Spoilers for the season finale of Breaking Bad coming up:
The story of Breaking Bad has been the story of Walter White crossing thresholds. It’s been a journey with him down a descending corridor leading further into his damnation, as he approaches one door after another and crosses—maybe with trepidation, maybe with doubt, maybe with wracking guilt afterward, but he crosses. Would he make deadly drugs for money? Yes, he would. Would he kill a man who intended him harm? Check. Would he secure enough money to provide for his family, yet keep on cooking meth after his initial rationales were gone? Check. Would he accept being indirectly responsible for the deaths of innocents in a plain crash—and then for the near-assassination of his brother-in-law—and continue on? Check. Would he kill at point-blank range? Check.
In this riveting season finale, Walter stood at another moral threshold. Was he willing to deliberately kill an innocent man to save his own life?
One could, like Walt, rationalize. Gale was not “innocent,” in that he got into his line of work willingly, but he clearly didn’t have this coming. And it was not Walt who pulled the trigger, but he gave the order. And in a way, it’s more heartbreaking that Jesse should have to commit the murder (if murder it was; we didn’t see a body, only heard a gunshot). It is Jesse who, in a strange way, has become the moral voice of the show, at least insofar as his relative naivete keeps him from going to places that Walt will. He’ll go after Combo’s murderers for revenge, but he doesn’t want to kill an innocent for expediency. And yet there he is, gun in his hand, acting on the desperate orders of Walt, who only an episode ago told Jesse that he was not a murderer.
Well, circumstances have changed.
What a remarkable, edge-of-the-seat conclusion for a season that has played out like the highest form of dark thriller from beginning to end. And how beautifully Aaron Paul played that final scene, waiting to let Gale speak and beg for his life before acting—which made the ending all the more stunning and awful—tense, miserable, torn between losing his life and losing his soul.
From beginning to end, “Full Measure” was another stellar work, both in direction and acting. (It’s going to be hard, at the end of the year when I’m compiling my best-episodes list, to choose just one from this season.) The absolutely brilliant scene in which Mike raids an office and takes out a gunman on the other side of the wall by having the man at the desk direct him, with his eyes and hands, as to exactly how high to raise his gun. The gunslingers-at-ten-paces showdown, replete with measured silences, between Gus and Walt, in which Gus defies Walt to accuse him of ordering the murder of a child. (Dead stare. “I would never ask you that.” This show says so much with its silences and elisions.) Gus visit to Gale (“Creme de menthe?”) in which he makes clear, with menacing quiet, that it is very important that Gale be ready to take over very quickly. And, of course, the masterly climax between Mike and Walt, in which Walt begs for his own life—offering to cook for Gus for free, offering up Jesse—then saves himself (for now) by revealing Gale’s address.
Which raises the question: how much of Walt’s plea was real, and how much was a ruse to get him a call to Jesse? One of the key moments of this season for me, as I wrote in my TIME piece last week, was in “The Fly,” where Walt pinpointed the moment in which everything would have been better if he had only died. A man who’s willing to die has tremendous power—but in the end, Walt does not seem to be that man. He could surrender and let Mike end it. He doesn’t. He faces the end with as much terror and desperation as anyone in that situation, as much as, I assume, that wife-beater who Mike made eat a gun barrel all those years ago. (I have to suspect that, even if Walt had the plan of getting Jesse to kill Gale worked out from the beginning, that pathos and fear was real. Bryan Cranston is a great actor, but we have no reason to believe that Walter White can entirely fake this.)
And the practical question for Walt, going into season four: how much time has he bought himself? In the short term, he’s right: if the cook can’t stop, he’s indispensable. But he’s also clearly marked for disposal, and Gale can’t be the only cook out there. And if the cook can’t stop, Walt can’t leave: he must work in hell for the man who was a trigger pull away from violently pink-slipping him. What’s to stop Gus from bringing in another replacement—or from threatning Walt’s family to compel him to cooperate?
Walt may have engineered an ingenious temporary solution, but he remains the problem. And his golden handcuffs would no seem to have transformed into a golden guillotine. The question going ahead, after this audacious, thrilling, probing, flat-out amazing season, is whether Walt will extricate himself. And whether he can. And whether he deserves to.
Now the hail of bullets:
* Breaking Bad is in love with using its opening shots as a kind of visual puzzle: the shot that pans or pulls away to gradually reveal more visual information and change our perception of the scene. In this case, the mundane shot of a room gradually takes us back in time to a scene of Walt (looking remarkably like Hal from Malcolm in the Middle) and Skyler looking at their first starter house. Viewed after the end of the episode, this scene that takes them back to a time of hope and promise—”We’ve got nowhere to go but up”—is all the more saddening. (And it also, like other glimpses of Walt’s life before cancer and crime, shows that the seeds of his destruction were already there in a way; even then, he wanted more, wanted to stretch, wanted to provide—ordinary impulses that, by the time Walt came to work for Gus, he had horribly perverted.)
* Yet another modern-day Western scene at the opening of the present-day action, with Mike and Walt staring each other down across a wide desert vista: “I assure you that I can kill you from way over here.”
* I have to say that I did not think Saul had it in him to choose saving Jesse over the easier self-preservation route; and in fact, I’m not sure I entirely buy it, unless the promise of future paydays was just too great. But I love how Bob Odenkirk put over Saul’s frustration, fear and exasperation at the position he’d been put in: “You and I survive this, I am seriously reconsidering my pricing!”
* Before he agrees to the plan about Gale, Jesse suggests to Walt that he go into witness protection. Walt refuses, saying that the cook can’t stop. He may be right, but I wonder if he would ever do it regardless? At this point, it seems like there is something in Walt that—despite his guilt and regret—cannot go back to being an anonymous nobody.