(This being another one of those visual rhetoric posts.)
At this point my point should be staring you in the face: the mid-season finale of Breaking Bad is all about staring and what it means to stare. Staring can signify the acquisition of knowledge (the fly and the painting) or suggest intimacy (the cafe) or indicate an experience with the ineffable (the money pile). That it functions so differently in a single episode prevents the audience from being able to predict how a particular stare will influence the narrative. (Unlike a stare in a generic gangster film, for example, which the audience can safely assume will lead to the death of the person being stared at or being thought about while the staring occurs.) This is why the final scene in the episode works so well: its simplicity. But before I get to that, I should set up the narrative at this particular moment. Walter and his extended family, including his DEA-employed brother-in-law Hank, are having a dinner beside the White’s pool. It’s worth noting that this is a significant pool: Walter spent the time in which Mike’s men were being murdered alternating between staring at it and his watch:
Given that the palette of Walter’s depravity skews as blue as his meth, it’s not surprising that the face of his watch is blue. Nor is it surprising that after he learns that the synchronized hits went down successfully, MacLaren returns to the “scene” of the crime and shots Walter thus:
There’s bad Walter bathed in blue and staring at the pool. He knows he’s crossed a line: it was one thing to murder Fring or Mike in what he could justify to himself as self-defense. It’s another entirely to remove Mike’s crew from the world because their continued existence posed a potential threat to his empire. Significantly, this is the scene immediately prior to the one in which Skyler introduces him to the money piles. [Sentences that were here now aren’t. See the comments for more.] He’s cooked for three consecutive months and only could have done so by taking out Mike’s men. (Otherwise one of them would’ve talked and Walter would’ve been arrested.) As he sits by the side of his pool, ignorant of the exact amount of money he’s earned during his months long cooking binge, the serene look on his face may come from an exhausted sense of pride in work well-done, but it also hides the fact that he knows that work couldn’t have been done had he not arranged the murders of Mike’s men. The ends have justified his means. Then he’s introduced to the money pile, the experience of which so muddles his immoral calculus and leads to him informing Skyler that he’s retiring from the trade and bringing his family back into the fold. Which is only to say that regardless of Walter’s state of mind prior to meeting the money pile, its existence alters him in such a way that he believes himself capable of recapturing the life he’s lost.
The penultimate scene next to the pool is the first step in resumption of normalcy. His wife and children have returned home. His sister- and brother-in-law have come over for dinner. Everything is right in the universe. The river’s flowing:
The montage leading up the poolside dinner goes to great length to create the impression that the rhythms of Walter’s life have returned to normal. For the first time in what feels like seasons, when Walter looks at Skyler, she responds not by talking to her wine or simply walking away, but with a smile that signifies, if not happiness, at least acceptance of the fact that she might one day be happy again:
The medium close-ups on their faces and the exaggerated eyeline matches—he stares off-frame right and she stares off-frame left—serve to hammer home the point that Walter not only can come home again, but that he has. He’s forsaken the trade and resumed living what he thinks of as “his life.” Which makes it all the more tragic when Hank needs to use the restroom, can’t find any suitable reading material and settles for some poetry:
Which of course is Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Note though that he doesn’t stare at the volume intently in order to fathom the connections it might represent. He idly thumbs through the pages:
From Gale Boetticher, the man Walter, in a moment of drunken arrogance, had convinced Hank couldn’t be Heisenberg. The fact that the camera reverses from a low-angle shot of Hank on the can to a high-angle shot of what Hank’s reading on the can is significant only inasmuch as it seems unwarranted. Something’s happening here, but it’s not happening in Hank’s head so much as it is to it. Hank’s being prodded to remember something:
But unlike Walter—who was shot staring at the painting until he made the connection because he had to work for it, it couldn’t be conveniently given to him in the form of the flashback—MacLaren’s active camera suggests that something unintended and inadvertent is happening to Hank here, and sure enough, she provides him with a flashback:
And it’s blue. In the first frame above, Walter convinces Hank that Boetticher’s notes indicate that he couldn’t have been Heisenberg. In the second frame, Hank jokes that “W.W.” could stand for “Walter White” instead of “Walt Whitman,” to which Walter responds:
“You got me!” Note how the extreme close-ups and obstructed two-shot create an exaggerated sense of intimacy: they not only both in-frame, but they’re so close to each other that the frame can’t even contain the entirety of their heads. They’re within each other’s personal space, and Walter’s confessing, albeit humorously, to being the meth kingpin he actually is. Hank laughed it off when it happened, but when he’s presented with the flashback, he feels all the more betrayed by the revelation that Walter actually is Heisenberg:
And he does so in another doubly intimate moment: it’s an extreme close-up and he’s on Walter’s toilet. So what does he do? He stares at himself in the vanity mirror and sees a dupe with the truth in his hands and his pants around his ankles. The episode’s final irony is that for all the revelations and connections that were drawn and communicated through staring, everything that just came back together is going to fall apart because Hank just happened to glance at something. Hank got lucky, or Walter became sloppy, but what this final moment demonstrates is that whereas Walter needs to stare because he needs to be certain 100 percent of the time to maintain his secret, Hank only has to half-notice one thing and half-remember another in order to expose it.