Sunday, October 16, 2011

Breaking Bad Season 4

NO SPOILERS: Last week I was in New Orleans at the PCAS/Lost conference, giving a keynote on Lost (more on that coming soon). While I was there, I met a few other Lost bloggers and book authors, and among them was Pearson Moore, author of Lost Humanity: The Mythology and Themes of Lost. One afternoon between panels, we wandered over to Starbucks, and on the way there Pearson said to me, “So, Nikki, now that Lost is over, what show should I be watching?” My immediate reaction: “Are you watching Breaking Bad?”


“You should be watching Breaking Bad.”

And that recommendation goes for anyone reading this. If you’re not already watching Breaking Bad, walk, run, sprint, fly… use whatever means necessary to get the season 1 DVDs NOW and start watching. Season 1 is great. Season 2 was even better. Season 3 was jaw-dropping. And season 4 – which ended this past Sunday – is one of the most perfect seasons of television I’ve ever seen. The first three seasons are available on DVD.

Breaking Bad is the story of Walter White, who is married to Skyler and they have a 15-year-old son with cerebral palsy. At the beginning of the pilot, Walter, a high school chemistry teacher who has a second job at a carwash to make ends meet (because Skyler is pregnant with their second child), has just found out he has terminal lung cancer. He’s desperate, doesn’t want his family to know, and all he cares about is leaving enough of a financial legacy behind so both of his kids will make it through college and his wife won’t be destitute.

And that’s where Jesse Pinkman comes in. This former student of Walter’s, who Walter now considers a washed-up loser, has been attempting to deal meth with varied results. Walter explains that the person who makes the real money is the cook, and uses chemistry to come up with a recipe for meth that’s about as pure as it can possibly be. The moment their stuff hits the market, Walter realizes that his family won’t be destitute after all.

This show is funny (really, really darkly funny), harrowing, devastating, terrifying, suspenseful, and has so many scenes of extraordinary acting, it’s the one show where I consistently look at my husband at some point in the episode and go, “Wow.” There are moments where I don’t realize until the end of the long scene between these amazing actors that I haven’t really breathed for the last couple of minutes. They are THAT good. And the writing is fantastic.

So if you’re not watching… do!

SPOILERS AHEAD NOW: If you haven’t seen the show, please stop reading. If you’ve only seen up to season 3, please stop reading. This is for anyone who just watched the season 4 ending… Oh. My. God.

This show has been a slow build, through Walter’s descent into Heisenberg throughout season 1, to his cooking meth with Jesse for Gus Fring in season 2 (which leads him to miss his daughter’s birth and ends his marriage), to the tension between him and Jesse in season 3, leading to the two of them going their separate ways despite working with Gus and making gobs of money and Skyler coming back on board as a partner, to this colossal season.

We’ve watched Walter devolve from a high school chemistry teacher (I won’t say “mild-mannered,” because I highly doubt he was ever mild-mannered) and a loving family man into a brutal killer. Everyone around him has been touched by what Walter has done, and almost none of it in a good way. Hank is attempting a slow recuperation after having been shot last season (because of Walter). Jesse is moving deeper and deeper into his own depression, after killing a man at Walter’s behest. This came on top of the season 2 climax, where Walter not only facilitated the death of Jesse’s girlfriend, but stood by watching her die when he could have saved her life. Jesse doesn’t know this, and I wonder if he will find out some day… and I have no idea what he’ll do with that information, but it could kill either him or Walter. Skyler, after making Walter pay for his transgressions by leaving him and having an affair with her boss, despite his pleas that he was only doing it for the good of the family, is finding herself drawn to the large sums of money, and has become deeply involved in Walter’s business by laundering his $274,000 bimonthly paycheque. Saul (better call Saul!) has been put in danger time and again because of Walter, but being the comic foil for the show, we don’t feel sorry for him as much as giggle every time we see his assistant shredding papers or Saul’s rock-stupid bodyguard standing nearby as Saul calls from a payphone in Antarctica. Walter’s two children were put in danger this season when Gus threatened their lives to keep Walter in line.

