The trick to writing “Breaking Bad” is to keep painting Walter White into a tighter and tighter corner but also keep leaving him believable ways to exist in that corner. You’ve got to make sure that he’s well and thoroughly hemmed in, but you’ve also got to make sure that it’s not just easier for everyone he’s involved with to kill him. They need to need him alive, much as it might pain them, and the greatest trick Vince Gilligan and his creative team have pulled through three seasons now is the fact that they have been able to keep this immense juggling game going. There have been some inelegant moments in all three seasons. There have been moments when the tight focus on plotting can overwhelm the character work (though not many). And the show’s sense that all of Albuquerque consists of a couple dozen people will always rankle just a little bit.
[Full recap of Sunday’s (June 13) “Breaking Bad” finale after the break…]
But for the most part, Gilligan and his staff keep finding ways to both trap Walter even more than he was trapped before and reasons he should be alive. It’s safe to say that as the third season ends, he’s enraged Gus at him even more but also made himself even more valuable to Gus’ operation than he was before. The show is already suggesting ways for Walter to get out of this latest corner (I think that’s why we’re reminded that the cartel still exists and is still trying to take out Gus), but he’s backed himself into quite the predicament this time, and the hour getting him to the end – when Jesse finally becomes the murderer Walt insisted he wasn’t – is an expertly crafted hour of television. I don’t know if I’d call it “fun,” but it was deeply compelling and surprisingly heartfelt for a show that can be a little bleak and cold.
That said, season three was, to me, so obviously the best season of this show so far that I thought, rather than doing a standard review and recap (since we here at HitFix are your full-service “Breaking Bad” recappers, with TWO folks doing write-ups), it might be worth it to tie some of the things that happened in “Full Measure” in to just what has made the show so good this season. In fact, here’s five.
1.) The world has expanded. I complain about how the show’s world seems to consist of a few city blocks and the handful of people who live there, but I only kid because I love. Where the show, in the past, has seemed to consist of just two families and Jesse, the third season has turned nearly every major character into someone who’d be worth watching a series about. Think, for example, of how the show has made Skyler’s struggles with learning the truth about what her husband was up to into the moral center of the season, suggesting that even she was corruptible. And in the finale, look at how the show built long setpieces around the adventures of Mike (particularly when he took out the cartel folks using balloons, a shoe, and some awesome marksmanship) or how it made Gale an even more fascinating guy right before killing him, all the better to make the act Jesse undertakes at Walt’s bidding at the end of the episode that much more horrific. “Breaking Bad” still feels a little confined from time to time, but its borders have expanded exponentially this season, and the show is all the better for it.
2.) The pacing is rarely what you’d expect. “Breaking Bad” put its big suspense and action setpieces in the middle of the season, in its sixth and seventh episodes. It put the Cousins into the picture, then had them find Walter in episode two and had them die in the seventh and eighth episodes. It spent a whole episode examining the intense guilt Walter feels and tied it all in to a fly that got into the lab. And the finale spends lots of time on strange digressions that seem to have no bearing on anything until it all ties together in the end. Those fears that Gale was sent by Gus to copy Walter’s formula turn out to be founded, but the show’s reasons for spending lots of time watching him sing along to old opera recordings don’t really become apparent until the end. Similarly, the episode plays around with our sense of the way things should “normally” be, keeping us guessing about just where Jesse might be until he pops up at the laser tag place. There’s definitely a build to any “Breaking Bad” season, but this one inverted the structure the show had built for itself and made it that much easier to keep guessing.
3.) The symbolism is less heavy-handed. The cutesy symbols for the way that Walt’s life was hollowing out and growing more and more corrupt – Walt’s house’s foundation is rotting! – were the one thing that I never liked in season two. While the show hasn’t abandoned symbolism entirely – that fly, after all, stood in for a great many things – it hasn’t created symbols that are as cut and dried as they have been in the past. That teddy bear eye was a constant reminder of Walt’s transgressions, yes, but it was also a contaminant (just like that bit of trash floating in a pool). And in tonight’s episode, Walt’s windshield yet again needs to be repaired, like a constant reminder of the fact that something in his life has gone very askew. There’s a self-assurance to the way the series is using its little literary conceits this season that doesn’t feel the need to call attention to itself, and I’ve liked that.
4.) The series has created antagonists worthy of matching up with Walter. In the past, Walter has always had the intelligence edge over the big bad guys. Tuco was capable of anything, sure, but Walter was smarter than him, and it was never in doubt that Walter would eventually figure his way out of any corner Tuco backed him into. Similarly, Hank was always portrayed as someone obsessed with finding Heisenberg, but someone who would always be a few steps behind Walter. And so on. Season three gave us the Cousins, who maybe weren’t smarter than Walter but didn’t really conform to any real method of prediction (at least when he knew about them, which was after Hank took them out). But it’s also given us the ruthless side of Gus, a character we met as a far more enigmatic figure back in the second season. Gus seems to have Walter’s interests at heart for a while, but as his real game becomes more clear, we both realize that Walter is completely unimportant to him (as a person) and the most important cog in his machine. Walter’s realization of the same drives much of the action of “Full Measure,” as he attempts to outsmart a man who just might be smarter and more controlled than himself.
