Before I start this review, I'd probably better take a moment to get some legal stuff out of the way: all the publicity photos and screenshots contained within this review, as with all other reviews on this blog, are the property of their respective owners, in this case probably some combination of Vince Gilligan, AMC, and Sony Pictures Television. I make no money from this site - it's purely a hobby (and a passion) - and their use is solely for educational, illustrative purposes.
I think the reason it's taken me so long to get around to this - indeed to even think of doing this - is, as with many fans, the feeling of proprietariness I have surrounding Breaking Bad. As I've stated before and will again for good measure, I have no ownership of the show or anything surrounding it, yet I've spent so much time watching it, analyzing it, that it's easy to forget that this is someone else's kid (and there the metaphor becomes creepy).
Over the course of the past five years, we've been lucky enough to get to watch Walter White in his transformation from nebbish to supervillain. A lot of time and effort have gone into making Breaking Bad the phenomenon it is, and, while this is far from an act of charity - studios turn a profit, creatives make their livelihoods - safe to say that we, the viewing public, in the US and abroad, have been the beneficiaries of some great TV, now entering its final few hours.
Taking us past the midpoint of this half season, "To'Hajiilee" starts with a classic Breaking Bad cold open and a classic (if somewhat overused) POV shot. We look up from the base of a tray at Todd, Lydia, Uncle Jack, and Kenny look down as the glutinous, non-solid crystal meth spreads across it. With their talk of 50lb batches and the new cooking environment, this is clearly a step up from the subterranean bunker back in S05E10, what seems an age ago.
Even so, Uncle Jack refuses to wear his mask, despite Todd's repetition of Mr. White's advice (as with Jesse always "Mr. White", never "Walt" or "Walter"). Todd is trying to be a professional, living by what he's learned; all Uncle Jack wants to do, meanwhile, is smoke a cigarette. Meanwhile, though the yield's up to 76% - Todd's personal best - the distinctive blue color has disappeared, which has Lydia worried: "blue, it's our brand".
Todd, in some ways, is more of a successor to Gus than to Walt: with his quiet, unassuming manner, his unfailing politeness. Given this is the second cold open to feature him in the last five episodes, it's clear he has his role to play in Breaking Bad's denouement. His compatriots, meanwhile - the Aryans - might be killers, but they're not chemists: all Uncle Jack wants to do is make some money; he could care less about Lydia's marketing concerns or Todd's scientific pride.
In bringing tea to perennial cold fish Lydia, Todd seems almost likeable, meek and eager to please. He apologizes for having cooked the color out of the meth, even offers to remake her the tea. Underneath Todd's earnest need to please, however, is a subtle insidiousness: rolling his chair over and placing a hand on Lydia's arm when he suggests using his uncle to "smooth things over" with the Czech buyers, an understated offer of intimidation or violence.
Lydia seems somewhat put-off by the whole thing, then again she does by everything (Laura Fraser's performance is one of the few in the whole show that doesn't entirely captivate or convince me). When she tells Todd she believes in him, that he means a lot to her, it's obvious that, as with Walt and Jesse, she's manipulating him. Unlike with Walt's paternal approach, though, there's no genuine sentiment behind Lydia's praise.
It's only once they exit the building together that you realize that, despite the step up, Todd and Lydia are still operating out of a barn in the middle of nowhere. Just as Todd can't match the standards set by Walt, working out of a converted barn can't compete with Gus' superlab. One way or another, Lydia's ambitions are bound to fail. Desperate and penned in by demands from Eastern Europe and a new alliance with the Nazis, she might be the only character more doomed than Walt.
As Lydia departs, Todd runs his thumb along the lipstick mark she's left on the cup. There's something more curious than sexual to the gesture. If his killing a kid back S05E05 didn't clinch it, these are slightly less overt signs that Todd is a sociopath. As his ringtone ("Science!") suggests, Todd is a darker reflection of Jesse, better-mannered, less humane. For all his niceties, Todd's lack of reaction when Walt names his target - the other side of last week's concluding phone call - says it all.
