Monday, October 10, 2011

A Slow Burn Season For "Breaking Bad"

The season finale of "Breaking Bad" aired last night. It's been an interesting year, so I'm putting in my spoiler-ific two cents on what went down and what I think is coming up next year, in the show's last sixteen episodes.

This was the first year of "Breaking Bad" I got to follow from week to week as it was being broadcast. Unlike past seasons, this one started out slow, with a lot of very character-centric episodes that didn't advance the plot in very big or flashy ways. Waiting a week between episodes made it feel even slower. However, installments kept building and building on each other, each week bringing a greater sense of inertia toward some unknown endgame. Instead of the hairpin plot twists and left-field surprises of years past, season four was a single long run-up to an explosive finale.

There was a lot of shrewd maneuvering going on in the storytelling department from the start. Walter White spent much of of this year on the sidelines, while the story followed Skyler dealing with the car wash and Ted Beneke, Hank circling Gus's operations, Jesse's apprenticeship with Mike, and Gus waging war against the Mexican cartel. Every time Walt tried to make a move, he was faced with surveillance cameras, Gus's muscle, and his own inadequacies. He made a lot of major missteps, including alienating Jesse. There was a lot going on totally out of Walt's knowledge or control, such as the Beneke situation and the cartel war, that nonetheless had a direct impact on him. And we could see it eating at him, episode after episode. The whole eventful year, in some ways, was about getting Walt to a place of such impotence and desperation, that he would cross the line and carry out the plan we see unfold in the finale.

I'm going to miss Giancarlo Esposito as Gus, who wasn't always the most logically sound villain on television, but has consistently been a character of great presence. In his own way, he was as over-the-top as Tuco or the cousins. Gustavo Fring emerged this year as a cold-blooded creature who could literally sense danger from a hundred paces, yet expertly hid away his dark side under a veneer of unflappable professionalism. His last act on earth, fittingly enough, was adjusting hs tie with half his face blown-off in one of "Breaking Bad's" most graphic and surreal moments. The scenes between Gus and Hector Salamanca were among the highlights of this season, and kudos to Mark Margolis for delivering such a darkly comic performance despite so many physical limitations. The final casualty of the evening, Tyrus, played by Ray Campbell, I wasn't so attached to. I spent most of this year waiting for him to do something interesting, but nothing happened. He's one of the rare "Breaking Bad" characters who didn't have any hidden depths or a noteworthy personality. Oh well. Can't win 'em all.

Among the rest of the returning cast, everybody got their moment. Hank and Marie's marital troubles were heartrending, but eased up when Hank started playing detective. Walt Jr. had about as much screen time as his baby sister, barely enough to stay consequential. Saul Goodman, played by the indispensable Bob Odenkirk, was as good as ever, but stayed in his own box. The secondary characters with the best arcs this season numbered three: Jesse, Mike, and Skyler. This was the year Jesse came into his own, recovering from a personal low brought about by last year's shooting, and got some measure of confidence and self-worth back. Ironically, he still ended up being manipulated by Walt, and his enduring loyalty has become a tragic flaw. On the other hand, realizing the betrayal could push Jesse over the edge in the future. Mike, the character I'm looking forward to learning more about next season, successfully managed to drive a wedge between Jesse and Walt, although briefly, and it remains to be seen what he'll do when he gets back from Mexico and finds Gus dead. Aaron Paul and Jonathan Banks were great this season, but in a three-way showdown for the Supporting Actor Emmy, I think I'd give it to Giancarlo Esposito.

And then we have Skyler, who had a lot more to do this year, and Anna Gunn made her considerably more sympathetic than in seasons past. Skyler followed Walt's lead in breaking bad and badder, using strongarm tactics and outright fraud to acquire the car wash. Then, after last year's relationship with Ted Beneke came back to threaten her, she inadvertently caused his death and put the family precariously close to bankruptcy again - exactly the sort of shenanigans Walt was pulling in the first two seasons. Does this mean we'll see her cross even more lines next year, when Walt becomes the Scarface figure that the show's creators have been setting him up to be since the show began? Or will she be his downfall? I don't see many major new players being added to the show this late in the game, which means the final Big Bads of "Breaking Bad" are probably going to be Hank and the DEA, because they're the only major opponents who are still in the game. That may finally put Skyler squarely in the middle, with Hank and Marie on one side, and Walt and the kids on the other.

So it's been a good season on all fronts for "Breaking Bad." Seeing the finale, with its quicker pace and moments of black humor (the whole scene with Hector and the DEA was priceless) made me realize how much more psychologically focused and suspenseful the recent episodes have been, and it's not a bad change. The show has been steadily evolving since the first season, and now that it's spent all this time building up the major characters, it's time to see what happens when they finally come in direct opposition with each other. The show's slow burn is far from finished. I wouldn't be surprised if Walter White went down at the hands of Jesse or Skyler, the two people closest to him, who he's done the most damage to. Or is there enough humanity left in Walt that he'd take the bullet for them in the end?

Sixteen more episodes until the end, and it's going to be a long wait until next summer.

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