"Breaking Bad" has just completed a sensational third season, and I have both an interview with creator Vince Gilligan about the season and the tumultuous events of the finale, as well as a review of said finale. The review coming up just as soon as I make myself a Nescafe...

"How long does he have?" -Gale
"That is very much the question." -Gus

"So what do we do?" -Jesse
"You know what we do." -Walt


In our interview, Vince talks about how after the grand design of season two, he wanted to go into season 3 more or less winging it, saying, "We actively try to paint ourselves into corners at the end of episodes - at the end of seasons, at the end of scenes sometimes - and then we try to extricate ourselves from those corners."

Rarely have Walt and Jesse been painted into as tight a corner as the one they find themselves in at the start of "Full Measure." The threats from the likes of Krazy-8 or Tuco may have been more immediate, but Gus is smarter and Mike more efficently deadly(*), and the combination was almost oppressive in how much danger it represented to our anti-heroes.

(*) Anyone want to put odds on a hypothetical Mike/Cousins showdown? Watching him in action against the cartel hitters showed that he's every bit as calculating and formidable as they were, and possibly more careful. They had the numbers, but my money might be on the man from "Wiseguy."

But the beautiful thing about "Breaking Bad" is that Walt is even smarter, and far more dangerous, than even a man like Gus might recognize - or, in fact, more than we might. When Gus visited Gale's apartment and started laying the groundwork for murdering Walt without scaring off his replacement, I was terrified that Walt had no idea of the metaphorical shiny ax hanging over him. Instead, we learned in the visit to Lazer Base that Walt was already two steps ahead of both me and Gus - and,  having accepted his status as a murderer with his actions at the end of "Half Measures," that he was prepared to end Gale's life to save his own.

As you'll read in the interview, Walt's emasculation for much of this season wasn't by design, but rather a byproduct of how the Cousins' story was unfolding. But the upside of Heisenberg's prolonged absence is that we grew to miss him while he was gone. It was cathartic to see Walt take out the two dealers last week, to see him don the familiar black porkpie hat, and to see him get the better of Mike at the laundromat and bark out Gale's address and a triumphant "Yeah" as Mike and Victor realized what was about to happen. (And I'll admit to being briefly fooled into thinking Walt was selling out Jesse to save himself, which made the phone call even better.)

And that's the twisted genius of "Breaking Bad." Gale's not entirely innocent, but he's as close as you're going to find in the meth business, and Walt has sent Jesse - who has, until now, time and again avoided having to end another man's life - to kill him, and it plays as this great moment of triumph. I was so damn happy to have Heisenberg back, and to see someone finally wipe that look of bland certainty off of Mike's face that I briefly put aside the moral implications of what Jesse was being sent to do...



... and then Aaron Paul brilliantly brought all those qualms back as he showed a red-eyed, trembling Jesse bracing himself to pull the trigger and kill Gale. Bang, he's dead(**), and Walt has for now bought some time with Gus - who, with the cartel coming at him again, needs a talented meth cook far more than he needs revenge - but at the cost of Gale's life, and the last vestige of Jesse's own innocence. And any detente will only last as long as it takes for Gus to find a new way around his chemistry problem.

(**) Though the camera's movement right before Jesse pulls the trigger may have created the illusion that he aimed his gun elsewhere, Vince (who directed as well as wrote this one) says that was not his intention. Gale is not pining for the fjords; he is an ex-human. 

What an intense, riveting finale to a season that belongs in the pantheon of all-time great years for a TV drama. We wisely dropped all side stories like Skyler's attempt to be the new Danny or Marie and Hank's mental battle over his rehab(***) and focused entirely on the stalemate between Walt and Gus. (Even the detour with Mike was there to show us why Gus might be feeling particularly desperate to keep his operation working.) Lots of long, lingering scenes like that gorgeous summit in the desert between Walt and Gus, or Walt and Jesse arguing about options at the Lazer Base.

(***) One downside: we never got a payoff to the idea that Walter Jr. wanted to take his driving test in the Aztek, which was once again beat to hell by the hit-and-run. I did laugh a very long time, though, at the sight of the cracked windshield as Walt drove to meet Gus. Some cosmic force just does not want that thing to stay intact, does it?

Again, this showdown was not how this season was supposed to play out. The Cousins were going to be the big bad, but a TV show is like a living, breathing thing, and it ultimately made more dramatic sense to Vince and the other writers to usher the Cousins off-stage, which in turn made Gus a far more important character, and in some ways a more worthy adversary for Walt. Though Walt has proven himself to be more physically capable than we would have expected, his greatest weapon is his brain. So it feels right that he should ultimately come into conflict not with the unrelenting physicality of the Cousins, but the cold intelligence of Gus Fring. And good as the Moncada brothers were as Marco and Leonel, I would gladly trade them for these little acting duels between Bryan Cranston and Giancarlo Esposito, where each man is usually saying much less with his words than his eyes, and his body language, and by whatever he's choosing not to say. ("Are you asking me if I ordered the murder of a child?" "I would never ask you that.")

Vince says he has no idea how on earth this is going to play out next season, either from a logistical standpoint (Walt vs. Gus) or an emotional one (how Jesse will live with himself after killing Gale). I'm at times wary of shows that make it up as they go along, but based on how smashingly this season went, Gilligan and pals have earned some pretty implicit trust from me.

Some other thoughts:

  • "Never the DEA," Walt says to Jesse. Is this just his stubborn refusal to face the legal consequences of his actions? Or (more likely) is it Walt realizing he's done enough damage to Hank already without professionally humiliating the man? (On the other hand, a little embarrassment vis a vis Heisenberg's secret identity might be greatly outweighed by Hank getting to bring in a much bigger chicken in Gus.)
  • The opening flashback to a young, still happy and successful Walt as he and Skyler got their first look at the house was a stark reminder of how far Walt has fallen from the man who had "nowhere to go but up" (and, with the wig simulating Cranston's actual hair, of how much the actor has transformed himself for the part), but also had that amusing side joke where the realtor assumed Walt's lab did something with lasers. Sixteen years later, Walt is in business with lasers of a sort - or, rather, Lazers.
  • Balloons as infiltration aid? Who knew?
  • Poor Gale. In only a few appearances early in the season, and then a couple of brief scenes tonight, David Costabile and the writers made Gale into a really distinctive character, which only increased the magnitude of Jesse's actions. Gale had a life, you know? I mean, sure, it was a life centered around kitchen gadgets and foreign-language singalongs, but he was a person and not just a plot device by the time Jesse showed up at his door with tears in his eyes.
  • Now, was this the first that Saul realized Mike's first loyalty wasn't to him? Mike's comments about not needing to explain why he's looking for Jesse suggests that Saul already knew, but Saul's behavior elsewhere in that scene, and his indignation later with Walt (comparing Mike and himself to Magnum and "that little prissy guy with the mustache") suggested he was still processing the new world order.
  • Do you think special effects were involved in baby Holly pulling the glasses off Walt's face, or did the camera just sit there until the little actress did something cute to Cranston?
  • Victor showing up at the end of Walt's driveway just as Walt was going to take care of Gale was very reminiscent of Tuco and Jesse picking Walt up at the end of the season two premiere. No plan ever gets executed perfectly with these two, does it?

So go read the Gilligan interview, and then tell me... what did everybody else think?