Season Four does something new, and actually opens with a clean up episode. And a great example of how the show builds tension out of long, quiet stretches and stillness. The scene in that episode? Nearly ten minutes, uninterrupted, with no dialogue from anyone but Walter. Most shows would cut to commercial on the look of shock on the characters’ faces once the murder was committed, but Breaking Bad, oh man, Breaking Bad not only shows the victim bleed out in agonizing real time, but watches Gus wash up and unhurriedly change back into his street clothes before ending the scene. Breaking Bad may not move slowly overall, but it sure as shit is methodical. And it is riveting for it.
You know what’s less riveting? Hank collecting rocks. Moving on…
I guess it makes sense to have Hank being in a funk for a few episodes in that it allows the Heisenberg investigation to be the thing that revives him. And I suppose the writers like exploring how the terrible medical adversity can bring out the worst in people as well as the best (sometimes I wonder if the whole show wasn’t inspired by one of the best Onion articles ever), but man it is unpleasant to watch him take out all his frustrations on his wife.
You know what else is unpleasant? The facework Anna Gunn had done after season 2. It’s…simply unfortunate. It actually pulls me a bit out of the incredible, intense conclusion of “Crawl Space” how along with the angle and make-up job, it has her looking more like Pennywise than her S1 self.
The plot mechanics get a little convoluted this season, even before we get to Walter’s circuitous plan in in the climax. A fair amount of this comes from Mike and Gus being written to be “cool” for such a long time. Gus has always been coldly logical and inscrutable, which is what makes him so imposing as an antagonist. But his whole decision-making process re: keeping Walt and Jesse alive and trying to turn them against each other is so complicated and counter-intuitive that we do need to understand what he’s thinking to a degree. I know that to some extent we’re supposed to be in Walt and Jesse’s shoes, anxiously trying to decipher his motivations and predict his moves, but it’s not like the show keeps us exclusively in their headspace. We see just enough to understand more than our main POV characters do (which can make for some good stuff, like the parallels between his partnership and Walt/Jesse’s, and how the cartel “can’t” kill Gus just like he “can’t” kill Walt), but we still have to connect a lot of dots ourselves.
The vague outlines are there, what with the cartel attacking Gus’s trucks and sniping his employees, but things don’t feel as urgent as they need to be to motivate him to keep the guys alive. And that’s in part because there’s one too many scenes of Mike being an unflappable badass for the threat to register as truly dire. Yeah, those sequences wouldn’t be as exciting if he had back up, but when Mike hardly breaks a sweat taking out the first 6 soldiers the cartel sent all by himself, it’s hard to take them seriously as a mortal threat to Gus’s entire empire. Mike being such a supersoldier makes for fun action sequences, but it’s bad for the show’s greater narrative. It’s an issue the show has run into from the other direction too; scenes are funnier when Jesse is dumb enough to think “wire” is an element, or building a robot out of RV parts is a viable option, but eventually the show is going to need an entire season to hang on his being the 2nd best chemist in North America. Scene vs season, micro vs macro…you get the idea.
That stuff never really sinks the show, though, because Jonathan Banks is so fun to watch and holy god damn, Aaron Paul is so, so good. He has all kinds of great scenes in this season, but the most amazing has to be the “Problem Dog” monologue, which demonstrates why for all the terrible shit both characters do, I continue to find Jesse a much more sympathetic character that Walter. While Walt continually makes excuses and evades responsibility for all of it, Jesse is begging to be held accountable for his actions, and incredibly frustrated that the universe refuses to punish him in a tangible way (he can’t even get himself killed, no matter how many hardened murderers he pisses off!). He doesn’t want to be “the bad guy”, but he lacks licit skills and the world seems to constantly conspire to push him back into that role.
The most controversial aspect of the season was Walt’s Machiavellian plot to turn Jesse back to his side by framing Gus for poisoning Brock. And yes, it is complicated and improbable; just look how many different names are in the previous sentence for crying out loud. But I’ve come around on it in rewatching. I do have the caveat that I think it would’ve been even more of a gutpunch if Brock actually did die, to underline just how heinous Walt’s action was. As an audience to a piece of fiction, it’s fairly easy for us to take a “no harm no foul” approach to the reckless endangerment of ancillary characters, regardless of age. And so I’m not sure if this registers as worse than what Walt had done to Jane or Gale in previous seasons to everyone, although there was a degree of premeditation and absolute innocence on the victim’s part that wasn’t there with those who had to some extent willingly involved themselves in Walt’s drug dealings. I will probably take that back in season 5, though, when Jesse starts thinking back on what a coincidence it was that his poison cigarette disappeared the same day that the kid just happened to eat poison berries. Having Brock around to confirm certain details could be crucial to the final split between Walt and Jesse.