Breaking Bad is very good at making quiet moments arresting. A shot of Hank framed in the blue sky between two overpasses, another longer, thirteen-second shot of Gomie's car pulling under a bridge carries a lot of weight. Unlike The Wire or The Sopranos a key component of Breaking Bad lies in its simplicity, its pace: in this instance, George Mastras' script and Michelle MacLaren's script contribute perfectly to the season's slow build and shocking, sudden developments.
After last week's fiasco, Gomie is ready to hand Jesse over to the marshals, but "Timmy Dipshit" (as he's endearingly nicknamed Jesse) has a plan. Jesse's talk of hitting Walt where he really lives referred, it seems, not to Walt's family but his money. As he's said, Walt's done in the meth business and, though his claim that Walt's too clever to leave evidence around rings somewhat untrue - Leaves of Grass anyone? - Jesse's right in saying the one thing Walt can't dispose of are his crime's proceeds.
There's yet another level of irony to the thought that, after all his struggle to earn it, after all the terrible things he's done, it may be Walt's money that finally brings him down. Jesse, meanwhile, who's rejected his financial legacy, is beginning to look more and more like a narc, a real part of Team Hank. Hank, meanwhile, is throwing bloody meat on the floor in furtherance of their plan to uncover Walt's cache. It seems they've snatched up a potential lead.
That potential lead, as it transpires, is Huell, good, old, reliable, rambunctious Huell. With Huell having always been Saul's bodyguard, his gopher, a figure of fun, it's disconcerting watching him suddenly become such an important figure. After all, he's one of only about five people with any remaining connection to Walt's money laundering, plus, after his involvement in Brock's poisoning, it's reasonable to assume Jesse hates him, too.
Despite Huell's "nice" poker face and knowledge that he can ostensibly leave whenever he wants, Huell's quick to crumble when confronted with the apparent knowledge that Walt is planning to have him killed as part of a scheme to tie up loose ends. That, along with a photo of Jesse with some raw meat posing as his newly vacated brains, is enough to provoke Huell into a panicked confession. As Kuby pointed out in "Buried", Walter White is a man to fear.
In the place of five minutes, Hank and Gomie go from having zero to knowing about the barrels full of money, the rental van, a trip to the desert, all because they played it smart. Strangely, though, I found myself not wanting them to know: I've been invested in Walt as a character for so long now that, despite knowing that he deserves punishment, I almost want him to get away with it. Walt might be an unlikeable protagonist, but he's the only one we've had all the way through the series.
Remembering the Walt buried the money where he and Jesse first cooked started me wondering if that would be enough for Hank and Co. to track it down, if, in another stroke of irony, it would be Walt's sentimentality as opposed to his ruthlessness that ultimately brings him down. After all, he kept the book that Gale Boetticher gave him, despite it availing Walt nothing to do so (and his having had the gift-giver murdered in cold blood).
I wasn't sure I quite bought Huell's breakdown, as quickly as it took to happen. Hank's good cop routine and his claim that Saul held out on having Huell killed for "about fifteen seconds" just about ring true, but Huell knew that Jesse being killed was a possibility and, despite the legend Walt's built up around him, has no real reason to trust the cops. Then again, as his exclamation about not having known about Brock suggests, Huell may well be something of an innocent.
As Hank's talking Huell into not leaving (or talking to the uninformed guard on the door - "the less you distract him, the better he'll protect you"), Walt has a face-to-face meeting with Uncle Mike, who, it seems, is somewhat incredulous about the smallness and easiness of the job Walt wants done. Walt, however, is moody, downcast, clearly regretful. In a masterstroke of lighting, Todd sits behind him, glowing red and demonic, like Walt's bad conscience.
Walt stresses that Jesse is not a rat, that he doesn't want him to suffer, as though that somehow makes this turn of events acceptable. Jesse's gone off the reservation and, as a result, Walt has taken him to be a serious threat. Even so, when Uncle Jack responds to Walt's assertion that Jesse is "just angry" with "How angry?", it raises a smirk from Todd: Jesse, as dangerous in motivation as he might seem, isn't the sociopath he'd need to be to make his threats truly credible.
