There isn’t a single episode of Breaking Bad that doesn’t advance the story and the characters in intriguing, insightful, and surprising ways. This show does not waste any of our time.
For so long Breaking Bad has teased us in the most delightful manner, often dawdling when it comes to the big showdowns and revelations, meandering when we expect it to cut to the chase. This isn’t a problem for most Breaking Bad viewers; this show’s tangents are more fascinating than most series’ biggest moments, and Breaking Bad is a bolder, better show for it.
Now, though, we’re finally getting all those major payoffs we’ve waited so long and patiently for. It’s a little jarring. How many times has Walt almost been caught by the police? How many times have Jesse, Hank, and Walt faced death and oh-so-narrowly escaped? We’re so used to the big moments almost happening that this latest batch of episodes feels quite different from the first four and a half seasons — like another show, almost. That’s not a flaw — of course Season Five is going to tie up all those loose ends that have been fraying, fraying, fraying for these past six years.
And yet episodes like “To’hajiilee” are all the more shocking for how directly they deal with the show’s central conflicts. The old Hank vs. Walt battle, the much newer Jesse vs. Walt face-off. Hank and Jesse have been so in the dark for so long, and only recently stepped into the light regarding the devious depths of Walter White. After six years, we’re used to that. We’re used to near-misses, brushes with death, and an intricacy of long-con suspense that would make Hitchcock proud.
What we’re not used to is everything that happened tonight.
Like “Confessions” from a couple weeks back, “To’hajiilee” plays like a scrapped version of the series finale. The show could have ended this way. Walt’s folly finally gets him caught red-handed. Hank gets his man. I’m not sure how satisfying that would be, but it makes a certain kind of sense. Back in “Confessions,” Walt pulled a rather ingenious trump card, leaving Hank seemingly powerless against the great Heisenberg as he plotted to frame Hank for all his crimes should he ever tried to turn Walt in. Hank ultimately didn’t back down, of course (when has he?), which is how “To’hajiilee” finds the tables turned completely, with Hank in full control and Walt cowed and vulnerable — even defeated.
But first, we check back in with Todd, Lydia, and that gang of white supremacist badasses as they try to determine the blueness of Todd’s cook. (Ultimate conclusion: it’s not very blue.) When there are this many cold-blooded villains in a room together, an audience has to be on their toes, and I feared for Lydia a bit when she politely demanded that her meth be blue. (Blue like her jacket, the same one she wore when taking out Declan in “Buried.”) It’s probably Walt’s near-poisoning of Lydia back in “Gliding Over All” that has me nervous whenever Lydia sips her signature tea, not that Todd is savvy enough to use ricin. Like his extended family, Todd doesn’t do subtle when it comes to dispatching of a nuisance. He’s a point-and-shoot and asks questions later type. Fortunately, the scene took a sweeter turn, if you can call a child-killer’s schoolboy crush “sweet.” Todd has a thing for Lydia, and she seems to know it. It’s almost cute, until you remember who these people are. If there were ever two black souls who deserve each other, it’s Todd and Lydia, sitting in a tree, K-I-L-L-I-N-G.
The real reason for another cold open that checks in with these tertiary evildoers — besides the reminder that some people on Breaking Bad are still cooking meth — is to see the other end of Walt’s phone call to Todd at the end of the last episode. I didn’t particularly care for this — it was implied at the end of the last episode that Walt was employing Uncle Jack to get rid of Jesse, and hearing it said directly didn’t add anything new. In fact, it took away from the suspense. (He might have been calling for some other, more clever reason, for all we knew.) The exchange was rather on-the-nose, as if it had been written for viewers who somehow missed “Rabid Dog” last week.
Another mild disappointment — Jesse’s “genius” plan from last week turned out to be rather obvious, and rather flawed. Yes, Walt loves his money, and no, we can’t expect Heisenberg-level machinations from Jesse Pinkman… but still. Jesse admits he doesn’t know where the money is and it’s Hank who comes up with a twisted plan to find it. This involves a rather cruel trick on poor Huell, who spills the beans pretty easily thanks to a photo fakeout of Jesse’s death. (I was hoping that photo would eventually find its way to Walt, so he could grapple with his guilt and sadness.) I was expecting something a bit more devious from Jesse at this point, but he takes a backseat to Hank in this episode and lets the DEA do all the work. There’s a little Walt vs. Jesse action here, but not as much as we were expecting after last week.