What I do not have trouble with is the logistics of the thing, which are convoluted, yes, but make sense when you keep two points in mind. 1) This was an utter desperation move on Walt’s part, so even if it’s a bit leaky, I can buy that it seemed like the only option at the time. 2) For all the logical leaps and reversals of blame Jesse goes through in “End Times”, the plan didn’t need him to go through them. It only required that he end up blaming Gus; if he jumped to that conclusion initially, then maybe he comes straight to Mr. White for his help. Or maybe he makes a suicide run at the Chicken Man all by himself, which is win-win for Walt. If he gets lucky and takes Gus out, problem solved, and if he gets himself killed then all of a sudden Walt’s value to the Fring empire shoots back up. If he jumped to the conclusion that Walt did it, then we get exactly what we got. Yes, Walt has to talk him around while he’s pointing a gun at his head, but see point 1.
The only other issue I have with it is that the “twist” that Walt was actually responsible is gotten to by the show playing less fair with its audience than it has traditionally. BB has evolved into something of an ensemble piece, as all shows must by their 4th year, but Walt has always firmly been our protagonist, and we’ve never been left out of his decision making process mid-crisis to such a large and crucial extent. So yeah, as a “surprise” moment, it’s a bit cheap. But it’s so much fun watching Walt scramble around and trying to figure out his angle with Tio that I don’t mind that the show broke its own narrative rules to get there.
Let us conclude this portion of the program by paying homage to one Gustavo, oh, let’s say “Elezier”, Fring. Esposito is incredible in the role, holding the screen and dominating scenes with little dialogue and even less facial expressions. It seems like between this show, The Wire, Boardwalk Empire, and Sons Of Anarchy, the default mode for a mob boss character is becoming to go completely cold and affectless, but as good as even Michael Stuhlberg is as Arnold Rothstein, none of those performances are as effortlessly compelling or instantly iconic as Gus Fring. The biggest problem facing the final stretch is finding a new threat to Walt that will not completely pale in comparison, no mean feat with only a single season to develop them. I do not envy the actor charged with filling Giancarlo Esposito’s shoes. I have doubts that even an entire cartel can fill the void.
Estimated Profits: ~$1.25 million – ~$5000 (38 Snub) + ~$1 million (various cooks over a period of roughly 2 months) – $800000 (car wash) – $62000 (car destruction and replacement) + $274000 – ~$100000 (Hank and Walt’s combined medical expenses) – $622552.33 (Ted’s taxes) – $25000 (bribe to Saul’s secretary) = approximately $1 million ahead, but then Walt wasn’t able to scrape together half of that for the vacuum salesman, so I must have been underestimating the combined costs of Walt and Hank’s treatment, Saul’s cut for the money he laundered, replacement Aztek windshields, Walt’s new condo and random start up costs for the car wash (or overestimating the amount of cooks in the superlab). Let’s call it $400,000 ahead.
Murders – Emilio, Krazy 8, Jane, two of Gus’s dealers, Gale, Gus, Tyrus, Hector “Tio” Salamanca, two other Fring goons
Lesser Included Offenses - fraud in service of breaking and entering (Walt’s condo), possession of an unregistereed firearm, fraud/impersonating a government official in service of extortion (car wash), misdemeanor trash burning, breaking and entering, extortion (Ted), attempted murder (Brock), destruction of property and reckless endangerment (Casa Tranquila), destruction of property and reckless endangerment (the laundry)
Collateral Damage – One innocent janitor loses his job and goes to jail on a bullshit marijuana charge. Hank had to kill a guy, even if he was an insane, degenerate piece of filth who deserved to die, giving him fairly severe PTSD. Combo was killed dealing for Walt. Jane’s father’s life is utterly ruined. 167 passengers on two planes are dead. Skyler is forced to become an accessory after the fact (or take down her son, sister and brother-in-law with Walt). 3 broken Pontiac Aztek windshields. Jesse’s RV is destroyed (I’m actually suprised how sad I was to see it go, since it’s not like it hosted a ton of good times or anything). On their mission to kill Heisenberg, the Cousins kill 9 illegal immigrants and their coyote, an old woman with a handicap-accessible van, a grocery-shopping bystander, an Indian woman and the Reservation sheriff that investigates. Also they shoot Hank multiple times, forcing him through a long, painful physical therapy process. Andrea’s kid brother is murdered by Gus’s dealers due to trouble Jesse and Walt stirred up. Jesse murders Gale, crushing him with guilt and destroying his hard-fought sobriety. Gus murders Victor to send a message to Walt and Jesse. Three Honduran workers get deported (or maybe worse). Walt purposefully wrecks a car, straining an already-injured Hank’s neck in an unspecified fashion. Ted Beneke breaks his neck fleeing from Heisenpire goons. Brock is poisoned and nearly dies. Tio blows himself up, but no one’s weeping for that vicious old fucker. The staff of an industrial laundry is out of their jobs.
