A review of tonight’s “Breaking Bad” coming up just as soon as I have a dollar for every time I hear about Nazi Germany…
“I have lived under the threat of death for a year now. Because of that, I’ve made choices. Listen to me. I alone should suffer the consequences of those choices. No one else. And those consequences, they’re coming. No more prolonging the inevitable.” -Walt
Well, maybe just a little bit longer, Walt.
“Breaking Bad” is a show about a man with a death sentence. As with most legal death sentences, though, we’ve had time to wait between pronouncement of sentence and execution of it – four years in the real world, around one in Walt’s – as Walt has gone through various cancer treatments and cheated what seems like 17 different murder attempts. And because Bryan Cranston is so good, and because Vince Gilligan and the rest of the creative team so effective at building and sustaining tension while constantly pushing the story forward, it rarely feels like they’re stalling the inevitable. Maybe the series ends with the death of Walter White, and maybe not, but I’ve never felt cheated that we’re not at that moment quite yet, even as Gus, Tuco, the Cousins, Krazy-8, et al have all tried to do what the lung cancer couldn’t on its own. (Not yet, anyway.)
“End Times” is another brilliant, knuckle-whitening example of that phenomenon. We know intellectually that Walt isn’t going to die here, whether by Jesse’s hands or by someone else’s. (Tyrus has been looking to put a bullet in Walt for half the season, it seems.) And though it seems that Walt and Gus can’t co-exist any longer, we can probably guess that Gus isn’t going to die with an episode to go in the season. (“The Wire” and “The Sopranos” loved to put their big dramatic climaxes in the penultimate episode, but Gilligan has always pushed the plot as hard as he can as deep into the finale as possible.) And yet the scene where Jesse is the one who knocks for Walt is almost unbearably tense; Aaron Paul is so phenomenal in the moment that you can almost imagine him pulling the trigger in a fit of indignant rage, and the show reinventing itself as The Jesse Pinkman Story. And even though I didn’t expect Walt to successfully blow up Gus’s car – as I’ve said before, when has a Walter/Jesse assassination attempt ever gone according to plan? – I still caught my breath when Gus stopped himself and went to look out of the parking garage.(*)
(*) I was discussing this episode with Time’s James Poniewozik, and he said he wished Jesse had given more of a tell to Gus when they met in the hospital chapel, rather than Gus suddenly developing a Spidey-sense at the worst possible moment. I see his point, but it also seems like Gus has turned into a super-criminal by now – as Walt tells Jesse in his house, Gus has cameras everywhere, knows everything and has always been 10 steps ahead of them – so while this was skirting the edges of plausibility, the Chicken Man has already displayed many super powers.
As befits an episode with an apocalyptic title like “End Times,” this was an hour (written by Thomas Schnauz and Moira Walley-Beckett, and directed by Gilligan himself) tinged with dread. The music was ominous throughout, the camera so often in tight on Walt or Jesse – and, in the case of the hospital scene where Jesse tells Andrea about the ricin, constantly on the move with them – and the sound and pictures absolutely created the sense that something horrible was going to happen. (It didn’t help my sense of unease that Walt disappeared for a large chunk of the episode, in between Walt spinning his gun by the pool and Jesse showing up to accuse him of poisoning Brock; who know what Walt was up to, or whether he was just frozen and waiting to die?) Walt said what he believed to be his final goodbyes to Skyler and Holly, and didn’t even get a chance to do the same with his son. Saul packed up to skip town as quickly as possible. The mood of the whole episode was so damn dark that I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised if, moments after she stepped out onto the balcony of Hank and Marie’s house for a calming cigarette, Skyler had been shot between the eyes by a Gus-employed sniper.
And then Chekhov’s Ricin Cigarette, which we’d all but forgotten about these past few weeks as Jesse’s loyalty shifted from Walt to Gus, came back in the worst possible way, with Jesse once again inadvertently setting things in motion for Gus to order the death of a child related to Andrea.(**) Though it might be interesting for the culprit to be ambiguous – for Jesse to have no one to blame but himself – the chain of custody timeline Jesse lays out for Walt makes it pretty clear that someone had to fish the cigarette out of the pack while he was at the Super Lab, and this is pretty diabolical (and slightly convoluted) even by Gustavo Fring standards. He spent a long time underestimating the loyalty Walt and Jesse had for each other, but he camethisclose to finding a way to trick one into murdering the other, and what does he care if some little boy is collateral damage in the salvation of his empire and destruction of his most troublesome opponent?
(**) As the CDC website explains, there is no antidote for ricin.There are ways to treat the symptoms of the poisoning, but if it’s been ingested in the way that Tyrus or one of Gus’s other goons presumably got it into Brock’s food, I wouldn’t put his survival odds very high.
So what now? If this was the final season, I would be prepared for anything and everything to hit the fan a week from tonight. Knowing that there are 16 episodes to go takes some of the suspense away, at least on the Walt end of things (and almost certainly with Jesse), and seems to point to Gus going down (likely the result of the kind of desperate last-minute improv that killed Tuco, the Cousins, etc.), but it sure looks like Walt just missed his best possible window for doing that.
Whatever happens, though? Damn, this has been an incredible stretch run for the fourth season.
Some other thoughts:
• Loved seeing Hank once again be smarter than anyone gives him credit for and realizing immediately that the reported cartel hit was just a smokescreen to keep him away from the laundry. And nice to see Gomez be so persuasive and clever in talking his way past the laundry manager, even if he understandably didn’t spot the switch to open the trap door into the Super Lab.
• Hank and Marie’s balcony, by the way? Very cool, and great view. Surprised this is the first time we’ve seen it, though I suppose for the most part the show either films the driveway of that house or on interior sets. May have required special dispensation from the homeowners.
• Paul was fantastic in the Walt/Jesse confrontation scene, but Cranston was no slouch himself, from the paternal way he spoke as Walt tried to explain why he wouldn’t have poisoned Brock to the defiant, almost eager look on his face when he pulled the gun to his forehead. Walt has made so many decisions out of blind self-preservation, but his early conversation with Skyler suggested a man who had finally accepted, perhaps even welcomed, the prospect of death rather than more running, more crime, more chance for his loved ones to suffer for his sins.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org