June 13th, 2010
“We had a good run…but it’s over.”
When I sat down at about 3:00 am last night to watch the Breaking Bad finale after arriving home from my trip to Madison, I discovered that AMC was showing “Shut the Door. Have a Seat,” Mad Men’s third season finale. It took me a good ten minutes before I managed to turn on my recording of “Full Measure.” There is something exhilarating about that finale, something immensely pleasurable as lingering storylines that were sort of floating their way through the season (Lane’s dissatisfaction, Joan’s marginalization, etc.) become wrapped up in an unforgettable heist narrative which launches the show in a fascinating new direction.
And as I sit down the next day to consider “Full Measure,” I can’t help but make some comparisons, although less in terms of quality (both are great, we don’t need to qualify which is “better”) and more in terms of structure. “Full Measure” is similar to “Shut the Door…” in that it shows our protagonists struggling to respond to a new set of circumstances which threaten them in some capacity, but the world of Mad Men values creativity first and foremost, something which Breaking Bad tends to oppress (as we see with Jesse as the paralyzed artist figure, his youthful drawings or woodcraft projects signs of wasted potential). So while Don and Co. got out of their situation with some creative thinking, and the series found its finale in contrasting the creation of a new direction while simultaneously dissolving another, Walt and Jesse solve their circumstances with a cold dose of reality, and the series finds its finale in doing as it has always done: following through on the social, psychological, and monumental consequences of going down this dangerous path.
The result is a fairly simple tragedy with less than simple ramifications, as “Full Measure” uses the show’s trademark tension to cap off a stunning season of television which went on a run that is most certainly not over as the series heads towards its fourth season with an obnoxious amount of momentum.
I don’t know if I’m going to have a great deal to say about “Full Measure,” as in some ways nothing we saw here was that surprising from a narrative perspective. When Walt ran over Gus’ dealers last week, we immediately knew that he would have to talk his way out of the situation, and so it’s not as if this is a sudden development (which was the case with the Mad Men finale, to engage with the comparison once more) or in some way unexpected. With Breaking Bad, we’ve come to understand the fact that Walt is going to find himself in these situations, and so we always sort of expect that there will be some sort of intervention which will allow them to escape. For example, in “Sunset,” Walt and Jesse use Hank’s love for Marie in order to destroy the RV without any consequences, while back in the second season Hank’s sudden arrival at Tuco’s allows them to escape the situation without having to finish the job themselves. Plus, while Walt is unquestionably responsible for Jane’s death, her heavy drug use and the unintended consequence of moving her body ultimately saved Walt the trouble of killing her had she become a further liability (as seemed to be possible before her death, as she more or less blackmailed him). Throw in Jesse escaping the hostage-taking situation with the junkies when they turn on one another, and you see that situations which could have resulted in murder or “full measures” were mitigated by other factors.
But this time around, “Full Measure” is about having to do it yourself: there isn’t someone else who might be able to kill Gale so that Walt doesn’t have to go through with it, and so in many ways this episode is far more simple than any we’ve seen before. There are no coincidences which come together to solve a situation, nor is there a web of connections that brings to light important revelations: Gus wants to kill Walt, and Walt needs to kill Gale to keep that from happening. The episode spent absolutely no time with Hank and Marie, we never saw Walt Jr., and Skyler didn’t get a single line of dialogue: instead, it was a journey through the two sides of this conflict, as Gus (with the help of Mike) works to rid his business of its weaknesses (including Walt and the Cartel’s attempts at revenge) and Walt looks to remain valuable to the man who wants to kill him. It’s a game of cat and cat: while it takes quite some time for everyone to get to the point where they’re willing to openly discuss the situation at hand, there is never a point where Gus intends on allowing Walt to live, and there is never a point where Walt believes his life is secure.
