'Breaking Bad' Recap: Of Monsters and Montages

A half-excruciating, half-exhilarating, all-excellent half-season finale

Ursula Coyote/AMC
Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul)
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It's been a long time since I had that much fun being completely miserable.

"Gliding Over All," last night's "half-season" finale of Breaking Bad, was an exquisitely unpleasant viewing experience for most of its duration. Exhibit A: the first of the show's two montage sequences. Even on a show for which "Jesus Christ, I can barely stand to watch it sometimes" is a recommend-to-a-friend selling point, the montage of murders Walt orchestrates to eliminate Gus Fring's jailed co-conspirators was, for me at least, literally nauseating.

And I want to shake the hands of writer Moira Walley-Beckett and director Michelle MacLaren for that, because it didn't have to be so sickening. They could have taken the easy way out. Once we got an idea of the scope of the operation – the number of murders in separate locations that Walt decreed must go down practically simultaneously – and saw even hardened prison-gang killers balk at its degree of difficulty, the mass murder could have become another high-stakes heist, pretty much. You know, the sort of sprawling, dazzlingly choreographed, breathlessly edited loose-ends slayfest that gained prominence with the baptism massacre in The Godfather, and which crime shows from The Sopranos to Boardwalk Empire love to employ in their early seasons.

But instead of something slick and graceful, we saw men screaming in terror and agony as they were rendered immobile and stabbed repeatedly in the gut and chest, or shrieking as men tossed accelerants into their cells and then lit them on fire. Walley-Beckett and MacLaren refused to skimp on showing human suffering as the end product of Walt's empire. The Nat "King" Cole on the soundtrack, and Walter's "Michael Corleone at the window of the Lake Tahoe house in II" impression, felt as grimly oblivious to what we were really seeing as Walt has been all season long.

The other most awful section of the episode was its final sequence, during which I was distracted by becoming conscious of, literally, the pounding of my heart. Every second Walt Jr. wheeled Holly around that pool, every moment Walt and Hank and Skyler and Marie made their separate small talk, I could feel the blood pulsing through my arteries in big gushes, waiting, just waiting, for the disaster I KNEW would happen.

Did I think some mystery assailant could interrupt the White/Schrader reunion with a bullet through Walt Jr.'s ribcage, just as one possible awful thing that could happen any second? Absolutely, because Breaking Bad strikes me as a show that will shatter any taboo if its creators feel Walt's existence necessitates it. Somewhere in this sprawling interview, Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner says that if you kill a child on your show, the show must then become a show about the death of a child for it to earn the right to cross that line. Obviously Breaking Bad didn't grind to a halt after Todd ruined the great train robbery's happy ending. But moreso even than child-murder factory Game of Thrones, which I'm not convinced ever adequately grappled with its penchant for infanticide in its second season, Breaking Bad is about refusing to let its characters off the hook for their complicity in an enterprise that regularly threatens or destroys the lives of children. When swearing on the lives of his children and promising his estranged wife that his children are safe become foundational statements for Walt, you know this is a show that will call his bluff.

What we got instead came as almost a relief. Obviously, it's funny that Hank cracked the Heisenberg case open – destroying the lives of his entire family while he's at it – while taking a dump, obviously; I like that this is a show that isn't afraid to embed a pivotal, years-in-the-making moment in a poop joke. It was inevitable, too: Of course Hank was going to catch up to Walt eventually, because of course Walt couldn't avoid making fatal mistakes forever, and of course Hank was going to be the show's final boss. And it was both abritrary – this, of all things, was the stupid mistake that sinks Walt? – and fitting – think of how many times, including very recently, Walt got out of a potential game-ending scrape through sheer dumb luck and/or bad decisions by his opponents. It's about time the universe turned the tables on him.

And yet! Surrounding the excruciating stuff? One of the best-looking, best-sounding television shows on God's gray earth. Look at all the marvelously suggestive shot compositions, just for starters: Todd looming out of focus in the extreme left foreground of the frame as Walt sits with his back turned in, hinting that this remorseless go-getter could one day be a threat to Mister White. Prominently placed male extras constantly popping into the frame during Walt's café conversation with Lydia, each one a potential undercover agent or clandestine assassin.

Or listen to the sound design: The oceanic rumble of the bass in Walt's Heisenberg voice as he negotiates with Lydia, a woman who fully believes that he is, indeed, the One Who Knocks. The railroad sounds incongruously emitted as Jesse opens the bags of money Walt left him, money he can't help but associate with the day everything went off the tracks.

Or enjoy the little riches of the performances: Laura Fraser lighting up as Lydia when we finally learn what, exactly, this seeming basketcase brings to the table of one of the most formidable drug operations in America. Anna Gunn holding that purple pillow like a shield as Skyler when she realizes she no longer has any excuses for keeping the kids at her sister's house. Aaron Paul collapsing against the wall of his hermit house as Jesse, looking at his money and his gun like they were covered in larval insects. Bryan Cranston and Dean Norris as Breaking Bad's own Valjean and Javert, both so exhausted by their high-pressure lives at different points that they all but sink into their armchairs.

Or simply watch with a smile on your face as the show demonstrates, time and time again, how much fun it has simply being really well made and pretty to look at: all those gorgeous time-lapse shots of the desert and city and sky. All those why-the-hell-not visual callbacks to past episodes – the fly from "Bug," the ticking clock from "Fifty-One." All those gleefully show-off-y match cuts during the montage set to Tommy James & the Shondells' "Crystal Blue Persuasion." (Who else LOL'd when they realized what song it was?) Even the way a series that had just spent seven episodes on the relatively picayune business of getting Walt's ad hoc operation up and running amid the fallout of Fring just up and made him an international drug kingpin in the space of a single hour.

For a show so rooted in degradation and despair, it can be goddamn delightful to watch, audacious in its own skill. And rarely more so than here. The thoroughgoing quality of this episode, as well as the slide of Walter back into the protagonist slot now that Mike is gone (miss u already!), gave the show a focus and vibrancy that more than made up for the previous two, slightly shaky installments.

It also caps off this short half-season in a way that gives it all thematic sense. We've seen Walt bottom out as a person, morally speaking. Then, in this hour, we see him claw back to a place where he can once again feel empathy and display kindness toward with the most important people in his life, Skyler and Jesse. He even pulls out of the meth game. (OR DOES HE?! Jury's still out, if you ask me.) And . . . none of it matters, because his brother-in-law grabbed the wrong reading material on the porcelain throne.

And it points the way to a frightening future. Of course I wonder how Hank will react to his discovery – part of me even wonders if, having seen what happened to his old boss thanks to his friendship with Gus Fring, Hank will use all his powers and all his skills to hide Heisenberg rather than expose him, while another part wonders if he'll come out of that bathroom with his gun drawn and his handcuffs out. I worry for Jesse's mental health, and Skyler's. I don't think it's an accident that we see our first cancer check-up in ages. I've mentioned my Todd Doomsday Theory already. And I think about the Walt Whitman poem that gave the episode its title, which goes like this:

GLIDING o'er all, through all,
Through Nature, Time, and Space,
As a ship on the waters advancing,
The voyage of the soul – not life alone,
Death, many deaths I'll sing. 

Something – maybe that M60 machine gun from the season premiere – tells me we ain't heard nothing yet.

Last episode: Breaking Down