A review of tonight's "Breaking Bad" coming up just as soon as we flip a coin for the honor...
"It's over!" -Hank
Great entertainment can transport us so wholly to another world that it's easy to forget that this one exists for a little while. When you're fully absorbed in a great book, a great movie, or an amazing hour of television like "To'hajiilee," you may lose track of time, of temperature, and possibly of the need to breathe.
Nearly 20 minutes pass in the episode (give or take a few commercials) from the moment Jesse texts Walt the faked money barrel photo until the closing credits. More than 15 minutes pass from the moment Walt arrives at the spot where he buried the money, and more than 10 minutes pass from the moment we return from the final commercial break and Walt is prepared to surrender himself to Hank. I know this only because I went back, multiple viewings later, to clock it all. In the moment, the action seemed to be simultaneously taking place in an instant and over an eternity. A parade could have gone by my office window and I wouldn't have noticed. I'm sure I inhaled and exhaled, if only because I'm alive right now writing these words that you're reading, but I'll be damned if I was aware of any contracting or expanding of my lungs as Walt, Jesse, Hank, Gomez and then the Nazis all converged in the spot where Walt and Jesse first cooked their meth(*) — the spot where the arrival of Emilio and Krazy-8 made clear to both Walt and us that nothing on "Breaking Bad" would ever go as expected.
(*) I went back and rewatched that first cook in the pilot, and it's clearly the same spot in the desert, with the same rocks and mesas surrounding it.
Until Uncle Jack and his crew arrive loaded for bear, this felt like a pretty damn spectacular version of how "Breaking Bad" should end. The great Heisenberg is outsmarted by two men he would never expect to be working together, using the same kind of chicanery he employed to take out Gus Fring. He confesses many of his biggest sins(**), returns to the scene of his first crime and is cuffed and Mirandized by his brother-in-law.
(**) I wondered if Hank and Gomez had managed to put a tap on the Hello Kitty phone to record Walt admitting to the poisoning of Brock and multiple murders. Then I got to the end of the episode and realized the question was moot: unless I am very wrong about who's winning this gunfight, any recording would become the property of Uncle Jack.
It doesn't feature every single element we might demand from a conclusion to the series — Skyler's not involved, we don't see Walter Jr. find out the truth about his dad, and a few other plot threads like Jane's death are left dangling — but had this been the climax of the series (followed by perhaps one more episode dealing with the fallout), I'd have been extremely satisfied. It's not a happy ending — the White family will be ruined, Hank's career will be destroyed, Jesse will likely go to jail and the Nazis and Lydia will still be out there profiting off an inferior copy of Walt's product — but after all the terrible things Walt has done, it's about as close to happy as we're likely to get.
And George Mastras' script and Michelle MacLaren's direction sure as heck treat this like the moment the series has been building up to. There's not only the callback to the pilot, but the very careful pacing once Walt surrenders, and the way MacLaren shoots every image of Walter White in the desert like it's the conclusion of an epic feature film(***), "Walter of Arabia." The camera savors every single moment of Walt's undoing, from him circling around looking for signs that his buried treasure has been discovered (looking every bit like Tuco in the famous "Ecstasy of Gold" sequence from "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly") to his long, slow walk, arms outstretched in a penitent gesture demanded by Hank, as Jesse watches in disbelief that they actually got the sonuvabitch. (And before that, there's that briefest of moments where you wonder if Walt is going to attempt suicide-by-cop, before he drops the revolver on Hank's orders.) It is beautiful to look at, and every bit the heroic victory that Hank and many viewers have been hoping for. The look of complete and utter defeat — and, perhaps, a tinge of relief? — on Walt's face as he hides behind the rocks and realizes what has happened could absolutely work as the emotional catharsis this character and Bryan Cranston have been building towards for the last five season.
(***) If Alan Taylor can use his work on "Sopranos," "Mad Men" and "Game of Thrones" to land a blockbuster movie job like the "Thor" sequel, why can't MacLaren (who's also done impressive "Thrones" work) pull off the same jump? Tell me she's directing a big-budget action movie, and my ticket is purchased within seconds. Hey, Hollywood: please watch the last 20 minutes of this episode — at the way she composes her shots, at the way she squeezes every possible bit of tension and emotion and despair out of the circumstances and her actors — and tell me she doesn't have the chops.
