WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS. BE SURE YOU’VE WATCHED THE EPISODE FIRST.
I want to begin by making a statement upfront. This review is painful for me to write. Up until this moment, I firmly believed that Breaking Bad was a candidate for the greatest American television show of all time. I could not name a single episode that was sub-par or in any way disappointing…until tonight. In fact, I would go so far as to say that, barring some kind of major course correction in next week’s episode, Breaking Bad has suddenly and unexpectedly jumped the blue shark.
I do not say this lightly. I am no troll. But tonight Gilligan and Company essentially destroyed the character of Walt for no discernible reason and I’m very disturbed by it. I had to write this because, looking around the various reviews and talkbalks, I see that no one has noticed just how horribly wrong the show went last night, and I find that almost as disappointing as the show itself. I thought the fans of this show were, on the whole, much more discerning than your average viewer. But lacking the catharsis of having others give voice to my bitter disappointment, I feel compelled to write this review.
I’ll address the simplest criticism first: the gunfight at the end. It was ludicrous in every detail. This is particularly disappointing given the utterly realistic nature of previous shootouts over the previous four seasons. The shootout with Tuco, the big ambush of Hank in the parking lot that put him into the hospital are two examples of the level of brutal realism that served as the norm on Breaking Bad. It was plausible, it was gritty, and always well-directed. Even in the chaos of the violence, the audience knew spatially where everyone in the scene was placed, and the action was choreographed with masterful skill, dumping the usual shakycam quickcutting garbage that’s so popular among talentless hack directors too lazy to map out and actually direct action sequences these days. And apart from the pure function of the action, the motives behind and consequences of the violence were always realistically presented and logical.
Sadly, it’s as if the writers and directors of Strike Back kidnapped the Breaking Bad writers while they were out on a coffee break, broke into the writer’s room and penned the last scene in the desert. Because that shootout was like a bad joke.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy Strike Back a lot for what it is – a live action cartoon that borders on being a video game. There’s nothing wrong with that. Every movie or television show has its own set of rules. It doesn’t really matter what those rules are, but once they’re established the show has a responsibility to respect them. Yes, in Strike Back you can have entire divisions surrounding a building and shooting at the two heroes with rocket launchers and have them emerge not only alive but wisecracking and a little dirty because that’s how their universe functions. Those are the rules, common to most action movies…the entire Russian army will shoot at Rambo in an open field and he won’t take even one slug…and if he does, it’ll be a flesh wound, maybe a hit in the leg so he limps for a few minutes then forgets about it. It’s utterly stupid, but expected, and no one is overly troubled by it.
But Breaking Bad is not Strike Back or Rambo: First Blood 2. Breaking Bad has set the bar for gritty unflinching realism. So how did this disastrous scene happen? Let’s break down the problems:
- Logistical: Hank and Gomie have guns loaded with limitless ammo. They’re just standing there, emptying their clips at the guys who have both superior firepower, numbers, and cover…and why not? They’ve set their Playstation 3 into God mode, so they can’t run out of ammo, and they can’t get hit. Amazing…I didn’t know Breaking Bad had a God mode. This alone is such a false note, such lazy storytelling and direction, it’s enough to make this the worst episode of Breaking Bad so far. It’s not enough to make the show jump the blue shark, but given the level of perfection and integrity the show has displayed during its run, this kind of hack sloppiness is painfully jarring to the point of being embarrassing. And unfortunately, there are other problems that are far worse.
- Contextual: Hank and Gomie are professionals. They have been in or experienced firefights before, they’ve been trained, and they are not suicidal. No cop is going to stand there in the open and just start blasting away at a superior force with superior weapons and superior cover. You could argue that Hank might be emotionally compromised enough to do something insane like that…but Gomie certainly wouldn’t be. And honestly, as good a cop as Hank is, and given his past PTSD issues after the exploding turtle, Tuco and the parking lot attack, even a furious Hank would back down from such a suicidal course. Cops do not commit suicide. Cops are trained to be pragmatic, work with backup. They wouldn’t have started blasting away like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. They’d have ducked behind their truck, attempted to at least understand what the hell is going on here, what these guys want, asking the questions: Is there a way to deescalate this? Can we hold out till backup arrives? What about our responsibility to keep our prisoners alive? What about our families at home…are we going to throw our lives away in this situation just because we’re angry? Certainly if, in the end, after consideration they assessed there was no other way and that they were dead men, they would surely choose to go out with guns blazing, but as it unfolded this scene didn’t ring true given the way Gilligan has written these characters…and therein lies the greatest problem.
