“Breaking Bad” – A History of Violence

Be warned: Spoilers for “To’hajiilee,” the most recent episode of “Breaking Bad,” await you after the jump.

[Hang on, I’m catching my breath.]

Good lord. There’s no point in beginning this discussion anywhere but the end of tonight’s episode, a slow-burning masterpiece of escalating, riveting, nails-buried-in-the-armrests tension. The entire extended climax — beginning at the moment Walt received the text message from Jesse and continuing through his frantic race to the desert, his confrontation with Hank and company and the arrival of the Nazis — was the show in a nutshell, a cavalcade of bad decisions, misplaced pride, simmering aggression and reminders that the bad guys win sometimes.

Who is left alive at the end of the episode? Walt, obviously, which we know from the season’s flash-forwards. And…that’s about it. The odds are very good that Jesse is alive, at least for the moment, at least for long enough to make it to the next episode, because Jesse was in the car away from the immediate firefight and because Jesse seems like the card the Nazis could play to get Walt to cook for them. The odds are also very good that Hank and Gomez are dead, and that even if one of them is wounded but alive at the start of the next episode, that won’t be the case for very long.

There was no other way for this to end, of course. As soon as Walt called Jack and told Jack where he was, we knew the Nazis would come at some point; as soon as Hank arrested Walt and it all seemed to be finally over, it was simply a question of who would be there when the Nazis arrived. I assumed Walt and Hank would leave and the Nazis would arrive to find Gomez and Jesse, but Hank — proud, boastful Hank, who saw his identity shaken when he discovered Walt’s true nature and who knew he had to take him down — couldn’t leave without savoring the moment. And he couldn’t leave without calling Marie, which is one of those “I was one day away from retirement” scenes that tells even semi-observant TV viewers that something very, very bad is going to happen very, very soon.

Walt thought he could call off the hit he’d ordered on Jesse, failing to realize for the umpteenth time that he cannot think or speak his way out of every situation. (That this failure came just as he surrendered to Hank, finally accepting that he was beaten, is one of those ironies the show touches on without bludgeoning you over the head with it.) And after five seasons of thinking he was better than his station in life — thinking he was a Gus, rather than a petty criminal — he didn’t grasp that this dark underworld wasn’t a place where you could visit when it was convenient. He had gotten himself mixed up with truly bad people, and he thought it was simply a relationship based on what he wanted or needed, without realizing how valuable he had become to them.

“I’m much better now.”

Let’s rewind for a moment to the beginning of the end, the entire sequence that began with Walt speeding toward the desert and ended with the likely massacre of two men trying to punish a drug kingpin. The episode was directed by Michelle MacLaren because of course it was. She has already given us “Buried” and “Gliding Over All” this season, among other standout episodes she has crafted over the years, and so of course she’s behind the camera for the precise, almost painful series of events that sees Walt hauling ass to his money (showing Walt’s burning desire not to lose his spoils and all he has to show for his crimes), Walt cowering in the desert and realizing he’s cornered, Walt slowly giving himself up and, finally, the gunfight between lawmen and outlaws framed against a beautiful Western vista. This final sequence incorporated thrillers, Westerns and action beats, presenting these moments in a lovingly framed and meticulously-structured series of events that squeezed the tension until the audience was practically curled up in a ball, unsure of just what would happen next. God, this show is something.

(The episode was written by George Mastras, the man behind “Dead Freight,” the “Let’s rob a train!” episode that similarly built up unimaginable tension before releasing it and bringing us to what appeared to be the climax before a final burst of violence rocked us before the end credits. Mastras also wrote “Crawl Space,” which — speaking of endings — has that remarkable climax featuring Walt losing his mind and going full-blown Joker underneath his house.)

The episode began with a trip to Landry’s new meth lab (the character’s name is Todd, but come on, Landry has his own meth lab). It’s a brief sequence, giving us information that becomes relevant pretty quickly (the meth isn’t up to snuff) and information that may become important down the line (Landry has a crush on Lydia). Walt only first appears about 15 minutes in, asking for Jack’s help in taking out Jesse (quickly and painlessly, because even if Walt is poisoning a child or arranging the murder of a friend, he still doesn’t think of himself as a monster), but they only agree if he agrees to help them improve their meth by cooking one more time with Landry.

