October 9th, 2011
For the sake of the fact that writing an opening without spoilers feels like an impossibility at the moment, let’s throw all of this behind the fold and get to the real meat of the issue.
There is no face-off in “Face Off.” Okay, actually, that’s a lie: there is very much a face that falls off in “Face Off,” so this unexpectedly punny title is technically true provided we read into it on those terms. However, the central irony to the title is that Walt never meets Gus face-to-face, always working behind the scenes to try to catch him unawares, eventually using Hector as his vehicle and sitting comfortably in a parking lot listening on the radio that his plan and worked, and that he had “won.”
This season has been focused almost exclusively on testing the limits of our empathy for Walt, and here we have a situation where we are given plenty of evidence to suggest that we should feel somewhat terrible for rooting for this man. Provided that final shot was in fact suggesting what it seems to be suggesting, and given its position in the episode I would argue we should take it at face value, Walt poisoned Brock in order to turn Jesse against Gus and help justify want ended up being a gruesome murder of a man who had threatened to kill Walt and his family. While this is hardly a black and white situation, and I’m open to the suggestion that Walt was justified in taking action, Jesse’s final moment of uncertainty is everything I was feeling: was this, in fact, the right path to take?
This sort of moral ambiguity is nothing new for television, and any sort of anti-hero protagonist is going to raise these kinds of questions. However, what separates Breaking Bad for me in this category is how central this question is, and how much the show has left us without much else to hang onto. This may be a cliffhanger, but it is a cliffhanger born entirely out of uncertainty. Where, exactly, does the show go from here? Does Jesse just go on living his life in his mortgage-free house? Do Walt and Skyler just go back to running a car wash? Does the DEA stop searching for Heisenberg after Gus was killed and the laundromat mysteriously went up in flames on the same day? We have no answers to any of these questions, which means that the show’s premise currently consists of a man who murdered five people – and was willing to kill a sixth (Brock) and seventh (Becky, the neighbor) – in order to protect his family and his tenuous relationships to the people who have only a limited understanding of the breadth of his actions.
Now, this has been the case throughout the series, and throughout the fourth season. Walt’s secret about Jane has been hanging over the show for two seasons now, Skyler’s limited knowledge of the extent of Walt’s involvement in the meth business has been a major component of their fractured relationship this season, and the very fact that no other characters know about his situation has been a major subtext and occasional text for the show. However, all of this was wrapped around a more concrete narrative: as each season’s plot was formed, these issues had something to hang off of, emerging in particular moments of calm (like in “Fly,” for example) or chaos (like in, well, much of the back half of this season) depending on how the narrative was developing. Now, however, there really is no plot: as far as we’re concerned over the hiatus, the secrets, lies and half-truths now form the backbone of this show in a way they haven’t before.
I presume that there will be something more of a plot when the show returns, so I’m not suggesting that the show is now just floating around without a purpose. However, the lack of any sort of plot-based cliffhangers means that the question for the “off-season,” the question that we’re asking ourselves in our reviews and that will be floating around Twitter and Facebook and personal conversations in the days ahead, is based almost exclusively on the question of whether or not Walter White is someone we should root for. Yes, we’ll talk about the insane makeup work on Gus (in a bit of pulpy, almost comic book-like violence that got exactly the reaction they intended in my living room, at least), and we’ll talk about the way the season built to this point, but really we’re left with Walt as anti-hero in a way that Mad Men has never been boiled down to Don as anti-hero.
“Face Off” continued a trend that has been developing for a few episodes now, in that it really was all about Walt and Gus. Jesse was part of the story, certainly, but only as a pawn in their game, and as Hank and the rest of Walt’s family were whisked off into protective custody it really did become a one-on-one battle (even if they never actually faced off after their scene in the desert). And yes, in the end, Walt “won” the game with Jesse’s help, finding the best strategy (Brock’s poisoning) to win his allegiance and use his information about the nursing home to find the one space where Gus would be so blinded by his desire to torment Hector that he wouldn’t think about there being a bomb strapped to the wheelchair.
