TV Episode Review: “Breaking Bad” “Felina” (05.16, 2013)

Written by Vince Gilligan (Previous Episodes: “Pilot,” “Cat’s in the Bag,” “…And the Bag’s in the River,” “Peekaboo,” “ABQ,” No Mas,” “Full Measure,” “Box Cutter,” “Face Off,” “Live Free or Die,” and “Madrigal”)

Directed by Vince Gilligan (Previous Episodes: “Pilot,” “Full Measure,” “End Times,” and “Face Off”)

As I have said, Breaking Bad exists in a moral universe. Its biggest characters, therefore, had obvious fates (even if I questioned one of those for a long time): Walter White had to die, and along the way had to pay for his sins in some way; Jesse Pinkman had to get to escape into some sort of freedom from the hell he had endured as punishment for his sins; Skyler White couldn’t escape scot-free but Flynn had to come out with more than he had. What the show’s finale had to do was reach all of those fates in ways that weren’t overly predictable, and for the most part it did. It was by no means one of the strongest episodes of Breaking Bad–particularly coming so closely after “Ozymandias,” which might well be the finest episode of television in history–but it was a generally fitting conclusion to a series that has often reached predictable conclusions in unpredictable ways.

Alice Cooper has commented over the years that the reason his stage persona dies at the end of every concert is that it is the way in which the audience receives absolution for its enjoyment of his crimes, transgressions, and sins throughout the evening. The audience delights in the man with the strange eye makeup as he desecrates corpses, takes on the persona of a serial killer, and even runs for President. So that they can be forgiven for their delight, Alice dies. In the same way, Heisenberg had to die. The glamorous, sexy sort of criminality in which he so often engaged thrilled the audience with shootouts, explosions, and frantic drives against time, and he had to pay for providing those thrills. But he died two episodes ago, leaving behind Walter White.

Did Walter White have to die? Probably. This version of Walter White finally admitted that his criminal activity made him feel “alive” and that he had done it all for selfish reasons, not to help his family (and admitted it not just to himself but to Skyler in perhaps the most effective scene of this episode). This version of Walter White, while he was broken and dispirited the way the Walter White of the first season was, had embraced the darkness and evil within as a part of himself. He may have been afraid to wear the black hat, but he also no longer needed it. This Walter White was a danger to everyone, but he was also walking into his own death and knew it.

In the end, Walt was able to design and effect a cunning plan that forced Gretchen and Elliott to acknowledge their relationship with him, got nearly $10 million to his son, gave him a chance to say goodbye to his wife and daughter, ensured that his empire would not continue on without him, and let his former loyal partner go. It was smart, efficient, and, ultimately, exactly the kind of selfishness-masquerading-as-righteousness that has always characterized this man.

Did he save Jesse out of some feeling of guilt over all he’s done to the young man during the last two years? No. He saved Jesse because he wanted Jesse to believe that he was sacrificing himself to save Jesse and because he was too selfish and weak to pull the trigger on himself and he believed that he could still force Jesse to do it.

Did he kill Jack, Todd, and their crew because he wanted to put the genie back in the bottle, so to speak, and protect the world from this evil that he had unleashed? No, he wanted to make sure that his empire remained his, even visiting a lab in which he had never worked and leaving his blood on it with his dying breath, marking it as his even though he had in fact never even seen it before, because Walter White wants everyone to know that it was his and his alone.

Did he leave his money with Gretchen and Elliott for Flynn out of some sense of obligation to his son? No, he wanted to force his rich former partners to admit their connection to him (And to do so in a way that would likely become public and severely cut Gray Matter’s stock prices, considering that they had already been taking actions to distance themselves from him.), and he wanted to ensure that he had not done all of this for nothing. After he pleaded Flynn to take his money so that it was not all for naught last episode, this time he is manipulating his own son into being the outlet for what he has left, emphatically telling Gretchen and Elliott that they cannot even pay any taxes or legal fees related to the trust themselves because it must be only from him.

It was all so fitting, and yet it felt too neat and tidy. Like the conclusion of season four, it felt like an overly quick and clean conclusion to a messy series of events. It felt like tying off the threads that remained instead of a continuation of what had made the show so special. Most people like resolution and like their resolutions to be as full as possible (Just look at the reaction to the final episode of The Sopranos even all these years later.), but I’m often not sure it’s the right course of action, and this episode was a good example of why. Not everything needs to be The Sopranos and leave its ultimate resolution so clearly hanging in the air, and Breaking Bad was always a very closely contained show, but it still felt too pat, too much like running a spell check on a finished document.