Walt comes up with a solid plan to get Jesse’s goat — he pays a visit to Brock and Andrea, the source of their dispute in the first place. Brock doesn’t look too happy to see Walter, which forces us to wonder exactly how he got the kid to ingest that lily of the valley in the first place. Brock’s more skeptical than terrified, while Andrea is one of few cheerfully oblivious parties left on this show. (She and Flynn might get along.) It’s unclear whether or not Walt’s plan would have worked, since Hank is intercepting all calls to the Hello Kitty phone, leaving Jesse unaware that Walt is potentially spiking Brock’s Froot Loops with more lily of the valley. I was briefly worried for Brock and Andrea when Walt arrived, yet it quickly becomes clear that his scheme is benign. (Except for the part where Jesse gets shot in the back of the head.) As with Jesse’s plan, it was a shade disappointing that Heisenberg hadn’t come up with something a bit more Machiavellian to ferret him out. Neither of these two is exactly bringing their A-game to “To’hajiilee.”
Meanwhile, Flynn is having a less-than-A1 time at the car wash under Skyler’s supervision, at least until a local celebrity shows up. That’s Saul, who does his best to play the greasy slimeball from his TV commercials for Flynn’s sake before completely unraveling in front of Walt. (Seeing Flynn geek out over Saul is the comic highlight of the episode. It’s nice to see RJ Mitte away from the breakfast table.) Saul talks to Walt without a shred of the weaselly confidence he so often displays in the face of crisis — he’s a broken man at this point, wearing a bullet proof vest because poor, gullible Huell is MIA (thanks to Hank’s rather lame attempt to keep him from calling). Saul has generally been a problem solver and comic relief rather than a character whose fate we’re invested in, but at a time when all the core characters are coming undone, Saul’s downfall is right in line, too. These are dark times for just about everybody, even the goofy lawyer.
The first three-quarters of “To’hajiilee” are serviceable but unremarkable. Then things get interesting. Walt is at the car wash, staring out the window (framed in such a way that the blinds look like prison bars — fitting, for what happens next). He receives a photo of one of “his” barrels of money, supposedly retrieved from his lottery ticket coordinates in the desert. He dashes out past Skyler and Flynn without even dropping one of his trademark excuses (“gee, I think I left a burner on…”), and the ever-observant Skyler knows shit is getting real. (It’s an otherwise Skyler-light hour, and Marie also makes just a brief cameo. Not a big episode for the wives of Breaking Bad.)
Despite the shortcomings of his planning, Jesse’s instincts were right — when Walt’s money is threatened, he flies into panic mode, and his usual Heisenberg craftiness takes a holiday as he makes not one but two epic, incredible, life-ruining mistakes. Walt goes on one of his infamous high-speed joyrides to the titular To’hajiilee reservation, not thinking for a moment that he’s actually leading Hank and Jesse right to the money. This is totally in keeping with Walt’s character — the whole reason this hellish journey began at all is to provide for his family, and he begged Skyler to make sure Flynn and Holly get their payday so that it wouldn’t “all be for nothing” just a few episodes back.
So it makes sense. But it’s also a tad disappointing, after all this time, that Heisenberg can be brought down so easily. We’ve seen Walt be sloppy before — he’s sloppy as often as he’s chillingly precise, actually — so, again, this isn’t out of character. But when Walt finds himself in a jam, we’re so used to watching him slip out of it somehow, and the series goes on, we thought he’d get more careful. Instead, he makes a rookie mistake.
At this point in the series, I’m not sure who I’m rooting for anymore. Not so much Hank. Not so much Jesse. I don’t exactly want to see Walt get away with his crimes in the end, laughing all the way to the bank, but I suppose I do want to see him outsmart Hank and Jesse the way he’s outsmarted his other enemies. Walt outwitted so many other foes — for him to fall for this scheme, from the not-so-dynamic duo of Schrader and Pinkman — it’s fine. It’s fitting. It’s a little ironic. But it’s a hell of a slip-up after five seasons of brilliant maneuvers.
