If there was a succinct way to summarize how Breaking Bad handles its relationship with its viewers (really, though, there isn’t), you would need to articulate exactly how much patience it demands of them from episode to episode, operating under the tacit promise that such patience will be generously – and satisfactorily – rewarded. I’ve spoken before about the relatively large gulfs of talky episodes and character work existing between Breaking Bad’s most memorable “Holy Crap Moments,” and how that slow burn of tension makes the proverbial money shot all the sweeter to behold. You gasp as Walter White stands idly while Jane overdoses not merely because it is awful (though it is), but because it firmly establishes just how far he will go to keep his partner Jesse clutched to his breast. Your jaw drops to see Gus Fring getting blown up not because seeing a dude’s half-incinerated face is inherently awesome, but because of the intense season-long care that went into shaping the impossible situation Walt just barely managed to squirm out of. Your heart races to see Walter Hartwell White get read his Miranda rights by his own brother-in-law not because the arrest of Heisenberg marks the end, but because Breaking Bad has spent its entire run demonstrating that the end couldn’t possibly be so easy.
Of course it couldn’t be that easy. The exhausting “Holy Crap Moment” that capped this week’s incredible episode infused numerous emotions for me into one twenty-minute larynx-punch of a sequence, where Walt unwittingly leads Jesse and Hank to the location of his hidden loot, incriminates himself irreversibly in the process, gets himself arrested and accidentally prompts a DEA/Neo-Nazi standoff.
Infused is astonishment, as we see Walt fall for Jesse’s ingenious fiction about finding and exhuming his barrels of riches. Infused is astonishment as a greedy, desperate Walt pleads with Jesse over the phone and inevitably cops to his responsibility for the death of Fring and the poisoning of adorable little Brock. We all know precisely what is happening – of course, he is being recorded – and even though I have wanted Walt to be taken down for most of the show’s entire run, I couldn’t help but launch a Skyler-style barrage of “Shut Ups” to the screen as he began nailing his own coffin. Infused is deliverance as Hank finally smacks that pair of handcuffs on Walt’s wrist, and as Jesse finally gets his chance to spit right in the face of his former partner and mentor for everything he has done. And infused, finally, is dread. Dread as Hank calls Marie to break the good news, letting her know that things will get better. Dread as Walt’s order for Jack to call off his hit on Jesse goes unyielded. Dread as a locust storm of bullets descend on Hank and Jesse and Walt and Gomey – poor, expendable Gomey – all but guaranteeing some truly meaningful bloodshed.
If it feels like I’m fixating too much on the intensity of this week’s cliffhanger… well, I think I can be forgiven. After all, practically every moment of the first two thirds of this episode is meant to feed in to the intensity of that final act, as if the entire episode were intended as an hour-long distillation of the kind of set-up/pay-off magic act for which this show deserves so much praise. So let’s talk about the surprisingly linear fashion with which each domino gets set up in ‘To’hajilee’ – only to be promptly knocked over – starting with Walt enlisting Uncle Jack for one final hit. Instead of hunting Jesse down, as his clandestine fraternizing with the DEA have made him all but untrackable, Walt instead suggests weeding him out of hiding, drawing from a familiar, horrifying well: Andrea and her son Brock. Falsely confiding in Jesse’s ex girlfriend that he has fallen off the wagon, he convinces her to leave him a voicemail, dropping Walt’s name in the process. Walt (fairly) relies on precedent here, expecting that Andrea’s mere mention of his name will inspire a rage-filled outburst, placing himself plainly in the crosshairs of the lackeys Jack plants outside home of the mother and child. In more ideal circumstances, this might have worked.
