The Boob Tube Review: Breaking Bad's Death By A Slow River by Alex Snider

Sometimes, we discuss the television we've been watching. There are usually plenty of spoilers, so beware.

There was a lot of cyber ink spilt predicting a big death on this past season of Mad Men. 2000 word columns devoted to combing through every episode for the most minute hint of who, when and how. Was it going to be Roger leaping to his death, becoming the grim ad man from the credits? Pete in a fiery car crash? Megan in the library with the candlestick? After the penultimate episode when all was revealed and everyone's predictions were for naught, Vulture created a super cut of every shadow of foreshadowing of the season's BIG DEATH. Some of them were a bit of a stretch (Peggy lying on her couch? She's always done that! Isn't that just how women get their creativity to flow from their uteri to their brains?) but for the most part it was pretty spot-on. When a show is as chock full of literary devices as Mad Men, details like the continued focus on violent and untimely deaths (serial killers, Betty's cancer scare, Don's feverish dream) can't be ignored.

The same goes for Breaking Bad, a show that has made the point over and over that no detail is too small. Mike's death this episode, while shocking in it's abruptness, was a death foretold. While this episode had its fill of foreshadowing, perhaps the biggest sign (in hindsight) of "MIKE: DANGER AHEAD" came in the first episode of this season, when Mike went to kill Lydia and she pleaded with him to not make her disappear, leaving her daughter to grow up thinking her mother abandoned her. That plea saved Lydia's life because it appealed to Mike's love for his granddaughter. Now, in episode 7, Kaylee will grow up thinking that her grandfather abandoned her (which he did, granted, at the park. Holy smokes, that scene! Jonathan Banks! Yowza!). It could even be argued that Mike's death was foretold by the Cousins' attack on Hank given the similarities between the two scenes. Sadly though, there was no Gus to warn Mike. But, this entire episode was so heavily drenched with foreshadowing that there couldn't be any question that it would end in Mike's demise: all the scenes and instances of Mike saying goodbye and tying up loose ends, around moments like Hank miming blowing his brains out, around Walt's ever-increasing loss of control – both in his lack of caution and his literal loss of control over his family and Jesse and the business.

Last week we saw Walt's tight, Svengali-like hold over Jesse begin to crumble but not before he held him witness to a toxic White family dinner. This week that hold finally broke and Jesse was able to see Walt for the manipulator he is. The scene between Jesse and Walt was perfect and was what I have been waiting to see for a couple seasons now – probably since Jane died, definitely since Gale – the slimy way that Walt switched from logic to flattery to denigration was like watching all the layers of Walt's various disguises peel off until we're just left with the small, cruel man controlled by avarice and hubris.

I've said it before and I'll say it again, Jesse is the hero of this series. He has not only grown to be the moral centre of this show but he has also now grown enough to be able to step away from the meth business even when it means forsaking millions of dollars and starting from nothing (remember, he has nothing else – no family, no education, no job experience – but he'd still rather be free from that world and from Walter). Hank might be the 'good guy' but his motivations for hunting Heisenberg are cloudier than Capn' Cook's Chili P meth. At this point, Hank is more of an Ahab character hunting his Leviathan than a noble agent working for the good of the world – he's no Bunny Colvin.

The moment between Jesse and Skyler, in addition to Walt telling her that he's working with a new guy, gives me hope that maybe she and Jesse will get more screen time together. At the very least it's given me new fodder for my Breaking Bad fanfic.

"Hey Mrs White, how do you feel about Mario Cart, yo?" 
"Just get me home from the motel in time to make Walt Jr 
So back to Mike. Before I watched the episode a friend tweeted at me "!!!!! NOOO WALT NOOOO". She thought I had watched it already. I watched the episode with a knot of dread curled in my belly – this was it for Skyler or Mike. I didn't really think it'd be Skyler but I needed to make up some odds for my man, Mike. So I held my breath during the cold open while Walt went big-dick-swinging and demanded some Destiny's Child treatment. I clenched my fists and bit my lip while Skyler walked away from Walt. My heart palpitated every time Mike was on screen. Then, just as it looked like he made it and I'd convinced myself maybe my friend was just lamenting Walt's general psychopathy, that shot of Mike skipping stones on that sun-dappled river and I knew it was the end for Mike.

Rivers have a long tradition in literature, the tranquility belying the dangers whether natural or man-made. Novels like Deliverence and Suttree, short stories and novellas like Flannery O'Connor's The River and Of Mice and Men all serve as haunting reminders of the futility of human vs nature, of the grey area between good and evil. I would say (with nothing but my own desire to tie everything into mythology to back me up) that modern literature centred around rivers recalls Greek mythology and the River Styx – the inevitability and unbiased nature of death. Say My Name recalled all those tropes. Is it fair that Mike was killed by Walt, a lesser man? No. Yet, Mike was also a murderer and ultimately what goes around should come around even to a rough and tumble, devoted grandfather full of quippy comments. The scene was so beautifully shot, the tropes so artfully rendered that I can forgive the writers for putting Walt there in the first place. Why on earth would any of the characters agree to have Walt be the one to go to Mike? Why would Mike give Walt a loaded gun? Why couldn't one of Saul's trusted goons go instead? And if the DEA is watching Saul so closely wouldn't they see Walt or even Jesse? But, really, the entire scene was so incredible that none of that matters. Would Walt take Mike's gun? Yes. Would he truly believe that Mike owed him an apology? Yes. Would Walt shoot Mike in a fit of pique? Yes.

The question is, did Walt feel remorse at the end, while they stood and watched that rolling river? I don't think so, I think what he was expressing was the kind of mild guilt children might feel after throwing a tantrum over nothing. Maybe he was taken aback over his lack of control.

Well, RIP Mike :,(((( Can't wait for the supercut/montages of you to start rolling in. Until then we'll just  have to watch this 70's period PSA (he was kind of a babe? If not a bit of a bad date.):


Previous Breaking Bad recap here.

Alex Snider is a little uneasy around rivers. For obvious reasons. You can read more of her writing on her blog and follow her on Twitter, here and here.


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