Walt ends up making an even more fatal mistake than just leading Hank to the money — he also confesses to some of Heisenberg’s most heinous crimes, finding it unfathomable that his former student might be in cahoots with his brother-in-law. (Earlier, he defends Jesse even as he’s ordering a hit on him, vehemently denying that he’s a “rat.”) And that’s it. Hank has all the evidence he needs to put Walt behind bars; Walt realizes what he’s done, but much too late. Walt has escaped some near-impossible scenarios before, including several when it was almost unthinkable that he wouldn’t be discovered. But “To’hajiilee” finally takes him further, to a true point of no return. Walt is fucked. A stupid lapse of judgment made in a moment of extreme duress finds his entire empire undone, like it never happened. The money will be whisked away from the Whites, Walt will go to jail (before he can even pass on his coloring secrets to Todd), and Hank will be a hero. Truth be told, it’s probably dumb moments like this that get most criminals caught — but at the same time, don’t we expect a little better from Heisenberg?
Maybe that’s the point. No criminal mastermind is flawless. Certainly not Walter White. As he sees two of the people he cared for most working together to bring him down, Walt does something he does not do easily — he gives up. He surrenders. He allows himself to be humbled while Hank savors every moment of the arrest. It’s worth noting how clearly betrayed Walt is at seeing Hank and Jesse together, and the show’s complex web of emotions has us pitying him while at the same time asking, “Well, what did you expect, Walter?” Walt decided to kill Jesse — Jesse antagonized him to this point, because he thought Walt had already decided to kill him — so for Walt to feel betrayed is a bit hypocritical. Yet “Rabid Dog” made it clear that Walt was protective of Jesse until the bitter end, and that carries over into this episode. He does not take Jesse’s death lightly. It’s Walt’s immense disappointment in his former partner that causes him to finally throw in the towel and surrender here after fighting so hard in the past to avoid this very fate.
As Jesse notes, the climax takes place in the very spot where Walt and Jesse first cooked together, which again makes this feel like a series finale. (But it would also be much too neat and tidy a series finale for Breaking Bad.) Hank calls Marie and gloats: “Baby, I got him.” (Reminiscent of Walt’s “I won” call to Skyler at the end of Season Four.) Of course, this is Breaking Bad and there are still three more episodes before the series is over, so we have a pretty good idea that Todd and friends will show up despite Walt calling it off, and we are correct. Walt uselessly tries to warn Hank what’s about to happen, and even more uselessly tries to get Jack to call it off. Instead, it’s a shoot-out, and since no one has apparently been hit by the end of this episode, we have to wonder why Hank, Todd, Uncle Jack, and the rest are all suddenly such terrible shots.
“To’hajiilee” takes an interesting course of action, and an unexpected one. The shoot-out itself is not overly shocking, but Walt’s behavior is. He tries to save Hank. Previously, Walt has always erred on the side of self-preservation, and though he has drawn the line at having Hank killed before, it’s now quite literally Walt or Hank that’s taking a fall, and Walt would apparently rather be carted off to prison than see his brother-in-law shot down. Does that redeem Walter White? True, this is an episode in which Walt orders the death of his beloved partner, but even so, both “Rabid Dog” and “To’hajiilee” have gone out of their way to re-humanize Heisenberg. I’ve always been enthralled and invested in Walt’s character, which isn’t to say I’ve always rooted for him in the long run. But at a point, I expected it would be impossible to truly feel sympathy for him again.
In “To’hajiilee,” it’s hard not to. He’s betrayed by his partner, outwitted by his brother-in-law, and everything he’s worked so hard for throughout the series is suddenly taken away. There will be no pony at Holly’s Sweet 16. Nothing that happens here erases the many nefarious acts he’s carried out in the past, and no one can say Walt didn’t dig this grave himself. Just two episodes ago, in “Confessions,” Walt reached a new level of treachery as he threatened to pin all of Heisenberg’s evils on Hank, and now? I expect viewers will have a variety of reactions, but my heart went out to Walt in this one. It’s surprising primarily because we expect Walt’s journey from ordinary chemistry teacher to criminal mastermind to be at least somewhat linear. Walt can be a real son of a bitch, but Breaking Bad has never suggested that he is or ever could be outright evil. It isn’t hard to imagine a parallel universe in which the writers are just having fun with this final season, letting Heisenberg be the ultimate badass. If he’d wantonly decided to dispatch of Hank and Marie back in “Buried,” we would have bought it. He could be killing people left and right.
