“I did all those things to save your life, as much as mine. Only you’re too stupid to know it!”
So…close. Three episodes left. It’s so delicious and terrifying that this episode, “To’hajiilee” felt like a penultimate when it’s only a quadrultimate. Holy shit! No squiggly red line?! Quadrultimate is a word? Yeah, bitch! Word science!
As a series, Breaking Bad has earned a perfect ending. Following from a slow setup, following from satisfying character development, following from a meticulously woven multi-plot, the ultimate orgasmic finale is guaranteed. I’ve been thinking about The Sopranos and that final, famous cut to black that we were forced to extrapolate. Forced to assign meaning. Tony Soprano’s death and the suddenness of fate? A writerly yanking of the band-aid before we could feel the pain of a real final scene? It wasn’t a bad way to go, but it was a loose end, flapping in the wind.
Breaking Bad will never have the problem of a bad ending, thanks to its pedigree. The show is perfect, and what goes around always comes back around. “To’hajiilee” was nuts, but don’t quit humming “The Rains of Castemere” just yet. The horror’s just begun.
It’s pretty interesting to see all of our second bananas growing some really thick skin. Jesse is out-Walting Walt. He has become The One Who Knocks Back, pointing out potential new angles for revenge that Hank’s never ever considered. Turns out that when he’s not losing himself in vibrating subwoofers, Jesse’s been absorbing mad knowledge. He knows that Walt’s pride is tied to his money is tied to his mastery is tied to his manhood. Last week, he reveled in his newfound power over Mr. White; this week, he put it to good use. Although Walt attempts to “flush him out” by paying a warning visit to Andrea and Brock, Jesse’s vision is too clear at this point for distractions. He doesn’t take the bait. He’s so close to nailing this Dementor who’s sucked away his life. No looking back. This just might be the day that justice is served. Say it with me: “It’s almost too good to be true.”
“I know some evidence that greedy asshole will never destroy.”
Jesse is referring to Walt’s money, and he’s also unwittingly referring to himself. He knows that threatening Walt’s cash is a betrayal of the highest order, and there’s no more honor amongst thieves here. But Jesse is also Walt’s greatest achievement, his last hope. By destroying the cash, Jesse destroys Walt’s trust, his hard-earned love (after a fashion). By teaming up with the DEA, Jesse has also crushed Walt in the deepest way possible.
I’m delighted by the dues being paid to Hank Schrader’s impressive policework. Throughout the series, Hank has always displayed talent at his job, but his professional achievements have been overshadowed by his blustery pride, his obliviousness to Walt’s machinations, and his minerals. The first half of “To’hajiilee” demonstrates some shockingly underhanded and brilliant strategy on Hank’s side. It puts a little more stock in Hank as the late-hour hero. He manages to turn Huell with some really dastardly manipulation worthy of Heisy. That photo of a “murdered” Jesse next to some supermarket cow’s brain was a moment of sublime black comedy, and a clincher in his burgeoning collection of clues.
I’d also like to call attention to this year’s dark horse for Best Supporting Actor in a Drama: Huell’s tongue.
As the episode builds to its own climactic showdown, there are a couple of portentious moments worth considering as the series closes. First, let’s take stock of Walt’s family unit. Although he insists to the neo-Nazi hitmen that Jesse is “like family,” we all know that Walter’s decayed human heart still rests with Skyler, Walt Jr. and Holly. “To’hajiilee” hearkens back to the only thing that drove Walt in the early days of BB: his wife, his children, his legacy as a human being. As he stands watch at the car wash, knowing the end is nigh for either him or Jesse, he gets a tiny glimmer of that old paternal urge. Reinforcing the innocence of the family (and thus their impending death, let’s get real), is precious little Walt Jr., delighted that locally famous Saul Goodman has deigned to stop by the family business.
It’s his childlike happiness, his ignorance, that seals little Waltie’s fate for me. He has to die! Right? This is a small reminder of how in-the-dark he is; how is he to know how many hours and days his parents have spent conspiring with “Better Call Saul?” RJ Mitte’s engaging young smile hits you in the heart like none other as you realize just how much these next few days are going to ruin his life.
Then there’s Lydia, stilettoed representative of crooked conglomerate Madrigal and almost-certain next target of the neo-Nazis. Her scenes in “To’hajiilee” are short, but they make clear that she’s losing her grip on this merry band of sociopaths. Here’s a chilling shot of creepy Todd (internet handle: Meth Damon) handling the coffee mug she left behind. Lydia, too, is almost certainly not long for this world.
But that’s enough of that. Fie on you, structure and anticipation! Let’s talk about the long, long climax of the episode, that brought you to the edge of pleasure and pain over and over until you were just like “GET IT OVER WITH ALREADY, IT HURTS TOO GOOD.”
Hank plays a staged Snapchat for Huell, and he quickly realizes the potential of fabricated visual evidence. Thanks to Jesse’s lead on Walt’s cash burial, Hank fakes another photo, of an unearthed barrel and has Jesse text it to Walt. The student becomes the professor, and Jesse goads him enough to get him out to its exact hiding point in the desert.
