Thursday, July 31, 2014

The Defining Moments of Breaking Bad (Final Episodes)

My girlfriend fiance started watching Breaking Bad last year, so I was watching the earlier episodes again with her while also getting ahead on the final episodes of the series. I held off on doing a last "Defining Moments" entry to avoid ruining a plot point or two (not that she didn't accidentally get spoiled by going on the Internet at the time the series was ending) but now that we've wrapped it up I figure I can wrap this up. So here we go (check out the first two segments here and here):

White House Down

Breaking Bad does the occasional call-forwards, and these occurred quite frequently in the second season as a teaser for that season's finale. So it was pretty obvious that the first scene in the premiere of the last season was a sneak peek at how everything would end, but that glimpse was all we got until the show came back from its mid-season break for the last run of episodes.

This opener, like many in the series, relies on imagery more than dialogue. It offers a few more tantalizing hints of the show's endgame, as Walter White arrives at his house to find it abandoned, overgrown, and fenced off. He sneaks in to retrieve a vial of ricin, bringing back a plot element that had been hidden away for a season. The shock of his neighbor upon seeing him back in Albuquerque is the final confirmation that the secret is out on Walt's drug empire.

"Tread lightly"

It's a line that went as viral as "I am the one who knocks" almost immediately after it aired. Rather than following Hank's development of suspicions against Walt, in a manner similar to what he did to investigate Gus, Hank accuses Walt of being Heisenberg before the first episode is over. Walt tries to appeal for mercy, refusing to admit guilt and saying that his cancer would doom him before the DEA could convict him. Hank doesn't seem too willing to consider it, which leads to this scene:

Even though Walt's threatening advice for Hank to "tread lightly" is more bluster than anything (subsequent episodes confirm that Walt still thinks of Hank as family, and will never consider killing him to save his own skin) there's enough uncertainty over what Walt will do to make it an unnerving scene.

Walt's confession

With Hank and Marie against him and the lung cancer back in the picture, Walt almost seems ready to throw in the towel. Though his meth-making business has become a power trip over the series, the return of the disease seemingly brings his focus back to safeguarding his family's future. He knows this won't be possible if the DEA arrests him and confiscates his money.

Walt's tape puts together a not altogether unbelievable narrative, implicating Hank as the person behind his entire empire and suggesting that his brother-in-law forced him to cook meth for him. Marie is confident that it's ridiculous enough that no one will buy it, at least until Hank realizes that she unwittingly accepted drug money to pay for his recovery after he was nearly killed in the third season. It's a non-lethal way for Walt to buy enough time to escape any consequences for his actions. It's also incredibly repugnant, showing just how little Walt will regard his moral compass anymore.

Jesse's realization

The entire last run of episodes is a pretty bad time for Jesse Pinkman. He's gotten millions of dollars from his partnership with Walt, whose retirement has given him the chance he'd recently been looking for to get out of the whole business. His conscience soon gets the better of him, though, and Jesse starts trying to give away his ill-gotten gains to the people most affected by his actions, then to less meth-rich people in general. When Walt tries to convince him to leave town and start a new life instead, Jesse knows that he's trying to save his own skin more than he's looking out for his former partner. But he sees that it's still a decent way to escape his troubled past.

Another dialogue-free scene invites viewers to track Jesse's train of thought as he waits for the person who will give him a new identity. Through a few simple clues, namely his realization about the pickpocketing skills of Saul's security guard, Jesse understands that Walt was responsible for Brock's poisoning. It's the final break in Walt and Jesse's often tumultuous relationship, and Jesse is bent on revenge from this point on.

A simple misunderstanding

When Jesse finally decides to start working with Hank to give evidence against Walt, he's rightfully concerned about his safety. He's seen Walt concoct assassination schemes based around "poison from beans" and explosive-rigged wheelchairs, after all. He's not even sure if he can really trust Hank (again rightfully, given the relatively recent time that Hank beat the shit out of him and Hank's complete disdain for his witness).

So when Walt offers to meet with Jesse face to face in the middle of the day in a very public plaza, Hank and Gomez see it as a perfect opportunity to get something on Walt. Jesse simply thinks that Walt will probably try to get him out of the picture, somehow, despite how visible such a hit would be. When he sees a beefy guy hanging out near Walt, it seems like his fears are confirmed. It even looks like Walt is walking over to meet the guy after Jesse calls off the meeting...until it's revealed that this was just a random person visiting the plaza with his daughter. A simple snafu, just enough to convince Walt that Jesse really does need to die and kick off all the chaos in the remaining episodes.

Walt's arrest

Throughout the series, Jesse has grown from a gangster wannabe thug to a fairly intelligent and highly sympathetic character. He's got street smarts in the early seasons, which evolve into a thorough understanding of Walt's meth recipe in later seasons. By the final season, he's even been able to come up with inventive solutions to destroy evidence in a police locker and steal methylamine from a freight train, essentially putting his intellect on par with Walt's.

By managing to convince Walt that he's found his hidden stash of $80 million, Jesse is able to taunt Walt into making a few incriminating statements over the phone and lead Hank and Gomez to the burial site. Walt's arrest almost seems surreal, so long have we been following his exploits. Walt is so shocked to realize that he's been outwitted that he gives up without a fight, even calling off Todd's uncle Jack and his neo-Nazi gang to make sure Hank isn't caught up in the hit he's ordered on Jesse. A quiet end for a kingpin, if it had only ended so easily.

Hank and Gomez

In a decision that left every fan wishing for a time machine to fast forward a week, the episode where Walt is arrested ends in the midst of an intense shootout between Hank, Gomez, and the neo-Nazi gang. It offers the viewer a last, fleeting hope that Hank will somehow manage to get out of the situation alive. He's even still breathing when the episode "Ozymandias" starts, although Gomez has been killed.

