Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Defining Moments Of Breaking Bad, Part 2

On August 11, Breaking Bad will start its final run of eight episodes and bid farewell to the airwaves. It's been a long wait, following the show's somewhat aggravating decision to split its last season in half and air the first eight episodes almost a year ago. But good things come to those who wait, and fans will finally get closure in just a couple of weeks.

With that in mind, I thought it was time to follow up my last roundup of Breaking Bad awesomeness with a second entry on its most memorable moments, encompassing the fourth season and first half of the fifth season.

"Get back to work"

After some speculation that Jesse hadn't killed Gale, the fourth season opens by letting us know that yes, he totally did. The opening episode makes it seem like it may have been for naught, however, as both Walt and Jessie are detained in the superlab and one of Gus's goons proves that it doesn't take a genius to follow Walt's meth recipe.

At least until Gus brutally slashes the goon's throat for failing to prevent Gale's assassination and calmly orders Walt and Jesse back to work. The scene perfectly exemplifies that Gus is willing to get his hands dirty and will be a formidable adversary to Walt, all while keeping Gus's trademark collected demeanor. No wonder Giancarlo Esposito got an Emmy nomination.

The return of Hank

Hank was the hero of what may be the most intense scene of the series: the parking lot shootout with the Cousins in the third season. The only drawback was that the serious injuries he received in this battle reduced him to a jaded mineral enthusiast in the subsequent season.


But as the show proceeded, Hank proved that he never lost his focus on ridding Albuquerque of the scourge of Heisenberg's blue meth. From his first suspicions of Gus to his relentless crackdown on those surrounding Walt, it was good to see Hank back in form as a rather brilliant DEA agent.

"I am the one who knocks!"

The midway point of the season is not really a good time for Walt. He's gone from an independent drug lord to an important but disposable component in someone else's machine, and he's got a target on his back. There's also the fact that Walt's pride makes him virtually incapable of resolving any problems unless it's on his own terms.

This is what leads to the memorable confrontation between Walt and Skyler, who has become a reluctant co-conspirator in her husband's drug activity but worries about the risk it presents to her family. After Walt's declaration here, it's clear that Skyler realizes her husband has become something new and terrifying.

Gus destroys the cartel

Even after the murder mentioned above, Gus is still a pretty sympathetic character. Especially after a flashback where we see the cartel murder his brother (the other half of Los Pollos Hermanos) right in front of him.


After a few confrontations with the cartel during the fourth season, he finally makes a peace offer to the same man responsible for killing his brother 20 years ago...and promptly manages to get revenge in one of the most unexpected and satisfying ways possible.

Walt's scream

Bryan Cranston had more competition at the last Emmy Awards and his chain of Best Actor awards was finally broken, but that doesn't mean he didn't earn his nomination. This might well be Walt's most hopeless moment. His options for protecting his family and himself have seemingly run out, and for once he's at the end of his rope. Add to it the phone call from Marie where she fears for Hank's safety and it seems like things couldn't get much worse.

Walt IEDs Gus

For a good portion of the fourth season, it seems like Walt is in a losing battle with Gus. Even if he managed to save his skin by having Jesse kill Gale, Gus is clearly maneuvering to undermine Walt and turn Jesse against him so that he can finally be rid of him. The show keeps showing us ways that Walt is more than capable to get himself out of a difficult situation, though, and this cat-and-mouse game concludes Walt's own attempt to turn his former enemy, Hector Salmanaca, against Gus.


The audience realizes why Salmanaca's bell seems off at about the same time Gus does, and Gus's nonchalant exit from the nursing home room adds one last touch of dignity and fortitude to his character before you understand why they titled the episode "Face Off."

Lily of the Valley

I've seen some fans comment on how incredible it is that the show can give so much weight to such ordinary or minor things. The end of the fourth season takes a similar route, ending not on a visually spectacular sight such as Gus's death or the destruction of the superlab but rather a Lily of the Valley plant that brings a few points together.


It comes right on the heels of Walt's cold answer of "I won" to Skyler's question of what Walt had to do with Gus's downfall. With one shot, you realize that Walt's morality has degraded to the point that he'll hurt a child and manipulate a partner if he thinks the situation calls for it. And it's one more secret he's keeping from Jesse that might well come crashing down on him as the series wraps up.

