(Wrapping up my assessment of Breaking Bad‘s fourth season. Find the first installment here.)
13. “FACE OFF”
Oh, Breaking Bad. So clever with those episode titles!
Let me start this review by repurposing some familiar song lyrics:
“Ding dong, the Fring is dead…”
As I mentioned in my first Season Four review, the sad truth is, we don’t live in a spoiler-free world. I watched the entirety of Season Four knowing not only that Gus would die, but that it involved a face-melting explosion. I’d actually seen a brief clip of that final, awesome tie-adjustment, and even though that didn’t ruin any of the suspense or pleasure that built up to this, it definitely had an effect on the way I watched this season, knowing Gus was headed toward this gruesome end.
Then again, I’d argue it was pretty clear Gus was bowing out anyway, especially in these final few episodes. The rivalry between Walt and Gus was coming to such a head that it seemed impossible Season Four would end without one of them being killed, and of course, it’s not going to be our antihero. As Gus enters the nursing home, swelling music plays over an epic Tarantino-esque shot. You can sense he’s about to meet his maker. (Clearly not God, but Satan.) And of course we see Walt putting the pieces in motion throughout “Face Off,” so ultimately it didn’t end up being that much of a spoiler — though I suppose that grotesque imagery would have had more impact had I not known what was coming.
What I did not know about “Face Off” was that Tio/Hector/Uncle Twitch-Face would have anything to do with Gus’ end, though I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. Uncle Twitch-Face has lingered on Breaking Bad long after his function in the story was actually useful. His badass nephews died in Season Three, but still Gus visited him several times — relevant in the context of his revenge on the cartel, but still, keeping Tio around felt a bit random and unnecessary. But alas. It is, of course, triply-poetic that this speechless, wheelchair-bound old man is the one who ends up doing in the notoriously, monstrously-unstoppable drug lord. It was Hector’s actions with the cartel, witnessed in “Hermanos,” that created Gus the heartless killer. (Gus was likely already a killer, but he had at least some shred of humanity back then, as we see how upset he is at the death of his “friend” — who, some think, is actually his lover. It never occurred to me while watching it, but looking back in that context, it sure does make sense.) Then it was Tio’s nephews who put Hank in a wheelchair, giving him the time to sit and stew and discover that Gus was more than just New Mexico’s own kindly Colonel Sanders. Finally, Gus scratched his lifelong itch for revenge by eliminating the cartel, including Hector’s last surviving family member. Gus was so pleased with himself at tormenting the old man (who, let’s face it, deserves every last drop of torture that can be doled out), so smug in lording his power over Tio. All season long, Fring relished his superiority over Walt, and Jesse, and Victor, and the cartel, but mostly, he’s enjoyed punishing his most helpless target, Hector. So it’s especially ironic that Walt empowers Gus’ weakest victim, sending him on a suicide mission that ends Gustavo Fring’s reign of terror once and for all. “This is what comes of blood for blood,” Gus told Hector in “Hermanos.” Well, perhaps Gus should have heeded his own advice.
Beyond the literal “face off” in “Face Off,” the other major discussion coming out of this finale is about those lilies of the valley — proof that Walt tricked Jesse into joining forces so he could take out Fring. Walt was willing to poison a child to save his own skin, essentially sinking to Gus’ juvenile-harming level as the only way to defeat him. A lot of the details are left murky — how did Walt get Brock to eat the poison berries? How did he get the ricin cigarette away from Jesse? Was he really so confident that Jesse would piece this all together?
If there’s any element that feels a bit slapdash in Season Four, this is it. Thematically, it makes sense for Walt to stoop to this level, but too much was left up to chance — so much could easily have gone awry and led to a different result. Besides, the “sick child” angle feels a little too manipulative on the part of the writers — it might have been more clever if Brock got sick naturally, but Walt used the information to trick Jesse into thinking Gus was behind it anyway. But this is a minor objection. What I do like about this twist is that it explains why Gus wouldn’t get into his car in “End Times.” If he didn’t set this up, then learning Brock was poisoned would tip him off that someone, probably Walt, had orchestrated it and probably had a larger scheme in mind. Thus it explains why Gus’ spidey sense tingled when it did.
