convince Jesse that he’s only doing what he must.

Until now.

It’s been apparent for most of Season Five that Heisenberg is here to stay. It’s been visualized with Walt’s hat; it’s been made abundantly clear in his chilly confrontations with Skyler. To us, Walt is reckless and out of control, lashing out at anyone who threatens his fragile ego. But to Jesse, he’s still Mr. White — witness how easily Walt was able to manipulate Jesse into dumping Andrea a few episodes back. The aftermath of young Drew Sharp’s death may have led to a somewhat ho-hum episode (by Breaking Bad standards) in last week’s “Buyout,” but it did introduce the idea of Jesse dissolving his partnership with Walt once and for all. By episode’s end it was unclear whether or not this would actually come to pass, but in “Say My Name,” Jesse’s mind is made up. He wants out. For real. For good.

Now, I can’t be sure that the episode title “Say My Name” is meant as a reference to the Destiny’s Child song, even though a good many people won’t be able to stop themselves from making that association. But the lyrics are surprisingly appropriate — “Say My Name” (the song) is all about one person suspecting someone they trust of being unfaithful, and “Say My Name” (the episode) is the one in which Jesse finally stops seeing Walt as wise Mr. White and starts seeing him as dangerous Heisenberg. That opening scene in the desert with Declan from Phoenix is no throwaway moment — Walt announces himself as Heisenberg, dropping any lingering doubt in the audience’s mind that he’s still the kindly cancer-stricken father who’s just trying to provide for his family. At first, I wasn’t quite sure how to take that opening scene — it seemed a little on-the-nose, after so much of the rest of the season has been devoted to slightly more subtle hints at exactly that — but given where the episode takes us, that announcement feels just about right.

It’s hard not to jump ahead and deal with the elegiac, heartbreaking conclusion to this episode, but first things first. Walt makes a deal that cuts Mike out of the business to the tune of $5 million, though he wants Jesse to stay on until things are running smoothly in his new operation. (Which, let’s face it, would be never.) Skyler has to close the car wash to store the stolen methylamine, giving her another brief run-in with Jesse — he’s friendly, she’s ice cold. As foretold last week, these two won’t be best buddies any time soon.

Surprisingly, though, Jesse stands his ground when Walt tries every trick in his book to keep his partner in crime in the business. (Well, not every trick. But maybe that’s coming.) It’s not necessarily the death of the boy that causes Jesse to mean it this time when he says he’s done cooking — I’d say it’s more the cumulative effect of everything that’s happened over the past year, and the hard-to-ignore fact that Walter “New York Yankees, classic Coke” White is currently writing a lot of checks he won’t be able to cash, so to speak. In his new partnership with Declan, he’s attempting to play the part of Gus Fring, but no matter how manipulative and calculating Walt can be, these men are just cut from a very different cloth. The truth is, Walt isn’t pure evil. Amoral, yes, but truly sinister? No.

That’s what’s at the heart of “Say My Name,” an episode that kills off a major character and raises the stakes considerably concerning the DEA, but also quietly speaks volumes about who Walt is and what kind of fate he’s sealed for himself. Skyler gets up and walks away as Walt’s in mid-sentence telling her the banal details of his day; Walt’s fatherly blustering doesn’t keep Jesse from walking out on him. It’s hard not to feel at least a twinge of sympathy for Walt, even though we’re well aware that he’s entirely responsible for driving these two away. (And even so, neither truly knows the extent of his unconscionable actions.)

Walt has a bright-eyed new pupil in Todd, who would come off as a lot more naive and sweet if we hadn’t witnessed him thoughtlessly shoot a child in cold blood two episodes ago. Todd is a promising protege, but he’s not Jesse Pinkman and Walt knows it. There’s no replacing Jesse — sure, maybe Todd could be just as good a cook, and certainly handy as a lackey, but there’s no way to replicate the personal bond they share. Walt just isn’t that guy anymore (though he plays the part of the encouraging teacher for Todd’s benefit), and while he had to coax his old student into killing for him, this one is already all-too-eager to pull the trigger. Walt actually prefers Jesse’s inherent goodness to Todd’s ambivalent malice. Having Jesse on his side likely stopped Walt from making even rasher and more reckless decisions than the ones he actually made, because he knew going too far would alienate his partner. Now there’s no one to keep him in check.