Further, for all of the memorable moments this show has given us, there simply wasn’t anything comparable in the finale. Walt’s threat to the Schwartzes and the reveal that the “assassins” were just Skinny Pete and Badger with laser pointers was a great sequence, and his final admission to Skyler was a very good moment, but neither is anywhere near as memorable as much of what came before, and that is a shame.

I’m finding it difficult to explain how I could find this a rather weak episode when it was so fitting and so little of it could have been any different, and yet it was. It wasn’t fun the way the show was in its early days and it wasn’t harrowing the way the show had been in its final run. Instead, like Walter White, it went out with a whimper. And yet, there is really no other way it could have gone.

Notes

  • My former English professor mother has repeatedly claimed that if Walt died in any way it would make him a hero. I argued that he could die a pathetic death and not come out as a hero. Since he was able to get something to Flynn in the end and his final plan went off essentially without a hitch, I’m not sure he didn’t get a heroic gloss. Vince Gilligan has been clear over the years that Walt is a bad guy, not an antihero, but in the end, he put everyone through two years of hell and killed a brother-in-law whom he always resented but left his son with $9.7 million. If you asked him back at the beginning if that would be a good result, I think Walt would say it was. I’m not sure that makes him a hero, but it seems rather a questionable end for the villain of a show that exists in a moral universe.
  • The gun was for the neo-Nazis. The ricin was for Lydia. Once again, the show actually did exactly what we could have guessed from the beginning but took such a circuitous route to get there that it was easy to get it wrong.
  • I don’t see how he could have gotten the ricin into her Stevia, but I don’t think that’s an important detail.
  • Jesse’s ending was as happy as it could be, escaping into the night away from Walt, knowing that he would never see the man who has caused him so much pain again. It had to end there, because Jesse is, in the end, a criminal who has nothing to show for his own crimes; is probably wanted by the DEA, who knows about his connection to Heisenberg; may be a target for the cartel if it ever recovers because of having been there for Gus’s slaughter of Don Eladio and his men; and has seen both of his relationship partners of the last two years end up dead. I doubt he has a happy life, so we had to stop here.
  • Jack’s reaction to Walt’s statement about Jesse made no sense with respect to how the neo-Nazis have acted in the past. They have been exactly the sort of villains who just shoot Walt as soon as he walks in the door, and that’s what was terrifying about them. That was a bad moment for the show, placing plot above character consistency.
  • This was the greatest series in television history and if we call season 5b its own season that well might have been the greatest season in history as well, even if its finale didn’t live up to what came before.
  • If Vince Gilligan plans on continuing in television, he will have impossible expectations for his next series. Good luck to him.
  • Bryan Cranston’s performance throughout this series was absolutely a sight to behold, and I feel like every other dramatic performance in television  is going to pale in comparison for a very, very long time.
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TV Episode Review: “Breaking Bad” “Granite State” (05.15, 2013)

Written by Peter Gould (Previous Episodes: “A No-Rough-Stuff-Type Deal,” “Bit by a Dead Bee,” “Better Call Saul,” “Caballo sin Nombre,” “Kafkaesque,” “Half Measures,” “Problem Dog,” “Salud,” “Hazard Pay,” and “Blood Money”)

Directed by Peter Gould (Previous Episode: “Problem Dog”)

Back in “End Game” (04.12, 2011), a despondent Walter White sits at his backyard table, certain that Gus Fring means to kill him and unable to figure out a way to survive. He absent-mindedly spins a gun around on the table. It winds up pointing at him. He spins the gun again. It points at him again. He spins it again and it finally points at a potted plant, giving him the idea that he uses to escape certain death at Fring’s hands. At that moment what is left of Walter White dies and is replaced by the pure darkness that is Heisenberg. It’s perhaps the single most important scene in Breaking Bad‘s history: a very bad man is being told that he will be punished, understands it, and yet keeps pushing until he finds a way to delay that punishment. This show’s universe is a moral universe, and not just one where morality exists but one where “bad” behavior is punished (even if “good” behavior is not necessarily rewarded).

In “Granite State,” we see that one of the relative good guys, Saul Goodman (who may be a slimeball but is certainly not a villain the way many of our remaining characters are), is allowed to leave in order to live out his life free and clear of Heisenberg. He’s stuck in Nebraska (The horror!) and says it will take everything going right to end up managing a Cinnabon, but he’s not trapped inside Heisenberg’s web any longer.

