Breaking Bad Frame-By-Frame

Season Four

by PopMatters Staff

14 August 2013


End Times & Face Off


S4E12 End Times

This is Walter’s emotional bottle episode.

Typically a bottle episode would have a cast performing in a very limited setting, often for the sake of production costs. Though they often come about due to cutbacks that can be pretty transparent at times, they also allow for actors to really push their chemistry with each other. We saw it used to great effect in Season Three’s episode “Fly”. “End Times”, however, is not a bottle episode in the traditional sense. The cold open has black SUVs marshaling up to the White residence to cart off Skyler and Holly to Hank and Marie’s house (the bottle).

The result, as the SUVs pull away from the White household with Walter standing alone, is the bottling of his entire family. For the rest of the episode, Walter is free from any explicit emotional obligations, and can thus proceed to plan out what is perhaps the most complicated, and convoluted, game of chess ever devised on the show so far. Though this episode is all about Walter’s preemptive strike on Gus, Walter’s plan involves winning over ex-partner and estranged pseudo-son Jesse. Since Walter has bottled up the rest of his emotional ties, some might say that the Heisenberg persona has evicted the Walter persona for the final two episodes of the season. With all other emotional ties tied up, Jesse’s relationship with Walter needs to be re-examined.

We saw Jesse and Walter’s relationship melt down just a few episodes earlier. And during “Salud” we saw the fallout of this encounter in the form of Walter’s emotional break. As Junior so keenly noted, it was one of the first “real” moments of emotion that we’ve seen from Walter in quite a while. I don’t want to spend too much time discussing prior episodes, but Walter’s drug and alcohol induced state following the loss of Jesse is a starkly different Walter than we have interacting with Jesse in “End Times”.

If Walter’s accidental murmuring of Jesse’s name as Junior leaves his bedroom in “Salud” tells us anything, it’s that deep down, Walter sees Jesse as a son. But remember, Walter has had all his emotional ties bottled up back at the Schrader house. There is no room for emotions in the game Walter is playing just now, and Jesse is no exception. For now, let’s turn to the man who should be emotionally freed up to enact all the calculated moves necessary to bring down the “superhuman” Gus Fring, but for some reason doesn’t have whatever catalyst is necessary to make it all happen.

Walter has always had this cold, pragmatic way about him. Even if you identify Season Four unequivocally as Walt’s “gone to the dark side” season, you can see his logical decision making process throughout the series. It’s Walt’s fundamental flaw. Consider the cold open of the season 1 episode “And the Bag’s in the River”, wherein we see young Walter listing all of the known chemical parts of the human body with fellow grad student—and former flame—Gretchen, but they are “0.111985%” off. “Seems like something’s missing, doesn’t it? There has to be more to a human being than that” younger Walter says to Gretchen. Her response—“What about the soul?”—is met with a flirtatious double entendre from Walt: “There’s nothing but chemistry here.” Despite the quick flirtatious wit of his response, it’s an episode like “End Times” that really shows how little consideration Walt has given to the incalculable human equation.

Walter’s frustrating impotence (frustrating for Walt and some viewers as well) throughout Season Four, is designed to make this flaw transparent. So when we see the scene in Walt’s kitchen with the makeshift bomb trigger, and after a number of ineffective clicks that eventually result in a pretty feeble puff of smoke, it doesn’t exactly garner a large degree of confidence in Walter’s plan. And sure enough, the episode ends with Walt’s failed remote bombing of Gus.

Many viewers left this episode exasperated, focusing on how Gus could have known, or how he could have intuited that something was amiss. It is a high-tension moment that left a lot of people scratching their heads in both wonder and incredulity. Earlier in the episode, Walter tells Jesse that Gus has been “ten steps ahead” at every turn. And that’s how Walter sees the world. It’s all some weird combination of high stakes poker and chess. Seeing his elaborate trap fail at the end of the episode is an elevating scene for the mythology of Gus Fring as a “super human criminal mastermind.” But it is perhaps even more telling about Walt’s fundamental flaw.