Hank busies himself figuring out how to enact Jesse’s plan (which is to make Walt think his money is in danger), piecing enough information together from Huell that they are able to trick Walt into thinking they found it. Saul freaks out that Huell is missing, and makes a stop at the car wash to talk to Walt about it. He’s also there to get his car cleaned after Jesse decorated the inside with cocaine, perhaps invoking the Macbeth Effect that connects an increasing desire for cleanliness with increasingly guilty feelings. This visit provides perhaps the episode’s only glimmer of humor — Walt Jr., still so unaware about the things going on around him, is just gleeful to see the guy from the billboards and commercials.

Walt, meanwhile, tries to draw Jesse out by going to visit Jesse’s ex-girlfriend Andrea. (There’s a lovely shot where Walt waits outside the door, for once bathed in light while he speaks to someone lurking in the shadows, with a single beam of light in Andrea’s house shining on her nearby couch; it’s almost as if Walt’s presence is drawing her away from the light, from safety or salvation, and by standing in the light he is falsely presented as a beacon of safety himself.) Again, Walt is face-to-face with the child he poisoned, presented with yet another example of his remorseless immorality. And yet again, he refuses to see anything. Because Brock is fine, so obviously it was okay to poison him, anyone who gives it any thought would agree. Walt even says as much in the phone conversation with Jesse later — a conversation that doubles as a confession, where he admits to killing Krazy 8 in the first season, running over the drug dealers in the third season and blowing up Gus in the fourth season — saying that he was careful in how he poisoned Brock, making sure Brock would be just fine after.

This refusal to see the fault in his deeds, and Walt’s indignant belief that there is always an excuse and always an explanation (and, of course, always an escape route), runs across Bryan Cranston’s face during the final desert sequence. When he is hiding behind the rock, calling for help before realizing there’s no way to escape, Cranston wordlessly shows us Walt’s emotional state. He shows the face of a man who realizes it’s all over, but who lets the accumulated months and the untold emotional toll wash over his face before he finally, grimly stands to accept that it’s over. (During those moments in the desert, when he thought it was all over, he remained ineffably Walt: He felt great sadness, he gritted his teeth and he still couldn’t resist belittling Jesse one last time. )

It could have ended there, of course. Walt bested by Hank, brought down because Hank found his weakness (his money, but really his narcissism, since the money for Walt is merely proof that what he did was worth it because he has something to leave his family) and exploited it with Jesse’s help. It would have made a fine ending, tidily wrapping up the basic Heisenberg story while leaving numerous elements (Skylar, Lydia, Landry’s lab) unfinished. But we already saw the flash forwards. We saw the grim future that awaits Walt — his identity revealed, his home boarded up, needing automatic weapons and ricin to arm himself against some foe or foes (the Nazis, Lydia or some third party?).

The final shootout is, as I said before, a masterpiece of tension and suspense. We know something bad is coming, just as we know this seeming victory for Hank over Walt is not going to be the end of Heisenberg’s story. It was still a staggering, gripping moment, a phenomenal finale for a show that knows its way around astonishing finales. And we also know it isn’t over, because the evil geniuses running this show opted to have the episode end with the climactic shootout still going on. So next week, we’re in for additional pain, misery and sorrow.

And we’ve watched this show for far too long to trust that things will end tidily. The simple “Walt is brought down by Hank” storyline would have been traumatic for the characters, ruining as it would the lives of Walt, Skylar, Walt Jr., Hank and Marie. But it would have been almost too small for the world “Breaking Bad” has created, showing us that while all of this chaos and all of this death rippled out from Albuquerque and stretched to other countries and continents, the real impact was on this one family unit. That’s a good story, and an interesting one, but it’s not the story they’re showing us here. Time and time again, we’ve seen examples of how Walt’s misdeeds have infected and poisoned lives far from his, eventually crashing airplanes and bringing down cartels and flooding the Czech Republic with more potent meth.

Walt hasn’t simply been an issue for the family that would have been torn into the spotlight (and they still may well be, once Walt’s identity gets out) or the brother-in-law who would have seen his career ruined. He has been a plague. His story has been one of a man who thought he could dabble in darkness and reemerge into the light whenever he chose, a man willing to do whatever he deemed necessary (which repeatedly meant committing or enabling murders) and capable of doing whatever it took to cover up his crimes. These Nazis are firmly in his life now, and having presumably killed Hank and Gomez (the only two law enforcement officials who know about Walt being Heisenberg, I believe), they are also likely to claim some ownership over Walt knowing he has nowhere else to turn. It seems he is finally coming face to face with the kind of evil that goes with his works.

Nothing beside remains. Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare. The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Three to go.

One comment

  1. Pingback: “Breaking Bad” – A shattered visage | Digressions

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