Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Hug someone you love before watching this week’s Breaking Bad.
To’hajiilee is an action-packed return to form after the last couple of sluggish episodes. A chess analogy continues to invite itself: with all the pieces finally maneuvered into their final positions, the big bang everyone has been waiting for finally happens. Unfortunately, we don’t yet know the consequences. We get to see everything explode, but we don’t get to see who’s still standing. And that’s really not a metaphor.
The neo-Nazis are back in the forefront of the action. They take the entire show down an even darker path than it’s tread before. All the villains used previously have been endowed with a handful of redeeming personality traits, but Uncle Jack’s pure, skeevy malevolence makes the show almost frightening to watch.
In the cold open, Todd cooks his best batch of meth yet: 76 percent pure. Uncle Jack, who doesn’t need to wear any sissy gas masks, and Lydia are both present. Unfortunately, despite the higher grade, Todd’s meth is not blue. Lydia insists that it must be. Bizarrely, Todd has developed a crush on her and is fairly forward about it. Actually, even though this is a man we’ve seen execute a 13-year-old, his advance toward Lydia is one of the most aggressive things Todd’s done. The camera is right up against Lydia’s face to highlight Todd’s invasion of her personal space, but she rebuffs him and tells him to get the cook right, seemingly unaware of his flirtation.
Then we see Walt’s phone call from the end of last episode from Todd’s perspective. Any doubt about who Walt wants Jack to kill is gone. Jesse is the target. While Todd is on the phone, he notices Lydia’s lipstick stain on her coffee mug and puts his lips over it for a drink. Again, it’s a creepy moment, but significant for the characterization of Todd. Up until now he’s been almost sympathetic, portrayed mostly as an order-taking, highly loyal top lieutenant. When he escorts Lydia away from the mass killing at Declan’s lab in Blood Money, it seems he’s doing it because his momma raised him to be chivalrous. In this episode, we see Todd for the first time evince a personal desire, a lustful one. We knew already he’s a murderer, but there is now an even baser darkness to Todd than we’ve seen before.
Meanwhile, Jesse, Hank, and Gomez are concocting their plan to nab Walt, and it’s a good one. When Jesse told Walt at the end of last episode that he’d get him where he lives, it seemed like a clear threat to Walt’s money. Sure enough, the team goes that route. How they do it is actually one of the most interesting schemes the show has ever detailed. They’re met with setbacks but are continually clever enough to make the plan work anyway.
First, Hank brings Huell to a safe house for questioning under the phony premise that Walt is tying up loose ends and Huell is next. Huell isn’t buying the story until Hank shows him a picture of Jesse with his brains blown out. In the previous scene, Hank plopped a raw brain straight from the butcher onto his kitchen floor and poured blood around it. It’s a gas when you find out why – the picture he shows Huell is of Jesse lying next to the mess. After he sees the picture, Huell sings like a canary. Sadly for Hank, Huell is being honest when he says he doesn’t know where Walt took the money.
What he does know, however, is enough for a lead. Walt probably buried the barrels full of money and Huell tells them the rental company. Hank finds out the rental company took its GPS units off their vehicles so there’s no way to track where the van went. It seems like another busted lead until Hank gets another idea.
Meanwhile, Walt negotiates the price for Jesse’s head with Uncle Jack, but it isn’t money the neo-Nazis want. They want Walt to show Todd how to cook. This scene puts a vacuum right on Walt’s already-forfeited soul. For the first time since the Heisenberg side of Walter White fully took over, Walt is small, weak, and holds no leverage. When Jack names the price, Walt initially says no, but he is significantly less confident than in his first dealing with Jack. In that meeting, Walt had all the moxie in the world; this time, he is on a chair in the center of the room and surrounded by neo-Nazis who aren’t interested in taking no for an answer. There is intimidation pouring out of this scene; Walt cannot simply put what he’s asking for back on the shelf and leave the store. He agrees to a single instructional cook with Todd to be done after Jesse is killed. The smiles on Todd and Jack’s faces say it all: Walt is theirs now.
Walt then visits Brock and Andrea in an attempt to draw out Jesse. Unfortunately for him, things continue to not go his way. When Andrea calls Jesse, the phone she dials is actually in Hank’s pocket. After listening to her message, Hank says exactly the same thing Jesse said at the payphone last episode: “Nice try, asshole.” Andrea has no idea what’s gone on between Walt and Jesse so she treats Walt politely, but Brock looks at him suspiciously. After the revelation that Walt poisoned Brock, the two of them have been in the same room twice, but while both meetings have been awkward it’s never been clear if Brock recognizes Walt. I hope the question of who actually fed Brock the Lily of the Valley berry is addressed, because it isn’t clear yet that Walt actually did it. Nor is it clear when, where, or how he could have – sneaking up on him in a playground, perhaps?
Everything is really being pushed to the wire at this point. Walt is growing impatient and concerned that Jesse hasn’t shown himself. Saul shows up at the car wash looking for Walt and has a funny repartee with Walt Jr., who recognizes Saul from his ads and thinks lightly of the unlikely visitor. Bob Odenkirk peels off an especially funny line when he tells Junior not to drink and drive but to call him if he ever does. At one point, Saul, Skyler, Walt, Holly, and Junior are all in the same frame; it’s a weird moment and a comical one as an embarrassed-looking Walt pops in the door, sees Saul, and quickly heads back out. But neither Walt nor Saul know yet that Jesse is working for Hank, and that’s a big advantage for the good guys.
