TV Episode Review: “Breaking Bad” “To’hajiilee” (05.13, 2013)

Written by George Mastras (Previous Episodes: “Crazy Handful of Nothin’,” “Grilled,” “Mandala,” “I.F.T.,” “Kafkaesque,” “Thirty-Eight Snub,” “Hermanos,” “Crawl Space,” and “Dead Freight”)

Directed by Michelle MacLaren (Previous Episodes: “4 Days Out,” “I.F.T.,” “One Minute,” “Abiquiu,” “Thirty-Eight Snub,” “Shotgun,” “Salud,” “Madrigal,” “Gliding over All,” and “Buried”)

Tension doesn’t always mean not knowing the result, and that may never have been better exemplified than the standoff at To’hajiilee at the climax of this episode. We know that Walt is alive and not in prison in a year, so we know the essentials of what has to happen in that sequence, but there is still tension rivaling anything outside of “Box Cutter” (04.01, 2011) in watching Hank arresting Walt, knowing that the neo-Nazis are going to be coming in. The only question was whether Jesse would survive, and Gilligan and company of course leave that as the unanswered question going into next week.

Watching Walt literally brought to his knees before Hank and Jesse, two people he has consistently out-thought and manipulated to his own purposes ever since his criminal career began, it was impossible not to see the resentment, resignation, and humiliation on Bryan Cranston’s face and the mixture of fear and joy on Aaron Paul’s, a moment that has to remind the viewer of the duo whose chemistry was so often at the center of this show. They have been completely torn apart at this point, and that’s without Jesse even knowing that Walt essentially killed Jane way back in season two. And for the first time, Jesse seems to have won. But of course, as we already know has to happen, the neo-nazis show up, stopping Jesse from winning and continuing Heisenberg’s consistent good luck even when he has resigned himself to failure.

The episode actually began with more of the Continuing Adventures of Todd, Weird Boy, as he completed a cook at a purity of 76% in front of his uncle and Lydia but it came out not blue and then he used his connection to his uncle to apparently hit on Lydia, who was perfectly willing to use his attraction even if she was going to turn down the offer. I’ve said that Todd is a psychopath and also just plain weird, but probably the most clear case of both things we’ve seen is his hitting on Lydia by suggesting that he could have his uncle “smooth things over” with her buyers. Lydia seems to know what’s going on and is manipulative enough not to run away even though she does not want what Todd is offering (either textually or subtextually). It’s a sequence that continues to build both characters, something the show has desperately needed to do for some time. At this point, I feel like I have a handle on Todd but that he’s a rather simplistic character, but Lydia still feels rather enigmatic. She’s obviously very intelligent and she’s a willing manipulator, but it’s difficult to pinpoint much else about her.

Next up, Walt explains his plans to the neo-Nazis, who agree to kill Jesse but want payment in the form of Heisenberg cooking to teach Todd. Walt reluctantly agrees, but the really important thing from this scene is that we learn that he not only doesn’t know that Jesse is working with Hank at this point but seems offended at the very suggestion that Jesse could be a “rat.” In the end, what finally allowed the law to catch up to Heisenberg was his trust of Jesse Pinkman.

Then, Jesse’s phrase (“I’m going to get you where you really live.”) from last week turns out to mean exactly what I first thought–the money. His plan is to get Huell to flip and tell them where the money is, but Walt already planned for that and kept that knowledge from Huell. Hank then takes a picture of a barrell of money and has Jesse call about it, claiming to have found the money and be burning it. The plan works and lures Heisenberg out of Walt and into the desert, plus gets him to angrily admit to a number of crimes on the phone with Jesse.

Michelle MacLaren, as always, does a beautiful job. The wonderful mix of low-key lighting and red coloring in the scene between the neo-Nazis and Walt is an excellent visual that emphasizes the dark deeds going on and perhaps even emphasizes the Nazi connections by using their flag’s colors as the dominant colors for the scene. The red-hued Todd looking down into the darkness, a willing participant in blood but not a true member of the evil, is an image any film would be proud of, let alone a television show.

There wasn’t really much that happened this episode. In fact, it felt a bit drawn out to me. However, it’s a little difficult to complain about an episode with such a tense climax. It’s a worthy episode, though honestly perhaps the weakest of this amazing final half-season so far.