But Walter doesn’t quit. He aims higher and higher. He started by fighting back against local drug kingpins. Then he not only ran over a street thug, but got out of the car and shot the other one last season (in that season’s “Oh my GOD did he just DO that?!” moment). He watched as Jesse’s girlfriend choked on her own vomit, thinking that having her out of the way will refocus Jesse (of course, in doing so, the girl’s father blamed himself, and being an air traffic controller, he was unfocused at his job and allowed a plane collision in the sky, causing plane and body parts to come raining down from the sky and killing hundreds of people). He let Hank walk into danger, knowing that he was doing so. He ordered Jesse at the season 3 climax to go to Gale’s house and shoot him in the face, killing one man’s body and another man’s soul in the process. And this season, he aimed for the highest of the high: Gus Fring.

In the season 4 opener, after Gale was shot, Gus showed up in the meth lab, silently walked in, meticulously changed his outfit into the meth-making scrubs (the man is nothing if not meticulous!), and said not a word as a terrified Walter babbled a mile a minute. But it wasn’t Walter he was after, and instead he grabbed one of his lackeys and slit his throat quickly and mercilessly with a box cutter, while Walter looked in, no doubt peeing his pants. Gus then silently changed back into his business suit and walked out. His point had been made. Hey Walter, you think you’re a big guy? You’re nothing compared to this one. Or so Gus thought.

After Uncle Hector took out Gus’s partner years ago (a partner who was implied to be romantic as well as a business one), Gus has slowly plotted his revenge, and this season we see Gus visiting the nursing home where Hector now lives, taunting him every time he’s managed to take out another person in Hector’s circle. The tough-as-nails Gus – seriously, this guy walks into the middle of a gun battle at one point this season, holding his arms out in the air as if to dare the shooter to take him out, and the shooter instead retreats! – actually heads down to Mexico and manages to take out an entire drug cartel that Hector works with, just to go back to taunt Hector some more. AND… he kills them by ingesting the very poison he hands to them to poison all of them, but his own team of doctors manages to pull him through. This guy is Scary with a capital S.

So how the hell can Walter possibly take him out? By hitting him in his vulnerable spot: Hector. Hector is the only person who causes Gus to stop seeing straight. Hector hit Gus so badly by killing his partner in front of him that Gus has been red-eyed with revenge, and he’s put himself in needlessly dangerous situations just to give Hector another poke in the eye. In the penultimate episode of season 4, Walter tries to kill Gus by rigging Gus’s car with a bomb, but the moment Gus returns to the car park and realizes his car is in an isolated place, he stops, looks around, and leaves on foot. Walter begins to think the guy is unkillable.

Meanwhile, Jesse has been separated from Walter all season, doing separate errands for Gus (making Walter insane with not knowing why they’ve chosen Jesse to do these things), and he’s reconnected with a single mom he was seeing last season, hanging out with her son Brock. All season long Walter has been forcing Jesse to carry a cigarette with a vial of ricin in it, in the hopes that he might find a moment where he could poison Gus, who will become sick over three days before dying of a heart attack. But Jesse isn’t a killer. He killed Gale because Walter was in trouble, and his loyalties are to “Mr. White” when all else fails. But at heart, he’d rather throw himself to the dogs than sacrifice someone who might have gotten in his way. He’s not like Walter. At the beginning of season 1, we’re supposed to see Walter as the family man who’s pushed to an extreme to save his loved ones, and Jesse is the scum of the earth with no morals or ethics. But that wasn’t true. Jesse is the one with the soul, who is slowly being destroyed by a man with a sense of ambition rivaled only by Lady Macbeth (and even SHE showed some guilt along the way…) When Brock suddenly falls sick, and Jesse discovers his ricin cigarette is missing, the viewers all go, “Oh my GOD, Gus has attacked Jesse’s loved ones!” But Jesse doesn’t think that, and goes right to Walter. As he points a gun at Walter’s face (and if THAT scene doesn’t earn Aaron Paul another Emmy, there is no justice in this world), begging him to explain just how he could hurt a little boy, Walter calms him down, explaining that HE doesn’t commit this atrocity, GUS did. And it’s that moment where Jesse stops being Walter’s adversary and helps him.