- Violating Character Integrity: The worst part of all this, the thing that may have sent this show jumping over the blue shark, is the writers completely trashed the character of Walt in the final scene, disregarding everything established about Walt in the previous five seasons. Time and time again we’ve seen that if Walt has one tragic flaw, it is his pride. He got into the business of meth cooking for pragmatic reasons, but ultimately Walt became a monster because his pride drove him to it. Walt is an angry man. He is angry that his genius has not been recognized, and worse, other people are enjoying the success that should’ve been his. In particular, he has always resented Hank, the macho blowhard DEA agent who always looked at Walt like a “little buddy”, a bookish academic, not really much of a man…nice, but harmless. All these facts were ignored at the end of this episode, making Walt behave in a way he never would…surely, the worst sin a drama can possibly commit.
Walt would not have surrendered to Hank. This decision utterly violates the integrity of the entire premise, and contradicts every episode that came before. It is a shocking and causal trashing of this character that I fear jeopardizes Breaking Bad’s place in television history. Let’s look at what happened here.
Walt surrenders. What does this actually mean? It means that everything Walt has worked for is undone. The money will be confiscated, all of it. He will die leaving his family unprovided for, his greatest fear since the beginning. Not only will Walt Jr. be left without a father, he will also be left without a mother, because Skyler is going down too. So the family is utterly destroyed, Walt Jr. is left penniless, alone and stigmatized, their baby will likewise be screwed, and EVERY SINGLE HORRIBLE THING THAT WALT DID THAT DAMAGED HIS FAMILY AND MURDERED HIS SOUL WAS FOR NOTHING.
There are those who will argue: Walt was desperate, Walt was tired, Walt couldn’t take anymore. That’s an incredibly weak argument, and I dismiss it. Walt does not fold under pressure, no exceptions. Look at all that has happened before…Walt kneeling with a black hood in the desert, thinking Gus is about to kill him…and still he poses the question: “Or what? I don’t back down, what’re you going to do?” Walt confronting Tuco and blowing him (and himself and a big part of the building) the fuck up. Walt going to any and all lengths to realize his goal, employing every ruthless stratagem, sparing no resource, breaking every rule, to secure his family’s legacy. The show has shown that time and time again…and they expect us to believe that Walt is just going to surrender? He has those guys on the phone who could save him if he held out long enough…but instead of telling them to come running, he tells them to stop. He surrenders in that moment.
Someone may say: well, he changed his mind. He was tired, he couldn’t face killing Jesse and Hank. People do unexpected shit all the time. True enough…but on a show like this, you have a responsibility to maintain the integrity of a character. Random things happen everyday, but art should not be random. If a character does something completely contradictory to his established character, that’s fine…in fact, that’s the essence of drama, but goddammit, you can’t just have this complete change of course come out of the blue. You have to show us the thought process that led him to this through his actions, the transformation that lead him to that place, an incident that changed him…the change cannot be entirely internal without any kind of outward evidence, otherwise it’s a cheap cheat. It’s breaking the rules of that universe for convenience, for lazy shock value.
Not only does surrendering to Hank go against every practical result Walt has risked his life to achieve – financial stability for his family – it also goes completely against Walt’s innermost drive to WIN. Walt’s ego has consistently gotten him in trouble over the course of this season. Hank was neutralized and off the case, and Walt had to shoot his mouth off that Heisenberg might still be out there. He won’t stop because he’s in the “empire business”. “I AM the ONE who KNOCKS!” The man has a deep need to be respected, acknowledged, even feared…and the writers want me to believe that he’s going to submit himself to the horrible indignity of being cuffed like an animal, gloated over by Hank and Marie, let his life’s work all be for nothing? WHY? Why this change, all of a sudden…and no one can argue that it isn’t sudden, because Walt has already decided to kill Jesse. He came to that bridge, and crossed it. And having Jesse then attack him, working with Hank to take him down…this is not going to change his mind. In fact, you can’t argue and say that sudden love and mercy for Jesse made him give up at the end. You could make that case if, while hunched behind the rock, Walt was on the phone trying to decide what to do. He looks down…and sees the watch that Jesse gave him. The one token of respect on a birthday where everyone else treated him like shit. He closes his eyes. He surrenders. And when he’s standing in front of Jesse being read his rights, his eyes tear up and all he says to Jesse is “Sorry”. You might make a case for that decision then. But did it go down that way? Hell no. He glares at Jesse with contempt, and the single word he says to him is “coward”.
Clearly, Walt has stronger feelings for Jesse than he has ever had for Hank, family or not, so it’s not that he sacrificed his money, his family, and pride to spare fucking Hank. That much is clear. So…what the hell happened here?
The blue turned into a shark, and then the show jumped over it. That scene with the gunfire, where Walt is yelling “No! Don’t” like a bitch? For the guys that just mocked him, cuffed him, spit on him…is that really the Walter White we know? It made me sick to see the character’s consistency violated like that…almost like they’re lurching the ship trying to turn it off course at the last minute, turn Walt into a nice guy, give him a cheap last minute redemption that the audience can feel good about.
I don’t feel good. I feel like Breaking Bad just went right off the fucking rails. If this is the direction they’re going, it’s going to be the single worst waste of potential in television history. And I’m miserable about it.