Walter is a schemer. He’s constantly contemplating moves, weighing the odds, and manipulating others around him. But the one thing he rarely accounts for—and it seems to undermine him at every turn this season—is that the human condition doesn’t have a 100% calculable formula. Gus Fring didn’t decide not to get into his car because he’s superhumanly sensed Walter’s presence, or from catching a glint of sunlight reflecting off of Walt’s binoculars. And in truth, I would argue that there’s no need to account for it (or at least in the story show runner Vince Gilligan is interested in telling), and Walter just doesn’t understand when he repeats, “Why did you stop?” to himself on the adjacent rooftop. That other unpredictable/unknown human “0.111985%” he didn’t account for is ultimately why his plan fails. Though Walter’s plans have tended to work out in the long haul, nearly all of his moves are completed due to some kind of incalculable action or emotion on someone else’s part.

As further evidence for Walter’s calculation error, juxtaposing this scene with Gus’ equally methodical (and successful) mass murder of the cartel helps distinguish the difference between Gus’ success and Walt’s failures. Walt is acting on a reasoned need for self-preservation (some might even say self-fulfilling), whereas Gus is operating on an unadulterated need for revenge. So where Walter has reasoned that he needs to kill Gus (because that reasoning says that the logical—and thus inevitable in Walt’s mind—thing for Gus to do is to kill him), Gus just “needs” to rage kill. In re-examining the conclusion to “End Times”, it’s clear that the focus is not so much on Gus’ superhuman senses, but instead just another reminder of Walter’s inability to adjust for the human factor that the show has been subtly hinting at ever since Season One. Ultimately, it is emotion that successfully allows Walter’s bomb to be triggered in the season finale, but it’s Gus’ hatred that gets him into the room, and it’s Tio Salamanca with his finger on the trigger, not Walt.

Returning to Jesse, it’s important to note that it’s also the human factor that saved Walt when Jesse had a gun to his head. I think we can safely read it as a moment where Walter thinks his carefully crafted plan has led Jesse to logically agree, even though Jesse pretty much nailed Walter’s scheme on the head. But it seems to be Walter’s evocation of the death of Andrea’s brother at the hands of Gus’ street dealers that finally sways Jesse. I say “seems” because like Gus’ decision to abandon his car, it’s an un-spelled out decision. I know that there is an irony in citing the incalculable human condition as concrete evidence for the motive for Jesse’s decision to not pull the trigger. But after a season of thinly veiled monologues designed to manipulate and win over Jesse (and Jesse has certainly demonstrated that he has been aware of this heavy handed rhetoric for some time), the outcome of this scene may be as simple as Jesse’s inability to pull the trigger on Walter because of their past relationship.

Even after his fallout with Walter in “Bug”, we have seen Jesse repeatedly stick his neck out to keep Gus from offing Walter now that he is no longer needed for Gus to continue his operation. But we ultimately don’t know. It’s an unexplained conclusion that requires a leap on our part. Unlike Walter, Jesse doesn’t stop to chart out his decisions like elements on a chalkboard. The difficulty in pinning down Jesse or Gus’ explicit line of thought in these instances is what distinguishes them from Walter’s “There’s nothing but chemistry here” attitude.  Brian Steinbach


Image: Steve Ellis, from the All Bad Things webcomic

S4E13 Face Off

Breaking Bad has always had excellent episode titles but the Fourth Season ends with a real peach. “Face Off”. At first glance it looks like a simple action cliché, face off, face down, showdown. But this is a show that demands deeper readings, and even this apparently simple title offers a kaleidoscope of meanings.

The most straightforward of them is the showdown between Walter and Gus. They’ve been circling one another like hungry hyenas for a season and a half, but now it’s time for resolution. New Mexico isn’t big enough for the both of them and one way or another, it’s time for one of them to check out. They don’t share a single scene in this episode, but each is present in the other. Until the end.

The richer meaning of the title is in the sense of removal of face or, more properly, of a façade. Gus is finally exposed to the world, vindicating Hank in the process, who is himself revealed to be the capable and effective detective that we, the audience, knew all along. Walter, who is has been at the center of everything since day one, is revealed to be possessed of a greater ruthlessness than that for which we’d previously given him credit.

Walter White is an exercise in examining the capacity for evil or plain old wrongdoing that lies beneath our polite, public persona. He is, however far from the sole example here. It appears in several characters, of whom Gus has been the most successful, hiding his true nature and occupation beneath a veneer so complete that he is only exposed in death, and particularly in the incriminating manner of that death. He has been this way from the first time we saw him, way back towards the end of the Second Season. He hovered in the background, hidden in plain sight until Walt forced him to show himself and drop the Happy to Help You act. Since then, he’s maintained that façade with incredible skill and determination, driving a Volvo “because of its safety record” in public while in secret he can calmly walk through sniper fire, or willfully consume poison with the intention of vomiting it out later on.