At the car wash, Walt receives a picture message showing a barrel full of money buried in the dirt. Immediately after, Jesse calls and tells Walt he’s found his money and is prepared to burn all seven barrels of it. Walt speeds off to the money, blasting through red lights, while Jesse treats him to a Speed-esque ultimatum: if Walt doesn’t stay on the phone, Jesse is going to torch all the cash. Aaron Paul delivers an Emmy-worthy performance here, sounding like a man in a very serious position of authority. He calls Walt by his first name with a special amount of contempt. It’s a role he’s never played before and he’s incredibly convincing. Moreover, Walt spills the beans about everything, copping to murders and more during the doubtlessly recorded phone call.
Actually, Walt makes a good point during the phone call: Brock is alive. For all Jesse’s anger, I’ve always felt the Lily of the Valley thread seemed like an inadequate nail for Walt’s coffin. The plant is poisonous, but non-fatal; Walt didn’t kill Brock, he only used him. Of all the evil things Walt has done, this action seems to be not among his worst. But only a sociopath could truly rationalize the poisoning of a child, and Walt is unable to get Jesse to see it his way. He drives straight to the desert where he expects to find Jesse waiting.
In my last review, I made what I thought was a snarky comment about the show ending in a hail of gunfire. Turns out it was an accurate prediction.
Upon arriving at the site where he buried his money, Walt figures out pretty quickly that he’s been set up. He braces himself for battle with Jesse and calls Uncle Jack for reinforcements, reading to him the coordinates from his lottery ticket. As Jesse pulls up with Hank and Gomez, however, Walt calls Uncle Jack off. Walt won’t be responsible for Hank’s death. He hangs up the phone with an excited Uncle Jack asking, “What do you mean, don’t come?”
Everything about the next several minutes is profoundly satisfying. With Walt bested and prepared to give himself up, Hank’s voice echoes through the rocks: “Walt! Come on out! It’s over!” The look on Bryan Cranston’s face is extremely emotional, as though he’s trying desperately to stretch his last few seconds as Heisenberg, unbeatable drug lord, as long as possible. Eventually he comes out of hiding and moves toward Hank for a textbook arrest. Hank slaps the handcuffs on him with a dramatic clink. Jesse’s utterly stunned face watches as Heisenberg falls before his very eyes.
But the satisfaction is not to last. Breaking Bad is extremely good at setting up a scene, and the longer Hank and Gomez stand around in the desert the larger and more palpable the specter of the neo-Nazis showing up grows. It’s one of the moments of the show where, as a viewer, you want to slap some sense into the characters: didn’t it occur to them Walt might have called for backup? Why not drive him to the precinct as quickly as possible or at least call the arrest in? What are they standing around so long for? It’s knowledge of what’s coming that you have and the characters don’t that make the scene so intense. When Hank calls Marie to tell her about the arrest and says he loves her, text saying, “Bad things are about to happen” might as well have popped up on the screen. But obvious foreshadowing is a useful dramatic tool when the event is right around the corner.
In one of the saddest episode endings yet, Uncle Jack’s gang shows up and opens fire on the hopelessly outnumbered Hank and Gomez. Jesse slinks away, apparently unseen by the neo-Nazis. He is Hank and Gomez’s only hope; they may live if the neo-Nazis don’t want to draw the kind of heat that comes from killing cops and go after Jesse instead, but as the episode ends it doesn’t seem like that’s going to happen. The way Hank is heroically framed with the sun behind him, just after his finest moment and his phone call with Marie, makes the scene completely heartbreaking. Walt’s plaintive, desperate, futile cries from the backseat of Hank’s car make it even more gut-wrenching. Maybe for the very first time, Walt truly seems to care about somebody and fear for their safety, but he is powerless.
Nobody’s death is shown and the episode cuts to black with bullets still being fired. Actually, this alone is the reason for To’hajiilee’s half-star deduction. Like this season has been in the unfortunate habit of doing, To’hajiilee ends not on a cliffhanger but with an unfinished scene. This time in particular it’s agonizing. If Hank dies, this episode will rank as probably the cheapest cliffhanger the show has used. I can already feel the sucker punch of spending an entire week wondering by what incredible method Hank might escape with his life only to have him die as it seemed he would anyway.
But such is the strength of Breaking Bad, the completeness of its characterizations, that a death like Hank’s is one I feel myself. It’s the kind of emotional impact that is the domain of the world’s great literature, and here it is on American primetime. Last week I lamented the show’s lack of action; now I feel I’d give anything for a dozen more Hank and Jesse-centric episodes where nothing happens and everyone stays safe. It seems pretty clear that these are the events leading to Walt’s “on the run” future. It also now seems clear that, as many fans predicted, the weapon Walt purchases in the season’s flash-forward is for a standoff with the neo-Nazis. Even if Hank, Gomez, and Jesse all die in the desert, there are plenty of others still in danger because of Walt’s actions, not the least of which are his wife and kids.
Roller coasters are often called upon as metaphors for great drama. The past three episodes have been a steady uphill climb, but now the car has free-fallen down a completely vertical hill. Your heart is in your throat and it feels like the car might just crash through the track and into the ground below. It’s an unsettling feeling, but this is Breaking Bad. Nobody said it would be easy.
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