“Face Off” contains one less-discussed moment that captures just how morally bankrupt Walt has become even better than the lily of the valley reveal. It’s when he calls his kindly old neighbor and sends her into his house (because Walter Jr. “left the burner on”) — and possibly into a spray of gunfire from Gus’ lackeys. As it turns out, Gus’ men are indeed there, though luckily Mrs. Simmons never finds out. It’s chilling how willing Walt is to put an innocent woman in harm’s way; unlike poisoning Brock, there’s no “greater good” here. Walt’s just saving his own hide. What a prick. For whatever reason, this disturbed me more than what he did to Brock, maybe because we witness it in real time, so we feel the immediate urgency of her peril. Learning Walt poisoned a little boy after the fact didn’t do as much for me emotionally, probably also because I’m still not sure I buy the logic of this very fallible plan.
Another incredible aspect of “Face Off”? The Diving Bell & The Butterfly-esque device of having mute Tio spell out his requests via a nurse. We know sort of what the plan is, but not quite how it will all fit together, which makes the proceedings plenty suspenseful. Hector has long been an impressive face-twitcher, but in this episode it’s particularly impressive how Mark Margolis manages to convey so much rage and pain and, ultimately, a big triumphant “fuck you” to Gus just before the final ringing of his little bell. Just as I was impressed in “Hermanos” how willing Breaking Bad was to let a long chunk of an episode play out entirely in Spanish, I was even more psyched at how drawn-out these scenes of Hector spelling his messages to the nurse were, again in real time. Breaking Bad takes no shortcuts and comes off all the more satisfying for it.
And on that note, it’s pretty astounding how complex our loyalties in Season Four are — just a few episodes ago, we were rooting for Gus to take out the cartel and exact his revenge on Hector. Now, in “Face Off,” we’re on Team Hector, hoping to see Fring get his just desserts. Maybe we should really read into our own fickle bloodlust; Breaking Bad has us cheering for murderers to murder other murderers in increasingly horrifying ways, and for other murderers to get away scot-free. But why ruin all the fun by actually considering the moral implications? We’ll take that as it comes, to be reexamined when the series is over and we know exactly where Walt landed with all his dirty deeds. (Safe bet — not a place we want to go.)
Much like the Season Five finale of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, which in many ways felt like the end of that show, “Face Off” was originally conceived as a possible series finale for Breaking Bad, and you can feel it. While some things would have remained unresolved, overall this really does send the characters back to square one. Walt and Skyler have the car wash. Gus and the cartel are gone. The cancer’s still in remission. If they so choose, the White family can go back to their respectable middle-class American lives. But something tells me Season Five isn’t going to be about how a former chemistry teacher-turned-meth dealer found peace of mind and redeemed his soul by keeping all the automobiles in New Mexico spotless.
So, yes. “Face Off” is pretty damn satisfying and pretty damn brilliant, and I’m glad the rest of the world finally caught on to what was previously television’s best kept secret. The fifth and final season starts tomorrow, split into two halves for a total of 16 episodes.
What’s in store? I have no idea. I’ve intentionally remained as in the dark as possible, especially since I had elements of Season Four “spoiled” for me. I’m particularly interested in how Skyler will respond to the confirmation that Walt is a killer, along with what will happen with that messy Ted situation. I’m guessing Jesse, after having a taste of pride as Gus’ star cook this season, won’t be quite so willing to take orders from Walt. We may be in for a power trip. Obviously the final season is going to deal with Hank and Walt’s secret cat-and-mouse relationship — and if there’s one person who especially wouldn’t take the news that Walt’s a meth cook well, it’s Marie. Even if Walt could somehow talk Hank down from, say, turning him in, I doubt Marie would go along with it. It’s early to predict, but will Marie turn into Hank’s worst enemy? Marie’s always been one of two characters who remains on the periphery of the show, without a clear narrative “purpose.” Maybe Season Five will be the one in which her function becomes, ahem, crystal clear.
