GLIDING OVER ALL
GLIDING o’er all, through all,
Through Nature, Time, and Space,
As a ship on the waters advancing,
The voyage of the soul–not life alone,
Death, many deaths I’ll sing.
Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” has featured heavily throughout Breaking Bad’s run; introduced in Season 3 compliments of Gale Bedeker and crucial to the loaded mid-season finale’s final moments, the poem from which the episode gets its title (and which I’ve posted above) is a simple little riff that serves to remind us that death is still a very important part of life’s journey. And death, as the episode would go on to show us, is still a very important, if not the most important aspect of “Breaking Bad”.
I am not referencing the aftermath of Walt’s killing Mike, nor am I referencing the Scorsese-esque take down of Mike’s nine prison bound guys. I am speaking arbitrarily on the subject of death and how, in hindsight, it has been the filter through which the shows characters and their actions have passed. Well, one character specifically – but his actions and the way the rest of the characters react to him IS the show. I speak, of course, of Walter White. This show, to reduce it to one sentence, began as a show about a man who was diagnosed with cancer and turned to making meth, so as to have something to leave his family when he was gone. And there it is: the looming threat of death and the actions said threat inspire. Granted, the story (as stories are want to do) has gotten more complicated as it has progressed, but that defining theme has lingered; adapting and forming itself around the new contours of the shows narrative. In “Gliding Over All”, that fact was evident from the shows opening image.
Glinding over all, like…
…a fly, buzzing about an office. An ordinary fly, doing ordinary fly things, but to a focused and thoroughly absorbed Walter White, it was so much more. As it should have been to a focused, thoroughly absorbed Breaking Bad viewer. We have placed great importance on a common fly before, in a Season 3 episode entitled, appropriately, “Fly”. In this episode, you will recall a common house fly finds its way into Walt and Jesse’s lab under the laundromat. Walt, seeing the fly as a contaminate of dire proportions, becomes obsessed with killing it. Walt and Jesse banter and battle back and forth through the ensuing hunt, until Jesse manages to slip a sedative into Walt’s coffee, calming him down. As the drug takes hold, Jesse is able to talk to Walt, who is now calm – barely holding onto consciousness. As he talks, Jesse recalls his Aunt, and how she became obsessed over an opossum that was living under her house. Jesse tells Walt that even after the opossum had been removed, his Aunt still obsessed over it, which Jesse claims was evidence that her cancer had spread to her brain.
Walt, groggy as all hell, tells Jesse that his cancer is in remission. He tells him that his future still looks sunny and healthy and then he says something else. Walt says, “I missed it.” As Jesse digs for clarification, it is revealed that Walt has no interest in living. He cites a specific moment he heard Skyler singing a lullaby over the baby monitor and says, “If I had just lived up to that moment and not one second more, that would have been perfect.” But he didn’t. Walt missed his moment. He lived on and that nagging reality haunts him to his core.
Taking his admission to heart and looking forward from that point into the known future of what Walt would do, it suddenly becomes feasible to argue that the monster unleashed through Walt via Heisenberg, manifests itself out of Walt’s desire to die. He has no real investment in continuing to live the life he has (a life that as he moves forward, he loses more and more of, piece by piece), and as such, has no remorse for the things he has done. Perhaps, on some level, Walt is challenging karmic forces to punish him for his and Heisenberg’s sins by continuing to add to them. All in an effort to obtain what it is he really wants: an end to it all. And in that regard, Walt just may have gotten what he’s been asking for.
The man in the mirror…
… is a popular motif used to encourage introspective gazing and to force a general confronting of one with ones own deeds. The mirror is clean, clear, and you cannot hide from the reflection you see. In “Gliding Over All” we see this concept played out in two different ways. First, after Walt has safely returned the ricin to its secret hiding place, the shot of him is composed solely via his reflection in the long, wide mirrored doors of his bedroom closet. Even though we see Walt’s reflection, he himself does not acknowledge it. Is he too ashamed to behold his own reflection? To contend with the man he has become? Later, we see a reflected Walter White in the mirror of the restroom at the doctors office following Walt’s routine MRI. Again, we see Walt very clearly not looking at his own reflection; averting his eyes lest they meet his own. However, moments later, he does behold his reflection, albeit it is a twisted, deformed image, mangled by the dent in the reflective aluminum of a paper towel dispenser. A dent he himself created many months ago following the news that his cancer was in remission; a fact of great importance.
Walt dove headfirst into his monster after getting his “good” news, allowing his ego and pride to fuel his actions going forward. Actions that would see him manipulate Jesse, poison an innocent child and kill Gus Fring. Racking up infraction after infraction to the point where he couldn’t even look at himself in the mirror, waiting for the price of his sins to be collected. And there, in that moment, staring at his mangled reflection, he was at peace because he knew his waiting was at an end. He knew the cancer was back and that this time, he would not survive it. He could behold his abstract reflection in the dent; behold the dent itself, as it symbolizes the fury and rage he had due to simply being alive. And in that moment, he could let it all go. The meth. The empire. The Heisenberg. All of it. None of it mattered now. There was a light at the end of the tunnel – the light of death. Finality. Closure. And upon seeing it, believing in it, Walt was content to simply throw up his hands and say, “I’m out.” He was content to spend his last remaining days on earth as Walter White: Family Man.
“Gliding”. “Fly”. “Death”. Hmmm…
… how do all of these things come together, and what do they tell us when they do? Where have he been told previously of a flying entity, one who was “gliding over all”? Does the idea of “death” factor into the account of that previously mentioned airborne being? In the oft drawn parallel to Icarus… yes, yes it does.
The flight of Icarus has long been a name checked (or alluded to) cautionary tale within Breaking Bad. Ironically, the last time we heard reference to it came from Walt himself, as a presumed warning to Jesse – threatening him not to betray him. The fact that Walt’s own rise and anticipated decent so fully mirror Icarus’ own is beautifully drawn. Despite it’s illegal classification and the countless potential problems inherent in it, you would be hard pressed to argue against the fact that Walt’s decision to enter the drug world was well intended. He sought only to ensure his family was cared for. But then he saw the sun; he tasted success that left him hungry for more. He became proud.. and we all know what pride proceeds.
For 5 seasons, we have watched Walt’s ascension; no, it hasn’t always been a smooth, effortless climb – there have been massive bouts of turbulence and moments where failure seemed positively eminent. But though it all, Walt continued to climb. At the end of Season 5, we see a Walt who once again is comforted by the prospect of death and in that comfort, is content to give up his waxen wings. But just as Icarus discovered all those miles above the earth, the prideful climb is one wrought with consequences; consequences that can not simply be brushed aside and forgotten.
As we watch clarity wash over Hank’s face, all those dots being connected, what we are seeing is the wax begin to run. We are watching Walters wings begin to soften as the spotlight of understanding shines upon them. We’ve seen his rise, and now, despite the fact that he may well have truly given up Heisenberg, the time has come to witness Walt’s long, painful fall back down to the earth.
The interesting point here is, Icarus died for his pride – death was his punishment. In Walt, death is what he seeks. So what is the result of Walters downfall? What punishment would sting him most? Failure? Prison? Shame? Seeing as how the goal Walter set out to meet at the shows inception – ensuring his family was able to thrive long after him – would it not be most fitting for the cost of his flight to be the demise of his family due to him? Is it Skyler’s and the kids lives that must bare the cost of Walt’s sins? We’ll find out next year when Breaking Bad returns for its final episodes.