Once Hank placed that call to Marie, something didn’t feel right. Or perhaps, even earlier, when Walt sighed into his cell phone calling off the hit, and there was no cut back to the bikers standing down and putting away their weapons. Walt read off his coordinates, and the Standoff At To’Hajiilee was set. Heisenberg appears defeated; the cold cuffs go on his wrists; Hank triumphantly reads out the Miranda rights. But there’s too much time for something to go wrong, curdling what should be a moment of sweet relief between husband and wife into a darkly ominous cloud. And an ending that already peaked with Walt destroyed and Hank ascendent ratchets up the tension even further. In a series full of breathtaking, fiercely tense sequences to close out episodes--both “One Minute” and “Crawl Space” immediately came to mind--this will be remembered as one of the greatest.
Much is made of the fact that, at essentially every opportunity, Vince Gilligan showers his co-writers and crew with praise. Most of the time that gets chalked up to his genuinely humble and charming disposition as the antithesis of the egotistical showrunner. But “To’Hajiilee” is yet another definitive statement that Gilligan isn’t just a humble guy: Breaking Bad has some of the most talented writers and directors in the medium. Tonight was the final episode of the series directed by Michelle MacLaren, whose phone should be blowing up right now with studio after studio trying to get her to direct something for them—as well as the last episode scripted by George Mastras, who also wrote last year’s action-heavy “Dead Freight.” Both of them deserve an enormous amount of credit for crafting and shooting another gorgeous and magnificent episode that puts the macro strengths of Breaking Bad on full display.
Continuing Walt’s moral quibbling from last week, he makes it clear from his phone call that dovetails with the cold open on Todd’s side that Jesse is now a problem that needs to be taken care of. But he’s still unwilling to admit that Jesse is a rat--he’s gone to the police, to Hank, and is a sizable threat. At first, as Walt says, it’s because “Jesse is like family” to him--and thus he doesn’t want to deal with the problem himself. To Walt, it’s a problem that can be massaged, controlled, fine-tuned with the right deft application of violence. Though Uncle Jack’s reply that “You don’t skimp on family” outlines how sinister the idea of Walt ordering Jesse’s murder actually is, Walt is so sure that this will curtail the issue that he never doubts his own omnipotence for a second.
But I think Walt goes a step further. He sees this as the solution because he views himself as smarter than Jesse, even when Saul tells him directly how much he underestimates Pinkman. Meanwhile Hank, Jesse, and Gomez slowly concoct their own plan behind all of Walt’s machinations to ameliorate the problem. In an earlier season, Walt’s pitiful attempt to draw Jesse out in the open by working through Andrea and Brock would have worked--but his opponent is now Hank, a man willing to skirt around justice enough to coerce enough information out of Huell to take Jesse’s idea of getting to Walt’s money and make a feasible operation.
Within the structure of these final eight episodes, “To’Hajiilee” comes fifth, just like “Dead Freight” last year, and it also devotes essentially the back half of an episode to an extended action sequence that will inform and influence the next three episodes. The shot that called attention to itself most for me was right before the fateful phone call from Jesse, as Walt peered out the window of the car wash, in such dramatically different circumstances at the site of his former second job, then turned to see his family, Skyler teaching Walter Jr. how to run the cash register.
And in an instant, with a picture message, Walt’s world turns, and his greed, his staunch refusal to see Jesse as a viable threat, kicks off the action. As Walt careens through the streets of Albuquerque, speeding through red lights in tracking shots or yelling into the phone, he doesn’t think for a second about Jesse’s larger plan. His mind is on the green, solely focused on what that money represents, how it amounts to his empire after all he’s done to alienate his wife and shock the rest of his family, and hurt so many others.
The idea that the sum of Walt’s terrible labors rests below the dirt on an American Indian reservation, the site of Jesse and Walt’s first cook, in seven barrels, shows just how far Walt went to gain a mattress-sized pile of cash. That’s the extent of Walt’s influence, and he clings to it with kleptomania, so disturbed at the thought that Jesse could figure out the site that he doesn’t think about why he should drive there, doesn't think before unleashing a (rather convenient) string of confessions about his murders. And to top it all off, he puts forth yet another colossal string of excuses: he’s going to die; the money is only for his family to keep going after he’s gone; Walt killed all those people to protect Jesse. Walt will say anything in order to keep the symbol of his self-worth safe. But one he arrives, Cranston proves once again why he’s been such a force in this role, slowly realizing that he’s been had, that it’s his own damn fault he’s about to go down, and he does what can’t be undone by calling in men he can’t control, who have their own merciless greed thanks to Walt bringing Todd into the fold.
But amid all that technical mastery, I do have to pause for one thought against the grain of praise.
