Absolutely, unequivocally perfect.
Breaking Bad has always, at its core, been a show about consequence. A series less about the act of transgressing – though much of its best material in the early years did revolve around how Walt was brought to the point of committing crimes – than the actual results of those wrongdoings, and how one transgressive act always, without fail, begets more. From cleaning up dead bodies and cook sites to killing enemies (both potential and immediate) to burying money and getting in bed with neo-Nazis, the story of Walter White – and, by extension, the arc of Breaking Bad – has from the beginning been a tale of crime and violence spawning more, increasingly deadly crime and violence. Whether the show played Walt’s wrongdoings as comical mishap – the hydrofluoric acid melting through Jesse’s second-story ceiling, pretty much anything with Saul, etc. – or as deadly serious tragedy – Walt having to strangle Emilio, Hank being attacked by the cousins, Walt’s season-long war against Gus, and so on – the source of Breaking Bad’s dramatic power and thematic heft has consistently lain in the way it explores the aftermath of crime and the subsequent inescapability of transgression.
“To’hajiilee” is not the series finale – three more weeks until we reach that point – but as an absolute culmination of those major ideas, it sure feels like it could have been one, and I for one would have had no complaints. In depicting the moment at which Walter White’s many crimes come crashing down upon him, and how powerless he is to stop the runaway freight train of violence he himself set into motion, “To’hajiilee” was a veritable master class of pay-off, bringing five-plus years of storytelling to a head in the most satisfying way imaginable, and then igniting the collected powder-keg under circumstances that are absolutely true to both the themes and style of this great, great show.
All season long I have been talking about how many of the big, long-anticipated moments Vince Gilligan and company have nailed; from Walt and Hank confronting each other directly, to Skyler going all in supporting Walt’s criminal actions, to Jesse finding about Brock being poisoned, Breaking Bad has not shied away from pushing its story and characters as far as possible this year, and “To’hajiilee” is easily the most extreme example of this creative ethos so far.
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Even if the episode had not included the arrest of Walter White and everything that followed, simply getting to watch that glorious war of wits between Walt and Hank unfold would have been plenty of pay-off for one week. The episode’s first three acts were specifically structured, in fact, to end with Jesse, Walt, and Hank, respectively, having a mental breakthrough, only for the fruits of their mental gymnastics to be revealed after the commercial break. And in watching Hank and Gomez trick Huell into giving them information, Walt manipulate Andrea into drawing Jesse out, and finally, Hank and Jesse using Walt’s barrels of money at the ultimate trump card, we witnessed three master gamesman at work. All three of these characters have, of course, been far less capable at various points in the series – Hank, for instance, couldn’t have even come close to coolly and collectedly tricking Huell the way he does here at the start of the season – but at this point in the story, each has nothing left to lose, and a growing share of vendettas to settle. Seeing the ensuing mind games unfold, each played out from afar but with expert precision, was a rather brilliant bit of narrative culmination in its own right.
But from the instant Walt sees that faked picture of his money barrel, “To’hajiilee” kicks into the highest gear possible to flawlessly deliver what may be the single most important moment in the history of the series thus far: the arrest and downfall of Walter Hartwell White.
George Mastras’ writing was absolutely impeccable throughout, particularly noticeable, to my mind, for its minimalism, covering large swaths of narrative and thematic territory without an overabundance of dialogue, leaving ample space for the show’s greatest and most significant director, Michelle MacLaren, to do her thing. I spoke about MacLaren’s legacy of stylistic contributions to this series at length in my review of “Buried,” the second episode of this season and her most recent directorial outing, and in that piece noted that her third season episode “One Minute” – best remembered for Hank’s shootout with the cousins, but a landmark also for Jesse’s hospital-bed speech about hurting Hank and countless other absolutely tremendous sequences – stood as the series’ single best hour. That probably still remains true, if only for the fact that “One Minute” can boast what is likely the all-time greatest televised action scene, but for me, “To’hajiilee” is an awful close second, and a lot of what made this episode land with the impact it did comes down to the way MacLaren stages and directs the hour’s second half.
After all, no sequence could possibly be more imperative to the legacy of Breaking Bad than the arrest of Walter White (other than his hypothetical death, I suppose), and that MacLaren built that scene and everything leading up to it in a way that maximized and enhanced every single emotion on display – whether felt by the characters, the audience, or both – surely puts “To’hajiilee” in the highest of television tiers. The structure of Mastras’ script is masterful, with Jesse egging Walt on until he incriminates himself spectacularly –“I ran over those gangbangers! I killed Emilio and Crazy 8!” – calling Uncle Jack when he fears his life is in danger, and then finally giving himself up when he realizes murdering Hank is the line he will not transgress, but it is the way in which MacLaren allows each of those steps in the narrative to breathe that allows them to hit as hard as they do.
