“Baby, you OK?”
“I’m much better now.”
You’ve seen it a million times before: the superhero, the secret agent, the detective, the wizard has been captured by his nemesis. The villain disarms our protagonist, ties him up, prepares for the coup de grace. And then: he can’t resist. He starts talking. (“Monologuing,” they called it in The Incredibles.) Taunting. Savoring the chance to tell his vanquished foes exactly how everything went according to his plan. Relishing his triumph a few seconds too long, until–hey, what’s that sound…?
Breaking Bad delights in upending our expectations, and the heart-pounding “To’hajiilee” (named, I believe, for the Navajo reservation on whose ground the climax must have played out) did it in at least two ways. First, by putting the nominal good guy– the lawman, Hank Schrader–in the time-honored position of the conquering criminal who Can’t. Stop. Talking. And then, by denying–or maybe not, maybe merely postponing–his seemingly well-telegraphed doom.
It was somewhere right around when Walt pulled up to the desert meetup spot, having thoroughly been scammed by Jesse and Hank into confessing murder and revealing his stash spot, that I knew, or thought I did, how it all was going to go down. Walt would get caught by Hank, Jesse, and Gomez; they in turn would get caught by Uncle Jack. Jack, badly wanting Walt to cook for him, would decide to ignore Walt and make him honor his end of the deal. Hank would get the triumph he dreamed of, would finally outsmart Walt, would get to slap the cuffs on, and then–curtains. After which Jack would inform a shaken Walt that the deal was still on, and he owed him a cook–if not more.
(I say, by the way, this neither as a boast nor as a criticism. I rarely see surprise plot twists coming, and therefore if I saw Uncle Jack’s return coming, I assume Vince Gilligan and company fully intended us to see it coming.)
Instead, we got a bananas, guns-blazing climax and then–you bastards!–a cut to black. What should have tipped me off that we were not going to see Hank die–not before the end of this hour anyway–was how bleeding obvious Breaking Bad, and director Michelle McLaren, made it seem that we were going to see Hank die. When long-running dramas kill off major characters, played by stars who have been with the show for years, they tend to telegraph it by showering said character with moments and catharses and closure.
And holy hell, “To’hajiilee” did everything but roll out a goodbye cake for Dean Norris and play “Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)” on the soundtrack. Hank got his victory, which solves the problem of killing off Hank–a cop, after all, if an increasingly flawed guy–yet not letting him appear to have died in vain. He had a tearful talk by cellphone (great reception in the desert!) with Marie, and got to hear her say that he had put her mind at ease. The episode all but packed his suitcases for the afterlife. (I’d thought Jesse might be marked too, but precisely because Norris got such attention–and especially once Hank shuffled him and Gomez to another car–it suggested that the Grim Reaper’s spotlight was on Hank alone.)
You might think that such (apparent) telegraphing would take the suspense out of the episode’s second half. On the contrary–maybe on Hitchcock’s theory that “knowing” a terrible thing will happen is worse than not knowing–it was torture, from the moment Walt took the phone call from Jesse and barreled out on the blacktop to the existential showdown in the desert. There are points at which my notes on this episode are almost entirely me screaming at the episode in all-caps (JESUS WHO IS IN THE CAR??? &c.)
More important, the false ending gave us a chance to see how Walt would react to his luck finally, for all appearances, running out. The episode hardly redeemed him; after all his agonizing, it turned out he did make the call to have rabid-dog Jesse put down. (Quickly and painlessly, he asked, so, you know, Humanitarian of the Year.) But as always, Breaking Bad complicated things, giving us Walt facing a last temptation, like Christ in the desert: one word on the phone, and he could get rid of Hank and his troubles. Maybe his code supersedes his pride, maybe he simply can’t live with killing his children’s uncle.
Every time Walt has escaped doom, it’s been by crossing a new moral line, from Emilio and Krazy 8 to Gale to Brock. (The last of whom he is able to see again–as part of a plan to lure Jesse to his death–without any apparent pangs.) For once here, he steps up to the line and refuses: “It’s off. Do not come.” And then he prepares for the end.
If we didn’t know there were three episodes left, this could have been a way to end the series. Another series might have ended just this way: with Walt, if not exactly redeemed, at least having found his moral limit, finding his bearings and reconciling himself to paying a price before the cancer claims him. There would be justice, there would be retribution, and yet there would be the message that even the most benighted among us can see light before the end.
But not Walt. Not yet anyway; Breaking Bad will not let him morally re-virginize himself so easily. As it turns out, he’s not Christ in the desert; the devil he’s dealing with is not ready to call off the bargain and get behind him. His decisions have had consequences, and they can’t be undone with a phone call.
I write this review in blissful ignorance of what’s coming next; I haven’t seen further episodes or even the previews of next week’s episode. Maybe Hank is already dead, maybe someone else is, maybe not. But whatever comes after that cut to black, Breaking Bad is going to make Walter White live with it.
Now for the hail of bullets:
* In the history of awkward Breaking Bad moments, has there ever been one as awkward as Saul meeting the White family?
* Thanks to Walter White and his van, we now have an answer to the eternal question (repeated earlier this season by Skyler): Who washes a rental?
* God love Jesse Plemons; it’s amazing how Todd’s politeness and placidity can be a frightening as other characters’ belligerence.
* Again, I am privy to no foreknowledge, but am guessing that Jesse Pinkman survives this attack, if only because I’d expect a more massive clearing of the air between him and Walt before this is over. Of course, I know the danger of expecting anything with this show.
* “How angry we talking about? Hulk angry?” That may be an underestimate.
* Finally: AMC is not screening the last three episodes in advance, so I (or in the case of Emmy night, possibly someone else) will be reviewing these last episodes later than usual. Strap your seat belts on.