Walter White’s criminal career has always been fueled in part by his frustrations with being perennially underestimated and overlooked, so was anyone surprised that he would be brought to the edge of defeat because he underestimated and overlooked Jesse Pinkman? Even before he poisoned Brock in order to keep Jesse in line, Walt viewed Jesse as something like a child, someone who had to be “protected” from the dangers of acting on their own and taught lessons through examples and manipulative lies. But Walt underestimated the damage the Brock revelation did to Jesse, like some bigger, badder, more cruel take on the Santa Claus lie, another ruse that is supposedly constructed for a kid’s own good yet seems to only serve as further evidence that you should trust no one.
Last week’s episode ended with Walt calling in Todd’s uncle Jack (Michael Bowen) after being convinced that Jesse had to be put down, but it was clear then that Walt didn’t really have the heart for it and it was clearer still in “To’hajiilee.” In an immensely awkward and uncomfortable meet with Todd and his creepy family, Walt lost a lot of rep with the crew because of his explanation of why Jesse needed to be taken out, despite being “family.” Jack and his clan are pretty clearly evil, but they seem to pride themselves on loyalty and sticking together, and Walt may not have realized what he lost by coming across as so meek and spineless to them. At the least, Walt’s request, peppered with demands that it be done quickly and painlessly, put Jack and company in a better position to maneuver Walt back into the meth manufacturing business. The cost for offing Jesse is further lessons for Todd, specifically so he can get the purity level up and bring back its blue sheen, rather than the “aquamarine” hue he’s getting. But by lacking the guts to take care of business himself, Walt also indicates that he probably wouldn’t have the guts to get his hands dirty and fend Jack and his friends off once they have him making meth again— let alone stop them if they threatened his actual family.
While Walt made decisions about Jesse’s ultimate fate, he was unaware of the true danger Jesse now presented. Though it was kind of an obvious dialogue choice, Walt’s declaration that Jesse was “not a rat” was juxtaposed with Jesse going beyond rat status and actively participating in Hank’s takedown of the Heisenberg empire. Despite botching Hank’s wire plan, Jesse managed to point Hank towards Huel, who folded pretty easily when shown a staged photo of Jesse with his brains blown out. The Huel scene was one of the weaker moments of the episode, because it hinged on Huel buying a whole cartload of bullshit, including Hank’s assertion that Saul sold him out to Walt, even though there would be no reason whatsoever for Walt to take on Huel. Huel seemed to figure this out, but the snuff photo of Jesse made his doubts magically disappear and rather than asking for a non-Saul lawyer or questioning further, he spilled what he knew. Granted, what Huel knew wasn’t enough to help much, but it did inspire Hank to get creative and stage another photo, this time involving an imitation of one of Walt’s barrels of cash.
Huel nonsense notwithstanding, the phone call from Jesse that it led into was one of the tensest, most nerve wracking scenes in the show’s history, and all because it hinged on Walt’s hubris. Walt is by no means an epic hero, but from the start of the show, it has been pretty obvious that his hubris— freed after years of mind numbing suburban imprisonment— would be his ultimate undoing. Because Walt refused to see that Jesse could ever be a threat to him, or that Jesse might not view him as family, he overlooked the obvious, which was that Jesse wasn’t acting alone because Jesse has never been much of a lone operator. But instead, Walt pressed on, hurrying off to his treasure trove and leading his enemies directly to his weak spot. By the time he realized what he had done, it was far too late, but not too late for Walt to make things worse by leading his other enemies to the desert as well, giving the coordinates of his location to Todd and Jack and company before telling them not to come once he realized what Jesse had actually done.
This last half of season five has been full of heartbreaking moments, but the close of this episode had them in surplus: the look on Walt’s face as he realized Jesse’s betrayal, the realization that if he called Jack out he would kill Hank and his own final shred of humanity, Hank’s victorious call home to Marie. It’s a testament to the quality of the acting on this show that none of the major players made greedy grabs for the spotlight or chewed scenery, instead they all let their big moments play out with subtle grace, with Cranston and Paul in particular driving up the emotional stakes by being so silently grim before exploding. When Walt spit in Jesse’s face after calling him coward, it was a tragic, volatile moment not just because of the action, but because even then, in that moment, Walt refused to see how his betrayal played into this. Incapable of taking ownership of his own part in his destruction, Walt did what he always does, and lashed out at the victim he provoked. Jesse is no saint, but unlike Walt, he was able to step back and stop before harming an innocent, even if it took Hank’s timely intervention to make that possible. Yet Walt, the master manipulator and life wrecker, feels as though he’s still in the right because at least he’s not a rat.
But ultimately, it doesn’t matter, because in typical fashion, Walt sealed the doom of everyone near him. Of course Jack wouldn’t take Walt’s call off seriously, because Walt has proven himself to be a coward. Unlike Walt, Jack is a man who doesn’t mind getting his hands dirty, and when he sees Walt captured by the DEA, he views it as an opportunity to take out the DEA agents who would have been after him soon anyway, and to further pin down Walt. The only question at this point is whether Jesse makes it out alive, and if so, how long it will take Walt to hunt him down himself.