And so the show throws ambiguity out the window and immerses itself in the tension of the situation. After the opening irony of Walt’s “we’ve got nowhere to go but up” comment (which became almost immediately ironic considering that they did, in fact, purchase the starter home), we get Walt sitting in his car, staring at the horizon. And then we get Walt slowly walking towards Mike. We spend nearly as much time on the waiting and the walking than we do with their tense conversation, because in some ways those moments before and after are the most difficult to handle. In the conversation, Walt is confident to the point where even Mike smiles at how Walt tries to remain pragmatic in the situation (albeit knowing that Gus prefers the first option); however, beforehand he puts on the Heisenberg hat as an attempt to build himself up for that moment. Once he’s in that moment, though, his fear more or less subsides: even later, as he is brought to the laundromat in order to be executed, his emotional breakdown is cool and calculated in an effort to get a phone call to Jesse, his desperation (and fear) channeled into a smart move that could well save his life (and he didn’t even need his hat).
However, Jesse is not Walt. Jesse is not handling the tension of the situation as well, his emotions bubbling to the surface and confirming in the sober light of day that he is not a murderer, and he just wants them to go to the cops and get it over with. Jesse isn’t arguing for what’s simple, he’s arguing for what keeps them from having to murder someone; Witness Protection would be a life that Walt would not enjoy, both because of how it would shatter his family (Hank and Marie, Walt Jr., his daughter’s future) and because it would mean that he could no longer put on his hat and be a badass drug kingpin. Walt doesn’t want to lose out on this, and beneath his fear lies adrenaline. For Jesse, fear is fear, and his response to the tension he experiences is to look towards Meth as an escape, the escape it was when Combo died and the escape it was last week when Tomas was shot and killed. Jesse, like Walt, is interrupted before he can “put on his hat,” and so Jesse drives to Gale’s apartment with a gun and without having smoked a bowl. But unlike Walt, who remained fairly collected and coherent when in a tense situation, you see the absolutely pain in Jesse’s face as he holds the gun towards poor, innocent Gale. That he fires (an ambiguity was unintentional) is the greatest tragedy of all, as you can see that Jesse unlike Walt can’t handle what pulling the trigger is going to do to him.
However, Breaking Bad is more than capable of handling it, and Vince Gilligan crafted (both on the page and on the screen in his role as Writer/Director) a really stunning piece of television to close off the season. With stellar performances from all parties involved (Cranston, Paul, Esposito, Banks, Odenkirk, Costible), the episode is a series of scenes which effortlessly lay the groundwork for what’s to come. I was surprised that we saw so little of Walt’s home life, but the shot of Walt sitting with his daughter which mirrored the same pan as the flashback scene was just superbly done, and captured what was at stake without words or melodrama. The same goes with Mike’s invasion of the chemical facility, the sincerity of his time with his granddaughter so wonderfully contrasting with the brutality of his raid on the chemical facility overtaken by the Cartel. The raid is one of those scenes that, not unlike the conclusion of “One Minute,” threatens to feel like an interlude into an action series, and yet the setpiece still feels distinctly part of this series. Jonathan Banks has been doing solid work all season, but that scene was just absolutely fantastic, from the choreographed headshot on the final victim to the “she’s doing to need her shoe” comic conclusion. Sometimes this show is dark and shocking, but in other moments it is “awesome,” which is perhaps why the Mad Men finale comes to mind so readily.
And yet, even with those awesome moments, the show doesn’t ignore the complex web of relationships we’ve seen thus far. I loved Walt’s rationale for trying to convince Gus to forget about Pinkman (which we would later learn to be a lie, as Jesse never left town), as it indicated the central fallacy of the episode’s simplicity. Nobody forgets in this world, least of all the series itself: the complex seriality of the series means that there is no chance that someone could just be forgotten, whether it’s Combo or Jane’s deaths or Hank’s experience in Mexico. The literal flashback which opened the episode is only a more simple manifestation of the constant flashbacks these characters tend to experience, highlighting all of the various elements of Walt’s past (his former employment, his desire for a bigger family, his optimism) which would eventually become complicated. The ironies in that scene are not quite that simple, however: their desire for a larger family was not only complicated by Walt’s new financial situation (high school teacher vs. groundbreaking researcher) but by Walt Jr.’s cerebral palsy, a circumstance no one could prepare for and which has nothing to do with actions or consequences. Sometimes fate simply intervenes, and its impact is often unforgettable; with this series, those moments of fate converge with moments of human action, and the result is a situation that can never truly be moved past. And while I wonder how long Walt and Jesse can survive in this environment, the show very clearly knows how to tap into that complexity to create some really stunning television.
