‘Breaking Bad’ – ‘Face Off’: Say uncle

A review of the “Breaking Bad” season 4 finale coming up just as soon as I wait around for a plate glass guy to come…

“Was this you? What happened?” -Skyler
“I won.” -Walt

Because Vince Gilligan had a limited window of availability to discuss the finale – in an interview you can read here – I had to watch “Face Off” last Friday, before “End Times” had aired but after I had written my review. And I was sure glad on both of those fronts, because it would have been damned hard to review “End Times” without betraying what I knew about what really happened to Brock, and because I had bought into Walt’s speech to Jesse about what happened to Brock, while virtually every comment on my “End Times” review is a debate between those who think Gus poisoned Brock, those who think Walt did it, and the minority who think it was just an accident.

So I was able to review one episode and then watch another without letting either be tainted by knowledge or speculation about what was to come, and in the case of finding out the truth about what went down with Brock(*), I was able to be floored by a possibility I had barely considered to that point. As bad as Walter White has broken so far, I was nodding right along with him when he told Jesse that he would never hurt a child. A chill ran down my spine at hearing his smug delivery of the “I won” line to Skyler – where Jesse is wrecked by any violence he has to perform on another person, Walt is just so damned pleased to have outdueled the Chicken Man – but that was nothing compared to my reaction when the camera pushed in on the Lily of the Valley plant in the final shot. 

(*) Most of it, anyway. Though “End Times” did foreshadow the reveal by showing Walt’s spinning gun pointing at the Lily of the Valley plant, the finale still left some blanks to be filled in by outside interviews. Short version of what Vince told me: Huell did, as Jesse initially guessed, lift the cigarette from Jesse while frisking him at Saul’s office (Walt didn’t need to get the cigarette itself; just to have it no longer be on Jesse’s person), and the writers never entirely broke down how Walt might have gotten the berries to Brock, but knew he would have had enough time to do it.

Even before that shot, “Face Off” was another tremendous finale for the show – in many ways more satisfying than last year’s “Full Measure,” which was mainly building towards the great cliffhanger. Walt finally takes out Gus (and Tyrus), with a huge assist from Tio, who’s more than happy to end his miserable existence if it’ll take his hated nemesis with him, and it was such a pleasure to see a Walter White scheme unfold almost entirely according to plan. The moment when I realized what Tio’s trip to the DEA field office was really about filled with me with a perverse joy, the shot of Gus’s wrecked body right before he died (standing straight and regal to the end, even when missing half his face) will haunt me, and the sequence of Walt and Jesse finally working together to destroy the Super Lab like the well-oiled machine they’ve only been from time to time in the series was a tremendous pay-off to their season-long schism.

And then the final reveal blew up everything I thought I knew about the state of the White/Pinkman team, and had me frantic at realizing how long it will likely be before we get new episodes, let alone a new episode in which Jesse finally finds out about either Brock or Jane.(**) Just fantastic, from beginning to end.

(**) I asked a couple of the other critics who saw the finale in advance whether they think Jesse would be angrier about Brock or Jane, and the consensus was strongly for Brock. Though Walt accidentally put Jane in the physical position to choke to death, and did nothing to save her, Jesse will also know that Jane was in a doom spiral and played a role in her own demise, whereas Brock was just an innocent kid whose life was put at risk by Mr. White as part of his own selfish game. 

But given the contentious discussion about “End Times” – not just the question of who poisoned Brock, but various other dominoes that fell – I think there are several important questions we have to answer about “Face Off,” and your answers to each may be very different than mine:

1)Does Walt poisoning Brock make logistical sense?

For the most part, yes – and ultimately, much more sense than Gus being the culprit would have been. Even by Gus plan standards – and this is a man whose plot to take out Don Eladio and his capos left a lot to chance – this seems convoluted. If he wanted Walt dead and couldn’t get Jesse’s assent, surely one of Mike’s contacts would have been able to arrange a death that appeared accidental. And failing that, Gus would have killed Walt and started applying pressure to Jesse in other ways (here with imprisoning him in the Super Lab, but I imagine threatening his brother could have come next, etc.). Even if he knew about the ricin cigarette, it’s too much.

