A few months ago, I wrote about the experience of getting into “Breaking Bad” years after its debut, and how that kind of uninterrupted viewing experience affected my approach to the show and to serialized drama in general. The piece is well-meaning if a bit muddled; I never quite carved all the meat off the bone, and I only briefly flirted with what felt to me like the real emotional and philosophical motivation of the piece, which was my renewed desire to cut serialized shows some slack in terms of weekly reviews and let their bigger picture form of its own accord and momentum.
Something I didn’t really touch on, though, was the fact that “Breaking Bad” is only the second show I’ve ever joined in medias res after first catching up with previously aired episodes via downloads or DVD. (The first was “Veronica Mars.”) I was confident that creator Vince Gilligan would continue to do amazing things in the show’s fourth season, but I wasn’t sure how they would feel to me, unfolding week to week instead of in a heady rush of two, three, or even four episodes at a time. I had no idea, though, that the season would be powerful, so captivating, that it would feel like no time passed at all. I’m genuinely stunned that 13 hours have gone by, that 13 weeks have slid away, all while Walt and Gus danced around each other before this week’s showdown. The season premiered in mid-July, and now we’re a week into October, yet it feels like yesterday that Gus broke out his box cutter and ushered Walt into a dark new world. “Breaking Bad” has always placed a premium on temporal compression in its narratives: Each episode follows pretty closely from the one before, and very little time passes between seasons (after four seasons and 46 episodes, about a year has passed for Walt and the gang). As a result, a season that takes three months to tell in weekly installments has all the punch and immediacy of one viewed over the course of a few days. Few other dramas on the air right now can claim that level of skill and power.
“Face Off” was the showdown we’ve been building toward since it became clear last season that Walt and Gus would not be able to occupy the same space for very long without someone getting hurt. They’re both proud, dangerous men obsessed with control. What made this episode, and the entire season, so fascinating was the way their confrontation escalated as a cold war. There were dozens of little things that affected their choices and behavior, but nothing as big or dramatic as, say, Gus’s widespread destruction of the cartel during his trip to visit Don Eladio. Gus and Walt’s battle was one of paranoia and pre-emptive strikes, as each man tried to stay ahead of the other. Gus almost always won because he thought like a killer, and he was wary of any situation that looked like one he would capitalize on if the tables were turned. That’s why he didn’t get in his car at the end of the previous episode. He wasn’t a psychic, or convinced that something was wrong; he just knew that, if he were going to assassinate a target like himself, a car bomb would be a good way to do it.
Walt “won,” as he put it, by finally playing to Gus’s fears. He knew that Gus still worried about Hector, even though talking to the feds violates some kind of sick honor code meth distributors seem to have with each other. And he knew that Hector was willing to do anything, even lose his own life, to destroy Gus. Gus never imagined Hector would contemplate a suicide run, but Walt knew that every man can go farther than he dreams if he’s motivated to do so. At one of their earliest meetings, Walt told Gus he respected Gus’s strategy in wiping out his cartel enemies. Now we see that Walt took those lessons to heart. To really run things, you can’t just be prepared to react; you need to control your enemy’s reactions. It’s not about being prepared, but telling someone what to do. Sending Hector to the DEA solely as a feint to draw out Gus was brilliant, and Gus played right into Walt’s plan.
The real trouble, though, is Walter H. White. I talked after the season premiere about doorways, those little markers between personality stages that take someone from decent citizen to genuine killer. This time around, we got to see just how deadly Walter can be when he sets his mind to it. He rigged and set a suicide bomb that killed three people. When he rescued Jesse at the laundry, he shot and killed two guards point-blank with his .38 snub. The gunplay alone was a turning point for a man who kills in self-defense or has someone else do his dirty work. But then, to come to the end of the hour and learn that Walt himself had the plant that poisoned Brock and set in motion the events that led to his “victory” and his essential elevation to drug kingpin of the southwest — that was staggering. I find I’m using phrases like “Walt had the plant,” not “Walt poisoned Brock,” because though I know him to be capable of such a deed I’m not yet ready to admit to the rest of my mind that he has become the type of mastermind who would engineer the death (or near-death) of a child just to save his own skin.
Yet Walt said it himself: He is the danger. When pushed, he doesn’t break; he snaps back. This is where he is, and what he’s come to. A freak case of lung cancer made him throw caution and good sense to the wind, and he’s taken small but regular steps toward the darkness ever since. He got out from under Gus’s thumb, and there’s some good that can come of that. Walt Jr. gets to have a dad a little longer, and Skylar doesn’t have to lose her income right when the business is booming. But the cost to Walt, to us, of his freedom is very high. Dangerously so. And he’s not out of the woods, either. Something tells me Hank isn’t ready to give up, and it doesn’t seem likely that Walt will want to quit, either. With Gus out of the way, what’s stopping him? I think the real battle, between Walt and Hank, is just beginning.
What a masterful episode. It was a seminar in how to perfectly execute a season finale, not to mention how to tie a bow on another epic season of TV. There’s no other show quite like this one. Gilligan has his own formula, and he cooks like no one else.
• “Face Off” obviously had a nice double meaning. And by “nice,” I mean “amazingly gruesome.” When Gus strolled out of Hector’s room, I thought he’d either miraculously survived or was having some kind of weird astral projection moment. Nope. He just turned into Two-Face. Even by the standards of a series that has seen many men dissolved by acid, that was insane.
• Walt was back in his element and back in control this time, and he was once again clad in a green shirt the same flat shade as his car. It was a symbol of his returning to his roots. He got back in touch with the focused anger that got him into this business in the first place.
• Walt also got schooled by Saul’s assistant. (I can’t remember her name, but it doesn’t feel right to call her Honey Tits like Saul does.) Loved her jab about how Walt and Jesse are always in danger and never thinking of the consequences.
• Gilligan wrote and directed this episode, and he had some great moments of dark/absurd humor. The best: the magnet on Walt’s car bomb kept sticking to the elevator.
• The way Jesse’s face softened when Walt told him Gus was dead proved again just how good Aaron Paul is in the role. He can go big when he needs to, but he’s also wonderful at these little grace notes that feel effortless and natural.
• “Still, he had to go, right?” “Damn right. Gus had to go.” Poor, poor Jesse. The floor keeps shifting under his feet.
• “I’m offering you an opportunity for revenge.”
• “I musta saw it on ‘House’ or something.”
• Gilligan did some fantastic work in terms of pacing. The first scene was pure frenetic panic with Walt running back to the garage to retrieve the bomb, and there were more like it, but we also got a number of scenes that forced us to slow down and wait. The sheer confidence it took to play out the entire process of Hector using his nurse’s chart to spell out messages one letter at a time was beautiful. The same goes for the quiet but wonderfully tense scene with Walt calling his neighbor and using her as a decoy to check out his house. Gilligan knows that suspense is in the build-up.
• Really, it was a perfect end to another amazing season. “Breaking Bad” has secured its place as one of the best dramas of the current era. And it’s not done, either. There are 16 episodes to go, though how they’ll be scheduled isn’t set yet. I know I’ll watch every minute of them, though. This is appointment viewing like nothing else.
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.