The other character who has yet to be fully realized on a narrative level is Walter Jr. I’m eager to see what Season Five has in store for him. I hope to see him get more screen time in Season Five and play a major role in what happens, though I don’t know what role that would be. If he knew what Walt was up to, he might be supportive. He might hate his father. He could end up being a tragic victim, caught in some kind of crossfire. Really, the possibilities are endless. It’s anybody’s guess.
So R.I.P. Gus. Tyrone. Tio. Ted, maybe. And possibly Mike, though I doubt Gilligan would waste such a compelling character that easily. (At least some of the “bad guys” have to survive… right?) “Face Off” might have been the perfect series finale with Walt’s final line, “I won,” because we know this particular victory hasn’t come without a major price tag — ultimately, Walt’s soul. He may have won the battle, but I think we all know he’s lost the war already. He had from moment one. It’s hard to see any of the characters in Breaking Bad coming out of this as “winners” — but if that seems bleak, keep in mind that there is one clear-cut winner when it comes to this series. And that’s us.
10. Ted takes a trip (from “Crawl Space”)
Skyler once confessed that she “fucked Ted.” She had no idea how right she’d be. The increasingly ruthless Mrs. Heisenberg sends Saul’s goons to force Ted’s hand at paying the IRS, but he makes a sudden dash for the door and trips over the carpet. It’s a stupid, silly moment with potentially deadly consequences, the polar opposite of Gus’ execution. The villains die in huge, larger-than-life moments, but poor sap Ted’s demise could wind up on America’s Funniest Home Videos, if not for the tragic twist.
9. Walt apologizes to Walter Jr. (from “Salud”)
Walt spends this episode out of commission while Jesse is privy to some big action down in Mexico. But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have one of Cranston’s finest moments as an actor. Drugged up on painkillers, Walt forgets himself and makes a tearful confession of guilt to his doting son on his birthday. He’ll later regret it, but it’s this glimpse at Walt’s broken soul that allows us to remain invested in him as a character even when his actions become increasingly maddening and morally objectionable.
8. Skyler goes blonde (from “Bug”)
Because in a show with so many dark pivotal points, you’ve got to acknowledge the sly comedy side of it all, too. Walt and Skyler are totally fucked if the IRS ever comes a-knockin’, and they’re about to do just that, thanks to Ted. Skyler’s smart solution is stupidity — she’ll pretend to be some ditzy blonde bimbo who just doesn’t know accounting from counting. Here we get a sense of what Walt and Skyler must see in each other — they’re both incredibly resourceful in the face of extreme pressure. Made for each other? Unfortunately, yes.
7. Jesse kills a dog (from “Problem Dog”)
Jesse’s guilt over Gale’s murder eats away at him for the first half of Season Four. Here, it finally comes to a brekaing point, as he confesses to his NA group that he shot a “problem dog” for no good reason. Many of his fellow addicts are horrified and pass judgment on him, while Jesse questions a universe in which people can so easily get away with murder. When the show began, you might expect Walt to be the mild-mannered pacifist and Jesse to be the more violent of the two, but in Season Four especially, we see Pinkman’s softer side, as he really weighs and lives with the consequences in a way that his mentor clearly does not.
6. Walt is “the one who knocks” (from “Cornered’)
Skyler’s afraid Walt’s life is in danger. Crazy, right? Her idea of a good solution — go to the police. (Okay, that is crazy.) Walt’s pride gets the better of him, as it so often does, as he explodes in fury and tells Skyler exactly how much he means to his employers. If he doesn’t show up for work, “a business large enough that it could be listed on the NASDAQ goes belly-up, disappears. It ceases to exist without me!” When Skyler mentions Gale’s death at his front door, he pooh-poohs the idea that he’s the victim in the scenario: “I am the one who knocks!” (Actually, Jesse is.) This would all be compelling enough on its own, but the irony is, Walt’s hubris is largely unfounded, as this whole season is about Gus putting him in his place as a menial, disrespected employee. Of course, Walt immediately regrets this tirade, which causes Skyler to briefly consider leaving not just Walt, but New Mexico. But she returns to “protect this family from the man who protects this family.”
