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Breaking Bad Watch: The One Who Knocks

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Walter White (Bryan Cranston) - Breaking Bad - Season 4, Episode 13 - Photo Credit Gregory Peters/AMC

SPOILER ALERT: Before you read this post, stop watching House, or something, and watch last night’s season finale of Breaking Bad.

“A guy opens his door and gets shot, and you think that of me? No. I am the one who knocks.”

Walter White described himself thus to Skyler earlier in Breaking Bad season 4 (as it happened, I was on set when they shot it), and AMC played up the line in its pre-season promos. It seemed to suggest that season 4 would show a Walter White feeling and owning his power. But it was a lie, a self-deception. Several times this season–as in his conversation with the stranger at his cancer screening–Walt described himself as a man in command of his life. But he spent much of this season afraid, desperate, brought low, reacting rather than acting.

Last night, in a stunning, morally searing and, well, explosive season finale—with a few holy-crap moments for the ages—Walt became the one who knocks. And when the door opened, crossed the threshold of sympathy.

The history of Breaking Bad is a series of ethical lines crossed; there’s a reason the show is called what it is. Walt began as a meek, resigned–if resentful–chemistry teacher. Then he started cooking meth. Then he killed, in self-defense. He let a young woman die. He indirectly, through his callousness, caused an air disaster. He killed again. He indirectly got his brother-in-law shot, and excused Gus for allowing it. He had another meth cooker, who did nothing to him, murdered so he could live. Always with the rationalization that he was a decent man, that he would not harm the truly innocent, that he would never willingly endanger a child.

Then he willingly endangered a child.* One has to assume that Walt has his rationalizations here too: that his own family was at risk, that he was left with no better option, that he chose a non-lethal poison to spare Brock’s life. But those don’t really hold up: his family was under guard, he could have chosen to accept the “consequences” of his actions as he told Skyler he would, and–at least his sigh of relief at hearing Brock survived tells me this–he knew it was entirely possible the little boy could have died. (Of course, Walt preferred that Brock should live, all other things being equal. Give that man the Nobel prize!)

*[Nor was that the only time Walt risked an innocent to save himself. I was slack-jawed in the early scene in which he uses his neighbor to flush out the killers from the White homestead. I half-expected that he was waiting for them to throw her body out.]

About that poisoning: I will admit it, Vince Gilligan and company faked me out well and good. (Though not all of you. I didn’t specifically see lily of the valley mentioned in any comments sections, here or elsewhere, but a number of people guessed that Walt was indeed behind it, that another poison was involved and that there was a significance to his spinning gun landing on the potted plant. I doff my Heisenberg hat to you.) I thought last week that the plot was too complicated a bank shot for Gus, and indeed it was. Yet, as I mentioned in an interview with Vince Gilligan that will post shortly, I couldn’t believe the argument that Walt did it, largely because it was Jesse’s theory, and how could Jesse possibly be right?

Was it a complicated bank shot for Walt as well? A bit. He needed to assume that Jesse would suspect ricin at all–which he did only by accident, going out for a smoke–figure him for the poisoner, come to kill him and get talked out of it, and I’m still not entirely sure how he got the poison to Brock. (I’m guessing Saul played a bigger role than we saw?)

But Gilligan and crew deserve credit for putting together a tense, balls-out season wrapper that raised my pulse like a treadmill gone haywire. In a weird way, the finale reminded me a touch of the season three finale of Mad Men, which basically played out as a caper story. Here, we got a taut, white-knuckle hit operation as Walt and Jesse joined forces to save themselves–until, of course, the sickening last minutes put everything in a new light.

Structurally, the finale (and season 4) had echoes of season 3: Walt is beaten for much of the season and pulls off a long-shot attempt to extricate himself by leveraging Jesse. But where the season 3 ender was deliberate, and sweeping, Western-like in its images, this was more like a ticking-bomb thriller (which, I suppose, it was).

The finale did shift into epic-Western mode once: with the walkup to Gus Fring’s last stand. Earlier this week, I recorded a podcast with AOL’s Mo Ryan and Ryan McGee (I’ll add a link when it’s up), and Mo noted that Gus was in a way getting a hero’s sendoff here: the camera shooting him upward then from behind to exaggerate his stature, uncharacteristically grand soundtrack music. And well he should: as cold and horrifying a bastard as Gus Fring was, he was one of the greatest creations of modern TV drama, as Giancarlo Esposito took what was originally a marginal character and made him into a colossus of terrifying quietness.

I could go over his end step-by-step, but better to unpack one small scene. That scene, the one that gave “Face Off” its winking title and encapsulated both his character and what makes Breaking Bad so visually masterful.

