A review of tonight’s “Breaking Bad” coming up just as soon as I want to live in a world without Coca-Cola…
“Shut the fuck up, and let me die in peace.” -Mike
We’ve spent this half-season of “Breaking Bad” watching Walter White grow ever more confident, and ever more reckless, in the wake of his improbable murder of Gus Fring. His every action, every word, every dismissal of very legitimate concerns about his latest plan seems to be driven by the same thought: If I can kill the Chicken Man on a million to one shot, I can do anything. That arrogance is every bit on display in the sensational opening scene of “Say My Name,” where Walt invokes that very deed in convincing Mike’s buddy Declan to go into business with him, and being one part Muhammad Ali, one part John Shaft in demanding Declan announce him as Heisenberg.
But Walt isn’t as bulletproof as he thinks, as we see when he nearly botches the murder of Mike, and the expression on his face is pure Walter White, with nary a trace of Heisenberg to be seen. His hubris has left him exposed repeatedly this season, and knowing what we know about Walt’s 52nd birthday, things are only going to get worse from here.
Walter White getting cocky and making mistakes is fine. That fits everything we know about the character. What I’m worried about a little is “Breaking Bad” doing the same – that having pulled off the amazing death of Gus arc, while disregarding some of the open book, step-by-step plotting that had been the show’s hallmark up to that point, the writers may feel compelled to keep reaching for those highs, no matter how shaky the plot logic may have to get.
Because on the one hand, the death of Mike Ehrmantraut is just a gorgeous, devastating scene, and a fitting end to Jonathan Banks’ tenure on the show.
And on the other, it makes no damn sense at all.
Why does Mike, pro of pros, sage of sages, exemplar of all that is wise and patient and level-headed on this show, repeatedly shoot down offers of help from a man he likes and trusts in Jesse, then readily accepts the aid of a man he has every reason in the world to dislike and distrust?
Because the show needed him dead, that’s why – and because the script couldn’t be finessed in some way so that Walt was literally Mike’s only option, or that Walt in some way conned Jesse into letting him be the delivery man without Mike knowing until it was too late.
I don’t buy for a second that, given the choice between the two meth cooks for this errand, Mike would ever choose Walter freaking White – not even under the extreme stress and devastation of losing his money, access to his granddaughter and his life as he knows it – over Jesse(*), or even Saul. And because I didn’t believe that, it made that horribly beautiful final scene not quite as impactful as it should have been. I should have been focusing on Mike’s own pride leading to his downfall by insulting Walt and telling him he should have known his place – just about the last phrase to ever use in front of Walt, but one I believe Mike would have given their relationship to this point. I should have been focusing on the transformation from supercool Heisenberg back to overmatched Walter White, who even apologizes to Mike once he remembers the existence of Lydia. I should have been admiring the gorgeous shot of the sun reflecting on the creek as Mike sat on a rock, waiting to die, and I should have been appreciating just how stupendous Banks was in that scene, as he had been all episode, as he had been since we first met Mike late in Season 2.
(*) UPDATE: And, yes, I’m aware that part of Mike’s motivation was to protect Jesse in the event that his car was somehow being watched, but A)Mike’s life was on the line at this point, and B)even if he absolutely didn’t want to risk Jesse’s freedom, I still do not believe for a second that he would entrust this task to Walt – not even after Walt called to warn him about the cops closing in. Too much bad history there, and too many examples of Walter White being given an inch and stealing a mile. Uh-uh. Does he have no more “guys” left in town? Hell, I could see him calling Todd, or someone from the scrapyard, ahead of letting Walt do it.
And I could appreciate all of those things on some level, but it wasn’t as fully as I should have, because I was busy thinking of how contrived the setup for that scene was. And when you add that to Mike’s improbable decision last week to leave one of Walt’s hands uncuffed, you have a character who’s been treated as Batman from the moment we met him, and who’s suddenly, implausibly, acting like Marvin from “Superfriends,” because the story demanded that Mike be removed from it by any means necessary.
And that’s a shame, because there were so many great moments in this episode, and not just at the beginning and end. Just look at Banks’ face in the scene where the cops are closing in on him at the playground. This is the first time we’ve ever seen Mike Ehrmantraut really sweat, the first time we’ve seen him look defeated. He has just lost everything, and as he looks at the cops, and then looks at his carefree granddaughter on the swing, he knows it, and it’s incredible to watch.
Or take the latest Walt/Jesse break-up scene. These two have had their splits before, and I imagine they’ll reconcile a time or three before the end, but it’s always nice to see Jesse call Mr. White on his lies and hypocrisy – and in this case to see him resist the one hold Walt thought he still had on him by giving up all claim on the money.
Or look at that beautiful shot of Skyler standing in shadow at the car wash, turning to look back at Walt and Jesse, completely out of the loop and unsure of how much she wants to know, but hating every word that comes out of her husband’s mouth.
No, this was a mostly tremendous episode of a drama that’s still among the best there is or ever was. But “Breaking Bad” has set such a high standard for itself – in the same way that Walt prides himself on the purity of the blue meth – that it becomes much more obvious when the show starts taking shortcuts, in the same way that the first batch Walt cooked with Todd almost certainly won’t be as good as the stuff he used to cook with Jesse.
If you want me to supplicate myself before you and say your name, you better bring it to 99.1% or more. No shortcuts. No, to borrow a phrase from the late, great, Mike Ehrmantraut, half-measures.
Some other thoughts:
* A few more words on Mike, because he deserves them. Even as I recognize that he had outlived his usefulness to Walt’s larger story arc, I’m gonna miss that slow-but-steady SOB. The writing of that character, and the performance by Banks, were a clinic on the power of minimalism. Mike said as little as he had to, rarely raised his voice or got flustered, and that made every word he did say, and ever slight change in mood so much more powerful. And his final words were exactly what they should have been: right to the damn point. I hope like hell that Banks gets Giancarlo Esposito’s slot at next year’s Emmys. Career-best work from a guy who’s been a reliable pro for decades.
* This is the second time in three episodes to be written and directed by a longtime “Breaking Bad” writer – in this case, Thomas Schnauz – making his directorial debut. Feels a bit like Vince Gilligan – who got to make his own debut behind the camera late in the run of “The X-Files” – getting to pay it forward.
* Excellent use of “Goin’ Down” by The Monkees” for our latest meth cooking montage.
* Also wobbly, plot-wise: Walt being there at the exact moment Gomez told Hank about Mike’s lawyer flipping. For that matter, Walt’s crocodile tears didn’t play as interesting the second time around because we knew exactly what he was doing, where the first time there was at least some surprise to why he was behaving that way in front of Hank.
* Bacon banana cookies? Hmm…
* I like seeing Walt back in high school teacher mode with Todd, being patient and encouraging him on his effort even as he avoids praising the work itself. This will not end well, will it? And not just because this lunatic is taking written notes on Walt’s process.
* Took no time at all for someone to get up the inevitable gif of Gomez at the bank vault. Enjoy.
I won’t be getting the (mid-)season finale in advance, either, which means I’ll again be attempting to stay up late next week to review that. We’ll see.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org