This review contains spoilers.
Spare a thought for your humble reviewer: when you’re this emotionally invested in a show, it’s pretty hard to engage any kind of critical faculties when you eventually come to try to write about it. As I mentioned before in my review of the season four finale, it’s difficult to break down character motivations and ironic foreshadowing and thematic cohesion when you can’t hear anything over the sound of your own brain screaming “FUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCK”. To be honest, this whole review thing would be a lot easier if I could just replace all these words with one big startled-looking emoticon.
I think the showrunners of Breaking Bad are well aware of this, however. There have been plot points and moments that have stretched credibility in recent episodes – even accounting for the fact that Breaking Bad has always placed verisimilitude way down on its list of priorities. But the fact that we as viewers know that we are heading into the final straight, where anyone can die and anything could happen – on a show already famous for being one where anything could happen – means that the writers know we’ll be too junked out on adrenaline to quibble with some of the more comic-booky flourishes: like minute-long, close quarters shootouts where everybody demonstrates stormtrooper-levels of aiming ineptitude, for example.
But let’s back up a second. To’hajiilee moves like a rocket, directly picking up after Walt’s phone call to his friendly neighbourhood meth neo-Nazi gang, and it’s confirmed that he was calling on their services in order to off poor Jesse once and for all. It’s still obvious that it’s a decision he’s taken with no little regret: he again uses terminology more frequently used when putting down a feral animal, asking that it be done quickly and painlessly. The family seem surprised at Walt’s reluctance to take care of Jesse himself, and perhaps this is the moment when they see through Heisenberg’s fearsome reputation. Spotting a hitherto unsuspected vulnerability and weakness, they swing for the fences: they want Jesse’s life, in exchange for a verbal agreement from Walt for one more cook (in truth, it didn’t seem as if he needed too much persuading) and a final farewell lesson for Todd in order to bring him up to speed on the finer points of synthesizing methamphetamine until it blues up real nice.
In the opening scene, we watched an unimpressed but patient Lydia as she listened to Todd and his family attempt to convince her that their clearly transparent meth had an aquamarine hue. Her calm exasperation and seemingly genuine encouragement reveal what a fascinatingly messed-up character she really is; a master of dislocation and compartmentalisation, perhaps even more so than Walt. To overhear her gently push the importance of staying on brand you would think she was delivering a seminar to a team of developers at a start-up website, as opposed to helping a gang of Nazis in a meth lab. She also clearly has the creepy attentions of the terrifying Todd, which I am assuming can only end well for all concerned.
A lot then seems to happen very quickly – Jesse reveals his plan to take down Walt, which is to go after his money. To paraphrase the Dude, as plans go it’s not exactly a Swiss watch: Jesse has no idea where Walt keeps his money. Luckily for him, an intensely-focused Hank is able to quickly fill in the blanks, and he gets the hapless Huell to reveal more details about the location of Walt’s money with a little carefully stage-managed gore and some Heisenberg-esque manipulation.
Then, Hank correctly asserts that Walt must have buried the cash in the desert, and gambles on the possibility that Walt would either not have checked that the van he used to transport the money had GPS, that or he would be too panicked to remember once confronted with the possibility his money was missing. Then, along with Jesse, he lures Walt out into the desert with yet another staged photo (was this episode edited by Piers Morgan or something?), in the process getting Walt to confess to just about every one of his heinous crimes whilst frantically trying to dissuade Jesse from burning his nest egg.
When Walt arrives and twigs the situation, he calls the Nazis to come and take out Jesse – only to rescind his plea for help once he realises that Jesse is with Hank. Is it because he particularly cares for Hank? After all, he was willing to dispatch Jesse when he was on his own.
Or is it that the thought of killing two ‘family’ members (and make no mistake, Jesse is just much family to Walt as Hank is) and another innocent in Gomez is too much even for him to justify? Is it because he is unwilling to directly take on the forces of law and order? Is it because he’s genuinely exhausted (certainly his cancer-induced coughing would suggest that the physical fight appears to be going out of him). Or perhaps could it even be that he grudgingly respects the fact that he had been genuinely outsmarted – a rarity in the series, even more so after his convoluted death-chess triumph over Gus at the end of series four. It’s likely a combination of a little of all of these factors, but there’s no getting away from the fact that Walt is seriously trapped in that moment, with either surrender or death his only options, and it’s all down to Hank.
