The following is a written conversation between Editor-In-Chief Evan Tognotti and Senior Editor Matthew Milewski about this week’s episode of Breaking Bad. Spoilers, you guys. Obviously.
ET: So. Matthew. Let’s talk.
I like Breaking Bad a whole lot. Probably not quite as much as you (am I correct in remembering you calling it your favorite show of all time?), but it’s definitely among the top 5 on TV right now. Most of the things about it that are good have been said a million times before, so I don’t know that I need to repeat them.
I’ve been conflicted with these last five episodes; on the one hand, I feel like I should really love them like everyone else, but on the other, I feel weirdly dissatisfied. There have been some pretty interesting dissenting points other critics have discussed that I’m becoming more and more sympathetic to.
Don’t get me wrong. Endings are hard. Arguably harder than any other part of a story. An ending is the last thing an audience will see, and it’ll color their impression of everything that’s come before. Breaking Bad, I’d imagine, is an especially hard show to end, since it’s largely about a single character coasting his way through escalating, dramatic situations. I think what I’m noticing now is less an inherent flaw with this half-season, and more a problem with the whole show. These last five have just done a good job of highlighting some of my issues.
All of those issues trace back to writing. The acting is predictably excellent, from top to bottom, and I’m a big fan of the understated stylization in the show’s direction. Always have been. I just can’t help but feel that the show’s necessity to be driven by plot: for every scene to set up the next, is hurting more than helping. I think a lot of people would agree with me when I say “Fly” is the best episode, and it’s interesting to note that it’s almost entirely self-contained, and really bears very little impact on the serialization of the show.
It’s a bottle episode, and one of the reasons I love bottle episodes is because they give every character room to breathe. There is no room to breathe at the end of Breaking Bad, and while I understand that’s intentional, I don’t think it exposes the show’s best qualities.
There’s some more stuff to talk about (namely the Jesse/Ricin revelation, and the way the show seems to be portraying Skyler), but let’s backtrack a little. “To’hajiilee” is a good episode of television, I think, but it suffers from a problem I think most of these episodes have suffered from: it’s too defined by big moments, and never coheres fully. The last twenty minutes are great, sure, but getting there feels oddly perfunctory.
MM: I can sympathize with your points, Evan, even if I don’t fully agree with them. Personally, while something like “Fly” does work quite well on its own, I think there’s a lot to be said about how wonderfully entertaining the plotting on this show can be. It never feels particularly damaging to me in these last few episodes, because Breaking Bad tends to stay far away from the cardinal sin of having plotting effect characters. If anything, characters like Hank and Marie have rarely felt this interesting, and I think that’s partially due to the rapid pace of these episodes.
“To’hajiilee”, for me, felt a bit reminiscent of “Crawl Space”, which earned a lot of its power due to how relatively understated it was in the initial two-thirds. I don’t think this episode is quite as good as that one (indeed, the early scenes could have used more flair in some respects), but it all builds to such a wonderful set of confrontations that I don’t really mind it too much.
The scene where the great Heisenberg is finally out-Heisenberg-ed is wonderful for a number of reasons, but I find myself most impressed by how little joy I felt about anything. Walter and Jesse’s relationship is essentially irreparable at this point, Hank’s irresistible drive getting to this point has made it harder to sympathize with him, and, well, it’s hard to even know what to think about Walter anymore.
Still, I also got a sense at the beginning of this episode that things could have been perked up a bit. Lydia is almost essentially a late-game plot device at this point (although she has some fairly interesting connections to Gus in her approach to business), and Todd’s purpose in the show feels equally underdeveloped.
I guess I’ll ask you this then: how did you feel about the ending revelation, where the Neo-Nazis come to rescue Walter the one time he doesn’t want it?
ET: I was impressed with how far they were willing to take that ending, and how long they tried to drag it out. Ultimately, the minute Walt hangs up on the Neo-Nazis, that ending writes itself, and I think it does in the heads of the viewers, as well. In that regard, the way they played the tension was smart. It wasn’t so much about worrying as it was knowing.
