Breaking Bad Breakdown: Peaking Plot
In one of the most referenced axioms about suspense, Alfred Hitchcock told François Truffaut that suspense works best when the audience knows that there is a bomb under the table, but is powerless to intervene in the action, and must helplessly sit through the scene anticipating the inevitable explosion. In one of the most referenced axioms on the Internet, Godwin’s law asserts that if a debate goes on long enough, someone will bring up Nazis or Hitler, thus ending the conversation.
This week’s Breaking Bad ends the conversation by putting some explosive Nazis under the table. Of course, Hitchcock never worked in serials, where we have to wait a week to see who actually gets blown up.
The desert scene offers moments that many of us have been waiting for. Jesse trips Walt up on his own ego, getting him to confess to murders as a way to boast how much Walt has done for Jesse (Hank & Gomie were recording that call, right?). Hank achieves his ultimate goal: slapping the handcuffs on Heisenberg, and even calling Marie to celebrate. Walt finally must face his reckoning, not only getting caught but being schooled by the two allies he always felt were easiest to manipulate; he sheds a single tear over being shamed, for being outsmarted with no way out, for having no more lies to spin.
But of course, it’s Breaking Bad, so it’s not that simple. The final 20 minutes of “To’hajiilee” might be as good as any sequence the series has ever aired, and may be revealed as the series climax. As soon as Walt gets the photo from Jesse, he stops having an A1 day and all the main threads from this season get tied together in a messy knot: the buried money, Hank and Jesse’s dual attempts to take down Heisenberg, Saul’s culpability in helping Walt, Todd and his Nazi army. Even though he tells Uncle Jack not to come, we know better, both because we know from the flash-forwards that Walt does not go to jail, and because you don’t introduce a white supremacist militia just to tell them to stay home. Bryan Cranston’s delivery in calling off the hit on Jesse is so insistent that we believe Walt, but overlaid with tense anger that I certainly believe Jack would interpret as the lies of a man being held at gunpoint. So we watch Walt in bracelets knowing that this will not end well, anticipating a violent stand-off to come.
And when it comes, the scene gives Michelle MacLaren a curtain call, as this is the last of the 11 episodes that she directed. I fully expect and hope that in ten years, one of the ways Breaking Bad will be best remembered is as the show that launched MacLaren’s directorial career, as she shoots both high-tension action and emotional reckoning as well as anyone in the industry. She has helmed some of the most explosive and emotionally wrenching episodes in the series, including “One Minute,” “Four Days Out,” “Madrigal,” “Salud,” and “Gliding Over All,” but this episode’s final sequence might be her greatest moment yet. If there is any justice, she will be directing major Hollywood action films soon enough—personally, I’d love to see her version of a Western, as she has a way of making the mundane feel epic and confrontations feel massive.
What is so effective about the final scene is how everything builds in the anticipation. The actual shoot-out only lasts for 45 seconds, but it feels weighty because of how much time we spend waiting for it, with the tension drawn out via Hank’s deliberate process of putting Walt into custody, and everyone’s excruciating hesitations in firing the first shot. Second only to MacLaren’s directorial work here is Dave Porter’s score throughout the episode, which creates so much of the program’s tension and unease, a tone that is heightened through the contrast to the brilliant use of silence. Porter’s work throughout the series is an unheralded secret weapon, effective because of its moderate use and willingness to let a scene play without music to make the moody score stand out when it is used.
I haven’t really discussed the plot so far, as it’s pretty straightforward in its drive toward the ending. Unlike my prediction from last week, Jesse has no master plan to undercut Walt’s pride, but feels like attacking his money to lure him into a trap is a safer bet than walking into a meeting on Walt’s terms. Todd’s crew needs Walt’s chemistry more than his money, so Walt’s phone call gives Jack an upper hand to bring Walt back into the lab. While their house is still being repaired, Skyler aims for some normalcy by getting Junior to work at the car wash. And that’s about it—everything leads to the final scene, lulled into a tense but languid pace for the episode’s first two thirds. Breaking Bad’s use of pace is one of its most remarkable features, as many of its greatest episodes light a slow burning fuse toward a climactic explosion. Its rhythms and structure remind me of many songs from my favorite band Wilco, especially as they perform them live; for instance, this performance of “The Art of Almost” lingers on an escalating, complex rhythmic groove only to explode into a chaotic wall of throbbing noise until stopping at an almost arbitrary peak. Listening to this performance captures the rhythm and feeling of “To’hajiilee” better than any plot recap could.