And the reason that he’s no longer trapped is that Heisenberg is dead, replaced by the empty shell of a man that Walter White was clear back in the pilot. He’s trying to play the part of Heisenberg still, but he can’t do it. He tries to intimidate Saul the exact same way he has done previously, and yet even the cowardly Saul realizes he has nothing to fear when Walt breaks down into a coughing fit. When he ends up in a cabin in New Hampshire, hiding from a nationwide manhunt that the disappearer warns him means he will be caught if he its seen at all, even putting on Heisenberg’s black hat does not give him the strength to walk to the nearest town in order to act out a typically hubristic Heisenberg scheme. The cancer causing him to weaken is obviously part of the issue (The disappearer did say it was eight miles to the town, trudging through snow in the cold.), but there’s also the simple fact that Walter White is a sad, risk-averse man who isn’t willing to risk getting caught so easily. Heisenberg was always convinced of his own ability to do anything he wished and didn’t stop even when prudence should tell him to do so, and Walt’s inability to make the journey to the nearest town even with the hat is a sure sign that Heisenberg is no longer here.

Walt’s New Hampshire adventure also serves to tell Walt that the world no longer has any use for him. While on the surface his pained cabin experience appears to be just a man starved for contact, he also can’t send money to his family, can’t order hits on Jack and his crew, has no Jesse to boss around, can’t contact Skyler, and his son says point-blank, “I don’t want anything from you!” Heisenberg is dead, and Walter White has been rendered completely useless. He’s as impotent as he was for that handjob back in the pilot.

Meanwhile, the neo-Nazis have taken over the show and in so doing deconstructed it. The criminality on this show has often been glamorous and “cool” in much the same way that violence and criminality often is in media. There have been Heisenberg’s bad guy catch phrases (“I am the one who knocks!”), the fancy cars, Lydia’s legs, and always cunning, elegant plans from Walter White. Todd and the neo-Nazis aren’t glamorous. They’re down and dirty pragmatic criminals, and they’re all the more dangerous because of that, and if we didn’t know that before, we certainly do after the murder of Andrea, which is perhaps the darkest moment in this show’s history. It’s not a dramatic moment like when Gus killed Victor or Jesse killed Gale. It’s not a major action sequence like Hank killing the twins or the neo-Nazis killing Gomez. Instead, they just make sure Jesse can see it as Todd lures Andrea outside and calmly puts a bullet through her head and leaves her dead on her own front porch, probably to be found by the little boy Heisenberg decided to poison back when the gun finally pointed away from him.

Meanwhile, we finally got a good example of the cold cruelty of which Lydia is capable, as she nearly broke off her partnership with Todd in anger for Todd having decided to scare Skyler into submission instead of simply killing her, saying, “We’re not Western Union, Todd. We can’t settle for you sending messages.” That scene also was loaded with some brilliant detail emphasizing Todd’s infatuation with Lydia (Todd is drinking tea. He’s disappointed that she wants to sit facing opposite directions. He won’t actually keep from looking at her.) and yet another instance of Lydia mentioning Stevia. It seems clear to me that the ricin is going to replace her Stevia, or else they have paid considerably for placement on the show.

Finally recognizing the futility of his own continued existence, Walt decides to turn himself in, but then he discovers a reason to live, which is of course an attack on his pride. The biggest driving force in Walt’s life as he has cut a swath of destruction through the world has been his pride, so of course it is only a blow to that pride that could bring him back to Albuquerque. The interesting part is who delivers that blow, as it is none other than Gretchen and Elliott Schwartz, his ex-partners who bought him out of a multi-billion dollar company back when it was a startup after a rude ending to Walt’s romantic relationship with Gretchen that has never been fully explained on the show but surely has something to do with his pride again. Hearing them claim that his only contribution to their company was the name apparently* sets Walt off, and he is gone before the federal agents arrive to look for him, making one wonder if he has some plan to attack the Schwartzes and/or Gray Matter in the end. Meanwhile, Gretchen Schwartz, the person who always seemed to understand Walt more than anyone (except maybe for Mike), explains the duality of Walter White and Heisenberg but claims that Walt is clearly gone while we can see that Heisenberg has died and left behind the same Walter White that she knew.

*They also talk about the blue meth being seen throughout the southwest and in Europe, so it’s possible that Walt is reacting instead to the fact that his meth is being peddled without him. Or he could be reacting to Gretchen’s description of him as “the sweet, kind, brilliant man we once knew.” It seems more likely to me that it’s their belittling his contribution to their company, but it’s not impossible that it’s one of those other things.

Peter Gould didn’t distinguish himself as a director in his previous episode (and on this show, that’s praise), and he doesn’t this time either. He makes nice use of some great high contrast lighting in the bar and otherwise composes his shots very smartly, but there isn’t anything that stands out from what Breaking Bad usually does. It doesn’t do him any favors to follow up the incomparable Michelle MacLaren and Rian Johnson, but he holds his own.

