It’s a masterwork of writing and acting, and typical of Gilligan’s method/madness, building a shocking outcome on a foundation of nearly unbearable tension and pitch-perfect performances.
When I wrote that some while ago, fans were still abuzz over that “money shot” of Breaking Bad‘s season premiere. “Box Cutter” set a standard that any other season of any other series would struggle to merely approach, let alone maintain. But I was sure that Vince Gilligan and his cast and crew were up to the challenge.
I had no idea…
In the twelve episodes that followed, we witnessed more great moments in a series that just kept getting better. The downward spiral of Jesse Pinkman, and a push toward redemption from the most unlikely of sources. The continued corrpution of Skyler White. The resurrection-by-obsession of Hank Schrader, driven as much to bring down Heisenberg as to get the hell away from his wife. A darkly comedic end to Ted Beneke’s storyline (and possibly to Ted Beneke). Inspired comic relief from Bob Odenkirk, Lavell Crawford, and Bill Burr. The quiet brilliance of Jonathan Banks. And an extraordinary, nearly immobile performance from Mark Margolis as Hector Salamanca – I still haven’t found the words to do justice to how he so utterly became a man imprisoned in body and in soul.
But at the heart of it all remained the war between Walter White and Gustavo Fring. From the beginning, it was clear that their relationship would come to a crisis. And with every move in their chess game, it was clear that only one could prevail. It’s one more testament to the strength of the show’s writing and acting that we were left guessing for so long, trying to figure out if Walt’s desperate, impulsive schemes could even hope to match Gus’s meticulous, all-encompassing long game, if that wreck of a man could hope to outsmart the malevolent genius with “an appropriate response” to everything.
The answer came in four of the most extraordinary hours of television I’ve seen. “Salud” gave us quintessential Gustavo, in a sequence that saw an entire drug cartel wiped out by his cool and careful vengeance. It was a fantastic scene, but where lesser shows would have made of it an end, for Breaking Bad it was only a means…
Having rid himself of Don Eladio, Gus returned to Albuquerque in “Crawl Space”, to cast Walt out with a threat we knew he could – and would – carry out. Brought to his ultimate low, his family endangered by the very actions he took to protect them, Walt (and even the series) seemed to have nowhere to go, until “End Times” brought Jesse back to his side, Gus’s true “loyalty” apparently revealed in a shocking attempt on a young boy’s life. Together, they would plot Gus’s death, but of course, Gus was still so many steps ahead of them.
Until “Face Off”.
Two weeks have passed since that season finale, and I still find myself thinking about it, wanting to talk about it. And more amazing is that I still find people who want to think and talk about it with me. Was it really that good? Was it really that powerful?
You’ve likely guessed my answer already.
Two shots define the episode’s greatness, and so the series’. The first, of course, needs little discussion. After too many failed attempts, and attempts that didn’t last long enough to even approach failure, Walt finally found a way to get to Gus, recruiting their mutual Mortal Enemy, none other than Tio Salamanca, in a suicide mission… that succeeds. The death of Gustavo Fring is an amazing sequence, not only for its visceral impact, and not only for its dramatic impact, but most of all for how it’s so perfectly in character. Those calm last steps out of Tio’s room, that last straightening of the tie, that horror revealed beneath the quiet facade – Gus’s last seconds are the ultimate summary of everything we’ve come to know about the character, and everything we’ve come to love about Giancarlo Esposito’s performance. It’s a fitting end for one of the greatest villains of all time.
Just as chilling, just as powerful a money shot, ends the episode. Walt and Jesse are allies again, maybe even friends. Walt’s family is safe. As he chillingly tells Skyler, “I won.” It should be over. But in one simple and perfect shot, of nothing more than a potted plant, we discover the truth: that “Gus’s” act against young Brock was really Walt’s doing. To turn Jesse to his cause, Walt has committed the very crime he once accused Gus of (in season 3’s “Half Measures”). And try as he does to justify himself, we know it wasn’t to protect his family, or to save Jesse from Gus’s influence. It was solely for the sake of winning.
And for Walter White, the cost of winning is to become Gustavo Fring.
We know, of course, that Walt’s victory will not bring him or his family peace, but he’ll gloat anyway. He’ll keep denying his sins, until they return to demand payment of him. And we KNOW that in those final sixteen episodes, they will…
Until then, I’ll keep celebrating an extraordinary run for an extraordinary series, a perfect storm of shock, suspense, dark humor, and most of all character. I’ll keep praising the extraordinary work of Vince Gilligan, Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, and the entire cast and crew. And I’ll keep nagging you to watch.
That’s just gotten a little easier, as the first three seasons are now available for instant viewing on Netflix, and the DVDs are readily available. Be warned, though – once you’ve started, there’s no going back. Breaking Bad is one of that handful of shows that truly have changed everything.
With that, I’ll once again thank you for following along. Until the next time, “be seeing you…”