[Check out Noel Murray's spoiler-filled conversation with Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan here.—ed.]
People living through a golden age often don't know it. Extraordinary flowerings of art, technology, culture, or knowledge are obscured by intractable problems, crises, declines in other parts of the society. I try to remind my students frequently that they find themselves providentially at the very best time in all of history to be a student — the exact moment when knowledge is most plentiful and accessible, and when the wisdom it can engender is most urgently needed. But I don't know if they understand or believe me.
It's easy to look at television, with its 500 channels worth of endless crappy versions of the same empty ideas, and conclude that everything's gone to shit. I have plenty of friends who are proud to proclaim the dreary, inevitable decline of entertainment, and answer my protests to the contrary with assertions that searching for the few worthwhile nuggets in that morass is a pointless waste of their time. Ironically, this pronouncement coincides with the greatest flowering of televised drama and comedy in the medium's history. Freed by the proliferation of basic cable channels with a yen for signature programming, emboldened by the example of HBO, bolstered by fanatic followings and critical praise, the best television ever is on the air right now, in this decade. Throw in the DVR, the essential cure for the channel-surfing that hollows out the soul with its endless evidence of the wasteland, and suddenly your eyes are refocused above muck-level, where a profusion of flowers blooms.
Tonight's finale should cement this season of Breaking Bad as one of television's finest dramatic accomplishments. And what makes it so exciting — what makes the recognition of the current golden age so pressing — is that the season has not been, as Noel put it in another context, "television good." The heart-in-the-throat quality of this season comes as much from the writers' exhilarating disregard for television conventions as from the events portrayed. Every cliffhanger produced anticipation that often as not was subverted by having what came after timed at a jagged off-angle from the shape we've internalized as expectation.
I could name a half-dozen examples from the past twelve episodes. But the whiplash shift in "Full Measure" — from the final imagery in "Half Measures" to Jesse's conscience, Walter's pragmatism turned craven begging for his life, and Gale's final definition as collateral damage — is as fine a demonstration of that mastery as you could wish. Just look what the creators have done to us. Last week, commenters were celebrating the return of Heisenberg, aka Walter in ass-kicking gangland mode, as signaled by the porkpie hat visible in the preview. Tonight Walter put on that hat, but he did not become what we thought he would become. His ass-kicking is tortured self-interest, his plan devolves into a heartbreaking offer (even though it's a last-ditch ploy) to give up the surrogate son he'd just risked everything, and the ploy itself requires that son to amputate the scraps of humanity he'd fought so hard to repair — all to save his own skin. Life seemingly has become that precious to Walter; a man whose death sentence in Season 1 freed him from social convention now demands the sacrifice of a man who's merely in the way, and more damningly, of the moral code of someone he cares about, so he can merely live.
It makes a lopsided sort of sense in Walter's mind. I saved you, you save me. But the costs seem far out of whack. The two protagonists have reversed places since the beginning of the season, when Jesse's sober self-identification was "I'm a criminal" and Walter made an abortive attempt at getting out of the life. Now Walter seems to feel that he might as well embrace being a killer, having committed vehicular and handgun homicide for Jesse's sake, and that it's not too much to ask that Jesse do the same. But could anyone outside the situation endorse the moral equivalence at work here? Or conversely, has Walter become Fring-like in his willingness to swap out lives to keep his construct afloat? As Fring overwhelms Gale's moral sensibility with the unexpected, intimate force of his company — showing up on his doorstep in a salmon-colored sweater, taking him seemingly into his confidence, asking with his usual delicacy: "If push came to shove, I was wondering how soon you might be able to take over the lab yourself?" — so Walter tries to overwhelm Jesse with an appeal to their partnership ("When it comes down to you and me versus him, I'm sorry, I'm truly sorry, but it's going to be him") and to Jesse's indebtedness ("I saved your life, Jesse, are you going to save mine?").
