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”-“Gliding over All” (05.08, 2012)

“Gliding Over All” (05.08, 2012)

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

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

 

We all knew this was how this half-season would end, didn’t we? It was obvious that it would be Hank discovering Walt’s identity, and as soon as the writers started playing Chekhov’s gun with the Leaves of Grass book, it was obvious what the method of discovery would be. Thankfully, rather than something ridiculous like Hank thinking that only Heisenberg would possibly read Leaves of Grass, the writers inserted an inscription from Gale that made Heisenberg’s identity clear (which does undoubtedly seem like something Gale would have done).

However, the episode went through some machinations before ending on Hank’s stunned face at the revelation.

First, Heisenberg and Todd clean up after Mike using the hydrofluoric acid again, which is treated even more matter-of-factly than the last time. The simplicity of the shooting and quickness of the description—just showing us the car, a body inside, and the same barrels that have housed bodies before—make it into a small, unimportant action, a sign of how commonplace killing has become in Heisenberg’s world. Skyler was upset about “shrugging off killing people as ‘shit happens,’” but Heisenberg has even taken it a step further: melting the dead bodies of his co-workers in hydrofluoric acid doesn’t even merit that much thought.

Then, Heisenberg makes a deal with Lydia for the names of Mike’s nine former Fring employees, and it’s the type of deal that Walter White would like but Heisenberg really doesn’t: in exchange for the names, he will allow Lydia to set up international distribution into the Czech Republic for him. She says that it will double Heisenberg’s profit and reduce his risk, but if there’s one thing we know about Heisenberg at this point, it’s that he doesn’t care about reducing risk and if there’s one thing we know about money on this show, it’s that drug sales never actually result in gaining it. This brilliant-sounding deal is one that is clearly doomed to fail just from that history, and then Lydia tells him that she was making this deal for Gus Fring when Heisenberg killed him. Suddenly, the safe-sounding-but-doomed venture becomes palatable for Heisenberg, as he now will be doing something that even the Chicken Man was never able to do, establishing an empire of a special, heretofore unknown nature.

Then, we get another patented Breaking Bad montage, though this time instead of meth cooking, it’s a balletic, carefully coordinated murder campaign that Heisenberg paid for, taking out Mike’s nine remaining guys as well as the lawyer who appeared ready to flip on him. It’s a beautiful sequence that continues Breaking Bad’s penchant for montages, but takes them in a different direction for the first time this season, and it wraps up the entire Mike storyline for the season.

The rarest of all events in Heisenberg’s life then happens, and it’s shown in Breaking Bad’s favorite method. We get a cooking montage with surely the show’s most appropriate song in history (“Crystal Blue Persuasion” by Tommy James and the Shondells), but it’s showing a three-month period of entirely successful operation. For three months, Heisenberg cooks and deals his meth with apparently no problems, assisted by Todd in the lab and Lydia and the other dealer (whose name I never caught) on the business end. There’s an odd tension to this montage, knowing how rare it is for Heisenberg/Walter White to receive good fortune, even temporarily, on this show, but it isn’t punctuated by explosions or gunfire.

Instead, it is followed by a short sequence in which Skyler shows Heisenberg the fortune he has amassed and explains that it is more than she can launder, more than any car wash could dream of laundering. Skyler tearfully pleads for her children back, never outright saying what it is that she is asking of Heisenberg: that he get out of the meth business. Then, in a shocking scene that is a dead ringer for the scene back in season one when Walt first agreed to get treatment for his lung cancer, Heisenberg tells her, “I’m out.” She accepts his statement and appears relieved at the news, showing the exact same reaction that she did to his acceptance of treatment so many years ago.

In between, he gives Jesse the money he was owed, and we see how terrified of Heisenberg even Jesse has become, as he essentially breaks down and reveals that he has been holding a gun throughout Heisenberg’s visit—it’s a great moment for Aaron Paul. It’s also the first time we’ve seen Jesse recognize what a dangerous man Heisenberg is.

Then, we get a scene of a Skyler/Walt/Hank/Marie/Junior dinner that seems cut straight out of the time before we ever met these people. Until now, a happy dinner among them was something we imagined had to have happened with regularity before the show began but that we had never seen, but here it is. Everyone is seemingly happy, for the first time in the show’s history. Walter White even seems to be back, with Heisenberg nowhere to be seen.

And then, Hank goes to the bathroom and sees the book.

Dean Norris deserves some credit for his reaction, which beautifully told us the shock that he felt, but also the confusion. And, really, what does Hank do now? If he leaves this piece of evidence, he may never see it again. If he takes it, Walt may know. If he calls Steve about it, he’s going to be kicked out of office just like his predecessor. If he tells anyone else, they aren’t going to believe him. It’s a mix of shock and confusion that he plays absolutely perfectly, and, as the least heralded member of the Breaking Bad regular cast, we should throw some kudos to him for it.

