As a result, Schrader becomes a more sensitive soul, his confrontation with evil forcing him to reassess his macho posturing. (Granted, he’s no saint: He is unconcerned about White possibly killing Pinkman during their plaza meet-up if it means he could finally bust White.) But not only does Schrader have to learn how to walk again, he has to change the way he treats others around him, especially his wife Marie (Betsy Brandt). In fact, it’s his stronger bond with Marie that makes his heartfelt phone call to her right before his death such a stinger. The old Schrader never would have bothered to tell Marie that he loved her in that pivotal moment. And while it might have been a cliché—characters who are dead meat tend to offer up unreserved sentiments right before their demise—in this case it signals his growth. But it’s telling that Breaking Bad doesn’t reward that growth: Ultimately, Schrader is just another corpse along the road, another victim whose death affects White but who ultimately pays the price for not being seduced by masculinity’s darkest urges.
So where does this leave White?
After embracing his Heisenberg alter ego early on, White tries to have it both ways, killing and scheming in the name of protecting his family—even if he doesn’t want to admit just how much his expulsion from Gray Matter Technologies also still drives him. At the show’s conclusion, White still wants to believe he can justify his bad acts and control the maelstrom around him. The character’s tragedy isn’t simply that he has overrated his own intellect—it’s that he still can’t acknowledge his evil deeds. If he had, maybe he wouldn’t feel so conflicted, calling his son Flynn (RJ Mitte) while hiding out in New Hampshire, convinced he can somehow explain this whole nasty business to the boy so he’ll understand. But it doesn’t work—just like when he tries to gather Skyler (Anna Gunn) and Flynn so they could escape together. They want nothing to do with him—they see White for the monster he is—even though he indignantly cries, “What the hell is wrong with you? We’re a family!” Arguably, he’s survived this long not just because of his brains but because of his willingness to cross moral lines that other characters won’t. For him to pretend those deeds can be forgiven because of his honorable intentions is unbearably sad.
That’s why it is appropriate that Breaking Bad’s penultimate episode ends with White still wrestling with the two sides of his personality. No longer able to handle the separation from his wife, son and young daughter, White calls the DEA to turn himself in. Shortly thereafter, however, he happens upon an episode of Charlie Rose in which his former Gray Matter partners insist White hadn’t had much to do with the company, a claim that jabs at the same macho pride that’s been his weakness from the beginning.
For White, embracing evil always has been justified by masculine impulses: providing for his family and proving himself as the leader of the pack. But with only about an hour of show left, his decision to return to Albuquerque seems to be as much about getting revenge for Hank’s death as it is to determine, once and for all, who he is. Is he Heisenberg? Is he Walter White? Is he a nice guy who gets pushed around? Or is he the biggest, baddest guy in town? His colleagues at Gray Matter don’t recognize him anymore—and after 61 episodes, he probably doesn’t want to recognize himself, either. Part of White must think that saving the day will prove he’s not the bad guy. But as we’ve seen with Schrader and Pinkman, trying to be the good guy might only speed up White’s demise.