“Breaking Bad” Instant Reaction: White Flag

Breaking Bad

When Breaking Bad cut to commercial after its second-to-last act tonight, I exhaled audibly, realizing only then that I hadn’t been breathing for the past ten minutes. I’m only slightly exaggerating. (Spoilers ahead. Obviously.)

“To’hajiilee,” written by George Mastras and directed by the amazing Michelle MacLaren, had some of the most tense scenes I’ve ever seen filmed on television or in movies. It was an episode centered around a revolving circle of baits and betrayals, capped with an expertly paced, remarkably gripping sequence in which the unthinkable happened: Walter White surrendered.

After wrestling with the possibility that he would have to kill his beloved Jesse, even having the gall to return to the home of the child he once poisoned, Hank and Jesse found a way to play Walt once and for all. Walt started the series needing money; tonight, he wanted it, and that was his ultimate undoing. He thought he was five steps ahead of Hank and Jesse, but instead they took a back way and met him in the middle. No longer is Walt the one who knocks -that title seems to have fallen to Hank.

Although, perhaps not. The episode cuts off just as the final confrontation between the cartel and the DEA seems to be reaching its breaking point. It’s odd and devastating to see Walt, Hank and Jesse on the same side of this conflict despite having been diametrically opposed just minutes before. These people’s fates are inextricably bound, for better or for worse. Walt’s transgression touched off a series of chain reactions that broke these characters apart even as it refused to cut the final string and let them live their own lives. They’re tied to Walt, and now they’ll all have to face the consequences. That’s life, I suppose.

Michelle MacLaren doesn’t deserve an Emmy award for directing this episode – she deserves an Olympic gold medal. From the decision to show only Walt’s side of his phone conversation with Jesse to the eerie, impenetrable silence in the desert and the emphasis on framed oppositions (Hank and Steve’s cars, Walt and Saul with the Better Call Saul billboard in between, Hank and Huell), this episode gained immense power from the obvious visual and auditory craftsmanship on display. When Breaking Bad bids us farewell just three weeks from now (no!), it’ll leave behind a rich legacy of suspense and moral complexity, but it’s important to remember that this show also showcased some of the most distinctive filmmaking in any medium right now. Need proof? Just watch this episode again. I wish I could, right now.

Other thoughts:

*Tonight’s acting MVP award probably goes to Bryan Cranston, who utterly sells Walt as a conniving moral vacuum and a terrified shell of a man in equal measure.

*This episode overflowed with clever screenwriting touches and flashes of dark humor, as always. Saul’s PSA to Walt Jr, and Uncle Jack’s salmon monologue in particular had me howling, and the numerous traps that Hank and Jesse laid for Walt were far more convincing, narratively speaking, than some of last week’s more questionable story leaps.

*I sympathize with Marie. If I saw brains in my trash can, I’d probably freak out too.

*If these reviews tend to sound like broken records after a while, don’t be surprised. This show has been consistently excellent all season, and because it’s telling one story, I’m running out of new ways to say “This is awesome, and this is awesome, and this is awesome.” If I could give Breaking Bad a car, Oprah-style, I totally would.


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