Walt claims that Jesse is like family, that this is an evil borne of necessity, like everything else he's done. Uncle Jack claims to respect Walt's "bullet to the back of the head" approach to putting Jesse down: he claims there are "too many savages out there". Just as Uncle Jack can't appreciate that he is one of those savages, orchestrating a slaughter in a jailhouse, Walt doesn't realize that his claims of necessity are no longer exculpatory, if they ever were.
The Aryans don't want Walt's money, though: they want him to cook for them. Walt is contemptuous of the thought: he's made his decision, he's out. The two-shots from Walt and Todd to Jack and Kenny set up a power dynamic with Todd in the place of Jesse. Though Jesse is the one with whom Walt longs for reconciliation, he's forced to settle for a murderous surrogate, Todd, in order - yet more irony - to have Jesse killed. As Uncle Jack says, "You don't skimp on family".
Walt promises to take Todd through one more cook "after the job is done". He even shakes Uncle Jack's hand, another deal with the devil. For a bunch of Nazis, we haven't seen much of the White Power ideology that motivates them (the occasional Swastika tattoo aside), but it serves as a useful reminder of how low Walt is willing to stoop to achieve his ends. It may be akin to Reductio ad Hitlerum, but it's certainly an effective shorthand.
Walt's next call is to Andrea and Brock, hoping to flush out Jesse. His appearance on her doorstep, smiling and awkward, shows how far Walt's guise, that of the man he once was, has helped him. Despite all the evidence that pointed in his direction, Hank could never entertain for a moment that Walt could be a criminal, and now that criminal is welcomed in by the mother of the young boy he once poisoned.
Walt's claims of trying to reach Jesse, that they've had a falling out, that Jesse's back on drugs, are true, even if taken out of context. Emotional blackmail has always been a valuable tool in Walt's arsenal of emotional manipulation, but it's his attempts to engage with Brock (over Froot Loops of all things) that make the scene so hard to stomach. Is Walt that oblivious he doesn't understand, that feckless he can't help himself, or does he honestly just not care?
When Walt has Andrea place a call to Jesse from him, he knows it's an implicit threat. After all, Jesse threatened his family first (albeit significantly after Walt poisoned Brock and lied about it). Walt, as highlighted in the moment he crosses the road, is dressed in neutral colors, beige jacket and slacks. After his shift into darker tones, Walt seems to be back in more ambiguous territory. He may have set up a hit outside their house, but he doesn't want Andrea and Brock to see it (geez).
It's only Hank's interception of Andrea's message that prevents Jesse from walking into a trap, yet Hank is now dressed in a black shirt. For the moment it's almost as if he's already forgotten, or else has decided not to care, about Walt's tape. Then again, if Hank, we are to discover, has already accelerated his endgame: after five episodes of moral dilemmas and beating around the bush, Hank is ready to bring Walt down. And all it might take is a little deception...
Over at the car wash, Skyler is showing Walt Jr. how to work the tills, the first time we've seen him out and about in, well, years. Characterisatically, Junior just wants to go home. Cue Saul, comically rumpled. In a moment of levity, perhaps one of the few the show has left to over us, Saul and Skyler both feign unawareness of each other as Junior gets adorably starstruck about Saul as the guy from the billboards. Walt enters with baby Holly and all of a sudden Breaking Bad becomes a sitcom.
Well, not quite, though Saul does get a nice parting line ("Don't drink and drive, but if you do call me.") Skyler even forgets to wish him an A1 day. The comedy ends with Saul instructing the valet on how to suck eggs (see: clean the backseat) and the revelation that Huell has gone. Saul is wearing a bulletproof vest under his shirt; while we know that Jesse's plans are far more nefarious, he has reason to be living in fear.
In what seems to be a recurring shot, Walt approaches his family along the car wash corridor, pausing for a contemplative gaze out the window. This is his family, his empire: this is what he did it all for. Then the whole thing falls apart with a single text: a photo of a barrel filled with money and surrounded by orange sand. Walt's disbelief, his amazement, that he's been caught out seems to preclude any thought that it's been faked, that this is a set up.