“Full Measure” isn’t a particularly shocking episode until its final seconds, but even then I didn’t find myself responding as I had last week when Walt ran down those dealers: rather than blowing us away with such sudden moments of action, Breaking Bad is about seeing true selves emerge. We discover that Saul Goodman, for all of his double-crossing ways, is loyal to Walt and Jesse, joining them in their fight against Mike albeit while scared out of his wits and demanding a higher cut. We see that Gale is a normal human being who chooses his own life over Walt’s, which makes his death somewhat justified (in that he was not wholly innocent) but also makes it that much harder, as he in some ways was brought into this situation by Gus much as Walt brought Jesse into the fold. And just as Gus asks Gale to do something which he knows will weigh on his conscience, Walt asks Jesse to murder Gale in order to save their lives. In some ways the situations have different stakes (Gus is killing Walt to protect his business, Walt is killing Gale to save his life – however, you could argue Walt is protecting his business considering he refuses to go into witness protection, so it’s not black and white by any means), but in both cases we see Gale and Jesse for who they really are, which relies less on surprise and more on compelling character drama.
Breaking Bad’s third season has been at once loose and tight, carefully constructed in terms of psychologically investigating the characters while remaining spontaneous and unpredictable. What works about that is that the show rarely ever feels like it is forcing the action to be unpredictable: while occasionally the series feels too coincidental (Jesse shacking up with Tomas’ mother was one such example), at most times it simply feels like these character are simply unpredictable in their nature. You never quite know what to expect from Saul, or Mike, or Gus, or any of the people who Walt and Jesse have surrounded themselves with, and we also don’t quite know what to expect from Walt and Jesse. However, the third season has made their particular roles quite clear: while Jesse started the season self-defining as a bad guy and Walt was devoted to living an enlightened life in order to rescue his marriage, by the end of the season their self-definitions were reversed. And so the great tragedy is that Walt, comfortable with his descent into murder, is forced to drag Jesse, completely uncomfortable with that past as he has been from the very beginning, into the fray. It wasn’t a shocking twist, and it didn’t pay off the big secret which stands between them, but it does unquestionably provide another unforgettable moment which will, to varying degrees, haunt the entire series for as long as it runs.
Which, hopefully, will be for at least a few more years.
- Some absolutely fantastic direction here, featuring a larger number of really evocative shots: while “Fly” used techniques to increase the sense of environmental isolation so important to the episode, here the aesthetics felt more purposeful from a character perspective, like the parallel tracking shots of the house or Walt focusing in on his newly cracked windshield (which was a recurring theme this season).
- I love the idea that Walt’s cancer, which was his justification for getting into the drug game, has now become an easy way for Gus to be able to kill him (as it could be rigged to seem like a complication, and used in order to get Gale in line to replace him without feeling quite as guilty as he might have).
- Not sure if this was meant to be meaningful, but I enjoyed the firestarter in the fireplace in the opening sequence: the show has long been past the point where it needs much more than a spark and some spare sheets of newspaper, so the idea of a firestarter made me chuckle a bit.
- One unfortunate consequence of the finale: no chance of Dean Norris grabbing an Emmy nomination. His absence in the finale is crippling, as there isn’t even any residual connections with “One Minute” or anything to be found. I hope I’m wrong, but consider that my gut feeling after the season comes to a close.
- For more on the finale, check out reviews from Alan Sepinwall, James Poniewozik, Todd VanDerWerff, and Donna Bowman, as well as post-mortem interviews from Sepinwall, James Hibberd, and Noel Murray (which intriguingly indicate that the storytelling for the series really was quite loose, largely unplanned). Special mention, though, goes to Maureen Ryan, who did a number of posts over the weekend as she caught up on the third season after having given up on the series – she came around eventually, and also did a review of the finale.