Notes

  • “Timmy Dipshit” is a great insult.
  • Why does Skyler give Saul back a ten and five fives? Really, she doesn’t have any twenties and only has one ten? At a car wash where the typical wash seems to be $14.95? Weird. However, I love that Walter Jr. knows the commercials and is excited to meet “the lawyer guy” from them. A great moment of levity in an episode that was otherwise (understandably) light on it.
  • Hank says the van didn’t have GPS, “But Walt doesn’t know that.” Did anyone else immediately think, “Walt would know that?”
  • Say goodbye to Jesse Pinkman, folks. His exit has been drawn out long enough, and I don’t see how Gilligan & co. take it any further. Take a bow for one of the all-time great television performances over the life of this series, Aaron Paul, and then exit stage right.
  • So, he’s heading to Haji’s Quick Vanish to get away from the neo-Nazis, it seems, but what brings Walt back to town, needing a machine gun in the trunk and a vial of ricin, seems more difficult to figure out than ever.
  • Calling Marie felt like it was just added to fill time. The exchange with Saul similarly felt like filler. Especially for an episode written and directed by two of the strongest veterans on the show’s staff, there seemed to be a lot of filler time in this one.

TV Episode Review: “Breaking Bad”-“Dead Freight” (05.05, 2012)

“Dead Freight” (05.05, 2012)

Written by George Mastras (“Crazy Handful of Nothin’,” “Grilled,” “Mandala,” “I.F.T.,” “Kafkaesque,” “Thirty-Eight Snub,” “Hermanos,” and “Crawl Space”)

Directed by George Mastras (No Previous Episodes)

 

Longtime Breaking Bad writer George Mastras gets his first shot at directing in this one, and doesn’t quite live up to the standards set by the usual directors, but the best that can be said for him is that he shows some restraint. Bryan Cranston has directed some episodes in the past, and they have been characterized by overreach, attempting unusual angles, lighting, etc. just for the sake of drawing attention—they haven’t been so much as to be bad, but they’ve been weaker than the usual episode of this show. Mastras goes in the other direction—he’s a bit too afraid to draw attention to himself, following conventions for the most part and only breaking with them for a penchant for longer shots (I mean in terms of distance, not time). Usually, when Breaking Bad gets itself in visual trouble, it’s by trying to be too cute (Remember Shovel Cam and Roomba Cam last season?), so perhaps it’s good that Mastras didn’t do that, though he shows a bit of a lack of imagination. The episode also misses a bit of an opportunity to play around with some genre conventions—it’s a train robbery, for Pete’s sake!—but keeps itself a bit more serious for that, which is in keeping with the tone that the show has adopted this season.

Some of this episode is really spent spinning its wheels yet again. We’ve already seen plenty of evidence that Heisenberg has replaced Walter White, and yet we have a sequence of Heisenberg replacing his once-again-resuscitated (a great comic moment) Aztek and deciding to wear his hat out in broad daylight, even in front of his son and his trusted mechanic. He is Heisenberg now, but we’ve already had that established.

The centerpiece of this episode is Lydia’s continued growth and the unsurprising arrival of Todd as a long-term character. The train robbery is a fun sequence and a rare example of Walt and Jesse’s plan going well (with adrenaline junkie Heisenberg threatening to get everyone in trouble after Mike calls for abortion but in the end not causing any actual problem), as well as the second time this season that Jesse’s insight actually provides the way to do something when Walt and Mike are at an impasse, but it’s the character growth that matters more for the long term, as well as the very end of the episode.

Lydia proves not to have planned what Mike feared she had. However, she also shows just how cold, how smart, how calculating, and how strong she really is by planning the train robbery. Mike reiterates his worries about this second loose cannon, and now we have a bit more to back up his concerns. This is a woman to be reckoned with, whether Walt and Jesse recognize it or not.

Meanwhile, Todd, who was clearly a more important character than the rest of the Vamonos Pest crew from the beginning, rounds out the robbery gang. Like when he saw the danger of a nanny cam earlier (and paying off what was a bit of a heavy-handed moment in a surprising enough fashion that the earlier moment can be forgiven and in fact becomes a far stronger moment now than it was at first), he takes care of the possible danger of a kid who happens upon the robbery without a second thought, pulling out a gun and shooting the kid, thus undermining what had been a successful operation. He’s a cold criminal and clearly has ambition to be a bigger part of the meth business instead of the Vamonos Pest business.

We know how the heartless Heisenberg and the sensitive Jesse will react to this: Heisenberg as though it is just the cost of doing business (or, in Skyler’s words, “shrugg[ing it] off as ‘shit happens’”) and Jesse as yet another death on his own head, particularly since this train robbery was executed according to his own plan. Mike, ever the professional, is likely to react more similarly to Heisenberg, though he will accept Jesse’s self-punishment and not twist it to his own ends the way Heisenberg would. Since Breaking Bad is a show that normally eschews shortcuts, we will have to see it, but hopefully it doesn’t mean more wheel-spinning.

Overall, it’s a decent but uneven episode. For most shows, the train robbery followed by the murder would be an incredible sequence, but for this show it just isn’t quite up to standards.

At this point, it really feels like Vince Gilligan & co. are strained to produce a 16-episode season after building the show on 13-episode seasons. They know where they want to get, but need to fill time getting there, and it’s leading to some issues. It’s still been a good season, just not up to this show’s incredibly lofty standards.