Of course, though, circumstances are not so ideal. Walt’s plan to draw out Jesse fails, as Andrea’s voicemail gets intercepted by Hank right away. As quickly as Brock and Andrea present themselves as pawns in Walt’s endlessly inventive stabs at manipulation, they become a dead end. Besides, Jesse reveals a weeding-out plan of his own aimed toward his ally-turned-adversary. Elaborating on what precisely he meant last week when he promised to get Walt “where he really lives,” Jesse suggests to Hank and Steve that they compel Walt to lead them unwittingly to that which they all desire: Heisenberg’s hidden spoils. With that series of well-contrived camera-phone photographs, the trap works out quite swimmingly. First Hank tracks down Huell Babineaux, concocts an unlikely fiction that his boss Saul Goodman has sold everybody out to Walt, and sells it with a lovingly contrived image of Jesse Pinkman lying down next to what looks like his expelled cranial content. This sufficiently prompts Saul’s lovable goon to spoonfeed explicit details of the the seven barrels he used to store Walt’s money, and the decision to bury it in the middle of nowhere.
It is with this information that the second photograph can be taken, this time of the apparently exhumed barrel of money strongly resembling the ones Huell purchased. Jesse sends this to Walt and… Well, we already covered what happens next.
The most telling line in this week’s episode comes from the mouth of Hank, just as he is about to slap the cuffs on a now-optionless Walt: “Gomey thought the dirt [covering the fake money barrel] might not match. But me? I bet that your greedy ass would be so worked up… that you wouldn’t catch it.” In a way, Hank’s observance serves here as a rather tidy way bookend to just how his five-episode long objective to capture Walt transpired. Hank first learned the truth about Heisenberg through his brother-in-law’s hubristic (and unfortunate) bathroom reading options. Hubris has always been among the chief character flaws both defining and impeding Walter White, and that is how his cover gets blown. It is through Walt’s other chief character flaw – greed – that incontrovertible evidence can be used against him. It almost seems, in the end, that Hank (and Jesse, of course) finally understand how to take down the Great Heisenberg, by exploiting the man’s principal failures entirely to their advantage. I have spent this season calling Hank to task a little for the sloppiness of his police work when family becomes involved. To an extent, his efforts are nearly vindicated.
I say nearly vindicated, but alas, not completely. Because Walt still misjudges his own greed and hubris, perhaps Hank continues to underestimate what kind of danger his brother might unleash, even unintentionally. When Walt finds himself on the brink of defeat, he calls off Jack. Yet he does so with astounding sloppiness, giving no context or reason as to why they should stand down. It was really no surprise to any of us watching that Jack would disregard the orders. In retrospect, should Hank truly have thought that going head-to-head with the man he knows orchestrated an elaborate prison hit and the assassination of a drug kingpin under his very nose wasn’t capable of playing even an unintended Ace in the Hole?
I guess it doesn’t matter now. Too many mistakes have been made, and with the (non) ending to ‘To’hajiilee,’ it’s clear now that the time for correcting mistakes is long gone. Now, all that remains are the consequences.
- Hank calls Marie to gloat right before the whole world goes to shit on him. When will TV cops ever learn not to say such stupid things five minutes before the episode ends?!
- Just before receiving that text from Jesse, Walt gives a doting, loving and surprisingly heart-warming look at his wife and son as they work together at the family business. Our last chance to see the White family experience what now passes for familial harmony, I suppose.
- Speaking of Flynn, his star-struck reaction to meeting Saul is absolutely priceless, and it is made all the more adorable because it contrasts to Skyler’s poorly veiled apprehension toward the presence of her sleazy legal counsel.
- Speaking of adorable, let’s give a shout-out to Todd’s gunmanship. I don’t think I’ve seen a kid take to a life of crime and murder with such childlike excitement since a young Henry Hill in Goodfellas.
- Speaking of Todd, he opens this week’s episode with a rather curious interaction with his boss Lydia, expressively eager to please her and clearly a little smitten. This moment, in conjunction with the tenderness he shows her in ‘Buried,’ signifies a clear trajectory for their relationship. I wonder how far it will go, and how long it will be until Lydia’s incompetence accidentally gets Todd killed. To be fair though, Todd the mannered sociopath very well could end up killing her instead.
- Sadly, this is the final episode of Breaking Bad to be helmed by breakout director Michelle MacLaren. Alongside ‘Buried,’ MacLaren has not only delivered the two best episodes of this truncated season thus far, but she has established herself as one of the truly essential directors of television working today. As the entire Breaking Bad cast and crew scatters to find their next projects, I will be most keenly interested in where she goes next.