Season Finale: Breaking Bad – “Face Off”

“Face Off”

October 9th, 2011

“I won.”

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.

Cultural Observations

  • 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.
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16 Comments

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16 responses to “Season Finale: Breaking Bad – “Face Off”

  1. One thing from an Albuquerque resident. That shot where Walt looked up at the orange sun obscured by haze, when he and Jesse were on top of the parking garage?

    That was from when Albuquerque was covered in smoke from a forest fire in Arizona in June. Everything smelled like woodsmoke and looked almost foggy for days. It seems almost fitting that it happened for that shot when we realize that Walt is at his darkest — so far.

    I can’t imagine any TV show using a city better than Breaking Bad does Albuquerque. For example, they use a real TV station that Hank and company are watching about the news of the explosion and a real radio station and real DJ for Walt to listen to while in the car. And it was the same radio station that was on when Skyler moved Walt’s Aztek from the driveway earlier in the season. Consistency.

    I can’t wait to see what Gilligan and crew have for the last 16 episodes.

    • Nick

      I remember that. I was teaching tennis at the Tennis Club of Albuquerque and we literally had to cancel lessons because there was so much smoke in the air

  2. I would be very interested to know who you consider the five people murdered by Walt to be. I am assuming you mean Emilio and Krazy 8, Jane, and the two drug dealers in Half Measures. I think you have to include the two security guys near the end of this finale (making seven that died directly by Walt’s hand). I would include Gus, Tyrus, and Gale in the death toll, though when you go down that path the deaths really start to pile up, as Tuco, Hector, all the passengers of the 737, Victor, and arguably even Don Eladio and his capos (who Gus was able to get so close to because he had a product – Walt’s meth – that they wanted) would still be alive if not for Walt’s decision in the pilot. Following this line of thought really drives home your point about how Walt is the villain of the story at this point and perhaps became so long ago.

  3. Some insightful analysis Myles. This season deserves more than an Emmy, it deserves an f@#king Oscar!

  4. belinda

    “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. ”

    Yup. It was a crushing, crushing scene. Especially since I didn’t entertain the idea that Walt was behind the poisoning in the prior episode (or even during this episode) until Walt asked Jesse, “I don’t understand. Then what was it?” – and then it sunk in….and the rest of that scene was just feeling this soul crushing realization of who this man shaking hands with Jesse is. That handshake was an empty gesture of a partnership that’s no longer there, and it is crushing.

    • belinda

      (contd)

      “In the absence of Gus, isn’t Walt the villain of this story now? ”
      I think yes. Though, technically, Walt isn’t Walt anymore; The moment he set this plan in motion, he wasn’t Walter White anymore. Walter White was the man, and Heisenberg was the facade; now Heisenberg is the man, and Walter White’s the facade, if that makes any sense.

  5. Just finished the finale. Pretty mindblowing (for Gus, anyway). I’m really interested in the new homeostasis for the series. Under what circumstances does Walt take over Gus’s operations (whats left of them. But doesn’t he have to?). Does Gus’s Bolivian past factor into future events? Spitballing here.

    Im still processing it, but I’m not sure I liked the shot with Gus’s face off. I’ll watch it again, but it really took me out of the moment. But then again, The Walking Dead starts up soon, right? I guess I can understand AMC sneaking in a promo… ;)

    I’ve really enjoyed your write ups for this season. I even accidentally complimented someone else on twitter for your work. So, let me direct it the right way, good work. I’ll be coming back here for the next season, whenever that happens to be.

  6. Geoff

    Ted’s status is mildly ambivalent; there’s enough wiggle-room left for Vince and company to bring him back in some shape or form next season. One thing Breaking Bad hasn’t done is leave unanswered questions, not that I can recall…

    If any show has earned the right to use “fictional license” re: setting up the bomb in time, explaining how Walt’s timeline worked in getting Brock poisoned, etc. then this is that show. No need to nitpick too much here…

  7. M

    Ted’s death: i guessed wrong on that one. during his last conversation with skyler, i honestly thought ted was wearing a wire.

    i thought the punchline to his death would be that the IRS had evidence that skyler had been involved in numerous legal violations…that ted had gone to them, once skyler had opened up to him about walt’s “gambling” and money laundering, in order to protect himself from further prosecution. and that, with his sudden death, it would further open up skyler to suspicion, investigation.

    i was thinking that the episode after his death, you would see some IRS agent listening to a recording of ted’s conversation with skyler…and that the agent would discuss his death with colleagues.

    anyway. me, overthinking what was likely an inconsequential story line. i do that.

    i did suspect that walt poisoned the kid…you could see the wheels turning in his mind during the previous episode, and the way he turned jessee against gus, i thought it was suspicious…also, i think they’ve slowly brought him to the point that, without second thought, he would poison a child, just to save himself. anyway, i agree with what you say in the post, that walt is now the villain of the piece. much, much fun to watch the way they’ve engineered that, it’s been a fun/evil season.

  8. John

    Good analysis, though I think that Aaron Paul is still the favorite over Giancarlo Esposito. As good as Esposito was, Paul is still (sort of) a defending champ, and he was just as good this year as he was last year. Either Problem Dog or End Times would be a worthy submission episode for him, and I have a hard time seeing someone from his own show beating him. Defending champ Peter Dinklage might have a shot, assuming he submits in the supporting category instead of the lead category (if Season 2 of Game of Thrones follows the second book closely, Tyrion should be the main character, though Dinklage has no shot of beating Cranston), but I still think Paul will take it. Also, Breaking Bad better finally win its Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series. Mad Men winning last time was a travesty.

  9. Scott Ellington

    Breaking news from Vulture:

    http://nymag.com/daily/entertainment/2011/10/watch_a_video_very_thoroughly.html?mid=377382&rid=422655256

    Watch a Video Very Thoroughly Predicting Breaking Bad’s Surprise Plot Twist

    Last week, before having seen the Breaking Bad finale, the very clever jcham979 spotted and explained the finale’s big twist, based on the penultimate episode. Obviously, spoilers, but very helpful for anyone wondering how Walt got his hands on Jesse’s cigarettes.

    Also posted at YouTube:

  10. Great review-thank you!. I, having watched the show from the beginning, was not surprised by the shot of Gus and his missing face—this show has been dissolving bodies in acid since season 1. I thought it very appropriate that Gus would straighten his tie in his dying moments–polished and composed until the literal end. Fun fact: Becky the neighbor/potential (latest)sacrificial lamb was played by Vince Gilligan’s mother. Fun for the whole family! Can’t wait to see where we’re going next–I have a feeling the final season will be about Walt’s comeuppance—for all of the focus on reflection(s) and perspective this season, I have a feeling that all our majors players will be reflecting and have a change of perspective when it comes to the “end game” of the series.

  11. Pingback: Catch Up on Breaking Bad Season Four | Tired and Bored With Myself

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