Between the two of them, they pinpoint Hector as the one who is Gus’s vulnerable spot, and Walter talks Hector into going to see the DEA. At that moment, the final episode really begins to ramp up. Hank hobbles into the precinct to speak to Hector (who communicates by ringing a little bell as a nurse points to letters on a board) and after he basically just tells Hank to go eff himself in as many colourful ways as he can, the nurse leaves the precinct in an apologetic huff, berating Hector for being such an ass (can I just mention at this point how multi-layered a character Hank is? He was set up as a typical cop who could play the foil to Walter’s far more intelligent character, but he’s instead been revealed to be a brilliant detective who’s always one step behind Walter, and the only reason he hasn’t yet found the blue meth dealer is because Walter’s watching Hank’s every move and standing in his way). But Gus has eyes on that nursing home AND the DEA’s office, and finds out immediately he’s been there. At home we watch and say, “Oh, Walter is brilliant… this will draw Gus directly to the nursing home, and he can rig up his car bomb there.” But when Gus goes into the nursing home, he takes only one of his bodyguards and leaves the other in his car. Whatever will Walter do now?!

Gus strides into Hector’s room, where the always stubborn and smug Hector sits, his stroke-afflicted lips puckered up and trembling with rage, while Gus stands over him and berates him once again for going to the DEA’s office, and he tells him he’s decided to finish him off once and for all. He sits across from him, as Hector obstinately looks at the wall amidst Gus’s offer that this is the last chance he’ll get to look Gus in the eye (knowing that Hector’s personality would prevent him from ever looking his killer directly in the face), and Gus begins to inject the poison into Hector’s arm… until he looks up, and Hector is staring directly at him. Gus knows instantly what is happening: Hector won’t look his killer in the eye, but he ALWAYS stares his victims in the eye so he can watch their final moments. Hector begins madly ringing his bell, the camera pans down to reveal Walter’s car bomb rigged to Hector’s chair, Gus stands up to scream, “NOOOO!” and at home we leap off the couch and scream the same thing.

And as if that moment wasn’t jaw-dropping and breathtaking enough, Gus actually WALKS OUT OF THE ROOM (and I said to my husband, “Oh come ON, I know the guy is tough but did he seriously survive that?!”) and we only see him in profile, as he once again meticulously buttons up his suit jacket. Only then does the camera (which, in these two scenes becomes the real storyteller… drawing out the story and revealing the truth at the last second) pan around Gus to show us that the entire right half of his head has been blown off (giving the title of this episode – “Face Off” – that extra chuckle factor), and he falls over, dead.

Wow. Now the only real person left from Gus’s cartel is Mike, the bodyguard who sort of despises Walter and his damn ambition, but who has slowly come to regard Jesse with a certain impressed fascination. He’s gone away for a bit and will return to a big surprise. I’m pretty sure he’ll be integral to the next season, and perhaps Jesse coming out on top.

But the shocks of this season finale don’t stop there. Walter calls Skyler – a woman who is showing her own brand of Machiavellian machinations this season when she orders Saul’s men to go over to her former boss/lover’s house and threaten him into helping her out, and they kill him by accident. Skyler has just seen the explosion on TV and has seen Walter’s fingerprints all over it, and asks him if he did it. “I won,” he says, in a surprised and breathless way, but there’s a serenity about him that shows us the buck won’t stop here. Walter is worse than any of the bad guys he’s come up against. And if you somehow think that maybe Gus is still worse, it only takes the next scene for us to be convinced otherwise… Jesse shows up to tell Walter that Brock wasn’t poisoned by ricin after all, but had eaten some berries from a Lily of the Valley plant, and it makes you very sick for a few days and then you miraculously get better. Walter looks very happy for him, and Jesse leaves.

And our storytelling camera once again takes us to Walter’s backyard, zooming in to reveal that very Lily of the Valley plant propped up next to Walter’s pool. Walter was behind it all along. He poisoned a child, forcing Jesse over to his side so Jesse could help him kill three men – three men who so far weren’t actually posing a threat to Jesse, but to Walter – and even putting himself in danger along the way when he suggested to a doctor that the boy may have been poisoned by ricin, something that, turns out, really gets the FBI noticing you. Jesse’s now on the FBI watch list, Walter’s family is safe, and Walter has “won.”

There is only one season left, with 16 episodes, and I for one can say I cannot wait. I can’t imagine Walter will ultimately get off scot-free, and instead I’m hoping Jesse will find some peace. I can’t imagine how it will end – will Walter die? And if so, at whose hand? Jesse’s? Skyler’s? Hank’s?

His own?


AEC said...

This is such an amazing show! My brother just introduced me to it last winter and I caught up on all the seasons in record time.