Sequences To Make Hitchcock Proud: Gus suits up in “Box Cutter”, the final scene of “Crawl Space”, the parking garage scene that closes “End Times”.
Heisenberg Certainty Principle - “I am the one who knocks.”
But honorable mention to Gus walking directly into sniper fire and dare it to come at me, bro.
Best Lie – A crowded field this year. I have to give it up for the wonderfully protracted sequence of Walt and Skyler having a script reading of their gambling cover story, with Walt as the worst sort of primadonna actor, objecting that the writing isn’t believable when he really just doesn’t want his character to look uncool (which is ironic, because although it’s tremendously showy and awards-bait-y material, Cranston himself is not the least bit vain in his performance). It’s a great scene, but only a passable fiction. Though in Skyler’s defense, she had to work within the basic contours of the plot Walt’s actions had established.
I’m also partial to the careful recalibration of reality that is Walter’s recounting of Mike beating him up. He certainly didn’t get roughed up by a professional killer to discourage a plot to assassinate his drug overlord, no sir. He “had an argument with a co-worker” over a “particular business strategy” which “got a little heated” leading the guy to “hit me, once”, and of course he didn’t retaliate because he’s a “much older man.” But it’s good, really. It cleared the air. It’s a great bit because Walt knows he’s lying but is still trying to convince himself, but it’s a relatively trifling matter overall.
No, the best has to be Gus’s alibi for why his fingerprints were found in Gale’s apartment. It’s a perfectly reasonable explanation, with airtight execution, even when Hank throws him a curveball about his past. Brilliantly conceived and impeccably performed, this is the Abbey Road of criminal alibis.
The Erlenmeyer Flask Is Mightier – Walt once again cooks up ricin to try to take out Gus. He builds a pipe bomb in his kitchen, and works up both a remote detonator and one linked to Tio’s bell. Uses his botanical knowledge to fake ricin poisoning with (the incredibly-fake-sounding) Lily of the Valley berries. Rigs the superlab to self-destruct using only it’s contents.
Official Walter Jr. Breakfast Count: 13 (“Pilot”, “Cat’s In The Bag”, “Gray Matter”, “Crazy Handful of Nothin”, “Down”, “Negro y Azul”, “Over” x2, “ABQ”, “No Mas”, “Green Light”, “Cornered”, “Salud”)
We Are Done, Professionally – Break up number five occurs in “Bug” (this time with more violence than ever before!), but the boys are back together within three episodes.
It’s The Little Things – The incredible performance Aaron Paul gives throughout “Box Cutter” without saying a word for 40 minutes. The performance Giancarlo Esposito gives in “Box Cutter” while uttering only a single sentence. The ill-fitting Kenny Rogers truck stop clothes Walt and Jesse are suddenly wearing after disposing of Victor’s body. The way Gale is continually developed even though he’s dead from the get-go, keeping him alive in the audience’s memory as he continues to haunt the characters. Saul recounting his 5th grade romantic history to Brock. Bimbo Skyler referring to “the Quicken” when talking to the IRS. Tyrus making a point to smuggle Walt into the laundry in a cart of dirty sheets. The way Huell says “reasonably”. Walt crawling back out the broken bottom pane of the glass door after being shaken down by Saul’s secretary. The hilariously protracted scene of Tio dictating his phony message to Hank and the DEA.
Random Bits of Business: I’ll be doing posts about each episode, but I don’t get screeners or anything and I have to work like the rest of you shmoes, so I’ll have to just take some notes as the show airs and hopefully shape them into legible if not complete thoughts on Monday night.
Check out this great video, highlighting the show’s magnificent cinematography. If it weren’t for the huge, massive spoilers in the last two minutes, I’d recommend it as a perfect trailer to rope in new folks.
I hope we see Jim Beaver’s gun dealer again for at least one scene.
Jesse Plemmons is going to be in season 5! This makes me inappropriately pleased, as he was always one of the best parts of Friday Night Lights. My best guess is that Skyler hires him as a manager at the car wash, but how hilarious would it be if they gave him a terrible spray tan and had him as a new cartel boss? What? Only to me? Yeah. Yeah, that’s fair.
Random predictions for the final season: Hank and/or Marie find out the truth about Heisenberg relatively early (i.e. the mid-season finale at the latest), Walt is entirely insufferable in his triumph, the Beneke situation becomes a major issue, as does the fact that Walt and Skyler don’t have much in the way of cash reserves left, and Jesse unravels the Brock situation by episode 8. Walter Jr. eats at least one flapjack. Gus shows up again in at least one flashback.