Pride. Greed. Guilt. Condescension. Fear. Taunting. False promises. Nothing works. Walt uses the same techniques he’s tried on Skyler, but Jesse doesn’t take the bait. Walt only ends up revealing his true colors at long last; Jesse now sees that he’s a cruel bully and master manipulator. Walt tries telling Jesse that he has no one in his life, that he can’t walk away from the money, desperate to believe he isn’t alone in this. But he is. Jesse’s out.

And the fact that this happens just before what concludes this episode is where things get really interesting.

In the past, it was Walt who we wanted to watch ingeniously escape the clutches of the police or a ruthless drug dealer. Now we’ve grown to care more about Mike, who actually has a code of ethics despite his line of work. He’s a respectable guy, as far as criminals go, which is more than can be said for Walt. First appearing at the tail end of Season Two, it wasn’t until Season Four that we built an attachment to Mike as an essential part of this show, taking Jesse under his wing when Walt was failing in his duties as mentor and father figure. This season we’ve learned even more and actually come to like the guy, which never bodes well in a show like this. As Fring’s onetime right-hand man and a constant thorn in Walt’s side (Mike is the voice of reason, after all), Ehremntraut’s days on the show have always been numbered. If you’d asked me to place bets on the one character who absolutely wouldn’t make it to the series finale in one piece, I’d have picked him.

So Mike’s death in “Say My Name” isn’t exactly surprising. That doesn’t make it any less tragic, though.

“Say My Name” is frustrating in that uniquely Breaking Bad-ian way. We want Mike to get away with that money. We want him to pay off his nine guys, leave a big chunk of change for his granddaughter to dig into on her eighteenth birthday, and head off to a tropical island to sip fruity cocktails for the remainder of his days. But this being Breaking Bad, nothing goes so smoothly in this world. (Sidenote: I can’t help but wonder what the fuck Mike’s granddaughter would think when she did turn 18 and found a million dollars from her absentee grandfather locked in a safety deposit box. But I guess we’ll never know.)

We almost get to see everything turn out just peachy, as Mike’s lawyer butters up Dot at the bank with bacon banana cookies. (Ew.) The money’s safe, Mike has ditched all incriminating evidence, and he’s sitting pretty while the DEA raids his house and turns up nothing. Yay, Mike! But despite his boss’ adamant demand that he let sleeping Frings lie, Hank can’t leave well enough alone, and decides to follow the lawyer. That leads to the second time the DEA has gotten its hands on Mike’s granddaughter’s trust fund. (Burn!) Then, while Walt once again plays Hank like a fiddle in a cute callback to the bug-planting in “Dead Freight,” he overhears that the lawyer’s flipped and kindly warns Mike that they’re coming for him. It’s the beginning of this mournful denouement, when Mike has to leave his poor granddaughter on the swings at the playground without so much as a goodbye. She’ll likely never know about the large sum of cash he’d worked so hard to set aside for her, and probably won’t ever know that he died on this day. She’ll think he just abandoned her. How very cruel.But Mike’s day is only about to go from awful to worse. Walt killing Mike was foreshadowed back in “Hazard Pay” with that misbegotten Icarus reference. (And it was maybe the first time Jesse got an inkling that Walt’s bloodthirst was out of hand.) But it’s the way it’s done that once again proves Breaking Bad‘s superiority over every other thing ever.

The final confrontation between these two could be used in a master class on building suspense. We have just enough information to know that Walt probably has Mike’s gun in his possession, but we don’t know if or when he’ll use it. And here we come back to what “Say My Name” finally reveals about Walter White.