Walt's lonely 52nd birthday

Breaking Bad is known for a number of intriguing opening scenes, and the last season gives us a great one to ponder as the series heads for a conclusion. Walt is 52, two years older than the start of the season. He's eating alone in a Denny's, with a New Hampshire driver's license, a cough, and no wedding ring. The cancer could be back. Perhaps his family has left him. Maybe they haven't even survived the series. If nothing else, it's clear that Walt's on the run from someone.


And apparently needs an M-60 machine gun to fight them off.

"Yeah, bitch! Magnets!"

Even back in the pilot, Jesse's idiocy was balanced with a healthy dose of cleverness and common sense. He introduces Walt to a few safeguards to avoid getting caught, such as the show's iconic RV that acted as a mobile lab for awhile and his method of spreading out his meth component purchases so as not to raise suspicions.


It's interesting to see how he's been able to build on this knowledge even as the operation gets larger. In this scene, he tests a theory for wiping a laptop from outside a police evidence locker to destroy surveillance footage of him and Walt working in the superlab.

Skyler tells off Walt

I've perused a few reviews and message boards for the show, and there's a fair amount of vitriol directed toward the character of Skyler (and occasionally toward actress Anna Gunn). It occasionally reaches cruel levels, such as the mockery of Skyler's sudden weight gain after Gunn's pregnancy, but in general the fans who didn't like the character seemed more annoyed with either the detached nature that originally defined her or her more mundane side plots as compared with Walt and Jesse's misadventures.

Skyler has come into her own as the series progresses, however, and especially after she becomes involved in Walt's criminal enterprise. She's willing to launder money and cover up for her husband, she can't do anything to expose Walt, and she's out of options for a safe exit strategy. As the scene shows, she can only wait for the return of the very thing that motivated Walt to try his unorthodox way to safeguard his family.

The great train robbery

When Walt, Jesse, Mike, and newcomer Todd hatch a plan to steal a huge quantity of methylamine from a railroad tanker car, the episode paves the way for a good deal of fun. It follows the framework of a number of heist movies, with a risky but believable plan to steal the cargo from a train on its regular route without anyone getting hurt.

The scene ramps up the tension to the point where the audience is anxious for our anti-heroes to stage a successful theft. And you're just as relieved and thrilled as they are when they manage to do so. And then everything goes wrong.


Walt kills Mike

Walt and Mike get off on the wrong foot and stay hobbled for the ensuing episodes, although they form an uneasy partnership later in the show. As Gus's former enforcer and fixer, Mike proves himself to be a capable henchman with an unabashed soft side. In particular, he's looking out for his granddaughter and stashing away a good deal of his ill-gotten gains to go toward her future.


With the walls closing in on Walt's entire operation midway through the fifth season, Mike is one of the first people the authorities reach. It's also at that point where the conflict between Mike and Walt comes to a head, with Walt shooting Mike in a fit of anger after Mike refuses to go along with his plan to kill a number of imprisoned informants. The scene offers Walt a brief moment of remorse as he realizes how pointless his action was, and gives a tragic send-off to one of the series' most well-liked characters.

Prison attack

Throughout the first half of the last season, Walt has been scrambling to ward off pursuit by the DEA. More often than not, this has involved destroying evidence both physical and human. The biggest undertaking is also the most cold-hearted, as Walt manages to arrange the near-simultaneous murder of 10 prisoners who were part of Gus's operation and are ready to cooperate with authorities after their hush money dries up.


The old Walt, the mild-mannered chemistry teacher, died long ago; this scene just solidifies his identity as Heisenberg.

"To my other favorite W.W."

Throughout the series, Hank has overlook a number of clues to Walt's involvement in the meth ring he's investigating. From the theft of lab equipment from Walt's high school to Walt's lame excuse for deliberately causing a car accident to stop Hank from investigating the superlab's cover, there are hints of Walt's role but Hank never suspects his brother-in-law.

Walt's pride has been fortified by the success of his product and a total lack of consequences, and he's far past the point where he's just trying to make enough money to support his family. He's in it because of the power it brings, and because he thinks the success is his due. Yet when Skyler begs him to quietly retire from the trade, he concedes to her arguments. It could pass for a happy ending, and if this was still the same Walter White we met in the first season we might be glad for it; at this point in the show, we're not nearly so sure.

It's fitting that such a tiny clue, left by one of Walt's victims no less, might prove to be his undoing. That last scene offers a tantalizing clue about the flash-forward to Walt's 52nd birthday, and leaves fans antsy for the final run of episodes.

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