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First, she stages Walt’s cell-phone incrimination with remarkable aplomb, creating a terrifyingly intense sense of motion via multiple visceral shots of Walt’s car speeding down the highway, and framing Bryan Cranston’s face amidst the speeding landscape when the unwilling confessions start coming. Then, when Walt arrives and realizes he has been duped, she lets the moment sink in. Just Walt stumbling around the desert, putting things together, a breathless calm before the inevitable storm. And after ratcheting the tension back up to 11 when Walt calls Uncle Jack – a moment in which every member of the audience is surely thinking back to “One Minute,” the last time Hank was involved in a deadly shootout – MacLaren allows a calmer atmosphere to take over once more. Walt tells Uncle Jack to stay put, leans against the rock, and accepts defeat. For what feels like a full minute or more, the camera slowly, gradually zooms in on Cranston’s face, pulse-pounding intensity replaced by emotional immediacy. And then he stands up, and MacLaren cuts no corners in depicting his long walk towards justice. Every step is felt. The landscape seems to swallow Walt and the other characters. When he puts his hands behind his head, the shot is framed as though it is an iconic moment from an all-time great Western.
Finally, Hank slaps the cuffs on and reads the Miranda rights, and all I could think was ‘perfect.’ Perfect. Absolutely splendid. No depiction of Walt’s downfall could feel more satisfying or earned, not only because the narrative steps that got us there were plausible and fully realized, but because the episode took the time to let the emotions of the moment fully develop. We see Walt’s point-of-view as he prepares to give himself up. We see the distraught and confused reaction on Jesse’s face, before it balloons into a look of unmitigated joy and relief, and hard-earned happiness he thought he would never experience. We see Gomez’s amazement that it all came together, and hear the total fulfillment in Hank’s voice as declares Walter White under arrest. It is perfect. All of it. Not an ounce of the sequence could have been executed any better.
And all through it, this viewer, at least, was just as tense as when he first saw the final act of “One Minute.”
Because no matter how fulfilling Walter White’s arrest may be, Gilligan and company made an expert move last year in giving us a flash-forward to Walter White’s dark future, and in filling in some details on that future in this year’s premiere. Walt may get arrested, but we know he will be free less than one year from this point, calmly collecting an arsenal for some unforeseen confrontation, and by that time, the whole world will have apparently learned of his criminal exploits. This story will not end with Hank peacefully taking his brother-in-law to jail, and since Walt had, less than five minutes before the arrest, given his coordinates to a violent gang of neo-Nazis, we have a pretty good idea of how things are going to implode.
That sense of mounting dread is unendurably palpable, embedded in between the lines of every shot in the episode’s final half, and while the arrival of Uncle Jack and his gang is utterly inevitable, nothing about what happens next is in any way diminished by the audience’s sense of expectation. On the contrary. That we know hell is about to descend upon Walt, Hank, Gomez, and Jesse only underlines the core themes of this series: That once the ball of violent criminal actions has started rolling, it cannot be stopped. Walt has tried many times before to exit the business peacefully, and the perceptive viewer knows that this time shall be no different. Walt wants to diffuse the situation. He wants to be taken into custody quietly and without resistance, but his own actions have already made that impossible, and if he is too tunnel-visioned to realize that, the audience is not.
So when Uncle Jack arrives, and the episode’s concluding mayhem begins, it feels just as earned, appropriate, and fulfilling as everything else in the episode. Just as Walter White must eventually face defeat at the hands of Hank and Jesse, he must also have his life thrown into further chaos by the very criminals he associated himself with. And one of my absolute favorite details in the entire episode is how ardently Walt fights against fate in those closing moments, screaming as loud as he can for Hank to take cover, or for Jack to back down. It is all he can do to rail against what he has set in motion, but at this point, the shape of things to come is set in stone.
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And it is for that reason that the final scene of “To’hajiilee” so brilliantly summarizes what Breaking Bad is all about. A series-worth of violence has begat an endless hailstorm of bullets, and all Walter White can do – all he has ever been able to do, in a sense – is to scream and scream and scream against the inescapability of the bloodshed he has wrought. Whatever ‘victories’ or ‘losses’ he had along the way were only temporary – this culmination is absolute, the ultimate symbol of the brutality he has ushered into this world, and how powerless he is to escape its ruthless orbit.
In this way, “To’hajiilee” could have been an exquisite series-ender if that was what Vince Gilligan ultimately had in mind. It would have had much more in common with The Sopranos than any other notable drama finale – sacrificing clear narrative closure in favor of pure thematic summation – but I personally like that kind of ending, and almost feel disappointed that Breaking Bad will continue for three more hours. Do not get me wrong – I am on the edge of my seat with anticipation to see what happens next, and am still hugely enthusiastic about where this series is headed.