I haven't had, perhaps, as much to say about this episode as in previous weeks, mainly because it's been that much more dynamic, less ponderous. Despite a few moments, this is very much a case of characters in action. Case and point: when Walt rushes out of the car wash and straight to his car and zooms off down the freeway, the mocking voice of Jesse in his ear the whole while, spinning Walt a narrative we know is false.
Jesse is in control, making demands: he has Walt, figuratively speaking, by the balls. He wants Walt out in the desert where he buried the money and he's burning $10K a minute till Walt arrives. While we, the audience, can appreciate Jesse's manipulation of Walt - he can't know where the money is, surely; this must be some form of trick - we also understand Walt's rage, his outright fury: "DON'T YOU TOUCH MY MONEY!!!"
As terrible as it may sound, an abstract threat to his family is one thing, but now Walt is forced to contend with the whole motivation for what he's done going up in flames. Jesse's enjoying his newfound power, with making Walt kowtow, having him be the one to yell for once, hearing his excuses ("You're not hurting anyone but my family"). Still, when Walt apologizes for Brock, we know that, as Jesse does, he doesn't regret doing it.
Walt's justification for his attack on Brock has always been "no harm, no foul": Brock, after all, is alive. As I said a few reviews back, a full summation of Walt's crimes is long overdue and he provides a brief one now: killing Gus, Emilio, Crazy-8, running over those gang-bangers. Morally reprehensible as it may be, all of those things Walt did, as he says, as much for Jesse as for himself. Thinking back, Walt would never have burned bridges with Gus were it not for his protecting Jesse.
Having witnessed their complicity ourselves, we might forget that Walt is still unaware that Jesse and Hank are working together. If he did know, furious though he may be, it's difficult to imagine him making - at last - such a bald-faced confession over a phone. Indeed, even if Walt does lead them to the money, that's hardly conclusive proof of this criminal empire Hank is spinning yarns about; in fact, it may even feed into Walt's portrayal as Walt (and by extension Gomie) as corrupt.
Inevitably, Walt finds the ground where he buried the money untouched. Realizing he's been played, the reason for which Jesse made him stay on the line, Walt's reaction is strangely muted. The camera tracks around him, the car beeping softly in the background - mirroring, perhaps, Jesse's recent revelation - but it's already too late: Walt's already turned off the car; Jesse will know where he went (by means other than the fictional GPS tracker in the van).
Scrambling up the cliff-side like a real fugitive, we get a view of To’hajiilee, the expanses of rock and desert, but it all focuses down to a puff of dust on the nearby road: Hank's car approaching. Though, after this sudden exertion, his cough almost lays him out, Walt manages to reassemble the phone and call the Aryans. The light and color of the desert contrast with the dark green paramilitary shack in which Jack and Kenny are holed up.
My immediate thought here was that Jack and his Nazi friends would save Walt only to take the money - and indeed Walt gives them his coordinates off his lottery ticket - but, like Walt himself, I'd failed to account for the presence of Hank. Together, Hank and Jesse are the two threats who, in the whole world, Walt has so far refused to kill. As such, Hank's arrival with Jesse in tow seals, in Walt's mind, his own downfall: this line he will not cross.
Bryan Cranston's performance in this episode rivals anything else he has ever done. His transition for calm (in the gas station) to enraged (on the road) to panicked (in the desert) to resignation here was stupendous. The weariness when he tells Jack not to come, to "forget it", really sells this moment, the moment in which Walter White, meth kingpin and mass murderer, gives up. My description can't do it justice; if you haven't yet watched it, then please do so (and why are you reading this already?).
As Hank calls out for Walt, Walt sits behind a rock, pensive. Hank's voice reverberates, the shepherd calling the lambs to slaughter. The tension builds as the close-up tracks ever closer in on Walt's exhausted face. The scenery shots after the advert break diminish this somewhat, but the point at which Walt chooses to step out and embrace his fate hits hard. Jesse's look, that he can't believe that they got him, says it all.