He watched Jane die and did nothing. He convinced Jesse to shoot Gale. He’s dispatched of a few low-life drug dealers, but he didn’t even have to execute Gus Fring directly, instead enlisting Tio. And when Drew Sharp witnessed the methylamine robbery, Todd acted before Walt had a chance to, so there’s no telling what he would have done. Even Brock’s poisoning happened off-screen. Yes, Walt’s done some unsavory things and ended his share of lives, but we’ve rarely seen him do so directly. So we’re not really sure what’s going on in Walt’s head at such times. His hubris suggests that he’s a badass who enjoys instilling fear in people, but despite his claim in this episode’s cold open, he’s not Heisenberg. He’s a nervous wreck.

The Walt who kills Mike at the end of “Say My Name” does not do so calculatedly. It’s not premeditated. It’s rash and reckless like so many of Walt’s other poor choices, and even he acknowledges its futility moments after it’s too late: “I’m sorry, Mike. This whole thing could have been avoided.” (Just the words a dying man wants to hear, I’m sure.) Why oh why didn’t Mike just let Jesse do the drop off? How could he trust Walt, after all this? (Sidenote: this sequence is breathtakingly gorgeous, photographically. Where the hell was this shot?)

We watch Walt go through a gamut of emotions. We observe Mike wounding Walt’s pride the way we watch a blonde girl go down into a basement and ask “Who’s there?” in a horror movie. (Don’t do it, Mike! Don’t!) Walt makes a hasty, last minute decision to off Mike, even though it should be clear by now that Mike would never flip. (Probably not even on Walt.) We know what’s coming, but the surprise is that Walt doesn’t do it so easily or callously as we might expect. That would’ve been too easy, too clean, just like if Walt had shot Drew Sharp himself.

Instead, he’s legitimately horrified by what he’s done. (Not so much morally, but at least on a visceral level.) We see flashes of the old Walter White, the one who’s not a take-no-prisoners crime lord. Walt still isn’t particularly good at this kind of thing, despite all his practice. And though Jesse has already said he’s done with Walt, when he catches wind of this… well, then he’s really gone. This is the kind of thing that could get Jesse to turn on Walt in a big way. If he ever finds out.

So adieu, Mike. We had a good run. You will be missed. Next week is the last episode until next summer, which I imagine will return to that flash-forward to Walt’s 52nd birthday in some way. In that clip, we saw Walt sadly celebrating in a diner, completely alone, and in “Say My Name,” we see how he has become so isolated from even Jesse.

Walt’s last line of the previous episode, “Buyout,” was: “Everybody wins.” (Spoken to Mike, ironically.) We knew that was an unlikely outcome, and clearly Mike did not emerge victorious here. Who did win? Certainly not everybody. Jesse and Skyler are miserable, and Walt’s kill hardly leaves him feeling triumphant. He’s a lonely, pathetic man who feels the need to hurt anyone who dares tell him the truth, which will only remove him further from the people who once cared for him.

Now the show’s foundation — Walt and Jesse’s partnership — has crumbled. “Say My Name” really does feel like a great show gearing up toward its gripping end, both for this mini-season and the series as a whole. I’ll be pretty astounded if something jaw-droppingly stellar doesn’t happen next week. (No pressure, though.)

Grade: A

*

2 thoughts on “‘Breaking Bad’ Season Five: “Say My Name”

  1. The one thing I was willing to give to Walt is that the stuff Mike was saying about how “he had a good thing going with Fring but his ego got in the way” wasn’t exactly true. Walt only stepped out of line because Jesse was about to get himself killed. At that point, Walt still had Jesse’s best interests in mind, it seems. (I think his allowing Jane to die was more to save Jesse than to protect himself from her possible blackmail.)

    Now, this doesn’t change the fact that he DOES have a huge ego and killed Mike in a rage for no real reason, but what started Walt down this path (as far as taking down Fring goes) wasn’t selfish motivation. Which makes it even more tragic.

    1. Yeah I agree that Mike was only about 85% right in his comments. Even after Gale’s murder Walt could have gone back to cooking and probably would have been fine. Not that living in fear that Gus is going to kill you is really an ideal. It’s really Mike who had such a good thing going with Gus, not so much Walt.

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