“Face Off” brings the fourth season of “Breaking Bad” to an interesting conclusion, mainly because it is a conclusion. Gilligan and company did not head into the off-season with a cliffhanger and, aside from a few minor characters and subplots, they didn’t leave any major loose ends. With a simple “I won”, Walt closes the season on a triumphant, if exhausted and somber note. He has prevailed over Gus, Jesse is back on his side, Hank is safe, and while his marriage is hardly as pure as a cloudless, cobalt blue New Mexican sky, there’s much more to build on than there once was. In contrast to the nail-biter that closed season three, “Face Off” played out with almost comic smoothness. Along with last week’s “End Times”, it had the feel of an old Shakespeare problem comedy, like “Measure For Measure”, where the Duke, after a series of byzantine, implausible machinations, brings off a complicated, fraught, ambiguous resolution in which the bad are punished and the good rewarded– well, more or less.
The episode could almost be the end of the series. The final handshake between Walt and Jesse sure seemed like a final goodbye. They meet as equals, man to man, for perhaps the first time. Although the last big reveal indicates that Walt has manipulated Jesse more ruthlessly than Gus had, the emotion on his face– relief, respect, subsiding terror, pride– appears real. Jesse’s concern for Brock is not lost on Walt, and on the rooftop he seems to realize that his plot worked only because Jesse felt genuine affection for the boy. If Jesse had not cared as much as he did, the plan might have failed. So, in a way, one important part of their relationship has been resolved. They respect each other. Earlier they torched the meth lab and walked out, shoulder to shoulder, two men on the same mission. They shake as buddies who have been through a bloody war together. There’s not much left to say, and not much left for us to watch.
And then there’s the Lily of the Valley. For me, the plant is much more exciting than any cliffhanger Gilligan might have devised. Because the series is seemingly wrapped up in its bigger character arcs, the expectations for next season are actually much higher. “Breaking Bad”, despite its quirky crime-film sensibility, which allows for plenty of awesome silliness (like a car bomb’s magnet sticking to the inside of an elevator door in a hospital), is at heart a great piece of realism. Realistic in this way: the show understands, and deftly dramatizes, how a series of smaller decisions form a chain of causes and effects which eventually lead to bigger consequences that don’t terminate but form a middle term in a still-longer sequence. Just like life, the hits just keep on coming. Every answer Walt and Jesse earn with their blood sweat and tears almost immediately turns into another question.
One of the virtues of “Breaking Bad” is the way it establishes a fixed number of characters going about doing a fixed range of activities. The show hasn’t changed much since season one in terms of who’s doing what, with whom. Too often TV shows– I’m looking at you, “Lost”– attempt to keep things interesting by constantly widening the boundaries of the show to include more and more extraneous story elements. In four seasons, “Breaking Bad” has trotted out a relatively small number of chess pieces and simply moved them around the board in fascinating ways. Minor characters come and go, but the basics remain. Walt is a family man turning into a major drug manufacturer, Jesse is a punk trying to find redemption, Skylar is trying her best to keep her family safe, Hank is dedicated to busting the bad guys, and so on. Again, this is fundamentally realistic. Chances are, the real drama in your life will come from someone you already know, or from a familiar situation which is suddenly turned inside out. Even the most outlandish event in the series, the plane crash in season two’s finale, was the direct result of a domestic crisis among known entities.
With that in mind, “Face Off” was full of marvelous endings for two vivid characters. First and foremost, Gus was given a fitting, gruesomely handsome send-off. The brilliant, cool-as-ice kingpin is allowed a final bow, as it were, before dropping out of sight. I can think of few shots as beautiful, uncanny, and gut-twisting as Gus’s last tie-straightening moment in the hospital hallway. In the annals of movies or television, few moments have been as incredible as this. The death of this baddest of badass villains was, in a word, unforgettable. (Sweet panacea for those of us forever traumatized by the pathetic demise of Boba Fett in a giant rubber alien’s anus of a maw.) Then there’s Tio, the crumpled mute played with such smoldering aplomb by Mark Margolis. How many times since his first appearance in season two was the bell played for laughs? In “Face Off” it becomes the trigger of a bomb which ends the reign of the mighty Gus Fring, adding much dignity to Tio’s character– as does his foul game of ABCs in the DEA office, one of the smartest and funniest scenes in the whole series. In both cases, Walt found that the solution to the problem of getting rid of them was already in view. No cheap plot intrusions from outside, no magic shortcuts, no strange twists.