5. Gus adjusts his tie (from “Face Off”)
I know, I know — most people would put this at #1. It’s one of the indelibly memorable TV moments, one that people will still be talking about for years to come. Gus Fring walks away from the scene of an explosion, and only when the camera pushes in closer and pans around him do we see that he’s gone the way of Two-Face. For a moment we wonder if he’s some kind of cyborg — did Breaking Bad just jump the shark? But then, with a final tie-adjustment, Gus falls over dead as the nurses watch on in shock. It’s a great send-off to a terrific villain, but it’s at #5 because, from a writing and character standpoint, which is where Breaking Bad excels even beyond the shock value of scenes like this one, I think there are four even stronger moments.
4. Skyler writes the script (from “Bullet Points”)
Walt and Skyler are about to confess their shameful sin to Hank and Marie — meaning Walt’s made-up gambling, of course, and not the actual meth cooking. To prepare, Skyler writes a pretty awful on-the-nose script with all the melodrama and cliches that the actual series avoids, which cleverly inverses the show’s story. In Skyler’s version, everything is still all Walt’s fault, but he’s sincerely and profoundly sorry. In real life, of course, Walt feels little to no remorse for most of his actions, and in fact blindly keeps miring them all in increasingly worse predicaments. It takes a show as smart as Breaking Bad to so cleverly highlight just how stupid it could be in the hands of lesser writers.
3. Walt drinks too much wine (from “Shotgun”)
The most intensely frustrating moment of the season — Hank is all set to let go of the case, thinking Gale is his Heisenberg. Walt spends a very long time drowning his sorrows in Marie’s purple kitchen before being called back to the table, where his pride (yet again!) gets the better of him and he can’t resist telling Hank that he’s wrong about Gale. There’s another mastermind out there. And Hank’s got nothing but time to look into it, setting in motion the cataclysmic series of events leading up to the finale.
2. Gus toasts the cartel (from “Salud”)
Drink to your health? Hardly. The fact that you can see this moment coming as soon as Gus presents the cartel with a “gift” of fine tequila doesn’t make it any less gripping. The scoundrels start dropping like flies in the very location where Gus’ “partner” (business, and possibly otherwise) was senselessly shot in front of Gus, sending him on a lifelong quest for vengeance. It’s immensely satisfying to see these baddest-of-bad guys get what’s coming, but what adds to the tension is Gus drinking the poison, too, and suffering some of the side effects. When the scene explodes into gunfire, Mike is clipped and it’s up to Jesse to save the day. Which he does, perhaps unwisely. It’s one of a few revenge schemes that go deliciously right this season, culminating in Gus’ own death.
1. Walt cracks up (from “Crawl Space”)
A sublimely spooky moment, one I can’t get out of my head. Did Vince Gilligan have Batman on the brain this season? Gus’ death is a Two-Face homage while this episode ends with Walt cackling like The Joker as the camera pulls back to reveal him in his tomb-like crawl space, walls shaking ominously. It’s all part of what must be one of the most terrific “raise the stakes” moments in television history — after a season of setting all pieces in place, shit goes bad for the Whites all at once, and the deep dark dread that hangs over the final few minutes of “Crawl Space” puts almost any horror movie to shame. You could look at many moments as the definitive turning point for Walt’s transformation from antihero to true villain, but none with quite as much punch as this. It takes a truly deranged madman to emit laughter like this. It’s one of the best, most defining moments of Breaking Bad, proving once and for all that Bryan Cranston can and will go for broke in anything this show asks of him.