This is Hank’s big moment, one we’ve been waiting for arguably since the pilot episode. He gets to slap the cuffs on Walt, look him in the eye and read him his rights as a direct result of cunning and brio: a moment of unqualified triumph if ever there was one. It’s surprising, therefore, how hollow this moment feels: as repulsive as Walt is (and the creepy uncle-vibe he was mining in his brief scene with Brock earlier in the episode demonstrated that he is as reprehensible as ever), there’s still part of us – or me, anyway – who wants him to get away with it.
This is partly due to the genius decision by Gilligan and his writers to hit us with that flash-forward so early in the season: we know he ends up as a scary-looking hobo with no house, a different name, and a piece of artillery that could take down a helicopter. As a result, we desperately need to see how that transition unfolds, which means we’ll subconsciously stay rooting for Walt this season even when we know he’s well overdue his hellish comeuppance: we need to see what happens. As these episodes go on and that knowledge permeates and infuses every scene with a palpable dread, inserting that piece of dramatic irony looks more and more like one of the best things this series ever did.
It’s also a bit hollow because Hank is so arrogant – he’s not really able to look past the “I got ’im” mentality and see the bigger picture at this point, which is ultimately going to endanger him in the short term and the long term.
That’s if he has one, because the shootout Hank and Gomez find themselves in at the end of To’hajiilee suggests that they neither of them may be long for this world. Even taking stormtrooper aiming into account, there appears to be little chance that the vastly outnumbered DEA agents will walk away from the shootout unscathed.
Prior to the episode’s inevitable eruption into carnage, Hank makes a fateful, triumphant call to Marie to inform her of Walt’s arrest. What’s interesting in how overtly clichéd it is: the cop talking about loved ones before violently buying the farm was a cliché back in the early nineties when The Simpsons memorably parodied it with McBain: the writers know this, and we know this, so just as we’re primed for Hank’s death at the hands of the returning Nazis they take the opportunity to pull the rug from us once more. Could Hank escape certain death after all? With the programme cutting out Sopranos-style right at the moment the shoot-out hits its peak of intensity, it’s possible. We’re left with an outrageous cliff-hanger that rivals classic Doctor Who episodes as a televisual appropriation of coitus interruptus.
It was rightfully pointed out in the comments last week that it’s a sign of a good show when the review just focuses on the characters as opposed to the production values. That’s still as true as ever, but this week I have to mention how unbelievably good the direction from Michelle McClaren was in this episode. As events spiralled out of control, so did the camera work, with lots of crash zooms and Leone-esque close-ups heightening the already drum-tight tension. Leone – who often gets a hat-tip on the show – would have certainly approved of the final shootout, which played out like an updated version of the Ecstasy of Gold showdown sequence from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, only with hints of Peckinpah, Michael Mann, and John Woo slo-mo gunplay also added to the mix. Put simply, this episode was better directed than 99% of action movies released in any given year.
With its film references, nods and winks to genre tropes and conventions, this felt like one of the most knowing, manipulative episodes of Breaking Bad yet. Let it be clear, this is absolutely not a criticism: Hitchcock is one of the most knowing and manipulative of all film directors, and it didn’t do his career any harm. It feels like there’s a similar level of mastery on display here. There’s wickedness to the way the programme-makers use your own barely-there theories and expectations against you at every opportunity, in order to sustain the high-wire, unsettling atmosphere and wring the maximum amount of visceral impact from every scene.
In the same way that the pleasures of horror films come from being scared by craftsman who know exactly when to dial up the terror, the pleasure of Breaking Bad comes from being drawn into the worst situations imaginable each week by brilliantly talented writers, actors and directors who have total control over their material. It’s exhausting, but there’s no denying: it hurts so good.
As Bryan Cranston told me (*clang*) in my interview with him last year:”The viewers are following even if they don’t want to. They know Breaking Bad is going to swirl down into a morass of ugliness. We’re not going to take nice little note upwards: it’s Breaking Bad. It’s going to be bad…You can scream and fight and rebel against it, but we’re taking you down to hell…”
Read Paul’s review of the previous episode, Rabid Dog, here.
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