The conclusion of this season essentially leaves us back where we started, wondering why, in about nine months, Heisenberg will be Walter White, coughing in a Denny’s, needing a machine gun in his trunk. The truth is, in eight hours, what’s changed is that Hank knows. Yeah, Mike is out of the picture now, but he was also seemingly out of it until being dragged back in at the start of the season. Instead of the continuation of the story of Heisenberg, this season has provided us with a snapshot of the future and few clues as to what will happen. That’s all there is. It was still enjoyable and it was better made than most shows could dream of, but it was frankly a lot of wheel spinning for little reward.

 

Notes

  • There was an interesting and possibly telling shot just before Walt claimed to be “out” in this episode: we saw him getting an MRI and literally being turned 180 degrees. There are many, many possible meanings to this shot, but the most obvious is that it was a shot meaning that Walt’s cancer has returned, since it was after all a medical test and he was shown reversing course.
  • Michelle MacLaren is amazing.
  • I find it difficult to believe that Heisenberg is out. First of all, it would take him some work to get out—he couldn’t just say, “I’m out” and drop everything with the organization of people who depend on him. Secondly, Heisenberg would not leave his empire for anything, including the family that Walter White desperately wanted.
  • I always said that the finale would be first Walt vs. Hank and then Walt vs. Jesse, but I have to admit that at this point, I don’t see how the latter could be the end. He’s going to take on Jesse somehow and needs a machine gun? That seems pretty unbelievable. It also doesn’t sound right that it’s for a final confrontation with the DEA. More likely, either the cartel is finally coming for him or there is something bigger and scarier coming related to Madrigal. The latter is probably the more likely of the two.
  • It’s pretty clear that Walt is going to turn to the “disappearer” that Saul told him about last season, and with Hank’s revelation here, it seems that’s coming soon. How is he going to get to the disappearer and get out before Hank gets to him? It wouldn’t take long for Hank to put him away at this point, since (a) he’s got an incredibly strong circumstantial case already and (b) he’s Hank–he is a relentless, smart agent who will work his ass off until he has everything there is against Walter White.
  • Seriously, what does Hank do right now? It seems like any choice he makes is wrong. It seems like the best thing he can do is call Gomez, which risks ending his own career.
  • This half-season was still good, but it was easily the weakest Breaking Bad has ever been. Hopefully, much like the first half of the last season of The Sopranos, it’s setting up something special.

TV Episode Review: “Breaking Bad”-“Madrigal” (05.02, 2012)

“Madrigal” (05.02, 2012)

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

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

 

Breaking Bad continues to clean up the last season, explaining that Hule indeed took the cigarette from Jesse in Saul’s office and having Heisenberg assuage Jesse’s worried mind about the cigarette by “finding” it in Jesse’s Roomba. It’s an explanation we didn’t really need and the resolution is a bit difficult to swallow, but it does emphasize what these characters have become. While Jesse would definitely have questioned Heisenberg finding the cigarette someplace he had already looked near the end of last season, he now accepts it. Where Walter White in the past would not have known what to do about Jesse’s breakdown after finding the cigarette, Heisenberg now knows to let Jesse feel that self-loathing while half-heartedly trying to calm him down, ensuring that Jesse will not again become as self-assured as he once was while working for Gus Fring. Aaron Paul also gets a great showcase for his talents, as he responds to the discovery of the cigarette not with relief or elation but a complete breakdown, thinking that he lost the cigarette and could have killed someone out of simple carelessness.

Meanwhile, the show again contrives a way to force Mike into working with Heisenberg. Heisenberg, having spent every dime of his money, wants back into the meth business and it’s sensible enough that he would turn to Mike, a seasoned distribution operative, for aid. However, Mike rightly turns his offer of partnership down, stating to Heisenberg that he is a “time bomb” and that he’s sorry that Jesse doesn’t see it. So, Vince Gilligan gives us a group of guys who could spill the beans on the whole operation unless Mike either silences them or pays them off and then has the DEA take away all of the money Gus had stashed away for Mike. It’s rather contrived, but it enforces one of the show’s themes: that crime never really does pay, since there are always new expenses popping up. It’s a bit inelegant by this show’s standards, but it still works.

The other interesting development in this episode is the introduction of Lydia, the nervous Madrigal executive and methylamine provider who asks Mike to silence his operatives and when he refuses contracts someone else to kill them as well as Mike himself. She appears to be a loose cannon similar to Heisenberg, but Mike’s need for money forces him into business with both her and Heisenberg. Mike is clearly uncomfortable with this arrangement, but sees it as necessary, so he makes the arrangements, giving himself as much control as possible and keeping the two radical elements at arm’s length. It seems that Mike is signing his death warrant, and he knows it.

Visually, Michelle MacLaren has long been one of the show’s stronger directors, and this one didn’t disappoint. It’s a beautiful episode, with rich, strong colors and the typical, bordering-on-overused Breaking Bad musical montages. I don’t know how much of the improved visuals is because of MacLaren and how much is because of having Michael Slovis back to cinematography, but it looks better than when he directed the first episode.