Follow Monsters of Television on Twitter

Wednesday, 30 of September of 2020

Breaking Bad – “Face Off”

“I musta saw it on House or somethin’.”

Breaking Bad title card
I sat still for a long time after the episode ended. Not blankly, not cursing the skies for ending this season of Breaking Bad and making me wait months and months for it to begin again. Not really any desire at all. Actually, just a furrowed brow.

Noel remarked last week that the penultimate episode was a little boring by Breaking Bad standards. The cliffhanger aspect wasn’t as demanding and reveals weren’t as gasp-worthy. That’s how I feel about this episode for the most part. Other than the ethical obstacles Walter obliterates in “Face Off,” the finale kind of tied itself into a nice bow. Okay, it’s a sloppy bow but — instead of feeling like I’m dangling off the edge of a mountainface, I kind of feel like I’m staring at the danger from a safe distance.

That’s a weird metaphor. Let me explain.

I’ll couch this first by saying the episode isn’t bad. By any means. I think we’ve gotten to a point of understanding within the Breaking Bad viewing public that episodes of this show, even on their worst days, are better than most outings by other series. The show just doesn’t have its “Stranger in a Strange Land” or it’s “vs The Honeymooners.”

But what this episode doesn’t do is leave me breathless. Remember last season when Jesse shot Gale in the face? Remember how you gasped and about died when you learned you had to wait for a YEAR before seeing what happened? This finale isn’t that. This finale actually solves a lot of Walter’s problems without making more.

Let’s look at Walter’s remaining threats: Mike (presuming he’s still alive), Jesse (especially when he learns that the whole poisoning thing was a setup), the Fashion Police (but with his pleated khakis and the tighty-whiteys, he’s probably beyond reform — he may have to be Fashion executed). Maybe the DEA if he decides to go back in business. But even they’re thrown off because their main suspect (at least Hank’s suspect) is rendered a Walking Dead extra. The Cartel’s gone. Mike’s only really a threat if he wants to see exact some penance on Gus’s murderer but he also seems more like a solider-of-fortune than someone who would revenge hunt; loyalty might’ve died with the boss. Jesse is only a threat if he can wake up from Walter’s spell. The Fashion Police will never get him; they’re just ill-equipped and under-funded. And probably drunk on cosmos and fruit-a-tinis.

My disappointment comes from there not really being a determination of where Walter goes next. What is his next dilemma? No one is on his tail and his secret of being a kiddie-poisoner is pretty safe for now. I’d hate to say this episode was constructed to possibly be the series finale if it had to be (since there were some negotiations still continuing, probably, when this was written) but it does kind of wrap it up in a way that would be satisfying and begs answers only to trivial questions. And it doesn’t even beg as much as it suggests or casually mentions.

What does Walter do now? You have to assume he wants to get into mass distribution because the show would be terrible if it was about Walter becoming a school teacher again and struggling to keep within societal norms now that all of his ethical barriers regarding human life have been cleared (actually, that might be a really good show). He’ll assume a powerful role and rebuild what he (almost single-handedly) destroyed.

One of my geography professors in college remarked how Atlanta has a growth advantage over many other major cities across the country. New York City is on a string of islands, Los Angeles has mountains, ocean, and fault-lines. Atlanta has no major landforms to stop it from naturally growing continuously in all directions so that the somehow more sprawling metropolis will force white flight into the North Georgia Mountains (that’s totes far). This is Walter’s situation. No other game in the ABQ means this is a major step toward the Scarface future the show has been planning for Walter all along. He has room to grow.

What makes this transition only interesting if not dramatic is that Walter is nowhere near ready for it. He may have the necessary lack of moral compass but he’s still sloppy, reactionary, overdramatic, paranoid, and chock full of so much hubris it would make Victor Frankenstein blush with humility. He’s petty and short-sighted. Most of all, he has something to lose in his family. Gus was none of those things. In fact, the end of his longevity only comes when he starts to behave more like Walter and lets his guard down to take care of Hector himself. Walt may be a brilliant man but he’s not Scarface yet.

It’s hard not to compare Gus and Walter, especially since the capacity to use children as pawns is a point of entry (if Gus was the only person Jesse knew last week that would poison a child for his own gain, Walter in the mix would make them the only two). Also, sending in old ladies to trip a trap at your house has to be something Gus would do. Walt sinks to never-before-seen lows late in this season. Heisenberg no longer wears a hat. It’s only a matter of time before the rest of the family is sacrificed for his pathological thirst for power and he’s freed from their shackles since they’re his main (and, at times, only) vulnerability.