However, realistically, do we care about who won the game? At least personally, my allegiance here is with Jesse, who is more and more the innocent victim in this scenario. While Walt actually pulled the trigger this time around, unlike at the end of last season with Gale, it doesn’t change the fact that there is almost something even worse about seeing Jesse falling back under Walt’s spell, their father/son dynamic cemented with that handshake after the day was complete. When he looks to Walt for reassurance, asking him if they did the right thing in killing Gus, I was crushed: not because Walt’s answer of yes was wrong, given that (as noted above) I think you can justify his death, but because I knew that Jesse saw Walt’s answer as the authoritative one in this situation. I find Walt’s descent into immorality enormously compelling, whether or not I’m rooting for him or not, but his control over Jesse is an infuriating (and thus compelling in its own way) byproduct of that descent. And, on some level, I wonder if Jesse wouldn’t have been better off if Gus hadn’t won the war: Walt might have died, Jesse might have been the only one who could make the formula, and he could have gone on with a life of cooking meth and spending time with Brock and Angela.
He can do that now, perhaps, but what happens when Walt wants to make his next move? In the absence of Gus, isn’t Walt the villain of this story now? Walt’s perception of his war with Gus was that it was hero versus villain, but if Jesse is the hero of Breaking Bad (which, to my mind, he is) then Walt was simply fighting to supplant Gus as the source of chaos and instability. He is now the greatest threat to Jesse, and Skyler, and Walt Jr., and Hank, and Marie, and Holly, and everyone else who might operate in this universe. The show suddenly has a blank slate, a “fresh start” on which to build the final two seasons of eight episodes a piece, but Walt has built a reputation that will become pretty much the only major “plot” to carry over onto next season intact, and it’s a plot that suggests the days of rooting for Walter White might be gone for good.
Admittedly, “evaluating” the season seems like a moot point, given the critical echo chamber that has emerged around the show. I could quibble with the logics of Walt: Bomb Maker and his ability to rig it to operate both via remote and through the bell’s vibrations on such short notice, and I could lament that a number of side stories (like, for example, Ted’s death) were left untouched by the final few episodes as Walt and Gus’ war took over. Similarly, the marginalization of the supporting players (like Mike, who is apparently still recovering in Mexico) was an unfortunate (if purposeful and effective) side effect of the nature of the finale, and I’m not sure how some of that will fit into the show’s new status quo.
However, it feels like Breaking Bad is being judged based on that premium drama standard of whether or not we were “satisfied” by the season and by the finale, as opposed to picking apart little details. As the culmination of the season’s story arcs, and as an hour of television, “Face Off” was indeed satisfying, visceral and suspenseful without relying on surprise or twists. It forced us to live vicariously through characters who were doing terrible things, like Walt sitting waiting to see if Becky was about to meet her untimely death in his place as she went through his front door. As much as we might be disgusted by his willingness to sacrifice her, we end up feeling as though we’re the ones on the other side of the binoculars. Whatever our opinion might be about Walt, and whether or not we’re rooting for him to succeed or fail, we are nonetheless tied to his fate, and tied to the show that has now more than ever become a show about how far Walt is willing to go.
And regardless of the fact that I kind of wish Walt had been the one to sacrifice himself to end Gus’ life, I can’t lie and say that Breaking Bad isn’t a better show for his continued existence.
- The promo at the end of the episode suggested the show will be returning next summer, although the timing should be interesting. If they actually only air eight episodes next summer, they then have three choices: air the rest in the Fall (which would be more like a basic cable “season” split by a short two-month break), air the rest in Spring (where it would still be eligible for the same Emmy year as the initial eight episodes), or air the rest the following summer (which would allowed them to stretch all the way to the 2014 Emmys). I have a feeling that the latter might be pushing it, though, so expect one of the first two options.
- Speaking of Emmys, Cranston is basically a lock at this point unless Dustin Hoffman proves too big a star to ignore, but I think the finale definitely cemented Giancarlo Esposito as the frontrunner in Supporting Actor over Aaron Paul. Deaths have a way of doing that with characters, admittedly, but he was really elevated by his prominent role in the finale and that image of his death will be in voters’ minds even next June when they start voting (and when it’s possible the show will have started airing).
- While I haven’t had time to write reviews of every episode this season, I want to thank those of you who have been commenting – it became enough of a regular collection of comments that I almost though about putting up discussion posts before not wanting to seem too presumptive. It was humbling to know that some of you view this as a place to have intelligent conversations about the series, and I look forward to more conversations to come when the show returns next year.