This review contains spoilers.
4.13 Face Off
Note: a lesser man than me would, before embarking on this review, point you in the direction of last week’s review of End Times, where I stated that I was “convinced” Walt was behind the poisoning of Brock, even though conventional wisdom seemed to suggest it was Gus. A lesser man would ruin the opening paragraph of his final Breaking Bad review by revelling in his own self-satisfaction at having figured out the twist a whole week in advance. Thankfully I am above such egotism, so we can launch straight into the meat of the episode without any ugly self-aggrandizing.
Has there ever been a show in the history of television where the creators have been as in love with their characters as they are on Breaking Bad? Which is not to say that they’re a particularly loveable bunch – quite the opposite, in fact, with Face Off cementing Walter White as maybe the most unpleasant protagonist in television history.
But there is something about the way this show is written, in the way that every episode, character arc, and season arc is layered with so much care and attention to detail, that it feels as if it is being written by people who are themselves huge fans of the show, people who enjoy being surprised by the characters as much as we do, rather than a bunch of sweating hacks in a windowless room in Hollywood, desperately trying to figure out how they’re going to eke out another 13 episodes from this premise (or, worse still, how they’re going to dig themselves out of a narrative hole of their own making).
You can almost hear the writers trying to top themselves with awesome shit, while remaining completely true to the characters and the show’s internal logic: “So I’ve been thinking…what if Gus had a partner killed by the cartel? That would explain why there’s bad blood between them.” “That’s good… what if the guy who killed him was Hector Salamanca, the wheelchair-bound, bell-ringing psycho who Walt and Jesse have already had a narrow escape from?” “Yeah, and imagine if Gus has been visiting him and torturing him for years, threatening to kill him but keeping him alive for his own amusement?”
“Man, that’d be great… hey, what if it’s that that proves to be Gus’s downfall? What if…what if Walt uses Gus’s one emotional connection left against him to bring him down, once and for all?” “Guys… what if Hector blows up Gus with a bomb using his bell as the trigger?” “Oh yeah? Well how about if Gus manages to walk out of the blown up room, but before he keels over and dies, we see he’s only got half a f***ing face. Is someone writing this down?”
There’s a real glee about the way Breaking Bad is plotted that is hard to articulate; it’s this element of playfulness than means that its payoffs, when they come, are satisfying in a way that I’ve never experienced in a television show before. And Face Off never stopped paying off, from its opening minutes to the final shot.
I was being facetious at the beginning of this review, but I really am so glad that my hunch about Walt proved to be correct, and not because I figured it out, but because it makes total sense for Walt to transcend another moral event horizon at the end of this season. Not only in the sense that every season finale so far has seen him stooping lower – letting Jane die and causing the plane crash in season two, coercing Jesse into killing Gale at the end of season three – but also in the sense that season four and the series as a whole has clearly been building towards this.
Walt’s steadily been growing in status as a criminal throughout the series – largely by good fortune, but also due to some clever manoeuvring on his part and ability to think under pressure – but this season he’s been almost totally subjugated by Gus; emasculated in other word. Every time he’s tried to assert his authority he’s been swatted away like a fly.
Gus has been in control, and not only that, he’s been consistently outsmarting him. The only road Walt had left to take was to go deeper and darker into the evil, scheming centre of his brain, the part that is growing larger every episode (like a cancer, perhaps?) and come up with something truly diabolical – as diabolical as Gus’s threat to murder his infant daughter.
Walt’s increasing lack of humanity towards his fellow human beings has also been heavily foreshadowed this season – he, in all likelihood, sent three innocent cleaning ladies to their deaths by exposing them to the lab just to annoy Gus, and even in Face Off, he risks the life of his sweet, elderly neighbour (played by Vince Gilligan’s mother) by sending her into a house that may be booby-trapped, or filled with hitmen, or worse. Taking these things into account, non-fatally poisoning a child doesn’t seem that out of character for him.
The development also puts his hysterical breakdown at the end of Crawl Space into context – I saw someone on Twitter ask whether this would end up being Walter White’s ‘Red Hood’ moment (and if you don’t know what that is, you’re probably on the wrong website). That terrifying primal scream that Walt gave as his efforts to save his family with his money failed, before he succumbed to hysterical laughter, may well have been the last shred of humanity exiting his body.
It also makes sense when you note Vince Gilligan’s repeated insistence that this is the story of Mr Chips turning into Scarface – for Walt to become Scarface, he can’t be taking half measures. He has to be as sick and ruthless as Gus was. And he certainly can’t have a boss.
Which brings us to Gus. I think I speak for us all when I say we’re sorry to see Gus and by extension Giancarlo Esposito go. What an amazing character and performance – as I’ve already mentioned, it made sense that Gus should go, but it’s still a shame we won’t be seeing any more of him except for flashbacks. I expect and hope Gus’s mysterious past in Chile will be revealed at some stage, because he’s too fascinating to dispose of completely.
A note on Gus’s death scene – some have suggested that his tie-straightening, gory demise was over-the top. Objectively, these people are probably right. But that was possibly my favourite moment of the season, and another demonstration of how perfectly the writers know what pushes the buttons of their audience. For one thing, it was preceded by that glorious spaghetti western aping walk to the nursing home (to the excellent soundtrack of the aptly named Goodbye by Apparat), then that magnificently tense scene between him and Hector – but the kicker is when Gus walks out of the room. The creators have skirted on the edge of believability when it comes to Gus as a machine, a superhero almost.
So when he walks out, the immediate reaction as a viewer (I know I’m not alone in this) was that they’d pushed it too far – there’s no way he’d survive that. But as always, the writers were way ahead of us, and we got the perfectly timed camera sweep around to reveal the spectacularly gruesome sight of Gus’s missing face (with some truly impressive CGI, easily the equal, if not better, than the Two-Face effects seen in The Dark Knight), just before he gets in one last moment of dignified restraint – the tie straightening – before collapsing out of frame.
My reaction and my housemate’s were exactly the same: “Oh my God… wait, there’s now way he could possibly survivaaAAAAAAAAAAAHHH!” And it sounds like that’s how a lot of other people reacted too. It just demonstrates what exceptional control the makers of Breaking Bad have over their material. Gus needed a memorable send-off, and did he ever get one.
This has been a remarkable season, of what is now probably my favourite non-Simpsons TV show of all time. I can see that The Wire is objectively probably better. Possibly The Sopranos, too. But for sheer visceral excitement, nothing has ever come close to Breaking Bad. Maybe nothing ever will. I’m really glad to have had the opportunity to write about it and share the experience with you all.
So where are we left for season 5A and 5B? Well, Walt is certainly firmly entrenched in the dark side now, so there’s that. But otherwise we will start the final stretch of the series with pretty much a clean slate, and, somewhat surprisingly, there’s still a lot left to go – two eight episode mini-seasons mean that we’ve nearly a third of the entire series to look forward to.
Of course, Walt’s vanquished his enemies to the point where he could conceivably get out of the meth trade now, and make a clean break. But, even if Gus’s connections don’t come back to haunt him, or he can salvage some of his money, and Jesse has no more questions about Brock, and Skyler is cool with him blowing up a nursing home, and Hank’s satisfied he’s got his Heisenburg: we know that that’s not going to happen. Walt’s got accustomed to the criminal lifestyle now – not just accustomed, he actively enjoys it. He needs it to feel empowered. He’s become as comfortable killing his adversaries as he has been lying to his family.
A guy like that – all of a sudden he’s just going to break good?