Mid-season finale review: ‘Breaking Bad’ – ‘Gliding Over All’

A review of tonight’s “Breaking Bad” – the last episode of 2012 – coming up just as soon as I get Queen for a Day and a 5K…

“GLIDING o’er all, through all,
Through Nature, Time, and Space,
As a ship on the waters advancing,
The voyage of the soul–not life alone,
Death, many deaths I’ll sing.”
-Walt Whitman, “Gliding Over All”

Of course.

Of course this batch of episodes had to end this way.

How else could it?

We’ve known a few things going into this. We knew that there would be eight episodes this summer, and then the last eight almost a year from now. (No exact premiere date yet, but figure on roughly the same time as this year.) We knew that these 16 episodes were being treated as a “season” at least on a contractual level (everybody gets raises if they’re separate seasons), and the slow build of these episodes suggested Vince Gilligan and company weren’t trying to cram 13 hours of plot into 8 hours of show, then do it again next summer. We knew from the first scene of the season that a lot of time by “Breaking Bad” standards would pass before we got to the end, and also that Walt had very, very far to fall on the way there.

In hindsight, “Gliding Over All” is the only way this half-season could have ended, I think. It takes us nearly a quarter of the way to Walt celebrating his 52nd birthday with a free Denny’s breakfast and a machine gun, but more importantly it takes us on the first big step to that moment.

There wasn’t enough time left in these episodes to plausibly build to some apocalyptic showdown like we got at the end of Seasons 3 or 4. There was, on the other hand, enough time to plausibly show Walt achieving his ultimate victory – wealth, power, respect, love and even fear – right before a man in need of bathroom reading is about to snatch it all away from him.

Suddenly, Walt’s Icarus speech to Jesse seems to be inadvertently pointing right back at Mr. White, no? He flew close to the sun, got to bask in its warmth and light and majesty, and now he’s gonna come crashing down to earth.

Whatever issues I’ve had with pacing and plot logic at times this season, “Gliding Over All” was an absolutely gorgeous piece of work, in both the visual sense and the way it brought us to the next, final phase of Walter White’s story.

Let’s talk pretty pictures first. Director Michelle MacLaren has been behind the camera for the series’ most exciting action sequence (the shootout at the end of “One Minute”), and arguably its most visually stunning episode (“4 Days Out”), and I think she may have just topped the latter. Every frame of “Gliding Over All” couldn’t have been more beautifully assembled, from the many shots of the back of Walt’s bald, evil skull to the quick, efficient violence of the skinhead(*) assault on Mike’s guys to the relentless, giddy montage of the meth business turning into everything Walt dreamed it could be way back when – efficient, bloodless and wildly lucrative – with one image bleeding seamlessly into the next. Even by the standards of this technically brilliant show, this was something.

(*) Mike’s dead, and Walt is now associating with a much lower class of bald gentlemen.

But I also loved how Moira Walley-Beckett’s script turned “Gliding Over All” into a strange kind of series-finale-that-wasn’t. Not only does Walt think he gets his happily-ever-after, but it comes in an episode overflowing with callbacks to important moments in his journey. Walt again tries to distract himself from the weight of his life by fixating on an ordinary fly. The painting in the motel is the same one he had in his hospital. The dented paper towel dispenser hasn’t been replaced since he beat the hell out of it following an unexpectedly good diagnosis in the aforementioned “4 Days Out.” And when Walt and Jesse reunite briefly, the only thing that eases the obvious tension is talk of all their misadventures in the RV that Jesse nicknamed the Crystal Ship.

It’s an hour so aware of the past, and yet so focused on the ending Walt thinks he’s getting, that if we didn’t know about the remaining eight episodes, it would be easy to look at the penultimate scene by the White family pool as an ironic conclusion to the series: Walt leaves a trail of bodies behind, but ultimately doesn’t suffer for his sins of violence, or of hubris, and gets to enjoy it all. But because I knew there were eight more to go, and had seen Mr. Lambert make his bacon spell out 52, I spent that entire scene on edge. This was too happy, too peaceful. Something horrible had to happen in that moment. Would Walter Jr. leave Holly too close to the pool while getting the sunscreen? Would some previously-undiscovered pair of Salamanca relatives (the Second Cousins, perhaps?) suddenly enter the backyard, guns blazing? Would Jesse pick the wrong moment to swing by and thank Skyler for telling him about the splendor and majesty of the Albertson’s deli counter?