But then the luxuriating went on too long — not for me, but for Hank. He takes great pleasure, and time, in discussing who gets to recite the Miranda warning to Walt, and in placing a phone call to Marie ahead of calling for backup from the DEA or the tribal police. At first, I was just terrified that Jesse and Gomez would be left behind in a location that Uncle Jack was almost certainly driving towards — because I'm not sure even the words "There are DEA agents here" would have been enough to stop him from getting to his shiny new meth cook — but then as Hank placed that beautiful, in hindsight almost certainly tragic, call to Marie, I began to realize just how bad this was about to get. It's such a happy moment — every time I rewatch it, my heart breaks a little more at the way Betsy Brandt delivers the line, "I'm much better now" — that the only way Hank would have seemed more doomed by the end of it would have been if he'd told Marie that he was going to buy a boat called The Live-4-Ever.
Now, it's entirely possible that Hank and Steve, badly outmanned and outgunned, somehow survive this apparent slaughter and escape with their prisoners intact. I would tend to doubt it, though. (Hank beating the Cousins with a little advance warning was stretch enough; this would make him Batman.) This was us getting to watch Hank enjoy his triumph right before it and his life are snatched away, at the hands of some of the more loathsome characters in the history of the series. Not that the Cousins were good guys, but they had a kind of larger-than-life grandeur; Hank's death at their hands would have felt tragic, but not stomach-churning. (And if Tuco Salamanca had killed him, it would have been at a point where we didn't care about Hank the way we do now.) Uncle Jack and his crew aren't outsized like the Cousins, or Gus. They aren't cool and almost superhumanly competent like Mike. They're just brutal sleazeballs who take advantage of what's been put in front of them, and I suspect that by the end of next week's episode, they'll be in possession of Walt, possibly Jesse, and definitely Walt's money, the existence of which either Walt or Jesse will alert them to as a bad negotiating tactic. And I feel sick about this, and want to yell at both Walt and Hank as much as I've wanted to yell at any fictional characters since "The Wire" for allowing this to happen: Walt, you do not give the Nazis the GPS coordinates of your money, even if you don't tell them the money is there! Hank, you get your damaged hip in that car with Walt and you drive the hell out of there to book him! But like on "The Wire," where I turn certain events over and over in my head, trying to figure out a way that things could have gone differently for characters I cared for, I realize that this is simply how it was meant to be. Walt is under too much pressure, and he frequently makes bad decisions on deadline, just as Hank has too much of his pride, and his marriage, wrapped up in the pursuit of Walt. These were the decisions they were always going to make in these circumstances. You can't fight fate, and neither can Walter White and Hank Schrader.
And the loathsome nature of Uncle Jack and company seems an appropriate place for the story to turn in the closing hours. (I am more convinced than ever that Jim Beaver's machine gun is meant for them, though given my belief in the unpredictability of the series, that probably means Walt intends to use it on Huell and Kuby for the sin of molesting his cash.) I've seen it suggested that they're intended as a corrective to the adoration that white male anti-hero Walt has gotten for his various badass deeds over the years. And maybe Gilligan and company intend them as that. But they feel more like a repudiation of Walt's own belief in how a life of crime can and should work. Walt has always fancied himself above the likes of Krazy-8 and Tuco, has imagined himself a mogul like Gus: someone who will use his mind and his nerve to build a fortune without having to lower himself into the muck that consumes everyone else in the drug trade. Time and again, events have proven him incorrect on this, as he's had to do and say things that the pre-cancer Walter White wouldn't have been able to fathom. That these guys are the last foes he has to conquer(****) — and not Gus, nor Mike, nor anyone else Walt wouldn't feel disgusted to share a room with under less urgent circumstances — feels like the final indignity, and the final reminder to Walt of what a life of crime is actually meant to look like.
(****) Though if the machine gun is meant for Uncle Jack (and not Skinny Pete or Carol), then the ricin capsule is probably intended for Lydia, and her insistence on treating the meth like just another product line for Madrigal to distribute — with a clearly-defined brand and customer base — fits in more with Walt's conception of the business. Might she also learn to regret her association with these goons before the final credits roll?
Like Jesse said about Mr. White last week, just when you think "Breaking Bad" is about to do something, the exact opposite happens. For most of its second half, "To'hajiilee" was building towards what could have been an excellent finish to the tale of Heisenberg... and then kept going to a terrible place that makes clear the story's not close to done yet.
