Note: there are spoilers from previous seasons contained in this review.
Let’s start by talking about Breaking Bad‘s biggest flaw: the Season Two finalé.
When the show first started (in a Writers Strike-truncated First Season), it was an intriguing premise: Walter White (Bryan Cranston) a high school chemistry teacher who finds out he has terminal cancer, and instead of telling his family, he blackmails a thuggish dropout from one of his classes, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) to cook high-quality meth with him.
While the First Season explored the morality of the duo’s numerous fumbles and inexplicable triumphs, Season Two set out bigger fish to fry: deeper, darker, and often times quite funny, it elevated a great concept into something approaching high art. From that season’s onset, we were teased with black and white footage of clues from some event that happened at the White’s home: a burned teddy bear in the pool, a hazmat team picking up Walter’s glasses, etc.
Each new episode teased a little bit more of this mysterious scene, culminating in a wide shot that showed body bags in the White’s driveway, fires coming from nearby houses in the their cozy New Mexican neighborhood, helicopters circling the air. It seemed as if Walter White’s alter-ego Heisenberg has finally caused a horrific catastrophe of unspeakable terror.
Instead of rewarding us for our diligent viewing, however, show creator Vince Gilligan and crew copped-out and instead make the big reveal a mid-air collision between two planes (the air traffic controller responsible for it was the father on Jesse’s girlfriend Jane, whom, a few episodes prior, Walter refused to help when she was choking on her own vomit from a heroin overdose). It was a sucker punch, one that we’d expect from, say, Russel T. Davies, not Gilligan.
To its point though, the show didn’t shy away from their twist: Season Three embraced it rather boldly, and wound up becoming even better than what preceded it, ending with the shocking one-two punch of “Half Measure”/“Full Measure”. Gilligan noted in interviews how Season Two was mapped out rather meticulously in the writers’ room, while Season Three was much more free-form, with the writers creating the characters of “the cousins”—two silent, careful killers that stalked the land looking to end Walter’s life—without knowing what they were eventually going to do (culminating in the stunning highlight known as “One Minute”).
Season Four retains much of Three’s edginess, opening with a powerful, haunting episode called “Box Cutter”, wherein Walt and Jesse must come face-to-face with Gustavo Fring, none too pleased that in order for Walter to save his own life, sent Jesse out to kill Gale Boetticher in a fashion that could only be described as cold-blooded. The stakes are impossibly high, and after the first episode’s shocking act of violence, it settles into a quiet, powerful routine.
The reason why Breaking Bad is better than just about any other show on television is that it knows full well when to slow down. Despite Walt and Jesse continuing to cook in a meth superlab, the show’s most memorable sequences don’t come from explosions and gunfights: they come from the little moments. Take, for example, the scene wherein Walter’s wife Skylar (the rather brilliant Anna Gunn) goes over the elaborate narrative that she and Walter will try to sell their family friends Hank and Marie about Walter having a crippling gambling addition.
It’s all a guise for Walter’s drug money, of course, but Skylar, the wannabe fiction writer, goes through every detail in a multi-page script she’s written out, Walter looking on disinterested and slightly angry. He waves the papers around as if he’s finding in his place but it’s Skylar who’s on top of things, covering up every leak and every hole in their story as best they can. Their disagreements over their exact phrasing, Skylar’s fretting over whether or not she should shed a tear—it’s darkly comic, and rather indicative of their slowly-thawing relationship.
If there’s a big overarching theme to Season Four, it would be loyalty. Skylar rigs an elaborate deal to buy the car wash that Walter formerly worked at because she figures it’d be a more plausible place to launder money through. This isn’t what Skylar wants to do with her life, but after torturing Walt emotionally all throughout Season’s Two and Three, she slowly, slowly draws closer to him as she gets more and more involved in his illegal activities.
Real warmth develops between them again, and along with that, a real sense of danger, leading up to Skylar asking if someone will be knocking at the door to kill Walter, to which he replies—in a raging Heisenberg-revealing speech—that “I am the one who knocks!” Walter White once believed that by cooking meth he could provide for his family. Now, his actions have lead him to do everything he can to protect them, as the possibility of death lingers greater than ever before.
The loyalty between Walt and Jesse is also tested. After Walter saved Jesse’s life near the end of Season Three, he asked Jesse to kill Gale Boetticher for him, which (in turn) saved his life. Walter seems to have less and less guilt about taking the lives of others, but for Jesse, killing Gale was traumatic, causing him to turn his house into a non-stop party, one that slowly devolves into a druggy haze where stoners and slackers hang out, casual rape takes place, and Jesse can drown himself in vice as a way of distracting himself from the emotional pain he’s in.
When he becomes too much of a risk, Mike (Jonathan Banks, who provides so much humor with so few words) decides to take Jesse on a series of dangerous missions, which Jesse proves surprisingly adept at. His self-worth increases, and Mike even tells him that the reason why he’s being given such important duties is likely because of his loyalty. Mike warns him that it might be for the wrong guy though, because as Walt clues into it, it all makes sense: Gus wants to turn the two against each other.
Gustavo Fring, the pleasant fast-food chain owner by day, calculating meth kingpin by night, however, has his own loyalty. The character—which has quickly become one of the most iconic villains in all of television for good reason—finally gets some of his own backstory fleshed out, as we see why he cares so much about visiting the aging, wheelchair-bound former drug lord Hector Salamanca in a nursing home. Gus is not one to let any of his decisions be based in emotion, but a lengthy flashback his days trying to win over the Mexican cartel provide some insight as to how he got to where he is today.