I have a feeling this episode will play much differently after next week, and especially once the series is over. Breaking Bad employs cliffhangers to a certain degree, but lives don’t hang in the balance. This is something I think Game Of Thrones does better now, and something that Breaking Bad used to do in earlier seasons, from Crazy-8 to the end of “Half Measures” to “Box Cutter.” This show has up to this point ridden out the moments of narrative heft, offing characters in shocking fashion and never shying away from the moment or deferring the consequences. Game Of Thrones does the same thing, whether chopping off a limb or a head or going all-out and depicting a massive slaughter—-it doesn’t push death into the next episode when it can portray that brutality now. Breaking Bad shared that quality until Jesse’s furious gasoline attack on the White household, expertly diffused in the structured division of last week’s episode. And perhaps next week I’ll be saying the same thing about the way Breaking Bad handled this cliffhanger.
But we’ve never seen such a violent showdown clipped by that cut to black on this show. (Except for the end of the third season, when fans claimed ambiguity over Jesse shooting Gale, which Vince Gilligan tamped down by saying it was indeed a killing.) It’s a brief respite, a moment to breathe, that will last a week, and maybe a few minutes longer if the next cold open cuts away to hang even more tension over Jesse, Hank, and Gomey’s fate. But since the series has never done this before, leaving multiple characters in immediate peril and then pressing pause--an effect that only works when watching live in the moment--I feel compelled to ask: What purpose does that narrative cliffhanger serve? I gawked at the television for an hour, racked with nerves, but unlike the endings of “Blood Money” and “Buried,” which definitely surged with momentum past the cut to black, this felt like an unnatural endpoint, an intrusion of creative choice into a story that has previously so gracefully divided into episodes. That cut drives up the tension and draws a big reaction, but it’s a choice that made me more aware of television’s limitations.
Still, what I think will stick with me most from this episode is just how deluded Walt became that he maintains total control. At the end of “Gliding Over All” (also directed by MacLaren), Walt has retired, he’s sitting pretty, thinking that he’s done everything to build a dark empire and reap the benefits. That’s a far cry from the early seasons, when Walt shows his inexperience when dealing with an underworld he neither knows nor understands. He chooses a meeting place with Tuco in a junkyard because he assumes from cultural clichés that’s the kind of place people meet for drug deals. He goads Jesse into expanding their business into wider territory because that’s what successful businesses do, and this gets Combo killed.
Todd, Uncle Jack, Kenny, and the rest of Chekhov’s White Power Biker Gang opening fire is the largest and most destructive example of just how far out of his depth Walt sunk to when descending into the drug trade. And as he stoically steps out of hiding, walks to Hank, endures the gleaming smiles of conquest on the faces of his foes, his only response is to call Jesse a coward, to callously insult his former partner for standing up against the emotional manipulation at the hands of a man who only cares about Jesse until he no longer fits into the puzzle. But to his own horror, the cars arrive anyway, taking action against his orders, because Walt isn’t all-powerful; he’s just the chemist to bikers capable of multiple assassinations in the span of minutes.
When Todd is creepily attempting to impress Lydia with saving their business exporting to the Czech Republic, Uncle Jack utters, “All right, let’s go make some money.” He has an entirely different focus than Walt about the work they do. Walt unleashed his inner greed and arrogance, building an empire to finally give Walt significance after his pride prevented him from potential success. And on some masochistic level, I think Walt craves recognition for his horrors, which he views as accomplishments. But that ending—the “holy shit” moment that Breaking Bad seems to specialize in—isn’t just another ramp up to action movie heights. It’s the consequence of Walt’s attempts to control a situation by seeking help from those who no longer take his orders. The final shot depicts a world entirely out of Walt’s control, exploding into utter chaos.
• Todd’s ringtone: Thomas Dolby’s “She Blinded Me With Science.” Perfect.
• Bob Odenkirk gets two incredible lines of comic relief tonight as he sends a message at the car wash. First, after Walter Jr. asks about his bruises: “I guess you’d call it an occupational hazard.” And as he’s walking out: “Don’t drink and drive, but if you do: call me.”
Steven Michael Quezada also gets in a nice jab, calling Jesse “Timmy Dipshit” for blowing the operation wearing a wire.
• This is Michelle MacLaren’s best episode of Breaking Bad, but until tonight my favorite of hers was probably “4 Days Out” from season two, which presages the third season bottle-episode “Fly” with a more exciting setting and more humor. But for single sequences, I’d go back to the terrifying prison sequence from “Gliding Over All,” which once again emphasized my favorite Nicolas Cage catchphrase: I can’t even describe how much I would love not to go to prison.
• If you’d like a closer look on the work that went into that incredible final sequence, here’s the behind the scenes video from AMC.
Catch up on previous recaps in the Boing Boing "Breaking Bad" archives.