Breaking Bad "To'hajiilee" Review: The Longest Week Ever
I did some nitpicking last week about near misses—Walter searching an empty house when we expected Jesse to be there, Jesse almost meeting Walter in the plaza but turning tail at the last second—but I was content to know that those ticklings were all in the service of moving characters around and raising some stakes. The idea, I reasoned, was that "Rabid Dog" would take one for the team to set up something grander.
There were no near misses in "To'hajiilee," unless you count the hundreds or possibly thousands of rounds of ammunition that failed to meet flesh in the final scene. The episode was a direct hit and one of the best of the season, maybe even the series. I hate to use the word "perfect" to describe things because I'm the kind of guy who can always find a smudge of dirt or leftover brain matter somewhere, but the final 20 minutes of "To'hajiilee"–everything from when Walter received Hank's Snapchat photo of a barrel of money to the final cut to black–was perfect television and right up there with the Season 3 masterpiece "Half Measures" and with an ending that was reminiscent of "One Minute." Some may find the cliffhanger of the decade a bit hard to swallow, and that's fine (you kids with your instant gratification and all). I don't mind; I'm excited to drag this thing out as long as possible because I'm going to miss the hell out of this show. Now we sit and wait out the longest week ever.
But may I remind you that there was a first half of the episode, and it included one of those things in television that's rarely seen: smart police work. I don't know the extent of the legality of what Hank was doing with the off-the-books detainment of Huell, staged murder-scene photos of Jesse leaking cow brains, or falsified snaps of evidence recovery, but the takeaway here is that Hank is good police as Bunk Moreland would say, and he outsmarted the man who could never be outsmarted. Breaking Bad has always been about brains over brawn, and we all know the winner of this whole contest will be the one who out-thinks the others.
Television policework is too often portrayed as a boring series of hopping from one clue to the next, one witness leading cops to the next until they're close enough to the suspect. It's usually more of a treasure hunt until the required episode's run time is spent than detective stuff, leading everyone on their couch to think they can be a cop. But Hank Schrader took each clue and worked with it. Jesse's grand plan (which turned out to not be so grand after all) led him to Huell, and Hank found the best way to pressure Huell into singing using the information he knew. Hank took the information he got from Huell, and even after a dead end (no GPS on the rental van!) figured out a way to exploit Walter's weakness and get him to scurry out of his hole and lead them right to his desert stash. It can't be understated how fun this was to watch, and thank the TV gods someone figured out how to use cell phones in cop cases in a clever way rather than as vessels for timely reveals or crutches to escape sticky situations.
Meanwhile, after spending a few episodes as Walter the car-wash owner and retired drug kingpin (Zzzzz...), Heisenberg returned in full force (he poked his head out of his lair at the end of "Rabid Dog"). Yes! I missed this guy. I had wondered if his job for Jake the White Supremacist was actually terminating Jesse or was an offer to be the new wax buffer at A1 Car Wash, but he confirmed to Todd that it was a murder job with Jesse on the wrong end and it brought back all that mental anguish from the last ticks of "Rabid Dog." Yet even when Walter was making final arrangements with Jack and Kenny, he was still defending his former partner, letting them know that Jesse wasn't a rat, he was just a problem that needed to be fixed. Oh how wrong you were Walter. And it was Walter's belief that Jesse would never rat on him that would lead to heartbreak later and could be Jesse's end down the line (see the notes section for more).
Heisenberg wasn't done mixing innocents into his mess for his gain, and his visit to Andrea and Brock was vintage sinister Heisenberg. Did I mention how much I love having this asshole back? The fake plastic smile he paints on his face while talking to Brock makes me uncomfortable every time I see it, and the series milked it for maximum effect. This is the Walter White that we need to see more of, the Walter White who is active instead of defensive and demolishing the boundaries of decency.