But as someone who personally feels that an ending should prioritize a culmination of theme above literal narrative or character-based closure, “To’hajiilee” nailed things so completely for me that I feel like a lot of the pressure has been taken off the final three episodes. I want this show to end on the highest note possible, and I am confident, given the creative team’s track record, that we will witness a terrific conclusion, but if the final hours fail to reach their full potential, I doubt I will feel substantially let down, for we will have already gotten “To’hajiilee,” and “To’hajiilee” was perfect. Nearly everything I value in Breaking Bad is represented here in this one tremendous episode, and while there are certainly some interesting character resolutions still to come – all the major female characters, for instance, are about to have their worlds turned completely upside down – I feel as if everything that needs saying has, in this one episode, already been said.
Walter White committed many crimes. Walter White reached too far. And now, Walter White lies in the back of a DEA van, absolutely powerless to stop the endless hellfire raining down upon him, his brother-in-law, and his surrogate son.
If that isn’t the perfect culmination point for Breaking Bad, then I do not know what is.
- I paid ample praise to Michelle MacLaren for her work on this episode, but Bryan Cranston is of course equally responsible for the hour’s stirring success. I have talked before about how I felt last year’s episodes essentially stranded his performance with a total void of sympathy or humanity, but those qualities have gradually been restored to Walter White this year, at least in part, and Cranston plays Walt’s downfall here as well as I could ever expect. I love that the story allows Walt to finally realize he has gone to far, and to offer himself up to Hank willingly, and I especially love that Cranston is allowed to illustrate all this silently. He has had many wondrously effective moments over the course of this series, but I don’t know if anything quite matches the sight of Walt slumped against that rock, shedding a single tear, allowing himself time to accept the truth before moving on to the next phase of his life. Like the rest of this episode, Cranston’s work was absolute perfection.
- And mad kudos as well, obviously, to Aaron Paul and Dean Norris for their work here. Paul tends to shine brightest when he gets to play a silent, purely emotive Jesse – and there are some great moments of that near the end – but his vocal work when he eggs Mr. White on over the phone is simply stupendous, bursting at the seams with completely honest anger and intensity even as the entire exercise is, in fact, a clever ruse. Great performances all around.
- As far as predictions go for the cliffhanger, I believe Hank dies, while Gomez, Jesse, and (obviously) Walt live. “To’hajiilee” simply foreshadowed Hank’s death far too strongly for him to make it out of this shootout alive – one of the first rules of TV is that if a character says something like “It may be a while before I get home. I love you” to their spouse, they are not long for this world – and moreover, it would be a thematic cheat if he lives. The entire episode is about Walt being pushed to a line he refuses to transgress (killing Hank), and then having that line crossed for him (by Uncle Jack). Hank has to die for those themes to be fulfilled. I would say Gomez must die just as residual fallout, but someone has to reveal Heisenberg’s legacy to the DEA (assuming one of the two had not done so already off-screen). And there is no way Jesse dies, because there are three episodes left to go, and I cannot imagine any version of Breaking Bad’s ending that does not involve its secondary protagonist. That would not feel proper, earned, or satisfying – if the endgame is just Walt dealing with Lydia, Todd, and Uncle Jack, I, for one, would not give a damn.
- I think it is pretty clear, at this point, that Walt’s future arsenal is for Jack and company, given the kind of firepower they show off here, and the kind of threat they are sure to be now that they clearly want Walt cooking for them.
- Do we assume Brock recognized Mr. White from the poisoning incident? Both times he has run into the kid, Walt has looked a bit nervous around him, and Brock has been shy in ways that seem to go beyond his age. Since we saw the kid again here to underline the point, I feel like this will play a part in the series’ endgame.
- I am guessing Walter Jr.’s joyful exclamation of “Have an A1 day!” to Saul will be the last happy moment he has on this series, given what is about to come out about his father.
- I did not mention it earlier, but this is MacLaren’s final episode as director, and Mastras’ last Breaking Bad script. We already went through MacLaren’s resume, but Mastras is significant as being only the third person to ever pen a Breaking Bad episode, behind Vince Gilligan and one-time writer Patty Lin, and he notably wrote or co-wrote many big, game-changing episodes like this one over the life of the series, including “Crazy Handful of Nothing,” “Grilled,” “I.F.T.” (also directed by MacLaren), “Crawl Space,” and “Dead Freight.” Tonight’s episode seems like a pretty spectacular send-off for writer and director alike.
Follow author Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack.Previous