Overall, this was yet another amazing episode of Breaking Bad that continued moving chess pieces but left the finale open. It cannot be easy to set up a show like this and not make the finale obvious, but Gilligan and company have done it.

Notes

  • This show has always had more than its share of surprises, but I don’t think I’ve ever been more surprised than I was when it was Saul stepping out of the van at the beginning.
  • From what we hear on the Charlie Rose Show, it’s clear that Walt’s crimes have become public knowledge–even the name Heisenberg and the color of his meth are mentioned.
  • Gretchen and Elliott must be bored as hell during that “interview.” Not much back and forth there!
  • Maybe Jesse will be hidden underground when Walt shows up with the machine gun, so that Walt inadvertently saves him. The fact that Jesse has survived this long makes me think he’s making it out of the finale.
  • Jesse Plemons deserves more attention than he gets for the job he does with Todd. Look at the little smirk he gets at Jesse mentioning his killing Drew Sharp–it’s a kid enjoying his brush with fame at his name being mentioned on TV and he doesn’t care at all that it’s for killing an innocent kid.

TV Episode Review: “Breaking Bad” “Ozymandias” (05.14, 2013)

Written by Moira Walley-Beckett (Previous Episodes: “Breakage,” “Over,” “Más,” “Fly,” “Bullet Points,” “Bug,” “End Times,” and “Gliding over All”)

Directed by Rian Johnson (Previous Episodes: “Fly” and “Fifty-One”)

Back when I reviewed the first episode of this half-season, “Blood Money,” I wrote that, “My guess is that [Heisenberg] is able to buy enough time from Hank to get to use the disappearer but doesn’t kill Hank, leaving the case hanging over Walt as he escapes. However, Lydia is unhappy about the quality she is getting and forces Jesse into the business. Walt somehow finds out about Jesse’s position and goes back to save Jesse, hoping that it will be a final act of redemption.” As has been the case many times in this show’s history, it did end up where I thought it was obvious that it would, but the narrative took surprising twists and turns at every opportunity before getting there. Just as an example, we knew that Walt would have to get Gus out of the way back in season four and I knew it would require him to embrace the evil in himself somehow to do it, but I didn’t expect that embrace to allow him to manipulate Jesse into helping him, let alone the specifics of his poisoning of Brock and so on. This time, I was right that he was going to end up at the disappearer and that Jesse would be forced back into cooking, but I got everything that led to that state of affairs wrong.

This episode, unsurprisingly, opens with a teaser set in a different time, a teaser that is imbued with tension because we are all waiting for the outcome of the shootout from the last episode. Cleverly, the teaser actually foreshadows later events with Holly by showing us a conversation between Walt and Skyler from back when Walt first cooked with Jesse where they decide the girl’s name. It’s an interesting technique, because it should make it obvious that something is going to happen with Holly later but because we don’t really care about this conversation while we’re waiting to find out who exactly dies in the shootout, it’s not really obvious. As with all of these flashbacks, it also reminds us just how much things have changed, with the dumbass meth-head Jesse refusing to listen to the nerdy science teacher explaining the meth production process before we cut to the end of the shootout and watch hardened criminal Walt plead for Hank’s life and then Heisenberg order a sniveling Jesse’s death.

At the scene of the shootout, we see Walt pleading for Hank’s life, appealing to the idea that Hank is “family” and refusing to admit, as Hank says, that Jack has already made up his mind. It looks like the death of Heisenberg, as it is Walter White who pleads (unsurprisingly, unsuccessfully) for Hank, thinking that he has Heisenberg’s manipulative powers. However, Heisenberg returns to order Jesse Pinkman’s death, finding Jesse hiding underneath a car, just after a handshake agreement where we see Jack’s swastika tattoo featured prominently.

Then, Todd interrupts, claiming that they just want to find out what Jesse told the DEA before they kill him, though at least I immediately thought that he was taking Jesse to help cook. Jack may be happy with the quality he’s getting from Todd, but Todd isn’t—he knows what Heisenberg produced and thinks that Jesse can help him reach that level. He may be a psychopath, but he also has a level of professional pride and studiousness about his cooking that only Heisenberg and Gale have ever shared. Heisenberg, in a final act of anger toward the teenaged burnout he had long since broken, finally lets loose the secret that he watched Jane die (Though he omits the detail that he actually turned Jane onto her back, without which she would not have asphyxiated.) and then watches his former partner being taken away by the neo-Nazis.