Walt, on the other hand? Walt doesn’t have the resources or time that Gus does. He has to work with what he knows: chemistry, and the psychology of his former student and current partner. He knows about the ricin cigarette, and that Jesse still carries it around but hasn’t used it, knows how Jesse feels about children (and/or people he cares personally about) being hurt, and knows that he’s been able to convince Jesse of all sorts of insane ideas over the last year – starting with the decision to go into business together.

You can question whether Huell (who until now has been depicted as a clumsy oaf and not in any way an A-Teamer) would be able to successfully lift the cigarette (or swap in a different pack) without Jesse noticing, and also about how Walter White might have gained access to Brock and gotten him to eat the berries. But overall it’s the much more plausible angle of the two – and makes several seemingly-sketchy moments last week more logical in hindsight. I buy Gus’s Spidey-sense moment much more if he played no role in the poisoning and is wondering why Jesse is telling him about it in such an accusatory way than I did when I was under the mistaken belief that he did it. (Though Gilligan gives a good argument for why he thinks Gus’s reaction works either way.)

2)Does Walt poisoning Brock make character sense?

Unquestionably yes.

Though we’ve debated off and on for years exactly how sympathetic Walter White is or should be, he’s been on a bad road for a long time, going deeper with each passing season. He got into the meth trade to make money, then declined multiple opportunities to get out when other financial opportunities (Gretchen and Elliott) or changes in health (the successful cancer surgery) presented themselves. He killed people first out of self-defense (Emilio and Krazy-8), then to protect his reputation and legal freedom (Jane, though there it was as much about inaction as action), then to protect his partner (the two corner dealers), and was more than prepared to shoot Gale, who represented a threat to Walt but wasn’t the threat itself. This is a progression in his journey, not an improbable leap. Walter White is all about Walter White, and though he told Skyler last week that he’s prepared to face the consequences of his actions, his survival instincts and narcissism are too damn strong. When the spinning .38 snub landed on the plant, he saw an opportunity and took it. Gilligan argues that from Walt’s perspective, the hope was to make Brock sick but not fatally so – and you can see relief on Walt’s face when he finds out Brock will survive – but I think ultimately if Walt had to choose between his own life and that of a kid he doesn’t know, he would choose his own. Maybe he wouldn’t have done that at the start of season one, but he’s come to enjoy life, and the adrenaline rush that comes with winning, too much to still go by the old moral restrictions.

Along similar lines, the episode foreshadows the Brock reveal with the earlier scene where Walt sends his next door neighbor Becky (played by Vince Gilligan’s mom) into his house, like a canary in a coal mine, just to flush out any goons Gus might have parked there. Again, he was glad when she survived, but he still sent her in there, knowing full well that she could have stumbled across the goons and taken a bullet to the face as a result. This is who Walt is now: a guy who will use anything and anyone, innocent or guilty, to keep himself alive.  

Also, one of the reasons I went along with Walt’s story was because, as I said about his tearful speech to Walter Jr. in “Salud,” Bryan Cranston is a brilliant actor, but Walter White isn’t. What I failed to factor in is the third man in the equation: Heisenberg, who very much is a good actor – or, at least, is good at seeming to believe whatever bullshit he’s spewing at Tuco, Gus, etc. “Crawl Space” ends with Walt underground, cackling hysterically, having completely broken from reality after the confluence of bad news he receives. He’s framed through the trap door as if he were a dead man in a coffin about to be buried, and you can look at that as the show portraying the death of Walter White and the full-time birth of Heisenberg. At the very least, he’s much more in Heisenberg mode throughout these two episodes than he’s been in a while, and I buy that Heisenberg could sell Jesse on this fable.