But unlike a Wilco song, Breaking Bad will continue after a week’s break that already feels interminable. The episode invites us to speculate who will survive the shoot-out, and play the game second-guessing expectations, conventions, and rule-breaking. When Hank gets to carry out his long awaited arrest of Heisenberg and then calls Marie, it feels like a dramaturgical death sentence, almost as much of a cliché as a cop catching his most dangerous case a week away from retirement. But when is the last time Breaking Bad played such a narrative convention straight? Vince Gilligan knows that we’ll think the episode signals Hank’s demise, so he’ll probably turn away from that convention. But he also knows that we know that he knows this, so maybe it will be a double-feint and Hank will actually die? Perhaps I’m over-thinking it after watching The Princess Bride with my kids a few days ago, but I really hope Gilligan finds the narrative equivalent of poisoning both of the goblets to outthink us all.
Random Organs in the Garbage Can:
- In my chapter about serial television endings, I discuss how often final seasons become more reflexive in their storytelling, commenting upon the series itself. While thus far Breaking Bad has not embraced the reflexivity of The Wire or Lost as I analyze there, it has used the common device of calling back to previous moments, images, and places. “To’hajiilee” explicitly references the pilot, both in Jesse’s comment that Walt buried the money in the precise place where the two of them first cooked, and with specific landscape shots to begin the episode’s final act that are identical to the landscape shots that start the pilot, albeit without ending with a slow-motion image of pants flying in the wind.
- Another one of this season’s meta-pleasures is scenes pairing characters who have never met before. Last episode it was Marie greeting Jesse with a cup of coffee in a DEA mug; this week, Junior becomes starstruck upon meeting Saul at the car wash. While his goofy grin offers some needed comic relief, it also reminds us how out of the loop Junior really is—how might he react if/when he learns that his loser dad is a criminal genius? Will he be around for such a moment?
- I must admit that I was frustrated to not see Jesse’s end of the phone call while Walt raced to the desert, if only for his facial reaction to finally catching Heisenberg. Maybe the series will continue the temporal layering its been using this season, starting next episode with Jesse, Hank and Gomie’s perspective on laying the trap? And while they’re at it, maybe we’ll see Hank put on a bulletproof vest, echoing Saul’s preventative measures? Fingers crossed.
- Huell got a nice moment, getting played by Hank but not in a way that made him seem like an idiot. Huell’s freakout upon seeing Jesse’s dead image reminds us that in the criminal world, there are different levels of cold-blooded and violent, and Huell is really a low-level muscle and pick-pocket man, not a murderer.
- Amazingly, I almost forget this week’s installment of “The Unthinkable Fuckery of Walter White,” where he visits Andrea and Brock to set a trap for Jesse. I have to think that even if Hank hadn’t intercepted Andrea’s call, Jesse would be wise enough to see it as a trap. The knowing looks Brock gives Walt suggest that he can smell the stench of inhumanity coming off his erstwhile poisoner. I hope their brief appearance this week gives them a little curtain call, but that both Brock and Andrea stay out of range of the shrapnel going forward.
- This week was directed by series MVP MacLaren, and next episode comes from stellar guest star Rian Johnson, the feature film director behind the great Looper who helmed two of Breaking Bad’s most distinctive hours, “Fly” and “Fifty-One.” It’s called “Ozymandias” in reference to the Shelley poem about fallen empires and hollow reputations, which also anchored the season’s most memorable trailer. Are your expectations high enough yet?
Paratext of the Week:
I’ll use this space to plug the In Media Res week on Breaking Bad that starts today. I’m concluding the week with an entry on Friday, and I promise not to end with an abrupt cut to black.