And I can agree especially with loving the scene between Walt and Jesse on the phone. It’s probably one of the highlights of this season so far. The back and forth was extremely satisfying, but there was definitely a point at which I felt the heavy hand of poetic justice on the part of the writers, The trope where a criminal is fooled into confessing his crimes in minute detail is really played out at this point, and I think it could’ve been a little messier.
Honestly, I was just relieved that the events didn’t play out as I was beginning to fear, where Hank finds the lottery ticket after Walt stuck it on the refrigerator. It didn’t feel too far-fetched, given the book in the bathroom and the ricin revelation, but it probably would’ve been the final nail in the coffin for me.
You actually touched upon my other big problem with these episodes: Lydia and Todd. I like it when a series shrinks near the ending rather than expanding, and I think their presence has always kind of rubbed me the wrong way. By extension, having Walt rely on the Neo-Nazis is a smart way to show his moral bankruptcy, but it isn’t particularly subtle. This also might be a product of the mid-season break, but I just don’t really care about either of them. Lydia especially, who really pales in comparison to the characters we’ve lost up to this point: the Mikes and Guses and what have you.
I do want to go back to what you said about Breaking Bad’s plotting not affecting its characters, because I don’t think that’s entirely true. Obviously, in its best moments, it doesn’t come off so forced, but Jesse’s revelation about the ricin? Born entirely from what feels like a rushed plot decision, and steers his character in an unthinkable direction. That’s not to mention Skyler, who seems to be becoming a standard Lady MacBeth archetype. I’m not sure the show has given me much reason to suspect that she’d suddenly be down with killing Jesse. Then again, we did skip a lot of time with that “Crystal Blue Persuasion” montage, so I guess anything’s possible?
I’m starting to think that these last eight episodes are biting off a tad more than they can chew trying to wrap everything up. Maybe I’m just shoving my preferences for other show into this one, but I’d love a lower-key, more simplistic ending. There are a lot of plot threads to tie off, but most of the characters we’ve enjoyed along the way are compromised or dead, which leaves us with either the Walt/Hank/Jesse situation (which I’m way into), or the Lydia/Todd/Neo-Nazi stuff (which I could generally do without).
I don’t want to sound like I’m coming down too hard on Breaking Bad, because it’s really good! I swear! I just wish they had, I dunno, another season to handle these dynamics. My favorite part of season 4 (which I think is actually worse than 2 and 3) were the really subtle conversational power dynamics that kept shifting. There’s so much potential for that kind of drama now, and I wish it had some more time to play out before everyone winds up shooting at each other.
So, real talk: who dies at the beginning of next week’s episode? Anyone?
MM: My hope? Hank and his partner manage to kill off the Neo-Nazis, but also get killed off in the process, leaving us with Walter and Jesse alive. Quite frankly, I have really have high hopes for next episode; it’s directed by Rian Johnson, who also did “Fly” and “Fifty-One” (an episode from earlier in the season that I found pretty underrated). These last few episodes, which I think we can both conclude are a bit weaker than the first half of the season thus far, have had a lot of their best moments born from Walter and Jesse’s strained dynamic. Despite the sort of weird Skyler scene that you mentioned, “Rabid Dog” had some pretty incredible moments where the two of them are concerned.
I guess I still feel pretty hopeful about the last three episodes; Vince Gilligan and his team have shown a touch for the understated in the past, particularly with the recent midseason finale, so I think we’ll have a quieter last couple of episodes. Perhaps Walt simply succumbs to his cancer?
But yeah, those are my thoughts on this one. It’s not quite as good as “Rabid Dog” or “Confessions”, but still ended up pleasing me for the most part. Final thoughts?
ET: I exited “To’hajiilee” feeling the same way I have with everything this half-season. There are a lot of really compelling moments, but I think Breaking Bad is arguably at its worst when it sacrifices narrative fluidity for those moments. They’ve flirted with it in the past, but (and I hate to keep harping on this one thing) the moment when Jesse pieces together the Walt/Brock situation went way too far for me.
I’m eager to see how it all wraps up, obviously, but I don’t see this season topping 3, which I thought it might after “Gliding Over All.” Of course, maybe these next three episodes will redefine television. I wouldn’t put it past this show. Especially when I still think the worst Breaking Bad has to offer is pretty damn enjoyable in its own right.