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?
Oh, and is it just me, or has there been something serially and very specifically odd and menacing about the way we've seen Jack and Kenny look at women: the waitress at that diner on the way back to New Mexico in the first scene of "Confessions," Lydia at the lab in the first scene this week. And does this have anything to do with the unusual license Todd seems to take with Lydia's personal space, or with Todd's momentary fixation on the lipstick stain she left on her tea mug, as they discussed their latest batch of post-Heisenberg meth? These moments always seem to come in as counterpoint to some superficial display of courtesy: Jack calling the waitress "darlin'," Todd addressing Lydia as "ma'am." We know these guys are bad news, but I have the feeling we're seeing clues that they're even worse news than they appear.
Tension and …?
Kornhaber: … more tension! You guys and your silly talk of release. Tonight’s showdown, I expect, sent Breaking Bad into its final, accelerating descent—akin to Season 4’s agonizing, action-packed end run, initiated when Gus threatened Walt’s life in, ahem, the middle of the desert. A few ruminative moments (the cast list for next week’s episode include the actors who played Jane, Mike, Gale, Tuco, and Crazy-8, suggesting we’re either in for flashbacks or zombies) and really-really final resolution aside, I imagine the closing three hours of Breaking Bad will present an unrelenting strain on viewers’ cardiac systems.
I’m willfully misconstruing the question and the tension/release conceit, of course. You two are absolutely right about Breaking Bad’s incredible handle on suspense, both within individual scenes and across them. Is its unbeaten in terms of jangling nerves? When you suggested that, Chris, my first thought went to Game of Thrones, which recently staged the most harrowing TV-viewing experience I’ve ever had. But the comparison with that show actually underscores the particular genius of Breaking Bad. This is not a drama that thrills with sudden, monstrous betrayals. It’s one that thrills by artfully, ingeniously, and devastatingly delivering the monstrousness that you see coming.
For me at least, Jack & co.’s arrival at To'hajiilee felt like inevitability, not ambush. That’s partly for reasons of plot: With the cold open and the negotiation scene establishing the Nazis to be critically in need of Walt, it didn’t seem likely they would go back to eating dinner after Walt called to say his life was in danger—even, perhaps especially, once he tried to unsound the alarm. Writer George Mastras and director Michelle MacLaren masterfully amped the dread engendered by that knowledge: portraying Walt’s capture in what seemed to be real time, cutting the music, drawing out Hank’s gloating and Marie’s relief and Jesse/Walt’s spit-scuffle. What should have been a triumphant moment for anyone rooting against Walt instead felt like something from a horror film. They’re coming. Get out of there. Come onnn.
Thematically, too, there’s a sickening correctness to how the episode ended. A couple of weeks back, I speculated that the show was encircling Walt with three kinds of punishers for three kinds of transgressions: Hank, avenger of familial betrayal; Jesse, avatar of destroyed innocence; Todd, Jack, and Lydia, mascots of mercenary amorality. Tonight, it appears, Walt meets all three reckonings, all at once, in among the worst ways imaginable. Hank, the family member whose meathead condescension helped motivate Walt to break bad in the first place, not only cuffs and taunts him but also outsmarts him. Jesse, the sidekick who just hours earlier Walt insisted was “like family” and incapable of ratting, rats. And the Nazis, with whom Walt in this episode bargained away his “retirement” to pay for a job he was too squeamish to handle on his own, show up to cross the one line he wouldn’t cross—while he watches, screaming and powerless to stop the catastrophe that he himself invited.
(Or, maybe not totally powerless. I could envision a plot twist that has Walt squirming out of the car, throwing himself in the line of fire, and offering up his services as cook in return for Hank and/or Jesse’s lives. That’d mean a transfer from one kind of imprisonment to another, likely worse one.)
The ironies go even deeper, as they always do with Breaking Bad. Much of this episode, for example, portrayed Hank as a sharp student of Heisenberg on two levels. The first, of course, is that he has his enemy figured out; he sees through Walt’s ruse to lure Jesse to Andrea’s house, and he knows that his brother-in-law will fly into a blind rage at the prospect of having his cash torched. But more significantly, Hank’s becoming increasingly Walt-like. Again and again, we saw his wounded pride enabling an at-any-costs mentality, in turn enabling grander and craftier deceptions. (Though the Huell gambit struck me as one of the most implausible sequences in the show’s history—what if he’d asked to hear the recording of Walt calling the hit in?). If Hank hadn’t spent so much time gloating, speechifying, calling Marie (and lying about it!), etc., he might have been back in Albuquerque by the time those trucks drove up. Instead, he’s facing mortal peril. His sins are far smaller than Walt’s, but he may be punished all the same.