10
Oct
2011
Breaking Bad: Season 4, Episode 13
Face Off
Jordan
I have always thought that Breaking Bad was a brilliant show. Black as midnight on a moonless night, superbly acted, cinematic in all the best ways, and written to the hilt, this is a television show for the ages. Sometimes while watching a show that I know is great, I tend to read a little bit too much into things, to give the show more credit than it deserves (you can look at any number of my Community reviews for evidence of this phenomenon). Sometimes, though, a show is exactly as smart as I give it credit for. And sometimes, its even smarter.

Last week, I told you to watch that Thirty Eight Snub. At the time, I thought the gun had served a potent thematic purpose, detailing the random chaos of the universe and Walter's impotence in the face of blind chance. And it did do both of those things. It turns out, however, that my advice was better than I had anticipated. Two weeks back, I guessed that Walt was behind Brock's poisoning. Last week, we watched the gun point at Walter two times. Then we watched it point at what we now know to be the Lily of The Valley, a flower with poisonous berries that were used to strike Brock ill. I could nitpick about how artlessly the show revealed this in the final moments of tonight's episode, but honestly, I'm just too damned impressed by the way the show used its thematic prop as a tool of foreshadowing that was so subtle, you'd have to know what was coming to pick up on this (another instance of this show being brilliant with the foreshadowing can be found in the episode titles of season two. For those who have yet to notice this, the episodes with the flash-forward detailing the aftermath of the crash are titled, in order "747" "Down" "Over" "ABQ". Yeah, this show is brilliant).

We are faced now with a Walter White who has no qualms about putting innocent people at risk to save his own life. Sure, he was relieved to hear that Brock would live, but he also sent his neighbor into harm's way just a few hours earlier, asking her to check whether a burner was on in order to see if anyone was in his house. Walt spent most of this season cursing his impotence, his inability to act to save his own life or to take control of the situation that faced him. When pushed to the end of his rope, however, he learned that he could act, that he would do anything to save his own life. Last season, Walt had Gale killed to save himself; this season he learned that sometimes there is collateral damage in a fight for survival. If last season he took a "Full Measure," then this time out, he's playing by entirely different standards. He has learned how high the stakes can get, and he has found himself capable of rising to the challenge. The Walter White of a few seasons ago would have been wracked with guilt at the idea of harming an innocent (though even at the start, he showed remarkably little hesitation about harming those out to hurt him), but tonight, he seems more proud than shamed. "Was this you? What happened?" Skyler asks him, taken aback. His response: "I won."

Walt's victory is derived from his ability to finally see all the pieces in play and work them to his advantage. When he learns that Hector Salamanca hates Gus, and that Gus has slaughtered his family, he strikes a devil's bargain with the old man for revenge. Their plan is thrillingly meticulous stuff, a good old fashioned Walter White plan like we haven't seen all season. Hector calls the DEA, saying he will only talk to Hank. The idea that Hector would talk to the DEA was ridiculous to my mind, but of course, that wasn't the point. All Walt needed was for Tyrus to see Hector going into the DEA to talk to Hank, and that was enough to get a visit from Gus.

And so Gustavo Fring is undone by his own meticulousness and his desire for revenge. Demanding that he will be the one to kill Hector, Gus has Tyrus check out the home to ensure Hector isn't being watched, and then, in a beautifully executed scene, he walks in there to denigrate Salamanca one last time before administering a lethal injection. Except he never gets that far, because Tio has the car bomb strapped to the bottom of the chair, setting it off and killing himself, Tyrus, and Gus. The last, perfectly executed moment of Gus Fring's life, has him walking out of the room, straightening his tie, and then falling over, dead from a gaping hole in the side of his head. Breaking Bad has given me quite a few shocks and quite a few grim moments over the course of its run, but the death of Gustavo Fring and his gruesome final moments will stick with me for quite some time.

And, because Vince Gilligan has clearly read Chekov, the thirty eight snub finally gets to play its part, as Walter walks into the lab, blows away the two goons watching over Jesse's cook, and then burns the lab to the ground. There was something downright thrilling about watching Walter and Jesse burn the place that turned them into powerless slaves to the ground, and anytime the two can cooly walk away from something burning (after making sure their finger prints aren't at the scene, of course) I'm on board.

When Jesse learns Brock was not poisoned by ricin, he is (of course) shaken and wonders whether the killing of Gus was necessary. "He had to go, right?" he asks Walter, who nods, affirms his thoughts, and shakes Jesse's hand. It would be a nice, warm moment, a rebuilding of a partnership that a few weeks back seemed tarnished beyond repair, were it not for the awful lie beneath the surface. To Jesse, it may seem like he got his partner back, but we know better. We know that Jesse has just been (one of) the victim(s) of the cruelest and most menacing manipulation Walter has ever constructed, and that their reconciliation was precipitated entirely on an elaborate and evil plot by our own Mr. White.

So what next? We know now that Walter White is the type of man willing to poison a child. We know he's the type of guy who carries a bomb around in a diaper bag, and seems annoyed that Jesse is shocked by that fact. We know that he will throw innocent people into danger without thinking twice, so long as it ensures his own safety. Vince Gilligan has often said the arc of Breaking Bad is to turn Walter White "from Mr. Chips to Scarface." With one season and 16 episodes left to go, I'd say we're much closer to the latter than the former. But my guess is, we've yet to hit rock bottom. My guess is, we aren't even close.

Grade: A

Notes:

-As much as I knew Gus would have to die tonight, I really didn't want it to happen. I have loved Giancarlo Esposito's work on this show, and Gus is one of my favorite characters. I will miss him (though I'm sure the show will bring him back for flashbacks every once in a while). Please give this man an Emmy.

-Thank God Mike was still off recuperating during this whole thing. If we had lost Gus and Mike in one episode, I don't think I could've handled it.

-"Did you just bring a bomb into a hospital?"

-There were a lot of great barbs lobbed at Jesse and Walt tonight, bringing a surprising amount of humor into the episode. A few of my favorites: "How is that news, exactly? The two of you being in danger." and "All I can say is, if I ever get anal polyps, I'll know what to name them."

-"Honey, dea ain't a word. Help me out here."

-The music as Gus prepares to walk into the nursing home was truly amazing. It was the perfect accent on the scene, giving it the right amount of mythic heft, a Morricone tinged tune for the final walk of Gustavo Fring.

-Can we talk about how RIDICULOUS that final Gus moment was? He gave a more literal tinge to the episode's title, "Face Off" than I had expected. And having his last act be straightening his tie...well, that was just bad ass.

-"Gus is dead. We've got work to do."

-What a tremendous season of television. I started off this season talking about how Breaking Bad is the greatest show on television right now and it did not disappoint. I loved covering this, and am glad those of you who read along were here to share my joy. I could not be more excited for next season. Is it next summer yet?
Tags: Breaking Bad
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