Instead, there’s a lot more moral complexity, especially since the series has taken pains to make everyone but Walt unlikeable lately. Marie’s looking up poisons on the internet, Hank finds Jesse expendable, Skyler’s decided she’s fine with “one more” murder, and Jesse’s on a vengeance bender against his former mentor. (I know a lot of people are on Team Jesse; I love the character, but I don’t find him all that easy to sympathize with, given his many unsavory acts in the past. Especially in “rabid dog” mode.)
Here, after so much selfishness, Walt finally makes a sacrificial gesture and decides to go peacefully and quietly. It’s true that he doesn’t have many other options, but he also doesn’t try other options. And when one of his miraculous “lucky breaks” surfaces in the form of Uncle Jack, Walt isn’t pleased or grateful. He tries to stop it from happening. After slowly stripping away our empathy for Walt over the years, Breaking Bad spends a surprising amount of time in Season Five earning it back. There’s a brilliant irony here — no matter who lives and dies in this shoot-out, it will end up looking like Walt orchestrated it intentionally. He tried to warn Hank, but it won’t be remembered that way. It’ll be viewed as another of Heisenberg’s masterful “get out of jail free” tricks… and if something happens to Hank, Skyler might very well change her tune about that “what’s one more?” business. It won’t look good. Walt has reached a point where he doesn’t even have to execute a genius escape plan — it will be attributed to him anyway. He’s created a monster, and even if he does all he can to keep Hank out of harm’s way, he very well could be remembered as his killer.
That is, assuming Hank dies. Now that the show is in its final four episodes, all bets are off when it comes to a shoot-out. Anyone besides Walt, really, could die before the series finale. And “To’hajiilee” insinuates that Hank might be the first to go. His phone call to Marie smacks of a final goodbye, though that could be a tease from the writers. Poor Hank has already cheated death twice in the past year — first in El Paso, when his anxiety attack spared him from getting limbs blown off via tortoise bomb, and then in his shoot-out with the Cousins. After all that, could Hank go down in another firefight?
It’s hard to say. On the one hand, it would seem strange for this episode to end with nobody getting shot (not even one of Uncle Jack’s lackeys!), and then kill off a major character (or a handful of them) at the beginning of the next. If Hank dies, it would seemingly be a better end to “To’hajiilee” than it would be a beginning to the next episode. If Hank doesn’t die, it would be strange and redundant to have him wind up in the hospital again with another few bullet wounds.
On the other hand, if either Hank or Gomez survive the gunfight, it’s game over for Heisenberg. From the flash-forwards, we know that Walt is eventually discovered, so this is a distinct possibility. But Hank’s death would explain so much about the future — why Skyler and Walt parted ways, why Walt went on the run to New Hampshire (supposedly), why he’s notorious enough that someone would graffiti “Heisenberg” in his house (and why neighbor Carol is afraid enough to drop her oranges at the mere sight of him). Walt has done some terrible deeds, but perhaps none are quite terrible enough to warrant the big finale we know is coming. Hank’s death could change that. It’s all speculation at this point, but even the promo for next week’s episode played pretty coy.
Regardless, despite a cliffhanger ending, “To’hajiilee” contains a lot more closure than we’re used to from this series. Hank caught Walt fair and square. Walt is officially busted. Jesse spitting in Walt’s face seems to close the door on that beef, too, for now. And Walt shed a tear and (sort of) redeemed himself, which makes parts of “To’hajiilee” feel like the series finale. At this late stage in the game, we’re trading narrative slyness for those Big Fucking Moments — with “To’hajiilee,” it definitely feels like we’re nearing the end. This is the point of no return, folks. All or nothing. Where does it go from here?