This review contains spoilers.
The Breaking Bad showrunners know how to stage a setpiece, that’s for sure. The finale of Salud was epic even by this show’s lofty standards: Gus, Mike, and an unsuspecting Poor Jesse, walking into the lion’s den – the cartel HQ AKA Don Elario’s drug pad – and taking down the entirety of the cartel senior management with a poisonous scheme ripped straight from The Princess Bride.
If that wasn’t enough, the episode culminated with Mike and Gus, both mortally wounded (Mike by gunshot, Gus by whatever hideous potion he used to dispatch the cartel), with their lives in the hands of Jesse, someone who’s spent the last few episodes trying and failing to kill Gus.Phew, eh? But Breaking Bad’s ability to pull off big set pieces has never been in question, really.
What makes it so good is how it uses them to pay off its story strands in unpredictable yet satisfying ways, and the way it weaves the violence and action in amongst the brilliantly observed, quietly brilliant character moments.
There’s been much debate over this series of Breaking Bad over whether it has been as purely exciting as the ones that have preceded it. This is because the first half of the fourth series has lacked some of the more outlandish moments that everybody remembers from seasons past – the Hitchcockian visit to Tio’s shack in early season two, Hank’s trailer showdown with Walt and Jesse in early season three, and of course Hank’s car park battle with the cousins, also in season three.
What season four has done, though, is totally master the slow burning narrative, while at the same time refining the show’s ability to pull off organic plot development. In this sense, it’s been the best season of Breaking Bad yet – each episode has built on the foundations of the one before it in a way that has felt completely natural, yet without ever succumbing to predictability. That’s what made the grand poisoning so effective – it had to happen. There was no other place for the story to go, yet none of us realized it until it was actually happening.
Gus was in an impossible predicament with the cartel. His choices were to either sign half his business away, or see everything he has worked for ritually destroyed in front of him. As a result, he had to resort – to borrow some jocky sports parlance – “to go big or go home”, something Mike alluded to in as many words when he promised Jesse that either all of them would be returning from Mexico, or none of them. He also might not have made such a huge power play if the significant danger of Sherlock Hank wasn’t looming on the horizon, and let’s not forget what was probably his prime motivation: revenge for his murdered business partner.
Similarly, let’s consider the end of the episode – Jesse, responsible for saving the lives of Gus and Mike. It’s a sign of how much of a paradigm shift we’ve undergone in terms of our allegiances and sympathies that it takes a while to even register that Jesse could kill both of them and solve Walt’s problems in seconds. After Walt’s spectacularly ill-judged hissy fit and subsequent beatdown, he’s blown his chance; if he’d hung tight, not let his paranoia and ego dictate his behaviour, and let Jesse go to Mexico, Gus and Mike would almost certainly be dead by the next episode.
As it stands, the water is a lot muddier – both Gus and Mike have recently displayed genuine trust in Jesse, and have both even gone so far as to save his life (Mike by dragging him away from a bullet, Gus by confiscating Jesse’s shot of poison).
Then again, we’ve seen a harder, more pragmatic side to Jesse recently – his impressive verbal smackdown on the cartel chemist (played, in a neat bit of casting, by Carlo Rota, AKA the brilliant but annoying Morris from 24) being just the most recent example. What if he took this opportunity to take out Gus and Mike, cut out Walt, and assume control of the empire himself, using the necklace as proof that he took down the baddest gangster in Mexico? Could it be the end of Poor Jesse, and the beginning of Fuck Yeah, Jesse? This could conceivably happen. I hope it doesn’t for now, because Mike and Gus are such wonderful characters, but it could. The foundations have all been laid.
This is what I meant when I talked about establishing plausibility last week. Yes, the events in the show are often outlandish, but the internal logic of the world and the chracters is watertight, so much so that you often end up slapping your head – of course that’s what should have happened. What makes the writing so astonishing is that you never really see any of the machinery – the plot moves into place organically, without you ever seeing where or why the writers are making the decisions they do, until it actually happens.
That’s great, great writing, but for all the exceptionally clever plot machinations and bombastic violence, sometimes Breaking Bad’s at its most powerful when it just sits down and lets the characters talk. Has there been a more harrowing scene in the show than Walt’s breakdown in front of Walt Jr in this episode?
Walt has been cutting a pathetic figure all season, but rarely has he or anyone looked as sorry as he did here – sobbing, dribbling, staggering around in his underpants, drunk and stoned on prescription painkillers, his face swollen and bleeding, pouring his heart out about his (contrived) indiscretions in front of his horrified son.
No one wants to see their father like that, it’s true, and Walt apologises to his son in a monologue that actually proved to be pretty expository on some of his own behaviour. He describes his own sick father with a noticeable degree of loathing and disgust, describing him as small, twisted, ugly, unfeeling, and memorably, like a paint can with something loose rattling around inside.
We’ve seen that the fear of appearing weak is a huge motivator in Walt’s life – it’s pretty much been driving the show from the beginning – so for Walt to think that his son has seen him as a weak, pathetic man crushes him. But Walt Jnr’s rejoinder is perfect – he may have looked weak, but at least he was being honest: at least it was real.
It’s the same mistake he made with Jesse, and never has the parental bond between Walt and Jesse been made more explicit than here, when he mistakenly calls Walt Jnr Jesse as he leaves the room. But as with Walt Jnr, Walt could have appeased Jesse by simply being honest with him. He could admitted that he didn’t have a plan, he didn’t know what to do next, and that we has frightened, and it would have been fine.
At least they would have been in it together. But instead, he had to be controlling, and paranoid, and boisterously overbearing. Now Walt’s on his own, and, as we see him provoked by one of Mike’s flunkies, he’s got to get back to work. The question is – who for?
It’s impossible to predict what’ll happen next. Except for this: Ted is dead. I mean, he has to be. Right…?
Read our review of the last episode, Bug, here.