September 3, 2012


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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Visually, this season of BREAKING BAD has been typified by shots of Walter White’s looming, shaven, gleaming skull.  A bald pate may not have received this much loving camera attention since Brando’s in Apocalypse Now, and in tonight’s season finale, it was featured again, most notably in the great shot as Heisenberg fastened his hat onto that head after no-coffee-thanks with Lydia (Laura Fraser), and we saw that had she not appealed to his greed and ego by offering him the riches of the Czech Republic, where 5% of the population uses meth and they’ve never seen drugs with the purity of his (she didn’t actually use the Scarface phrase “The world is yours,” but that was the idea), he would have murdered her, just as she feared, with the ricin that’s been burning a hole in his electrical outlet.  There’s something imposing and elemental about that bare skull, but also something vulnerable; it could crack so easily.

Tonight’s episode, written by Supervising Producer Moira Whalley-Beckett and directed by Michelle MacLaren, didn’t much feel like a season finale until its closing moments, and there’s a reason for that.  AMC worked out its last deal with Bad creator Vince Gilligan by agreeing to order 16 final episodes, and didn’t decide until afterwards that it would air 8 of them this summer and the remaining 8 in summer 2013.  So this was actually the midpoint of the show’s final season, and as such it was a splendid hour.  MacLaren, an executive producer of the show who serves as supervisor of the visiting directors as well as directing some of the episodes herself, has been behind the camera on some of the best hours of the series, like the one where Hank (Dean Norris) got shot, and the one where Walter (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse (Aaron Paul) were marooned in the desert in their meth lab RV.  Here she delivered a dazzling montage of prison murders to Nat King Cole’s insoucient recording of “Pick Yourself Up,” and two spectacularly tense scenes in which almost nothing actually happened, first when Walt visited Jesse (another scene with a perfectly timed punchline, as Jesse finally discarded the gun he’d been packing after he discovered Walt had brought money instead of death), and the poolside sequence that led up to the episode’s ending.

Any controversy about the episode is likely to concern that final 30 seconds when (SPOILER ALERT) Hank finally realized that Walt and Heisenberg were the same man–not because of that realization itself, which has been brewing at least since last season, but for the manner in which it occurred:  Hank accidentally discovering that Walt’s toilet reading material included the copy of “Leaves of Grass” that dear dead Gale had inscribed to “WW.”  The casual nature of the discovery felt exactly right, and it’s easy enough to believe that Walt’s egotism would cause him to overlook just this kind of detail–what seemed far-fetched was that this is the kind of reading Walt does in the bathroom.  But that can be attributed to Breaking Bad‘s skewed sense of humor.

Much of the rest of the episode showcased the accumulating sense of dread that accompanies Walter White even when things are going well.  The almost abstract pile of money that’s been pouring in, more than Skyler (Anna Gunn) can possibly launder, Walt’s distracted air while Todd’s (Jesse Plemons) skinhead relatives debated the logistics of mass murder, his inability to sustain even a seemingly affectionate conversation with Jesse–Walt can barely pretend to be a functioning human these days.  One may fairly wonder whether, on some level, he’ll be glad to have his secret out, happy to have everyone know his true name and to be, as we saw in the season-opening flashforward, buying automatic weapons and preparing for war.  Could he ever really have been happy, after all he’s done, sipping wine and making small-talk while his kids play in the sun?  (It’s also possible that our brief glimpse of him underoing an MRI, with a callback to the hospital paper towel dispenser he’d pummeled early in the series, was a hint that his cancer is back, a development also implicit in the flashforward.)

One can’t really compare this season of Breaking Bad to past seasons, because as noted this is just the first half of the show’s final arc.  It was wise of Gilligan not to even try and replace the great Gus Fring with any other Big Bad, since no one could have come close, and although it was painful to bid farewell to Mike (Jonathan Banks), the show gave him a superb final episode and exit.  On the other hand, there have been some gaps in narrative logic (those scenes where Walter planted and then removed the bug in Hank’s office were remarkably sloppy for such a careful show), the perpetually jumpy Lydia hasn’t been much of a character, and Todd hasn’t been developed as deeply as his increasing importance would have justified.  For the most part, though, as it has from the start, Breaking Bad has been anchored by Walter White, the mutual signature creation of Gilligan and Cranston, and by now one of pop culture’s emblematic anti-heroes.  Walter’s rise in material success as his insides rot away has been as riveting a journey as Michael Corleone’s, and as beautifully portrayed.

Breaking Bad prepares to enter its back 9 (or 8, as it happens) with as strong a record for quality as any series on television.  As we embark on a nearly year-long wait for its finale, all we can say to its creators–as Walter himself would snarl at his subordinates–is:  Don’t screw it up.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."