Now, we knew that this couldn't be the actual conclusion, because of the flashforwards to Walt as Mr. Lambert. But think about this: if this showdown in the desert between cop and criminal, so beautifully staged, shot, written and performed, wasn't the end that Vince Gilligan had in mind for his series, than how face-melting must the actual ending be?
Now if anyone needs me, I'll be breathing into a paper bag from now until next Sunday night.
Some other thoughts:
* This is the last "Breaking Bad" episode I'll be seeing in advance. So for the last three weeks of the series, we'll be on the "Mad Men" schedule, where I stay up late and write immediately after watching. (This means that I won't be watching or writing about the Emmy-cast on the 22nd, as it airs opposite the penultimate episode.)
* Lord, what a great episode for Cranston, from the contempt he displayed for Jesse during the phone call, to the exhaustion and defeat as he realizes Hank and Jesse are working together, to the primal rage after Jesse spits on him, to the animal panic as he sees Uncle Jack's truck and tries to get either Hank or Jack to leave this cursed place. (Also, this week's request for the internet: either a series of GIFs or a YouTube edit combining Walt's screams of "JAAAAACK!!!" with Michael's screams of "WAAAAALT!" on "Lost" with confused looks by Matthew Fox and Malcolm David Kelley.) UPDATE: And the Internet has once again answered my prayers. Enjoy.
* The episode's title comes from the Navajo reservation, west of Albuquerque, where the final sequence — and so many of Walt and Jesse's cooks — takes place.
* Getting back to "The Ecstasy of Gold," that bit of movie score is used for this great fan video that I'm sure will draw heavily on this episode's last 15 minutes (particularly the lingering shot of the back of Walt's head as he surrenders himself) in its final version.
* Todd note #1: His ringtone is "She Blinded Me With Science," which would seem much too old-school for him, but fits with a kid trying desperately to suck up to Mr. White and seem like he's an actual scientist. (That, or he picked up some classic rock habits from his family; note that Steve Perry's "Oh Sherry" is playing on the radio earlier in that scene.)
* Todd note #2: Todd has a thing for Lydia, and displays it in very awkward and creepy ways, whether getting much too close to her as he makes his pathetic offer to have Uncle Jack smooth things over with the Czech buyers, or making sure to drink tea from the part of her mug where she left a lipstick imprint — the closest he'll likely ever get to kissing her. If she didn't need the little child-killing twerp so badly, I expect Lydia would have laughed in his face several times during the pre-credits sequence.
* Todd note #3: Though he displayed both a quick draw and sound marksmanship in killing Drew Sharp, he seems very much like a boy among men as Uncle Jack, Kenny and the others are trying to gun down Hank and Gomez while he pops off aimless shots from the back of the group.
* If the goal is to secure Walt's freedom so he can teach Todd how to cook, it's not sound tactics for the Nazis to be shooting directly at a car that Walt is in. On the other hand, once he recognizes that cops are there, Jack's Plan B may involve the realization that Walt can put them away for life if he testifies about their role in the prison murders. More cash is great, but avoiding incarceration becomes just as crucial in that moment.
* Emily Rios, who's doing terrific work as one of the reporters on "The Bridge," reprises her role as Andrea, as Walt tries and fails to lure Jesse out of hiding. Once again, these two are just tools to him, not people. And we once again get to see Walt share a room with the little boy he poisoned. And once again, there's tension from us in the audience over what Brock's going to say, even though it's clear by now he has no idea Walt did anything to him.
* If Gomez and Hank die in the desert, and especially if Jack orders Walt to dispose of their bodies in his usual manner, how long do you reckon poor Huell will be stuck hiding in that motel for?
* "X-Files" shout-out: the van rental company is Lariat, which was the name of the company Mulder and Scully always got their cars from.
* One bit of levity in a very dark episode: Walter Jr. is very impressed to meet local celebrity (Better Call) Saul Goodman. It's one last reminder that Flynn is just a normal teenager who has no idea what's happening around him, and perhaps his last totally innocent moment. After this episode, either his uncle's been murdered by drug-dealing Nazis, or his father has been arrested and outed as the meth kingpin of Albuquerque — a kind of celebrity Walter Jr. will want no part of.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com