The hope that Hank will be able to survive continues as Walt tries desperately to bargain for Hank's life, offering his entire fortune to the neo-Nazis if they'll let his brother-in-law go. It's enough to earn him a modicum of respect from Hank, but not enough to save him. It's a sudden but dignified end to one of the series' toughest, most respected characters. And as the neo-Nazis steal Walt's massive cash cache and leave him scrambling from the law, it sets into motion the final events of the series.

Knife fight

In what is easily one of Breaking Bad's most intense scenes, the White family disintegrates in minutes as a panicked Walt tries to get his family to agree to go on the run following Hank's death. A simple shot of Skyler approaching the kitchen counter, where a phone and knife rack are sitting side by side, lets us know that she is going to confront Walt by either calling the police or threatening him. She chooses the latter, not hesitating to slash Walt when he doesn't take her seriously.

The ensuing fight between Skyler and Walt is enough to leave any viewer on edge. With Walter Jr. trying to stop the confrontation and baby Holly screaming in the background, you're expecting any one of them to suffer a fatal wound at any moment.

Walt's phone call

Yes, three from the same episode. It's a really good one.

Having lost his family, his empire, and his money, Walt just flat out kidnaps Holly as the only part of his old life he's able to salvage. Once he realizes that taking an infant on the run is hardly the most responsible thing to do, Walt leaves Holly at a fire station...but not before dialing up Skyler and chewing her out in a brutal rant.

It's really quite shocking to hear Walt talk to Skyler the way he does in this scene. For all their ups and downs throughout the series, Walt has never before gone so far as call her a bitch or threaten her. It seems pretty out of character to have him attacking her with language that could practically be coming from the Skyler haters on countless Breaking Bad boards, and to some extent it's clear that he really is venting some built-up anger toward his wife. It's only when he stresses that the meth empire was his work alone that you realize his much stronger underlying motive: he knows the call is being recorded, and he knows the least he can do for Skyler is try to keep the pressure off of her.

Andrea's death

When Jesse is taken into captivity by the neo-Nazi gang after Hank and Gomez's deaths and forced to cook meth, a single picture serves as a warning to him not to try anything. It's a snapshot of Andrea and Brock, and the clear implication is that one or both of them will be harmed if Jesse steps out of line.

It's not like this is something that slips our attention. Jesse even uses a paper clip from the photo in order to MacGyver his way out of his handcuffs. But we can't help but root for him as he makes a break for it, and even cheer him on when he tells off the neo-Nazis and refuses to do any more cooking. Their subsequent execution of Andrea is nothing more than what they promised to do, but it still comes as a shocking moment. In a single sharp scene, all of Jesse's efforts to help Andrea out and protect her from harm come to grief.

"Why are you still alive?"

The character of Walter Jr. has gotten plenty of mockery over the course of the series, not so much for his disability as for his abiding love for breakfast and the general sense that he has little purpose in the narrative when compared to any other character. There were still plenty of scenes where he played an important role, though his last speaking scene is clearly the most impressive.

Throughout the series, Walt Jr. has clearly favored his father over his mother. He mostly treats his mother with scorn and looks up to Walt and Hank as his heroes, little realizing how much it annoys Walt to have to compete with his brother-in-law for his son's affection. So it's quite fitting that it takes something as extreme as Hank's death, which Walt Jr. blames on Walt, before he turns against his father. Walt Jr. is willing to talk with his father when calls from exile in New Hampshire, but as soon as Walt tries to solve yet another problem with money his son is ready to cut ties.

Baby Blue

What better way to wrap up this series' defining series than the final scene of the final episode?

To some, this was the guns a-blazing ending that Walt deserved. For others, it was a bit too much a case of Walt going out on his own terms and getting (almost) exactly what he wanted. He threatens his former colleagues Gretchen and Elliot into getting his money to his family, getting revenge for their perceived profiteering off his work, by threatening that they might be gunned down by hit men at any time if they disobey his instructions. He poisons Lydia, mows down the neo-Nazis who killed Hank, rescues Jesse, and dies on his own terms rather than in a prison cell or sickbed. Jesse just gets his freedom...and the opportunity to kill that psychopath Todd, thankfully.

In truth, it's far from a happy ending. The final episode before the mid-season break, in the scene before Hank's discovery of Walt's alter ego, comes close to offering one of these; Walt is happy and healthy and retired, never having to worry about his family or money again. Even Jesse is doing all right, free of Walt's influence and the owner of a hefty share of meth proceeds.

In the finale, everything has already collapsed into chaos. Walt knows that reconciliation with his son is impossible, that he can take more of the heat off Skyler but that she'll probably still be punished in some way, that most of his money is lost and gone forever. In one pivotal scene in the middle of the episode, a weary and disheveled Walt admits that at some point his drug business stopped being about supporting the family and started being about his own desire for money and power. Jesse drives off to live another day, but it's not like he's doing that great after several months in forced slavery and the murder of his girlfriend; plus the neo-Nazi compound might still have those videos where he admits to being part of a massive meth enterprise and murdering a few people. Who knows what his future holds?

If nothing else, the final scene of the police discovering Walt's body in a meth lab as Badfinger's "Baby Blue" plays in the background was one that left most viewers deeply satisfied. Consider that Breaking Bad was airing some of its best episodes at the same time that Dexter was careening down its precipitous slide to a dismal final scene featuring the main character as a friggin' lumberjack. There are plenty of shows with finales so disappointing that people kick themselves for even starting them; it's no small accomplishment that Breaking Bad left you wanting to start watching the entire series all over again.