One of the clear mysteries of the last season has been why Walt is apparently separated from his family, since he’s performing the bacon ritual without Skyler way back at the start of the season in “Live Free or Die.” I had been wondering whether there was anything that Walt could do at this point that would be a bridge too far for Skyler and drive her away, and the only even possible answer I could come up with was for him to kill Marie in order to keep her quiet, since she knows about Jesse at this point. It turns out what finally turned her against Walt wasn’t Walt or even Heisenberg but Walter Jr., who turns her against her husband by saying, “If this is all true and you knew about it, then you’re as bad as him.” She acts like it’s the revelation that Walt killed Hank that sets her off, but she surely would not have reacted by fighting him off before hearing her son say that.

Then we see Jesse’s fate. In a harrowing and beautifully-shot sequence, Todd drags a beaten and bloodied Jesse out of a cell in the ground into his lab and chains him to the ceiling with a picture of Brock and Andrea prominently displayed as a constant warning (surely a warning that carries even more weight from neo-Nazis given their race) then puts on one of the yellow suits we have seen so often and says, “Let’s cook.” Jesse is trapped helping Todd, and Todd does not know mercy. Todd would also surely be willing to kill Jesse as soon as he is no longer providing any value, and Jesse knows how sick Todd is from watching him kill Drew Sharp. In fact, Jesse saw the danger in Todd before anyone else, and we probably should have known then that Jesse’s fate was to end up trapped under Todd’s heel.

Walt then takes Holly and calls back to scare Skyler into submission as Heisenberg, giving her a terrifying speech about the dangers of crossing him even as tears run down his face at the loss of his family and perhaps even Hank’s death. Or perhaps he is mourning the loss of Heisenberg. The man who returns to Albuquerque in the future is Walter White, not Heisenberg, and this moment may have been the end of Heisenberg.

With the police in his house, his son now aware of his actions, probably every living member of his family now talking to the police, and Jesse chained up and forced to help Todd cook, he runs to the disappearer, and leaves town. With two episodes left, Heisenberg’s empire that he prides himself on telling Skyler that he built remains but nothing else he sought does. His real son and his wife have turned against him and he has turned away his own chosen surrogate.

Rian Johnson, the greatest film director working today, returns for his third episode of the series, and it is again a wonder to behold. Michelle MacLaren’s direction is so brilliant that I often say that a film would be proud to have shots that she and Michael Slovis get on this show, but Johnson’s appearances are a reminder of how much of a gap exists between even the best television director and a great film director: in addition to big things like the beautiful night-time lighting at the fire station, he imbues everything with brilliant details like the repeated use of zoom in otherwise static scenes and a simple, static shot of the empty street after Walt has driven away with Holly before returning to Skyler’s collapse. There are so many of these details that one could write an entire review just naming them, so I won’t spend too long, but the episode is perhaps the most beautiful in this show’s history, which is high praise indeed.

Overall, this episode is an excellent and harrowing climax to this point that sets up a reasonably clear finale but leaves enough questions unanswered that we can’t know everything to expect. It’s Breaking Bad at its finest yet again.

Notes

  • Walt has to be coming back to get Jesse out in a final act of “redemption,” I feel fairly certain. But it honestly seems a little strange at this point for him even to discover what’s going on with Jesse.
  • It was nice to see a Johnson regular, Noah Segan (who appeared as Dode in Brick [USA 2005] and Kid Blue in Looper [USA/China 2012]), make a small appearance as the fireman who finds Holly.
  • Who painted “Heisenberg” on the wall? It’s starting to feel like it’s going to be someone closer to home rather than just some random tweeker.
  • Where are Skyler, Walter Jr., and Holly when Walt returns to town?
  • I had a new thought about the ricin—maybe it’s actually for himself. I could see Walt seeking redemption by first saving Jesse with the machine gun and then going to Skyler for forgiveness having already taken the ricin so that she cannot turn him in.
  • Once again, given more to do, R.J. Mitte steps up. He was great in this episode, as were Anna Gunn, Jesse Plemons, and Bryan Cranston.
  • If we want to call season 5b its own season, it is surely the greatest season of television in history.

Update: I had already had the review up for a bit when I realized that I wrote the part about Walt’s phone call as though it were totally credulous and just completely forgot to say anything about the real motivation. The way he was drawing attention to her lack of knowledge and pretending to believe that the police weren’t there, and Skyler’s reaction when he drew attention to her lack of knowledge, suggest that he was actually trying to help Skyler out of the mess by making sure that the police knew it was “Me–me alone!” It wouldn’t shot me if there is at least some reality in what he is saying (Walt has often mixed truth in with his lies.) anyway, but scaring Skyler into submission is only the ostensible motive, not the real one. It’s a rare moment of humanity for Walt these days, and one of the greatest moments ever for Cranston, which is about the highest praise a moment of acting can receive.