Breaking Bad’s final season is off with a bang, with two of the strongest episodes in the history of this exceptional series. For those who haven’t followed the show (warning: spoilers to follow), it involves the twisted tale of Walter White as he transforms from a high school chemistry teacher dying of cancer into a drug kingpin. He is pursued by his brother-in-law Hank Schrader, a DEA agent obsessed with catching the mythical “Heisenberg” who controls the methamphetamine trade around their home in Albuquerque and beyond.
Last season ended with Walter richer than Croesus and resolving to make a definitive break from the meth empire he created. He wants to leave his dark history behind him, but Walter’s past is not escaped so easily. In the season’s final scene, Hank makes the startling discovery that the Heisenberg he’s been chasing has been in front of his nose the whole time and, most shockingly, is part of his own family.
This realization sets the stage for the looming showdown between Hank and Walter in the current season. The first round of this confrontation occurs in episode one, with Hank and Walt squaring off in Hank’s garage and Hank pummeling Walt and revealing what he knows. Walt admits nothing but tells him that his cancer is back, so continuing to pursue him will accomplish nothing but destroy their families. Hank’s response is “I don’t care about family.” In the second episode, the conflict does spill over into each family, as Hank informs Walt’s wife Skyler (Hank’s sister-in-law) and his own about Walt’s identity. Hank remains committed to bringing Walt to justice, and the second episode ends ominously with him preparing to question Walter’s business partner Jesse, who is in police custody.
As Jonah Goldberg recently argued (in the cover story of the August 19th National Review), Breaking Bad deserves special respect from conservatives because it illustrates the destruction that results when people live outside the bounds of civilization. Over the course of five seasons, Walter White morphs from a humble but decent husband and father into a murderous monster. This transformation is fueled by unrestrained, lawless ambition and occurs entirely because of Walter’s own choices, not forces beyond his control. Indeed, Walter’s “success” results directly from his ability to be a master rather than slave of natural forces, not the least of which is his mastery of the laws of chemistry.
Hank, on the other hand, is civilization’s defender. A DEA agent in the sometimes unpopular drug war, Hank displays no ambiguity about the virtue of his cause or the need to catch Heisenberg and stop the destruction he’s unleashed on his customers, competitors, and broader community. Hank is a relentless and determined representative of the forces of law and order. He also exudes the kind of old-fashioned, tough but kindhearted masculinity that is almost completely absent from today’s popular culture.
It’s revealing that Hank was led to Walter by a message addressed to “W.W” in a book of Walt Whitman poems that another meth-cooking chemist (who admired White’s chemistry acumen and was later killed by him) had given to Walt. Hank had seen a previous reference to W.W. in this chemist’s notebooks, but Walt convinced him the reference was to Whitman himself. Hank is overwhelmed by the truth after seeing the reference again, from the same hand but clearly directed to Walter.
Given Hank’s single-minded obsession, the W.W. reference also echoes another 19th century American literary icon: the “White Whale” from Moby Dick. Hank is reminiscent of Moby Dick’s Captain Ahab in many ways, including the fact that a “WW” left both men hobbled and limping (Ahab’s leg was destroyed and amputated by the White Whale, Hank’s legs were badly broken in a confrontation with Walt’s compatriots). Ahab and Hank are also trying to slay powerful and destructive natural forces, but with an important difference: Ahab wants revenge against a beast that harmed him when it fought back in self-defense, while Hank is making war on a human figure who embodies the state of nature. Hank’s quest to reveal the truth about Heisenberg and see him punished clearly has a transcendent dimension, but it is motivated by his desire to right the universe, not Ahab’s cosmic rage.
Moby Dick ends in near-total destruction for everyone, including Ahab. Will the ruthless and unprincipled Heisenberg wreak similar damage as he attempts to evade the grasp of his captor? Stay tuned for the next six episodes.