Breaking Bad Review: “To’hajiilee” (Season 5 Episode 13)

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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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