3)Did the show play fair with its audience in telling the story this way?

Here’s potentially the stickiest issue – though I understand anyone and everyone who wants to object to the logistics of the thing as implausible. Through four seasons, “Breaking Bad” has had a fairly consistent narrative style and voice. It takes an objective third-person view of this world, giving us access to people and events that Walt doesn’t know about, but it also goes out of its way to show you everything relevant that’s happening from Walt’s point of view. We know what he’s thinking, what he’s doing, what he’s planning, more than 95% of the time. Before this season, the most obvious exception that comes to mind is the first half of the season 3 finale, when we don’t know that Jesse is still in town and that he, Walt and Saul are all in communication with each other.

So this is a significant departure from the norm, but not completely without precedent. (Even within the context of this episode, we don’t know the details of Walt and Tio’s plan for a long time, which makes Tio’s behavior at the DEA offices so surprising, and darkly funny.)  And it’s a significant departure setting up the reveal of the most significant (but also not unprecedented) step in Walt’s transformation from Mr. Chips to Scarface.

Is it appropriate that such a big moment would come out of misdirecting the audience (some, anyway; lots of you seem to have fingered Walt all along) for an episode and a half? Is that a cheat?

For me, it worked. As I said, I was wowed by the episode and then gobsmacked by the reveal. For those of you who’ve spent the past week debating among the Gus/Walt/accident camps, I’m sure it was much less so, and that lack of surprise may have made you feel more or less manipulated as a result. But in hindsight, I think we do see the moment where Walt decides on this course of action – when his expression changes from resignation to calculation after the gun points to the plant – and the rest is misdirection but not an outright cheat. Walt and the show have been building to this moment for a while – it’s certainly much less out of the blue than the falling airplane debris from the end of season 2 – and so I’m okay with both the development and its presentation. If ever there was a moment for the show to bend, if not break, its own storytelling rules, it’s this moment, I believe.

Again, I understand that opinions on this will vary wildly, regardless of what camp you were in going into the finale. (I completely get, for instance, why someone would argue that this, of all moments, is one we needed to see step by step.) To me, this was both another fantastic hour of suspense and intrigue, and another brilliant chapter in this much larger saga, which still has 16 more to go.

Walter White began this season at an incredibly low point, spent much of it as the prisoner of Gustavo Fring, suffered one humiliation after another… and yet when we come to the end, there he is, on top of that parking garage, master of all he surveys (including Gus’s station wagon, never to be driven back to Los Pollos Hermanos). He has vanquished his greatest enemy (and, as collateral damage, eliminated two other men who have wished him dead at one point or another, even if one of them was a willing participant and obvious suicide candidate). He has put Jesse Pinkman firmly back on Team Walt. He has perhaps finally satisfied Hank’s obsessive quest to find Heisenberg (though my money’s on Hank getting back on the scent). He has kept his family safe, and sent a stronger message than ever to Skyler that he is the one who knocks and that she should perhaps step cautiously around him.

Much is still up in the air in terms of Walt’s position in the drug trade. Don Eladio’s cartel has been wiped out, as have most of the core members of Gus’s operation (but not Mike, which I’ll get back to), but video footage exists of Jesse producing the Heisenberg formula south of the border, and Eladio’s cartel was just one of many. I don’t think Vince Gilligan intends to spend the series’ final 16 hours on Walt and Skyler really getting the car wash humming. Jesse may not be gung-ho for getting back into the business (and he has much more of a nest egg saved from his stint in the Super Lab than Walt does), but I imagine those two will be back cooking somewhere, some way. And with Gus eliminated, Walt is currently Bad-Ass Number One in the greater Albuquerque area. His power is as great as it’s ever been, but so are the moral depths to which he’s sunk to consolidate this power. Though Vince told me it wasn’t necessarily planned this way, I couldn’t help noticing that this is the first time a Walter White plan has worked spectacularly from beginning to end (if we allow for the hiccup with Gus in the parking garage), and it happens as a result of Walt becoming as unquestionably despicable as any of the men he’s gone up against here or in seasons past. To make it to the top of this business means breaking especially bad, and Walt has absolutely done that.