But this may have been the last time we'll see Heisenberg, because "To'hajiilee" was the rapid collapse of everything he'd built up and that's what made this episode so special. When Walter received the picture of a dug-up barrel of money from a taunting Jesse, it was over even though Walter didn't know it was. Walter thought Jesse was working on his own or maybe with knuckleheads Skinny Pete and Badger, and we watched Walter walk right into a trap laid out by Hank. That's not something we're used to seeing. It's Walter who lays the traps. To paraphrase him, "He's the one who traps!"
But no more, and this second half of the episode, my god. Seeing the flurry of new iconic Breaking Bad images courtesy of another outstanding directing job by Michelle MacLaren and witnessing Walter accept the end of his rope was unarguably a watershed moment for the series.
Jesse was right, he got Walter right where it would hurt him the most: the money. Throughout the series, there's been one consistency about Walter's drug making. He was doing it for the money to support his family. He may have had a few detours with hubris, but he never wanted the power or women like Tony Montana, he just wanted the cash. What the money represented may have changed over the course of the series–it was doctor payments, it was a means out of teaching, it was college funds, it was cars–but ultimately it was always about his legacy and the cushy futures for Walt Jr., Holly, and Skyler. Earlier this season, he emphasized that the money represented everything he had worked for over the last five seasons and he would do anything for it. Given what Walter knew, it wasn't ridiculous that he sped off for the money when Jesse threatened to burn it all, and his raging blindness was only poked and stoked by Jesse on the other end of the phone screaming at him about their past (how cathartic was that call for Jesse?) and ordering Walter not to hang up or the money gets it (but really Hank was tracking Walter's GPS).
My favorite part of the entire episode was watching Walter realize how badly he screwed up and how he was had. When he discovered Jesse wasn't at the site, he knew what he did. Well, part of it. He led Jesse straight to the money. Bryan Cranston was amazing with his non-verbal face-acting here, a silent movie god. Cranston emoted every bit of crushing defeat Walter felt in that moment and resorted to calling Todd's family to make a stand. But Cranston took acting to a whole other level when Jesse showed up with Hank and Steve and an entirely new wave of helplessness washed over him. He had to call off Jack and the Bigot Brigade. No family. We could clearly see the gears turning in Walter's head as he scrambled for one of his trademark Houdini acts, and we could see him stymied at every mental turn. This was it. It was over. And I don't know about you, but I was devastated to see all that defeat in Walter's eyes because Cranston was so good at letting it all show. The holding shot on his face just before the commercial break ripped my guts out and danced all over them.
Walter's surrender was equally powerful and amplified by the well-crafted, artful shots. The direct shot of Walter raising his arms slowly, the behind-the-head shot of Walter slowly walking towards Hank, the closeup of the cuffs on Walter. All the while dialogue was extremely limited and background noise was muzzled by the emptiness of the desert. It all served to magnify Walter's loss and it was magnificent to watch. Adding to the pain was Walter's growl of, "Coward," and Jesse's retaliation with a loogie in Walter's face, a far cry from the good times these two once shared. Remember when Walter smoked Jesse's pot? Ahhhh, memories.
So that was it for "To'hajiilee," have a great week!
Except for those last three minutes or so, when the KKKalvary showed up uninvited to protect their investment in Walter White, and all of a sudden everything that had been awful and terrible about the previous 17 minutes turned to HOLY HELL. The episode had already been punctuated with one giant exclamation mark and didn't need a final shock, but this is the final season of Breaking Bad, so why add a few minutes of gun porn at the end?
Even if Walter had been able to tell Jack to call everything off, and he tried, barking like a puppy from the back seat of Hank's SUV, it's doubtful they would have. This was last-stand territory for everyone involved, and one tumbling tumbleweed away from a classic Western standoff. Wearing the white hats were Hank and Steve, wearing the black hats and twirling their mustaches were Jack, Kenny (and his enormous gun), Todd, Rufus, Clyde, and Travis (I made up those last three names). Vince Gilligan has been getting his love for Westerns across in this final season, and it's a perfect homage for Breaking Bad.
