Every week for the second half of the final season of Breaking Bad, our roundtable of TheAtlantic.com's J.J. Gould, Chris Heller, and Spencer Kornhaber will discuss the latest happenings on AMC's show.
Heller: A season's worth of tension has now built up to one, prolonged moment in the desert. Every piece of the story, every decision made in the last dozen episodes, it's all led to this showdown.
During the last four weeks, we've talked here about several pillars of Breaking Bad: the immorality of Walter White, the egoism of Hank Schrader, the guilt of Jesse Pinkman. With only a trio of episodes left, I think it's time we consider the legacy of the show itself. What will we remember most about it? What mark will it leave on serialized drama? Which scenes will still stand out long after the finale ends? While I know these questions will be debated for years, I think this show's legacy will come down to one thing above all others: its distinctive use of tension.
I struggle to think of another show that's executed a scene as shocking as Gus walking out of Hector Salamanca's room in "Face Off," or as unexpected as Walt running down those drug dealers in "Half Measures," or as suspenseful as Hank's parking-lot shootout with the cousins in "One Minute." These aren't just the most memorable parts of the show. They aren't just exclamation points. They're Breaking Bad at its best: storytelling as masterful, throat-clenching tension and release.
Think about it: Each of these scenes follows a similar construction. The camera stays tight on one character as he walks toward a violent, significant purpose. This takes time. There's no hurry. Ambient noises and an impeccable score texturize and amplify the unease. Just as things seem unbearable, a violent twist loosens the tension for an instant—but only before another tightens back it even more. Cut to black.
This isn't a formula. The show has built many different kinds of tension at many different moments, reflecting different moods, intentions, and implications. But I watched each one—as I watched end of "To'hajiilee"—through the cracks between my fingers. And that's what I will remember best about Breaking Bad: peeking through, unsure if I want to watch, but unable to look away.
Three episodes left. How do you expect to feel once it's all over? Care to predict what we'll see when the dust settles in the desert? Any idea where I find a copy of Todd's ringtone?
Gould: Todd is evil, but his ringtone is awesome. I haven’t heard anyone sample Thomas Dolby since I did, repeatedly, in grad school—whenever I'd read reductive academic studies that tried to reduce complex human behavior to simple causes and effects: "SCIENCE!" It was sort of the opposite of watching Breaking Bad.
Anyway. Holy sh—
I agree, Chris. This show has been unusual from the beginning in the way it's used agonizing plot turns, and the constant potential for violence implied by its premise, to keep us involved in its story—and in the nuanced, compelling set of character studies that story laces together.
But Breaking Bad hasn't just used plotting to drive our investment in its characters; it's also used character to expedite and deepen our investment in its plot. Quick example from this week's episode: Note how the writers, and Bryan Cranston, leveraged everything we know about Walt's resourcefulness and determination to tease us into imagining, even if only for a moment, that he'd be able to improvise his way out after Jesse, Hank, and Gomez trapped him at To'hajiilee. Cranston only had to suggest a momentary squint in his eyes for the viewer to think, "Whoa, what's he going to do?!"—and to believe that Walt could in fact plausibly do something—before, no, he surrenders. Tension and release.
I honestly have no idea how I'll feel when the series is over. I mean, I trust, I'll feel impressed. But that's not what you're asking, Chris. I will venture a prediction, though. I predict, with all due sorrow, that Hank and Gomie are indeed about to die. Of course, this may be just what Gilligan et al. want us to think—before they jolt us off in another direction.
In which case, well, they got me: Walt has been losing more and more ground against Hank. Now Jesse has teamed up with Hank. Now Gomez is in on it. Now they've played Huell for crucial info. Now Walt's panicked despite himself and showed them where the money is. Now a search crew is going to be on the way. Walt is screwed! … But hold on. What? Here comes White Power Jack and his gang, meaning business. Now they've got their guns out. Wait, if they kill Hank and Gomie, no one else on the law-enforcement side knows what's going on. There'll only be Marie. And Jesse, if you count him. Hank's pride and insecurity kept him from bringing in the DEA, and if he drops out of the picture, that's going to insulate Walt from discovery. Oh my God, Walt's going to get away with this—at least for now.
The big question for me at the end of "To'hajiilee" isn't really who will die? It's, what is Jack up to? Why did he show up after Walt told him not to come? Could Jack hear Walt screaming from inside Hank's SUV before the bullets started flying? Did Jack understand what Walt was saying? Did Jack care? And, if Walt is such an asset to Jack, why the hell are his people shooting up a car they know Walt is sitting in?