This is the way the show ends: not with a Fring but a Nazi. From the moment an incognito Walter White bought a machine gun from an underground weapons dealer, we knew it was unlikely that the Final Boss of Breaking Bad would be, like, Skyler, or Jesse, or even Hank, unless Walt saw some percentage in opening fire on the DEA. No, some other, heavily armed criminal force was likely to give Walt his final, fully automatic blaze of glory, but which one? A revived Mexican cartel? Gus Fring's mysterious Chilean contacts? Mercenaries in the employ of the Madrigal megacorporation?
Nope on all counts. Instead, it's looking increasingly likely that the denouement Breaking Bad has now been teasing for two years will pit Walter White in heated battle against Todd's dirtbag Aryan uncle and his mustache-enthusiast prison buddies. Cue the sad trombone.
At first the decision to introduce Walt's late-game antagonists so damn late in the game baffled me. Uncle Jack, Todd, Lydia – could they really hold their own in a category that previously included Gus Fring, Mike Ehrmantraut and the Salamanca clan? Well, no, not really, and I think that's the point. Positioning himself as an emperor, viewing himself as a mastermind, toppling kingpins, walking away clean – this all falls apart thanks to the efforts of a bunch of dudes with swastika neck tattoos. There's a punning logic to it, if you're into that sort of thing: White's supremacy, destroyed by white supremacists. There's an intra-show undermining of its own Mighty Whitey trope, in which the White genius responsible for blue meth beats a whole bunch of brown people at their own game. It's difficult to argue that the show is making an implicitly racist case for these explicitly racist thugs' inherent superiority to anyone. They're not better or smarter than anyone else in this game so far, they're just better armed and in the right place at the right time.
At the heart of the conflict is the ever-more-chilling Todd himself. The more we learn about this kid – mostly through words and actions he doesn't intend to reveal much of anything – the creepier he becomes. He telegraphed his crush on Lydia Rodarte-Quayle, the brains of his ersatz outfit, clumsily and awkwardly. (No more clumsily and awkwardly, granted, then her transparent attempts to play this to her advantage by stringing him along, but that only makes his obliviousness more uncomfortable.) Now, I do wonder if there wasn't a glimmer of recognition of her artifice in the way he smeared her lipstick traces across the surface of her mug of tea before drinking from it himself. Was he fetishizing this remnant of her, or thinking that her kindness to him is something she can put on and take off like makeup?
Todd's relentless courtesy masks the mind of a cold-blooded killer. That much was obvious long before he responded to "Mr. White"'s request to murder his once-beloved partner Jesse with a genial "You got it," never missing a beat. Note the way he joined right in the turkey shoot in the desert, never attempting to dissuade his Uncle Jack or hear Mr. White out. If Lydia becomes inconvenient to him the way Drew Sharp or Declan or Hank and Jesse and Gomez did, no amount of smiling at him with her eyes is going to save her. (Although it could be argued that his willingness to open fire came down to wanting Walt to cook for them again so that Lydia would be happy with the product. Yuck, the mind of Todd Alquist is not a fun place to explore.)
But all this focus on Todd and Jack's happy family elides the fact that this was, until the final minutes, Hank and Jesse's finest hour. Jesse correctly figured out that Walt's wallet, or the 50-gallon-barrel equivalent thereof, was his weak spot. If for the wrong reason: What Jesse attributed to greed, Walt emphatically argued was a desire to provide for his family, since after all, it's not like he's gonna be around to enjoy it himself. I think Walt's desperation during that frantic phone call, and all the other mistakes he's making while he makes it, indicates we can take him at his word here. But of course Jesse wouldn't think this way: To him, Walt's the person who poisoned Brock and retroactively sanctioned the death of Drew Sharp. Any talk about how much he loves his kids is gonna ring hollow.
Jesse's superiority over Walt at long last is signaled in a subtle but powerful way: the sound of his voice during that phone call. Unlike their conversations last episode, where crosscutting was used to show both Walt and Jesse, and Jesse's voice was treated to have that staticky voice-on-a-cellphone sound whenever the camera was on Walt instead, here Jesse is nothing but a disembodied voice, as crystal-clear as if he were sitting right next to Walt. He's still Jesse ("Fire in the hole, bitch!"), but he's omnipresent and inescapable in a way Walt can no longer manage – a voice in his head, an angel and demon on his shoulder, a telltale heart.
Hank, meanwhile, hits the apex of his improvisatory genius. His 1970s horror-film practical-effect brain on the ground convinces Huell that Walt's gone completely rabid at last, and that his own boss, Saul Goodman, is in on the plan. Hank and Gomie don't get the information they need out of Huell, because he doesn't have it, but the ruse serves two alarming purposes for us in the audience: It gives Huell, previously a comically stoic presence, a heartbreaking moment of genuine terror and remorse over his involvement in this whole mess, and it gives us an eerie glimpse of a possible fate for Jesse that'll be difficult to shake even if things don't go that way in the end.
But it's Hank's ruse of the fake barrel of money in the fake desert that takes Heisenberg down once and for all (or would have, if it weren't for Uncle Jack). Hank triumphantly points out to Walt that he found a chink in his usual attention-to-detail armor: He knew that Walt would be so panicked over the potential loss of his money that he wouldn't notice the dirt didn't match the area where the cash is actually buried. He completely out-bullshitted the master bullshitter, as a matter of fact, cutting off Walt's loathsome Andrea/Brock fake-out at the knees. And Walt's total loss of cool and control as he speeds toward the burial site, screaming murder confessions into his tapped phone all the while, finally trumped by two people he long considered his intellectual inferiors, was nearly as viscerally thrilling to watch as it probably was for Hank and Jesse and Gomez to experience first-hand.
That thrill is what sticks with me here, more than anything. I mean, of course it would – the episode ends on a cliffhanger in the middle of a massive gunfight that will most likely end the life of at least one character who's been in the show since the pilot, so yeah, "thrilling" is important. But in all the rampant speculation about how Walt's story will end, including the speculation that began this very review, it's important, for me anyway, to stay focused on why we care at all, and that's the show's emotional impact. That's the job of art, ultimately: inventing ways to make you feel.
As Walt drove, I pumped my fists in the air and cheered. As he wandered around the site realizing he'd been played, I laughed and cursed at him. As he hid behind a rock, cried because he could not escape his brother-in-law and could not bring himself to kill him either, stared off into space completely hollow, I covered my mouth in solemn amazement. As Hank said "Got him" and the camera swooped in on his drawn gun, I just beamed with pride.
Then, as Hank sent Gomie on his way and called Marie to tell her he loved her, I started gasping "Oh no, oh no, oh no, oh no." The only way Walt could have stopped Uncle Jack and company was by telling them his sighting of Jesse was a "false alarm" or something to that effect – no way were they just going to let it drop. For a few agonizing minutes, it was crystal clear that something awful was going to happen, no matter who you were rooting for. Then those trucks pulled up, the guns came out, the bullets started flying and, as we cowered in cars with Walt and Jesse, the end began.
Last episode: The Suite Life of Walt and Skyler