All of this collides, however, in the season’s final three episodes. Pieces slowly come together: Walt and Jesse draw further apart, Walt’s brother-in-law—DEA agent Hank Schrader (Dean Norris)—slowly begins to suspect that somehow DEA philanthropist Gus Fring might be behind the abundance of blue meth appearing all across the southwest, and Skylar’s previous job cooking books for one-time love affair Ted Beneke comes back to bite her hard in the form of a alibi-busting IRS audit.
The screws slowly turn, some episodes made entirely of gradual plot and character development, and then, in one quick action, the dominoes come tumbling over. That episode where it starts, “Crawl Space”, ends in a fashion that is closer in spirit to a horror movie than it is a prime-time drama, Dave Porter’s haunting, devastating score pulsing underneath a scene where a desperate Walter completely, completely loses his mind (you’ll know exactly what it is when you see it). This all builds to the unforgettable season finale (“Face Off”), culminating in one of the single most haunting images you will ever see on television (again, you’ll know exactly what it is when you see it).
Gilligan has said in interviews that he got bored with most television shows where a character starts out as a basic archetype (“the good guy”) and, by the time the show ends, they’re largely the same (“still a good guy”). He wanted to flip that, and, with Breaking Bad, slowly turn “Mr. Chips into Scarface.” The final shot of the season shows just how far Walter will go to protect himself, and the revelation proves downright sickening. Yet, somehow, we still root for him.
During this time, Jesse has turned from the saggy-clothed dropout with an affinity for the word “bitch” to what is actually the show’s moral center, the one person who can see what is truly wrong and what is truly right and even manages to still do some wrong out of his unquestioning loyalty to Walter. Jesse never had a father figure, and even though Walter has a disabled son (RJ Mitte), the connection just isn’t the same. Even when Walt Jr. visits his father, bruised and beaten after a friendship-ending fight with Jesse, Walter breaks down and cries in an act of contrition that only his son will see. As Walt Jr. puts his dad to bed and leaves the room, he still stops at the moment when the exhausted Walter briefly refers to his own son as “Jesse”.
Season Four is a showcase of masterful storytelling, as there is not a single moment, scene, shot, or line that feels disingenuous or out of place. Every scene is building towards something. Every scene has purpose. Some of these scenes are simultaneously quirky and haunting at the same time (when Walt grows fearful that there might be people in his house waiting to kill him, he parks his car a block away and calls his elderly neighbor to check and see if Jr. left the stove on as they are currently on a family trip—putting her in explicit danger), some are shocking (Gus’ “gift” to the cartel), and some are just plain funny (“Should I even ask?” Walter asks, exasperated, when Mike and Jesse walk through the lab with a body in a barrel; “I wouldn’t,” Mike dryly quips).
No character is wasted, and even as Walt’s Gus-assigned caretaker Tyrus has only about five lines in the course of the whole season, the humorous contempt the two have for each other is enough to give both a large amount of dimension (when Hank grows suspicious of the laundry building where the meth superlab is housed, Walt is brought in to the building discreetly in a bin of dirty laundry; “Do the sheets have to be dirty?” Walt asks—Tyrus looks at him, quietly smug, before saying “Nope.”). Television writing doesn’t get much better than this.
For aficionados and fans, there’s a solid amount of bonus material to be had here. A lot of the featurettes wind up circling the same territory (there’s a lot of tours of the set in these features—we sometimes visit the same sets multiple times over the course of them), and the deleted scenes are all wisely deleted, as they accomplish little (Walt Jr.‘s birthday party) or even wind up being contradictory to the characters in question (as in one where Gus tells Jesse rather bluntly why he’s interested in tormenting Hector Salamanca—something that’s supremely ill-fitting to Gus’ secretive, unemotional nature).
That said, a lot of what’s left is extremely fun. There’s a good gag reel, some incisive thoughts from the costume designer regarding the changing color palettes for the characters, gut-busting commentary tracks (wherein Cranston pretty much gets the entire cast into bursts of laughter), and—best of all—a lot of looks at the show’s various special effects. While the “image from the season finale” gets a 20-minute doc in and of itself (and rightly so), there’s also a great one for the episode “Shotgun” in which Jesse has to drive a car backwards in order to stop some would-be hijackers It doesn’t sound like an effects-heavy scene, but we actually see how the crew removed the driver’s side seat and actually had a stunt driver dressed as a car seat in order to pull the stunt off. It’s one of those special effects that is so good you hardly even realized they used a special effect, and shows great enthusiasm/camaraderie from the entire cast (the “behind the scenes” video with the crew, however, is pretty much entirely dismissible).
When all is said and done, even true fans must admit to a few small flaws in the show’s First and Second Seasons. Yet even taking that into consideration, it’s hard to think of a show that delivers as consistently and powerfully as Breaking Bad does. Season Three turned into an event, and showcased how the show had become one of the best in all of television. With it’s absolutely flawless, game-changing Season Four, Breaking Bad inches closer and closer to becoming one of the greatest television shows of all time, full stop. Now with only 16 more episodes to go, we’ll see if it finally clinches that title for good.