Something tells me the final season (or two half-seasons) will deal with Walt rising even higher monetarily, and falling even lower ethically. And I can’t wait to see every last minute of those 16 hours.

Having spent so much time on the last 30 seconds or so of the episode, perhaps I need to deal with the rest with the bullet points:

• A moment of silence for Gustavo Fring, and for one of our last opportunities to see Giancarlo Esposito’s incredible performance in this role? (Gilligan said he’d like to have Gus appear again at some point in flashback, akin to how Gale continued to be present this year.) Such an indelible character and performance, all the way up to his final moments, where he was still so damn precise in all his movements, even as he was letting his desire to personally avenge Max’s death overwhelm his usual cautiousness. It’s still amazing to me that Gus, like Ben on “Lost,” was something of an accidental super-villain. Remember, the Cousins were supposed to be the big villains of season 3, and it was only when the writers realized they had to die sooner rather than later – and then decided that Gus would be the man pulling the strings of their deaths – that Gus became the master criminal we saw for the last season and a half. Great work, all around, and while I’ll miss Gus’s regular presence, Walt and Jesse are right on the roof when they say he had to go – if Walt’s going to become Scarface, then at a certain point, Scarface can’t have a boss anymore.

•How fantastic was it that the bomb’s detonator is the bell that Tio has been so ominously ringing for parts of the last three seasons? I knew I was going to miss Esposito whenever Gus died, but these last few Tio appearances have allowed Mark Margolis to do some incredible work, as well. No words, so little range of motion or expression, and yet so much said with just those eyes and the curl of his lip. Who knew I’d actually be rooting for the sick old bastard in the end?

• The scenes with Tio’s nurse patiently using the bell and an alphabet board to figure out what he had to say were pretty much “Breaking Bad” in a nutshell: we don’t care how long this takes, we’re going to get it right, dammit. (And it’ll usually have more weight because of how long it takes.)

• Some of you were wondering why the cops and/or feds hadn’t immediately descended on Jesse after the doctors were told about (what turned out not to be) ricin poisoning. Turns out it took them a few hours to mobilize, but they made their move, and temporarily kept Jesse out of harm’s way. (And would have done so for the whole time if Jesse had simply called for a ride instead of foolishly running down the sidewalk.)

• As I said above, Hank gets his moment of triumph: between Gus’s explosive death and the fiery destruction of the laundry (which was torn down in real life) and the lab beneath it, everyone knows how right he was about both man and location. But I still say he’s feistier than ever within a few episodes of next season.

• Mike conveniently spent these last few episodes recuperating in Mexico, and completely out of the fray. Assuming season 5 doesn’t start with a big time jump (if nothing else, it might allow Jesse and Walt to get more current-looking phones), I look forward to Mike finally getting back into town and discovering the insanity that went down while he was healing in that white tent.

• If Skyler ran all the way to Four Corners after getting the “one who knocks” speech, what’s her reaction to “I won” going to be? Or did she already make her bed here, and will ride it out in that house and that car wash until the bitter end?

• One bit of Walt’s plan that required a bit of improv: Saul’s secretary taking advantage of the situation – and her intense dislike of Walt – to extort him for $25 grand. I liked getting a glimpse of what a relatively minor figure in Walt’s criminal enterprise must think of him, always showing up unannounced, making urgent demands, etc.

• Two notable songs in this one: “Goodbye” by Apparat, which added another very spaghetti Western feel to Gus’s long walk into the nursing home, and “Black,” by Danger Mouse, Daniele Luppi and Norah Jones over the final sequence.

As I said, the Gilligan interview will be up around 2:10 a.m. Eastern – UPDATE: here it is – and I imagine we are going to have a lot to talk about between now and whenever season 5 begins.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com