I'm really curious to see how the show ends as well. I hope things turn out well for Jesse and that his life resolves itself okay

The Chapati Kid said...

LOVE this show. I just finished Season 4 earlier this week, and oh my spaghetti monster, it was unbelievable!

I had a lot of empathy for Gus, though, despite him being a cold criminal. I really enjoyed the subtext of his character -- I don't know if you think the same, but to me, the man who was shot was his lover, and he spent his lifetime avenging his lover's death. When we meet him, he's already undergone the character transformation that we see happening to Walter White in the series: from a loving man to a stone cold killer. I also think he's a closeted gay man because he lives in this lovely house and cooks gumbo, and talks about his "family", yet we never see his wife and kids.

yourblindspot said...

This? Is the one. That show. Absolutely 100% agreed. At some point during every episode, my wife and I turn to each other and intone a variation on the phrase, "Dude, this show is so freaking awesome!" Because it just. Keeps. Reminding. You.

Season four was phenomenal, from that gory opening salvo, through the grime and depravity of Jesse's Slough of Despond (maybe the most intense scenes ever assembled for the show, and man that is really saying something), the dark beauty of Gus' vengeful machinations, the teeth-grinding back and forth of Hank's new investigations, and finally being graced with an entirely successful Walter White scheme. What a joy to behold.

Some great musical moments this year, too, but hard for all of them not to be overshadowed by the Apparat in the finale:

RIP, Gus Fring. (The 'p' stands for pieces, y'all.)

Anonymous said...

When Walter says "I won" at the end I thinks he means Heizenberg has won the battle for Walter's soul instead of Walter over Gus.

Please gods of television - can we somehow see a team-up of Walter White, Walter Bishop & Sheldon Cooper?

-Tim Alan

Unknown said...

Such an amazing show and for those that need to catch up the first three seasons are on Netflix instant watch right now....

JS said...

Every moment of the finale was tense, and for the big reveal to NOT be that Gus Fring is the new two face, (but actually dead), but that WW is the child poisoner--well, I just didn't believe it ‘til I saw it.

I think I held my breath for the last 10 min of the show. And re-watching it, I noticed Walter is actually wearing a color that doesn't look like sand. Heisenberg throughout the last two episodes, wears a bright green shirt, rather than the bland Walter White desert tones. I wouldn't mind seeing a study of the use of color in this show. It is used very deliberately, even beyond the names (White, Pinkman), and Marie's penchant for purple.

Lisa Ferreira said...

Wow, I don't think I ever thought Gus was gay...that makes him the most badass TV character since The Wire's Omar.

Hector was the most intense nose-breather EVER. Every moment he was onscreen made it hard for me to breath non-erratically.

I can't wait for next season to see what happens when Mike returns, & what Jesse will do if & when he finds out the truth. I'll rewatch Gale's amazing karaoke video to fill the time.

Ambivalentman said...

"Breaking Bad" is one of the most original shows ever, and the only show since "LOST" that I've actually really wanted to write about. Vince Gilligan's choices as writer/producer/director are impeccable. He captures what's best of exploitation cinema and melds it with a real knack for characterization and pacing. This is one show where there are no wasted loose ends, where you never feel like you're in the hands of an amateur.

You know a show is great when you find yourself thinking about it while watching other programs. For example, I was recently watching an episode in season 4 of "Sons of Anarchy," when a major character murders someone to get out of a mess he is in. I found myself underwhelmed by the scene and thought about "Breaking Bad." I realized that Vince Gilligan and his team of writers always find a way to make every character important and resonant in some way, so that when they die, it means something. Kurt Sutter tends to off characters to propel his plot -- Gilligan does it to elevate the tension, develop themes, and reveal characters. They're not even in the same league as showrunners.

When all is said and done, and "Breaking Bad" is over, it will no doubt go down as one of the top 5 shows of all-time, and with good reason. It is original, inventive, explosive, and relevant. I have not felt this strongly about any show since "LOST," and I'm glad you're posting about it here, Nikki.

Now, we have to wait another year for the final season, however AMC chooses to break it up for us...sigh...

Unknown said...

Breaking Bad DVD is an amzing show,adventure,crime,black comedy... Bryan Cranston won three consecutive emmy awards for his role as Walt. Aaron Paul (Jesse) has also won an emmy for his performance...You'd better start to watch it from begining and you will find out how Walt got started how he met jesse how they got involved with gus.