I love that conversation, and the heart-pounding way that Michelle McLaren shot it (she has to be the best director the series has seen its entire run). To the last moment, Walt attempts to play Jesse, insisting that he planned Brock’s poisoning to be non-fatal, and he’s dying, and doesn’t Jesse have a thread of human decency?! I found it very telling that in the last moments of that phone call, Walt’s heartfelt truths sounded like the same old lies. He’s told Jesse how much he cares, but that was to keep the kid under this thumb. This time, when Walter explodes with “You’re just too stupid to know it,” it has a certain melancholy ring to it. “Stupid” has always been a term of both abuse and, oddly, endearment when Walt uses it. Its use here underlines the deep bonds he and Jesse share, and their imminent dissolution.
And then, of course, we’re in the desert, and it all happens.
Walt realizes pretty quickly that he’s been had, when he doesn’t spy a tower of smoke or a furiously prancing Jesse anywhere in the vicinity. Walt throws his cell phone battery into the dust of To’hajilee, the site of his comeuppance. This is where it all got as real as it’s ever gonna get on this show. The reckoning, the apocalypse, whatever – as soon as Hank pulls up with another DEA agent and Jesse in tow, Walt crumbles. His famous ingenuity and resolve all turn to smoke, in the face of this ultimate double-cross.
It’s a really earth-shattering sequence. It’s just plain sad. I appreciated the deliberate pacing as Walt first broke inside, then cancelled the hit on Jesse, then hung up, and then laid against an anonymous red rock, deciding how best to end his life. This is one of those make-or-break story moments that BB carefully prepares and then milks for every drop of audience blood.
Take a moment to drink in Cranston’s acting here. Vince Gilligan has stated that he saw Breaking Bad as an homage to The French Connection until he was forced to switch locations to the New Mexico desert. It was then that the show began to shape itself into what Gilligan calls “a modern Western,” about a lone man “testing his mettle.” At this point, we’re dealing with a trio of mettle-testing men: Hank, Jesse, and Walt. But it’s Walt, at this moment, who most exemplifies the crushing loneliness and the savagery of the deep hot desert. He lost. And it’s either going out in a blaze of glory or a quiet whoosh of dust.
What a high-impact moment for the viewer. Who are we rooting for, here? Walt, our anti-hero? Jesse, our underdog? Or Hank, our everyman? It’s a microcosmic few minutes that force us to examine our protagonists from all sides. Because Walt is going down at Hank’s hands; the nightmare has come true for him.
It’s Jesse that clinches the emotional payoff, noticing that the burial spot is located at the exact place he and Mr. White cooked their first batch in the RV. Perhaps due to his newfound agency, Jesse seems unfazed by the sentimentality, but Walt simply cannot abide the fact that his protege is so far beyond his control. “Coward,” he hisses. And then…THE SPIT HEARD ‘ROUND THE WORLD!
I swear to god, I heard choruses of “OH DAMN!” rise up all over Los Angeles as I watched it live. Also, I may have just been repeating “OH DAMN.” Amazing rejection move! However, the blatant show of disrespect may have pounded another nail into Jesse’s eventual coffin. Walt doesn’t abide condescension, rudeness, and least of all saliva – look at what happened to Mike after he committed the simple sin of blaming Walt for shit that was his fault.
It’s when Hank makes his phone call to Marie that we suspect this swift stroke of justice may not go down as planned. Hank has always had a sizeable hubris problem, and its his tender but swaggery conversation that started clanging the chimes of doom for me. Instead of calling for backup, or securing his suspect, he chose to seek validation from his wife, wasting precious seconds and losing his focus. When he told her “I love you,” I wailed. The happier the ending, the deader than a doornail you be.
And lo and behold, the neo-Nazis showed up and the gunfight began.
Another week, another cliffhanger. Walt can’t negotiate his way out of this one; he’s handcuffed in the backseat and the hitmen he hired are more interested in his indentured meth services than a good employee reference. Jesse, the target of the hit, is a sitting duck. It’s two DEA guns against a heavily armed group of supremacist crazies. One of the more high-octane final moments in the show’s history. The only thing to do is go get a paper bag, breathe deeply, and induce yourself into a coma until next Sunday.
I am just so fucking upset that Breaking Bad is three away from its majestic funeral pyre. None of us are even ready. Even if we do get the rumored Saul spinoff, nothing can take the place of an experience like this. This show is one of the finest examples of why television’s closer to a novel than a movie, and it’s closer to religion than entertainment. The fact that passion and disgust war within me so deeply as a viewer, that they start to blur together, is a testament to the artistry of this fictional world and the drop-dead commitment of those who act within it. I never know what to feel when an episode’s over. I have to watch them two, even three times, to fully appreciate every layer: story, philosophy, cultural purpose, art, performance. Where the show will go from here, in its scant time, is anyone’s guess. But I guarantee you this: it’s gonna hurt bad.