Having come to view Walt as The Devil, it was come as a stark shock from Jesse to see him so palpably human: obeying orders, in cuffs. As Walt walks towards Hank the scene cuts back and forth between the two of them; even with Walt unarmed, Hank keeps his weapon on him. Given the context, it's almost unimaginable that just a few weeks ago Walt and Hank were sitting round a BBQ laughing, a betrayal Hank pointedly reminds Walt about.
As far as anyone else knows, though, Walt is just a cancer-ridden chemistry teacher. A review into his finances might reveal some indiscrepancies, but, for Hank's barking orders and Jesse's happy disbelief, this is hardly the end. The money under the sand is just more circumstantial evidence and it's hard to believe that Jesse and/or Huell's testimony will hold up in court. All of this ceases to matter, though, when the Nazis arrive.
Breaking Bad lures our attention away with interpersonal drama - Hank's magnanimous offer of a coin toss over who gets to read Walt his rights; Walt locking eyes with Jesse as the wrathful father figure, "Coward"; Jesse's spit; Walt's shoulder charge; their scuffle. All of this, however, as dramatically satisfying as it may be, has the overall effect that, when Jack arrives with troops in tow, Walt and Jesse end up in separate vehicles.
It's not until Hank places a call through to Marie - who's just discovered the bloody meat in the bin - that we, perhaps, realize that all is not going to work out for the best. As tangled as our emotions might be surrounding Walt's "capture", Hank and Marie's mutual "I love you", Marie's hope that they're finally out of the woods, can't help but seem tragic, as Walt spots the Nazi vehicles approaching in the rear-view mirror.
I recently commented that the show would have to do a lot to start making Walt likeable again, if only so when the times come for him to meet his end we don't feel ready to wash our hands of him. Walt's calling out in desperation to warn Hank, his mounting fear and hysteria, all contribute to remind us that Walt is not, at his very core, evil: underneath all those layers of ego and self-righteousness, there may well be a decent human being.
But it's too late for Walt to do any good now: "To'hajiilee" ends, as it must, with a shootout. A Mexican standoff erupts in violence as Hank and Gomie scream at the Aryans to put down their weapons and Uncle Jack coolly demands to see their police IDs. Outgunned and exposed, when Jack and Co. draw down, it's a wonder Hank and Gomie aren't killed immediately, but they live, it seems, at least long enough to return fire.
As Walt rages within the car, taking cover from the bullets, the episode's direction makes a point of drawing our attention to Todd's realization of Jesse's presence in the front car. Hank and Gomie (at the very least Gomie) seem about to go out in a blaze of glory, Wild Bunch or Butch Cassidy-style, but it seems Jesse may well be about to meet with assassination. The next 10 minutes of Breaking Bad may well rob us of two or more of the main cast.
There are only three episodes left to go now till the end of Breaking Bad, only two till the finale ("Felina"). The promo for next week's episode, the long-awaited "Ozymandias", crucially gives nothing away, with no suggestion of who lives or who dies. As the show finally reaches maturity with the hopeful (semi-)redemption of its lead, it's good to know that even a piece of drama with as clearly defined an arc as this can still keep us on the edge of our couches.
A few thoughts before next week's episode:
- The name of the company Huell hired the van from, Lariat, is also the name of the preferred car company in the X-Files universe. This could be a coincidence if it weren't for Vince Gilligan's key involvement in both. Probably best not to read too much into it, though: X-Files featured Bryan Cranston as a mentally unstable, anti-Semitic kidnapper, so unless Walter White had a twin somewhere out there in the American Midwest...
- Also - SPOILER! - apparently Dean Norris, who plays Hank, asked Vince Gilligan to kill off his character in the first half of Season 5, freeing him up to do other project. Gilligan obviously refused, citing the vital role Hank had to play. That being said, might Hank's role be drawing to a bloody end in the To'hajiiilee desert...
And without further ellipsis