5.) The series has subtly shifted its moral focus. Obviously, a big part of the show is still portraying the fallout stemming from Walter’s choice to become a meth producer and dealer, but this season, the show has ranged out to show the temptation all of the characters have gone through. Hank struggles to be a good man and put the trauma of his past behind him. Marie struggles to support her husband in thick and thin. Jesse struggles with the loss of Jane and the temptation to start using again, as he goes through rehab (a temptation he finally succumbed to in “Half Measures”). Skyler struggles with the temptation of all of that money, just laying there for the taking. In the past, the series’ focus has always been almost exclusively on Walt and on how his choices affected everyone around him. This season, however, the focus has become about all of the people who have been affected by his decision. Though “Full Measure” is much more about Walt and Jesse, and how Walt’s decision to protect Jesse at all costs emanates outward tragically, the season as a whole has been a much more complex and interesting story in that regard.
I honestly don’t know where “Breaking Bad” goes from here. It seems obvious that the focus of the fourth season is going to be on how Walter finds a way to protect both himself and Jesse within Gus’ organization, while Jesse deals with the emotional fallout from what he’s done, but I almost want to have the whole year off to just enjoy what I’ve seen. This is a pitch-perfect ending to a nearly perfect season, and it suggests just as many ways to go forward as it does ways to bring the current storylines to a close. There’s been great stuff in this season, and I love the way the show has put a button on one chapter, while still suggesting all of the ways forward for the next chapter. A part of me wants to plunge forward into season four. Another part wants to digest.
I’ve talked a little this season about how the prologues of each episode of “Breaking Bad” have become these deft little storytelling nuggets, creating standalone stories that enhance what comes after but aren’t necessarily needed to talk about the storyline as a whole. They allow for long-dead characters to come back, for the emotional richness of the subtext to fully flower, for the storyline to prepare us for unexpected twists and turns by either pointing us in a new direction or misdirecting us completely. Tonight’s prologue, then, takes us back to the early days of the White marriage (it’s the only significant appearance for Skyler in the episode, though we hear her voice in a later shot that apes the opening of the teaser), but it also reorients the series in its tragic roots. Walter has always been a man who wanted more, and that was the reason he couldn’t stop when he had enough to get by, the reason he kept pressing and the reason he’s in the predicament he’s in today. He has nowhere to go but up, sure, but eventually he’ll have nowhere to go but deceased, particularly if he keeps pushing as he has.
There’s another reason we see all of this too. We get a good look at someone else’s house later in the hour: Gale’s. There’s been a strong attempt to tie together Walt and Gale as two peas in a pod all season, even as Walt tossed Gale out of the lab (perhaps secretly fearing that, yes, Gus would use Gale to copy the formula as he eventually did). This is a great moment, subconsciously tying the two even more tightly together and creating an inkling in viewers’ heads that, yeah, Walt and Gale are pretty much the same guy in a lot of ways, and it’s sad that Gale is going to have to die for us to continue enjoying the adventures of Walt and Jesse.
In some ways, “Breaking Bad” is a series about the coldness of simple math. When you break everything down to formula, when you remove the human element, it’s easy to say something like Gale can be eliminated because Gus can’t afford to have production shut down. But when you come right up against the reality of it, you’re shutting down another person’s life. You’re ending something that really has no reason to end, simply for largely selfish reasons. It’s one thing to say that you’re going to provide for your family by cooking meth, but it’s quite another to actually follow through, to find yourself up against the point of no return and keep on pushing forward. The characters of “Breaking Bad” talk in numbers and formulae and concrete figures when what they should be doing is staying a little more abstract. A man’s life is still a man’s life, after all, even if he’s standing in the way of your life. Walter and Jesse’s actions as the episode ends are completely understandable. That doesn’t make them any less horrifying, any less tragic.
Some other thoughts:
*** “Breaking Bad” got an official fourth season renewal before the finale started airing. Not a huge surprise, but still, yay!
*** I love that we always walk in on Saul doing something completely ridiculous whenever we see him. I also love every moment of comic relief he provides in this episode, particularly comparing Mike to Thomas Magnum. Here’s hoping that the producers keep Bob Odenkirk around for another season.
*** The same goes for Giancarlo Esposito (who got to show the most naked aggression I think Gus has EVER shown tonight) and Jonathan Banks, who is creating something fascinating and world-weary out of Mike. I love the way he apologizes to Walter for having to kill him.
*** This episode plays pretty expertly off our feelings for Jesse, making us think that first Saul and then Walt had given the poor kid up.
*** I don’t believe Hank and Marie appeared at all (and if they did, it was so briefly that I totally blanked on it). That’s probably the right choice for this finale, but I’m definitely intrigued to see where they go in season four.
*** Vince Gilligan wrote and directed this episode, and he comes up with some gorgeous shots, particularly in that early morning meeting between Gus, Mike, and Walt.
Finally, it’s been an immense pleasure going over this season of the show with you folks here at HitFix.com. I hope we all meet up again somewhere for coverage of season four, whenever that should air.