So, too, with the Lily of the Valley. In “End Times”, there was an odd moment when Walt sits in the backyard, desperate and at his wits’ end. He spins the gun a few times before it stops, facing away, pointing at the plant. That’s all we see, but in retrospect, of course, it was in that moment he hatched his shrewd plan to trick Jesse into turning on Gus once and for all. It was a surprise and, a second later, an even bigger relief to see Walt’s deception revealed, because the scene in “End TImes” in which Jesse confronts Walt felt clumsy and implausible. “Breaking Bad” hasn’t been perfect, but the series has avoided major mis-steps, and for the first time I thought maybe Gilligan had lost it. Even after “Face Off”, I’m still not sold on the strength of the plan. Many of its parts were flimsy and I don’t know if the psychology was sound (Jesse might not have come up with the same suspicions, and he might have gone his own way rather than help Walt). But it’s believable, and in the end, the way it is realized onscreen, Walt’s plan is a fine piece of writing in the way it ties up different threads in a way true to the heart of the characters.
The trick to poison Brock is the counterpart to the assassination of Gus. The bomb merely took out a rival. The poison was Walt’s claim to Gus’s throne. As Walt himself says, in “End Times”, “Who do you know who kills children?” Gus is the answer– and now the answer is Walt, too, who would put a small boy’s life at risk to achieve his ends (not to mention a kindly next-door neighbor) . Walt hasn’t just eliminated a threat. He has made himself the boss, finally willing to out-think, and also out-do, everyone else to get his way. The theme of season four has been the hierarchy of work: who gives the orders, who follows them, and what role does loyalty play? Until “End Times” and “Face Off”, Walt wasn’t worthy of being the boss. Not until he finally wises up, uses all the resources available to him (human and raw materials), and thinks with absolute, ruthless clarity is he finally worthy of saying, “I won”.
But in season five the dangling question must be answered: what role does loyalty play? Jesse, his erstwhile assistant and now (presumably) equal partner, may yet learn of Walt’s scheme to manipulate him by nearly killing Brock. Mike, still recovering from a gunshot wound in Mexico, may or may not seek revenge for the murder of his boss. Skylar has more difficult choices to make, considering she went along with Walt’s criminal activities under the assumption that they were safe and now, ironically, she can trust him less than ever before in spite of their newfound spirit of partnership. Finally, there’s Hank, whose loyalty will be tested next season when he finally sniffs out the identity of the mysterious Heisenberg, as well as Walter Junior, whose love for his father will be seriously strained when Hank drops the curtain on his father’s extracurricular activities. So Walt’s troubles may not be over. They’re probably just starting. In the words of O-Ren Ishii, “You didn’t think it was gonna be that easy, did you?”
It’s the messiness of its crime plot that makes “Breaking Bad” one of the great crime stories ever made. Gilligan and his writers started with a big idea, bold and catchy: high school chemistry teacher turns into a meth chef. But instead of adding to it, like a snowball rolling down a mountain, they peeled away layers to go deeper and deeper into their characters, like an onion. Their fidelity to the central problems driving the drama– the conflicts between, and within, Walt and Jesse– is beyond impressive. Somehow, even while coming up with one colorful crime-story flourish after another, the really crucial parts of the story still unfold between the ears of its principle characters. The fact that “Face Off” leaves us with a somewhat neat ending only points to the show’s ability to surprise us. If they’d let the season end with Gus alive and Walt and Jesse’s fates uncertain, it would have been far more predictable.
Now we get to look forward to a fifth and final season in which the grand finale, like every other development thus far, is going to be orchestrated by central characters we already know. Forget drug cartels, forget meth kingpins, forget cowboy cops. The fatal turn, whatever it will prove to be, can’t be made in self-defense against an over-the-top menace. The king will fall inside the walls of his own castle, done in by familiar hands. I continue to think Hank will earn the good-guy glory, in the end, with Jesse winning salvation and a second chance to begin a new life somewhere else. But the reason it all matters so much, the reason this is going to be a hell of a last season, is that Walt has now broken bad in a way antithetical to his earlier, reflexive acts of violence. There was no adrenaline-rush in his gambit. He calmly made his play, tough and fearless, without remorse or squeamishness. Walt is truly, magnificently, hugely bad now, which will make it so much more exciting to watch his downfall.