Those familiar with the show's pacing (and those viewers who moan about early-season slowness are plainly NOT familiar) know that the show comes in two speeds: slow-smolder and open-burn. The smoldering stretches flesh out characters, establish motives and provide setup for conflict resolution. Then the burn resolves, upends and eliminates some plot lines, and makes fertile ground for the next smolder.
This episode wasn't just an open burn; it was a conflagration. Everything is on fire, and wildly so. This would have been a good place to conclude the season: every single character is in deep jeopardy; most are in mortal peril. We could have spent nine months wondeirng how everyone might get out of this mess, and it would have been fun to theorize. But there are two episodes to go; this is only going to get ratcheted up further. Hoo-boy.
The show certainly had a new flavor this week; I would call it "operatic." Gus tells his most hated surviving enemy of the extermination of his whole clan! Hector seethes at the killer of his beloved grandson! Mike hovers near death in a makeshift O.R. in Mexico! Skyler's ex-lover gets a comically-dramatic bump on the head -- probably fatal! Having doomed his entire family to death, Walter cackles hysterically in a deep, dark hole of his own making! Literally! All this week's plot points imply exclamation points. It's awful fun to watch, but it feels slightly over-baked. Just slightly.
In establishing a newly-opereratic tone, characters have started to do things that veer from the sensible, so as to pump up the drama. Gus warns Walter that he'll kill his whole family (cold scene) ... but then goes on to tell him that he'll have to kill Hank. Why would Gus say that? Why not just kill Hank without tipping his hand? Telling his least-stable employee such a vital thing defies logic, and leads somewhat predictably to Walter calling some major attention to Gus's operation. And then there's Walter's manner of doing so: he has Saul do it because Walter is too close to the DEA. But weren't you planning on disappearing anyway, Walter? Why protect an identity that's going to be erased? What was the point of that, except to set it up so that he'd have no way out once he realized he was short on cash?
So Walter's in a hole, mired in problems he's been busy making since day one. Rightly so. The theme for this season is, "Walter becomes a liability." Every single character has re-assessed this guy recently. Gus fires him, with a warning as a severance package. Jesse is bitter and mistrustful. Junior revealed last week that he doesn't care for Heisenberg. Saul realizes what a problematic client he is. Mike and his staff have had enough of Walter's s***. And then there's Hank, who at the very least regards Walter as an aggressively bad chauffeur, and who must, finally, start stringing together the catalog of evidence against his brother-in-law that began with him asking, "Can I get a look at the meth lab?" in the pilot. If that odd auto accident doesn't make Hank suspicious, I don't know what will. Like Skyler in season two, they can't put off Hank's enlightenment forever.
The lower-key moments this week worked much better. Tyrus's barely-concealed glee when he smuggled Walter into work in a tub of dirty laundry was wonderful. (Oh, dear Tyrus; I hope they kill you last.) Gus's warm relationship with his doctor was a nice touch. Saul's A-Team ineptly strong-arming Ted into tax compliance was fun (even though Ted's self-offing strained credbillity). Family Game Night with Andrea, Brock and Jesse was heart-warming. (Are Andrea and Brock in danger? Probably.) There are unanswered-questions galore. Is Ted dead? If so, will anyone notice that his second-to-last check stub was written to Skyler? Will Mike recover? Will Jesse remember Mike's second-class-citizen status, and apply it to his own predicament? Will Gus continue to let Jesse be the only employee who will stand up to him? Where IS Hank? Is a DEA raid on the superlab inevitable, and will Jesse be trapped there when it happens? Will Junior learn the truth while in hiding? Does Hector Salamanca still have a play to make, now that he knows what Jesse did? (Prediction: Hector will finally look Gus in the eye to watch his enemy die.)
Will any bit of Walter White emerge from the crawl space ... or will it only be Heisenberg? That insane laughter had some larger meaning, I'm sure.
So this was a strong episode, but not a perfect one. I know that calling this show imperfect brings a rain of thumb-down's; I'm ready for it. And I'm ready to see how they resolve this huge mess: put out the wildfire, or let it consume everything? I remain optimistic that they'll pull of a perfect-10 episode by season's end. It's coming, but, sorry, this was not it.