And what could be more unexpectedly enriching to this horrific and twisted equationeering than the emergence, continued from last week, of Mike the Cleaner as an alternative moral example? He's a killer, he's pragmatic, but he's neither Gus nor Walter. He expects the worst out of people, but seems in doing so to affirm their humanity. They're not going to surprise him, but that's exactly why he's kin to them. The little drama that plays out in the warehouse where Mike rescues Fring's middleman Chou from the cartel gangsters, enlivens the episode with humor but also with a sense of Mike's approach to his job. He has embraced it, but it does not limit his identity, it seems. He still has some choices even as he carries out his orders; he uses those choices to try to steer his charges back onto a safer path, as he sees it. Chou is punished for his double-dealing, but not exterminated; Mike doesn't even seem to be referring to the well-known stereotype when he asks Chou how well his Chinese secretary drives ("She has a Camry!" Chou replies, as if that says it all.) Mike's experience tells him what people will do, what their nature compels them to do; but he doesn't take their confirmation of his instincts to heart. And when he stands ready to kill Walter only to be tricked and rendered helpless by his target's desperate ploy, it seems as if we're watching another fall.
Because this entire season has been about control. To witness Mike the Cleaner lose control of the situation — that tilts our world on its axis, and breaks our heart just a little bit. Walter has not been clawing his way back into righteousness after his stunning and destructive sin of omission last season; he's been watching on the sidelines as others took control of the world he made. Now that he has finally acted with decisiveness, we can see that what motivates him is not right and wrong, but simply mastery of his own fate … and, tragically, of the fates of others. As packed with stunning images as these last few episodes have been, from Walter clinging to Jesse's rickety chair tower in "Fly" to Jesse's shaking hands and brimming eyes as he faces down Gale, I'm most moved by the framing device from the cold open as the camera pans around the empty house, matched by the same shot in the present day, then cut to a lingering close-up of Holly's grasping, reflex-driven plump little baby arm rising, grasping, falling, and finally latching on to Walter's glasses, as she nurses. It's absolutely real, for one thing; I've watched my children do the same thing hundreds of times in their infancies. And it's the sweetness that Walter seeks security to preserve — security through control, security through sovereignty. Jesse has to become a killer so that Holly is never touched by violence. That's so far from the equation that set Walter off down this road in Season 1 that it seems like we've substituted completely different elements now. Yet Walter still thinks he's playing by the same unchangeable, fundamental rules. Breaking Bad has taken his insights and delusions to places we never could have seen coming. And while we anticipate seeing him to his end, let's not forget how lucky we are to be in the audience.
- Lest anyone be fooled by the minute dolly right as Jesse holds the gun on Gale: Vince Gilligan, in his interview with Noel being posted simultaneously with this review, insists it was not meant to make the scene ambiguous. Jesse shot Gale.
- Just announced an hour before the finale aired: Breaking Bad has been renewed for a fourth season.
- Many critics have been convinced of Breaking Bad's greatness since Season 1. But it's instructive to read the Chicago Tribune's Maureen Ryan record her journey from self-professed Not Getting It (and feeling guilty about it) to the beginnings of admiration (with the turning point, interestingly enough, at Walter and Gale's first-day-in-the-meth-lab montage in "Sunset"). Her project of re-evaluating Season 3 ends with the finale tonight.
- How did Skyler convince Walter to buy that ranch house? When the cold open flashback ends, he's dismissing the idea of buying a three-bedroom starter place. "Why be cautious? We've got nowhere to go but up."
- You commenters should be proud of yourselves. I thought y'all were crazy talking about whether Fring had ordered the hit on Tomas. I still don't think for a second that he did, but the fact that Walter throws the possibility in his face — "Maybe Jesse thought it was you who gave the order" — confirms that it was a sharp observation.
- That business with Chou moving his raised hands up and down to signal to Mike where to shoot through the wall to splatter the last cartel thug — a gorgeous piece of black comedy.
- Gale, we hardly knew ye: Apparently you liked early twentieth century patter songs, Stephen King, and Marxism/Leninism.
- How "Full Measure" manages to squeeze some wonderful Saul business into its jam-packed program of awesomeness blows my mind. "Jesse Pinkman in the phone book Jesse Pinkman? Hmmm, I wonder how one would track him down." By the way, Dillwyn, Virginia is a town of 500 in Buckingham County (hence the name of the trailer court). Also: Staples, for all your hired-killer misdirection needs. Staples — yeah, we've got that.
- "That's like Thomas Magnum threatening the little prissy guy with the mustache. I am seriously rethinking my pricing, and that goes double for you, hip-hop."
- "The only thing saving me is Gale's fastidiousness."
- "Never the DEA."
- "We consider this a lone hiccup in what is otherwise a long and fruitful business arrangement. I prefer Option B."