And maybe that’s the main difference between Gus and Walter: that pathological thirst for power. We’re not sure why Gus wanted to get into the meth business other than for entrepreneurial reasons. His approach was ostensibly all business if he was a little hands on. You can only assume the reason that Walter would want to continue on this tract isn’t because he wants to provide or because he has a passion for cooking and distributing. It’s only because he’s been slighted so many times in his life and he demands recompense. He wants to own Albuquerque because he feels he deserves it for the all the times he let people cut in line or was made to look a fool or saw his hard work attract the spotlight to everyone else but him. Gus was perfect for his role except for his need for revenge against the Cartel, the chink in his armor. Walter is all flaws and isn’t really suited for how he has to be to make this clandestine thing work. But he’s smart enough to luck and sweat his way out of trouble.

Who you have to feel sorry for (all the time, forever) is Jesse. The universe has switched them around, he and Walter. When this thing began, it was Jesse that was full of pride and boast, letting his ego and childlike demeanor get in the way of business. Walt had to rein it in. But it’s switched to where Jesse has grown up and shown some real talent but can’t wriggle from under Walt’s thumb. All he’s been able to do is glide through life and believe whoever is willing to let him believe. “He had to go, right?” Jesse asks later when he realizes that Gus didn’t poison Brock. So sad because Gus (probably) really did believe in him and Walter (well, Heisenberg really*) sees nothing but the negative things in Jesse and his potential to assist him in setting up an empire. They have their moment on the rooftop but, with as inhuman as Walter has become, you have to wonder if he’s acting now, if he does still have those sweet feelings for Jesse, or if he’s going through the motions in order to save himself. Because Jesse not only can make a good hatchet man and partner, but he’s also Walt’s biggest threat, particularly if it comes out that Walt has a Lily of the Valley plant in his backyard.

All in all, it was good hour of television but kind of a lackluster finale. And Walter didn’t trade his face with John Travolta once.

Some other things:

  • How about that money shot? Gus walks out of Hector’s room after the explosion, calm and groomed — except for the missing half of his face. Important to establish that Gus is going out as classy and he lived. Completely unrealistic, barely reasonable, but so cool that we the viewing public are prepared to suspend our disbelief to let it happen.
  • Man. Marie went from pitiable to “I f@#$ing hate Marie” in, like, less than an episode. I know she’s just worried but I hate the sound of her nagging nagster voice.
  • How long do you think they had the Hector’s letters gag waiting for a day to shine?
  • Saul’s secretary is the series’ Sawyer or Abed, the character with the meta lines reflecting on how Walter and Jesse (particularly Walter) destroy every life they come in contact with, or, if not destroy, then at least inconvenience. “And how is that news, exactly, the two of you are in danger? After doing something idiotic?”
  • The plan that finally kills Gus is a little bit brilliant. I was wondering when the setup for Walter’s bomb trigger not working properly (he had to press the button several times in the test) would come into play. I’m happy that it was with the bell. Impressive set up.
  • Do I not pay attention or was I not supposed to recognize the guys that stun Jesse and bring him to work on the cook? I thought there was a third player at first. Like a suburban bored house-husband drug-dealing collective (they have the minivan). But apparently they’re Gus muscle. Or they were. They’re dead now.
  • I appreciated Walt and Jesse’s cool daddy walk out of the laundry facility after they prepare the place to be burnt to the ground. As much as I know Walt is rising (sinking?) to a point where Jesse isn’t so much a partner as he is a pawn, I still harbor good feelings when these two are working together instead of working against each other. To me, they’re still special buddies.
  • Do you think that Walt, Jr. and Drew from Parenthood hang out when they get no screen time?
  • * I’m going with Heisenberg for when Walt is blowing up things or shooting people in the face, although that personality is the Don Draper to Walt’s Dick Whitman. It’s an interesting theme in this show of one personality taking over the other, the confident man of ruthless violence brow-beating and physically-beating his way through this drug-slinging life while the stuttering, paranoid Walter side of Mr White is finding himself less purposeful. He’s slowly making this choice to be Heisenberg and not the other. He demonstrates a lack of remorse and an ability to convincingly lie. Somewhere, the question stopped being about how does Walter hide this life from his family and turned into how can he strike a balance, then to when does the weakling get smothered by Heisenberg’s pillow? When does the Walter who endeared himself to us at the beginning become a footnote to get Heisenberg out of trouble? Has it already?

    And what’s up with identity at AMC? You have Don and Dick on Mad Men, the descent into Heisenberg on Breaking Bad, who it means to be human on The Walking Dead, and just straight up mysteries of identity on Rubicon and The Killing. There’s got to be a graduate paper about this already, right? Somewhere among the papers about lipstick lesbians on Buffy or Nip/Tuck in the age of mechanical reproduction?

Leave a comment