First there’s the explosion: Nothing overblown, just a door blowing out and some ceiling tiles falling, like what you might see in a closed-circuit video of a bomb-disposal unit detonating a pipe bomb. The whiny tweeting of a smoke detector. Gus walking out, upright and composed, as the camera closes in. (What! He survived that?) He reaches for his lapel and straightens his tie–that gesture telling you so much about his character, that even in his dying seconds, his deepest instinct, the command of his reptilian brain stem, is to maintain his order and fastidiousness. Then the aides coming up and reacting in horror, before the camera moves around and shows us what they see: half of Gus’s face blown away. Which, by the way: Breaking Bad Visual of All Time, not just for the shock value, but for how this scene demonstrates the show’s strategy of composing scenes like little puzzles, gradually adding visual information until it builds to a climax. (Oh, and by the way? One single shot. Like it’s not even a thing. Update: OK, maybe not one single shot. But still.)

It had to be tough to let Gus go before the series was ended, but it couldn’t have been otherwise: after Walt raised the idea of killing him to Mike, this was clearly the season’s arc. What a fantastic sendoff for the character, and what a compelling  ending for a season that took its time gathering momentum.

Where would I rank that season in Breaking Bad’s history? Right after the end of a season is probably the worst time to make this call, but offhand I would put season 4 just a shade under season 3–more as a matter of what was right about season 3 than of anything wrong about season 4. In season 3, the show found a new, epic mode and rattled off one tour de force episode after another. Season 4 maintained that level of quality and ambition, but structurally it felt more like a continuation of season 3, especially in resolving the Gus-Walt standoff. Season 3 brutally showed Jesse and Walt making one moral choice after another; in season 4, Jesse was largely manipulated by others while Walt–again, up until this horrifying ending–was largely reacting to events already set in motion. Who knows what the final season will be like, but my guess is that in retrospect I’ll see this season as a bridge from season 3 to the finale.

None of which, though, is to take away from a strong season of what is still easily the class of the field in TV drama. And the future? Where season 3 ended on a cliffhanger, season 4 ends at turning point, from which it could theoretically go any number of ways. Gus is dead; the superlab is burned; Walt is free to walk away. Free of everything except his own hubris, that is, and it’s hard to imagine him deciding to spend his remaining short years running a car wash.

But now he has a brother-in-law who is very close to exposing his secrets (if Hank has not in fact, as some have theorized, already put some pieces together. He has Skyler horrified by the realization that she is not simply partnered with a man in a lab coat making drugs for bad guy, but to a man who murders people in a retirement home. He has a business partner with at least two valid reasons to kill him (Jane and Brock) should he ever learn the truth about either.

And he has an audience that, I suspect, is past the point of believing his actions are remotely justifiable–which does not make this series any less than absolutely riveting. Maybe Walt will face a new Big Bad. Maybe he is the Big Bad. Maybe he’ll die. Maybe he’ll have to live with his actions. Maybe season 5 will pick up moments later. Maybe it’ll be five years gone. Breaking Bad can go any number of directions before its and Walt’s time run out, and it has more than earned my confidence in seeing which way it will go.

Now this year’s last hail of bullets:

* I have only myself to blame for reading advance features, and I’ve written them myself, but the New York Times feature before the Breaking Bad premiere this year described the scene in which Jesse is tasered on the street. So I have spent the entire season waiting for it to finally happen (which undercut any fears, not realistic anyway, that Gilligan might actually off his character this season).

* Farewell also to Tio Hector. I would have enjoyed seeing a spinoff comedy about his zany misadventures with the other seniors in the nursing home. Though, to accommodate his dialogue with his letter grid, each episode would have had to run about four hours.

* As slow as those letterboard scenes were, by the way, they were hilarious, and I almost wish the show had gotten more mileage out of them earlier. “Honey, ‘dea’ ain’t a word. Help me out here.”

* Also loved: Walt’s encounter with Saul’s angry, savvy assistant, who wants $20K to “fix” the broken plate glass. “There’s no reputable vendor who would–” “Now I’m thinking 25.”

* As to Gus’ “spidey sense” from the end of the last episode: an online featurette unpacked what raised Gus’ suspicions–Jesse’s mention that Brock had been “poisoned.” I don’t know that Walt’s guilt explained it further (presumably Jesse’s knowing that Gus had poisoned Brock would also have been a tell), and while it still felt like a device to let episode 12 end on Walt’s frustration, I minded it less in retrospect. And I like that the finale acknowledged it: “What does he have, some kind of sixth sense?”

* To which Jesse’s response was even better: “Can I ask you my own question, right now, at this point? Did you just bring a bomb into a hospital?”

* At one point I was trying to remember if this episode was called “Face Off” or “Facedown,” and thinking that if it were the latter, maybe someone would end up face down! Yet the pun in this title never occurred to me, maybe because the Nicolas Cage / John Travolta movie ruined it for me.

* “What’d you tell him?” “I told them they were a couple of dicks.” “He’s a wordsmith!”