But no. It was much simpler and more effective than that. Like the ricin capsule that Walt didn’t wind up using on Lydia, doom isn’t coming for Walt in an obvious, instantaneous way, but in a more painful, time-released fashion. Hank has had the evidence in front of him all this time, but he couldn’t see it because Walter White wasn’t that guy to him. But now he is. Now Hank knows. He may not know it all yet, but he knows a lot – including Jesse Pinkman’s past association with both Walt and Heisenberg. We’ve known for many seasons how fixated Hank is on catching the man in the black hat, and we were reminded tonight (in a great moment for Dean Norris) just how hard Hank has taken his inability to stop this guy and the violence associated with him. But we also know that Hank cares about his in-laws, and is just coming off a three-month stint of playing daddy to Holly.

What’s he going to do now?

Whatever it is, it will in some way lead Walt to go on the run under another identity, and then lead him back to Albuquerque in search of heavy artillery. He may need to use that against Hank, or Jesse (especially if Jesse ever finds out about Brock and/or Jane), or perhaps Todd and his skinhead pals, or even some player to be named later.

But we know where this man has been, and the many deaths he’s sung. And we can only guess of how much more death there will be when the summer of 2013 rolls around.

Can’t wait. Don’t want to wait. But this was a damn good note to go out on.

Some other thoughts:

* I keep pretty exhaustive notes of each episode, and I can’t find any record of Gale giving Walt that autographed copy of “Leaves of Grass,” though it fits with what we know of their relationship and shared love of the other W.W. Am I mistaken, or did that not happen on camera?

* Okay, if I know the internet, not only will there be GIFs galore of Walt and Skyler standing over the pile of money (and there’s already one of Hank on the can), there will be people extrapolating by the length, width and depth of the pile how much money is there. I almost feel like AMC should have set this up as a contest, like guessing the number of jelly beans in the jar.

* Not a lot of Jesse in this one, but Aaron Paul was fantastic in his two scenes, with so much hurt and betrayal washing over Jesse’s face as Walt closed the garage door on him, and then with the barely-suppressed terror he had throughout Walt’s visit to his house.

* Jesse flinging the unneeded pistol across the floor nicely echoed the earlier reveal that Walt had the ricin capsule with him for the meeting with Lydia, and was prepared to dump it in her coffee if she hadn’t given him a reason to keep her alive. It’s not paranoia if they’re out to get you, right? And Chekhov’s ricin lives to be used another day.

* Not sure how Kevin Rankin (Devil from “Justified”) got typecast as a white power type, but work’s work and I’m always happy to see the guy on camera. Also funny to see Rankin and Jesse Plemons together, since I can’t instantly recall Herc and Landry sharing scenes on “Friday Night Lights.”

* I was all ready to compliment Nat King Cole’s “Pick Yourself Up” as the show’s best montage song in quite some time, and then they had to bust out “Crystal Blue Persuasion” by Tommy James & The Shondells for the meth montage. I’m trying to decide if the existence of a song with that title only recently came to the attention of the production, or if they’ve been keeping it in their back pocket for the absolute perfect moment – which this sure seemed to be.

* For the most part, condensing three months of criminal activity into a montage worked for me – it’s easier to pull that off when things are going well than to race through the tough times – but I do wonder if, when season 5.2 begins, we’re going to discover that it wasn’t quite as easy for Walt to walk away from the business as he suggests to Skyler. Too many people now depend on that blue meth, and who’s going to make it if Walt doesn’t? Todd? (Then again, that might be the perfect ending: Walt and Jesse wind up dead or in prison, while it’s Todd who gets to be the new Scarface.)

* In the flash-forward, Walt is taking pills, suggesting the cancer is back. Do you think that was the diagnosis he got in this MRI session (which might have triggered his decision to retire and enjoy his final months with a happy, cohesive family), or is that still to come?

Because I didn’t see this episode in advance, and then because of some scheduling issues, my usual season-ending chat with Vince Gilligan won’t be until Thursday of this week. Look for it sometime that afternoon.

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com