I have no idea how Hank and Steve managed to dodge a million bullets, especially since they weren't behind cover when Kenny first squeezed the trigger, but I'm going to let it slide because, well, frankly, I'm still in complete shock, shaking, and unable to make any decisions. I thought Hank was going to die. I really did. He even gave Marie his death speech, telling her that he caught Heisenberg and that he would be home later, a surefire way to die a sudden, painful death in television. Bullets whizzed, glass shattered, fenders were punctured. Yet all our combatants remained standing.
The decision to cut to black was stunning, and I approve. Cliffhangers can be cheap, but Breaking Bad has been living off them in this final season in fan-friendly ways. Walter and Hank squaring off in the garage, Jesse dousing the White house with gasoline, Hank walking in to talk to Jesse, Walter calling Todd. I don't think the show could do this in a full 13-episode season, but in an eight-episode season? Sure. Season 5b has been flying by at a more accelerated pace than any other season because the writers know these eight episodes are all they have left. This is the final sprint at the end of the marathon, and it's fantastic.
But how are they going to write their way out of THIS one? You can't just call a timeout in the middle of a gunfight. Hank and Steve are effed. However, Walter has one final advantage that can't be taken away from him and has saved his life multiple times: his ability to cook ridiculously awesome meth. Jack needs him for that. If Walter could somehow get in a word to Jack and play his leverage (all the windows are broken now, so Walter could finally be heard if there was a lull in the violence), Walter could save Hank, Jesse, and Steve's lives by refusing to cook for Jack unless a moratorium on bullets is met. And that would flip the advantages once again. Then Walter could rat on Jack and Lydia and give Hank the international drug bust that would make him a superstar in the DEA world while Walter rebuilds his life in New Hampshire. That's been my idea since early this season, and I'm sticking with it.
One last thing that went through my head when I thought Hank was going to die was how upset I'm going to be if any of these main characters eats it before the season ends. I've always been very supportive of Breaking Bad killing several characters before going dark, but when faced with the reality of it, I flinched. I don't want Hank to die! I don't want Jesse to die! I don't want Walter to die! I take it all back! I've now reached the stage of denial in the process of letting Breaking Bad go and can't believe there are only three more episodes before this series is finished. I've been saying this is the best television show I've ever seen since Season 2, and it's episodes like "To'hajiilee" that give me no reason to think differently. A-plus.
NOTES AND CRACKPOT OVER-ANALYZATION
– Was it just me or does Todd have the hots for Lydia? She's everything a guy like him is looking for: female, white.
– Do you see how Jack and Todd and Kenny revere Walter White's ability to cook? See? They really are WHITE supremacists! Okay, I'll show myself the door.
– I love the different chatter about brands. Lydia needed Todd's meth to be blue because that's their brand in the Czech Republic. And Skyler needed Walt Jr. to say, "Have an A1 day!" because that's their brand.
– Where IS Kuby? Could he find his way back to help out someone?
– Saul's parting tip: "Don't drink and drive, but if you do, call me!" And how great was Walt Jr.'s awe at seeing a real-live celebrity in the car wash?
– That top image in the story that I captured is so awesome. That's the summary of that sequence. So many great shots from MacLaren in this one.
– I still think Lydia and Jack's crew are the real get for a drug bust. But I'm having problems figuring out who Walter would be targeting with the ricin he retrieved in the flashforwards. Perhaps one member of the white guys got away, maybe someone took Walter's money and he's back to get it, maybe he's still mad at Jesse for flipping on him. I don't know. Here's a thought: the final scene of the flashforwards is Walter handing an unknowing Jesse a ricinized something or other, the perfect ending to the story of a man who broke bad truly and completely.
– I'm fortunate enough to watch these episodes for the first time on screeners without commercials. I always rewatch the broadcast version and can't believe how the tension is cut by ads. If there's a way to watch Breaking Bad without commercials, you should. It's amazing. This season is going to be incredible on Netflix. (Send me free months, Netflix!)
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