Giancarlo Esposito has delivered a masterclass in carrying two characters in one. Here, in Face Off, he has a final opportunity to demonstrate his methods, taking the time to change out of his Pollos Hermanos duds and into his favorite drug baron suit before heading off for his date with destiny. His trademark Zen-like calm remains in place until he sees the bomb and lets out a scream, the first time we’ve seen him do so, possibly the only time he’s done so since he watched his beloved Max die. Hector, that smug snake, was present on both occasions.

We can forgive him both lapses. He is only human, as the impromptu anatomy lesson confirmed. That Gus loses half his face is no accident. It is in the moment of death that his true nature is revealed; in life he may have been a pillar of the community, but in death he will be known as Gus Fring the secret drug baron. The mask he wore had to be removed, even if it was his own face.

Gus’ death was the center of a circle of revelations. In this season finale, a little something has to be revealed about everyone.

Firstly, Hank. Brash, oafish, sexist, racist gone-to-seed jock Hank. The kind of guy who wears a white Stetson on his wedding day and loves it. We all knew he was onto the right track, even if the rest of the DEA didn’t. He is, whatever his loud exterior may tell you, a dedicated, determined and intelligent cop. He got Gus’ before anyone else and finally, his dogged pursuit of the connection has proved fruitful and he is rightly vindicated by it.

And Walter? People differ in the extent of their sympathies to Walter, but very few can remain with him after this. The clever reveal at the end, showing the Lily of the Valley in his garden and implying that he was responsible for Brock’s poisoning, shows just how far he has come. The scene outside his house, in which he manipulates his neighbor Becky into flushing out Gus’ goons is another case in point. Walter is prepared to use anyone, in any way, to achieve his ends. It doesn’t matter if he’s known them for years (the Whites are close enough to their neighbors that Becky has a key to their house), or if they’re just some innocent kid. Walter White will do whatever it takes and screw anybody who gets hurt. Just take a moment to ponder what that means for the promised Hank vs Heisenberg theme of the final eight episodes.

For now, it still surprises those who supposedly know him well. “You brought a bomb ... into a hospital?” asks an exasperated Jesse. Yes, of course he did. He’s Badass Numero Uno. And later on he’ll bring one into a nursing home with the intention of actually using it.

And of using Hector, who is at least a willing patsy. He too, has been wearing a mask. The doddery old incontinent nursing home grouch, so apparently harmless that his nurse has no context with which to recognize the letters DEA when he Ouija boards them for her? Even those who know exactly of what he was once capable now consider him absent of threat. When Gus sends Tyrus to scope out Hector’s room, he’s looking for bugs, for cameras, maybe Gomie hiding under the bed. What he doesn’t think to do is check Hector’s wheelchair for improvised ordnance. Why bother? He’s just some paralyzed old fool, incapable of going to the bathroom himself. What possible threat could he be? But then, what possible threat could a schoolteacher be? A fast food entrepreneur? Agent White Stetson? Look at the man, not the mask.

It was satisfying for Hector to be the agent of Gus’ demise, and not only because it was only after Gus had let his guard down. He may have been a cruel, vicious scumbag, but after all Hector had been through, it was rather sweet for him to have the last laugh, and poignant that they at least could die together.

It’s also possible to derive some satisfaction from Walter’s exit from the season. At the time of production, it was believed that this would be the final episode, not merely of the season, but of Breaking Bad as a whole. There is a sense of an ending throughout the final moments, from the destruction of the superlab to the reassurance that Brock is going to make it; from the reconciliation between the two leads, and their handshake on the roof to the neat and nasty twist that Walter had been the poisoner all along. Furthermore, there’s the final words of the episode, from Walter to Skyler; “I won.” A victory. What better ending than that?

Can it really be so neat? Perhaps not. Fortunately, the show was renewed for a Fifth Season and Walter’s path to Hell was extended just a little further. The Gus Fring plot strand will rightly come to be regarded as one of the key story arcs of the entire show. But it’s not the story arc and to close on this moment would have been a distraction. There’s still one more mask to remove. We’re not done with Walter yet. Michael Noble


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