The long goodbye is nearing an end.
AMC will broadcast the first of the final eight episodes of Breaking Bad on Sunday night. The episode, "Blood Money," picks up where the eighth chapter of the current bisected season left off, when Walter White's brother-in-law, DEA agent Hank Schrader, realized at last that the object of his obsessive search for the manufacturer of nearly 100 percent pure Blue Sky crystal meth was a lot closer than he had ever suspected.
The final scene of "Gliding Over All" found Schrader (Dean Norris) using the bathroom while visiting Walter (Bryan Cranston) and his wife, Skylar (Anna Gunn). He reached for something to read and found Walter's inscribed copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. His eyes burned into the inscription and the scene ended with the singular image of Hank's face, frozen in horrified realization.
The finale of the season's first half was a powerful cliffhanger, but once we had a chance to catch our breath and consider the full 41/2 seasons of creator Vince Gilligan's masterpiece, we had to admit that we always knew that Walter's day of reckoning was unavoidable. It has never been so much because of his terminal illness but because of how a nondescript everyman evolved from a high school chemistry teacher into a master manufacturer of methamphetamine.
In vain, Walter beseeches his former student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) not to look back, not to reflect on what they did or why. But given that the past is always and necessarily prologue, for five years we have been mesmerized by that singular buildup to what will occur in the final chapters of Breaking Bad.
Jesse has to look back, as do we, and we don't know the eventual outcome of the story, but we're now compelled by the question of whether Walter will ever allow himself to look back as well, to take moral stock of what he has become, what he did and what was lost.
Whitman writes in Song of Myself, "I talk wildly, I have lost my wits, I and nobody else am the greatest traitor/ I went myself first to the headland, my own hands carried me there."
That's where Walter is in the home stretch of Breaking Bad, whether he realizes it or not. In the beginning, Walter could justify turning to meth manufacture because he didn't think he had much time left and wanted to leave his family well protected after he was gone. But even he cannot believe that convenient rationale anymore.
So why does he keep doing it? In the larger sense, it's because Walter White's character has changed, and for him to become what he is now, there always had to be something inside him, a germ of dark desire, that the diagnosis of terminal cancer tapped into and began to nurture.
Cranston has directed Sunday's episode, and none of its content will be revealed here, but you'll find his work behind the camera as great as his Emmy-winning acting performance as Walter White. The pace of the episode is measured, controlled, constantly building suspense. It is magnificently and appropriately excruciating. What will Hank do with the knowledge he acquired the day he opened the book in Walter's bathroom? How will Walter respond? What part will Jesse play in the operation?
There are two scenes in Sunday's episode that rank among the most powerful in the entire series. One spotlights a shattering moment in Norris' portrayal of Hank, and another does the same with Paul's portrayal of Jesse. They are unforgettable but almost unnecessary reminders of just how good this cast has been, to a man, woman and child. The brilliant Anna Gunn, the astounding R.J. Mitte (as son Walt Jr.), Giancarlo Esposito (rival kingpin Gus), Jonathan Banks (fixer Mike), Betsy Brandt (sister Marie), Bob Odenkirk (lawyer Saul) — the entire show could serve as a casting director's bible.
There is already a lot of chatter among fans about how the whole series will end, whether Walter will survive, about what will happen to Jesse, to Skylar, to Walt Jr. Will it all end with a bang or a whimper? In a way, anything is possible, but Gilligan and his extraordinary writing team have always steered clear of superficial plot developments, and of having characters do or say anything that was in any way inauthentic to who they are. So, for that reason, whatever happens in the end, the chances are it will be effective because it will be entirely credible.
All I know is that I wish the long goodbye were longer still.
'Breaking Bad' season five, part 2 premiere
9 p.m. Aug. 11 on AMC