It doesn’t feel like 12 episodes have gone by. We’re 12 hours into this season with just one more to go, and it feels like we just got started. That’s just one of the many testaments to the storytelling skill on display in “Breaking Bad.” Every episode is so densely packed with action and emotion, and staffed with so many rich, engaging characters, that nothing feels wasted. There’s an economy of craft here that’s dazzling, especially when you stop to consider just how we got here. Every episode so organically flows from its predecessor that it can be hard to trace the specific line that (e.g.) took Jesse from shooting Gale to almost shooting Walt, or brought Walt from begging to be Gus’ cook to trying to assassinate the man with a car bomb. Cause and effect are so real and so subtle here (seriously) that baby steps add up to miles before you know it.
This season has explored the degree to which Walt’s actions are actually doing more harm than good to his family. That’s always been on the show’s motifs, but he’s experienced all-new levels of pain and chaos this time around. Like he told Skylar, he’s not in danger; he is the danger. He’s become a cancer to his family, infecting everything he touches, and now it’s time to pay the price or fight it out. Watching him pack up Skylar and Holly was heartbreaking. There was nothing showy or special about the way the scene was shot. It was just pure from-the-gut storytelling, and you got everything you needed just seeing Walt kiss his infant’s head with Skylar crying in the background. Who knows when they’ll see each other again? In what condition?
The episode was also a master class in Gus’ ability to manipulate those around him, and it hinged on some of the most tense scenes of the season (which is really saying something). Jesse’s mad dash to the hospital and subsequent freakout over the missing ricin were panic-inducing, his confrontation with Walt was electric, and their attempt to distract Gus and then blow up his car was so perfectly executed it would make Hitchcock weep. It was amazing stuff all around. Objectively, it didn’t seem likely that Gus would get killed in this episode, simply because he’s a pretty big character to just eliminate like that, even for “Breaking Bad.” But the way he escaped death wasn’t just a cop out to keep him around a little longer. It completely fed into his character and felt right in line with who he is and how he got to be so powerful. Walt was right when he said that Gus is always 10 moves ahead. Gus didn’t need to be right about his car being sabotaged; he was just smart enough to know that he was walking into what would be a perfect trap, and one he’d happily spring if the tables were turned. So he walked away.
It’s interesting to note how quietly this episode ended. Yes, the scene with Walt watching Gus in the garage was riveting, but as it ended we got to deflate with Walt. We got room to breathe, to rest, to understand just how hard it’s going to be for things to change. Last season’s penultimate episode, the phenomenal “Half Measures,” ended in a cliffhanger Walt running down the thugs in his Aztek and telling Jesse to run, and the penultimate episode in the previous season (“Phoenix”) closed with Walt watching Jane choke to death. They’ve all been table-setters, but they’ve each had specific agendas. “Phoenix” saw Walt crossing a personal Rubicon and entering a new chapter of his life as Heisenberg, while “Half Measures” was an action-oriented shocker. But the end of “End Times” was about despair, plain and simple. It didn’t end with a car blowing up, or even with Gus escaping, but with Walt curled up on a rooftop, defeated and spent. He won’t get out of this one by watching someone die, or by surprising some street-level hood. He’s got an honest showdown in front of him, and it’s gonna be bad.
• “I alone should suffer the consequences of those choices, no one else. And those consequences? They’re coming. No more prolonging the inevitable.”
• Only Saul Goodman would use a crisis as an opportunity to assign his female assistant a new derogatory nickname. Honey Tits it is.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. He tweets more often than he should, and he blogs at Slowly Going Bald.