'Breaking Bad' Spoiled Bastard: Season Finale: 'Face Off'

Wherein the season wraps up wonderfully, but we second guess our obsession
Gregory Peters/AMC

The fourth season finale of Breaking Bad did a lot of things right, course-correcting most of my worries and giving viewers not only an action-packed, satisfying episode but putting the show on the path to finish its final 16 episodes in a nearly perfect dramatic state – with Walter White far closer to Scarface than Mr. Chips, but the whole of his crazy dream and best laid plans completely upended. He may have “won” as he tells Skyler in “Face Off,” but he doesn’t have much to show for it cash-wise.

And that was really the whole point of breaking bad in the first place – to take care of the family. If you look at it that way – how much has Walt actually made and, let’s get serious here, at what cost? – there’s a wonderful lesson there and an anti-glorification stance that makes Walt’s predicament all the more real.

Just a thought.

But what I think Breaking Bad did most right – for me, anyway – is validate some of my concerns about deconstructing every episode. I know a lot of writers do this – some of them better than others, as the form can either be a recap or an extended form of criticism. But I wonder if this detailed analysis and soaking up of the series doesn’t somehow diminish the enjoyment of actually watching it and, more seriously, set the bar impossibly high for creators like Vince Gilligan and his writing crew (and Mad Men’s Matt Weiner and his writing crew).

Take last week for example – the controversy over the ricin (which turned out not to be ricin) and the relentless viewer discussion over whether any of it was plausible or not. Look, it’s a valid point of contention and took something away from the penultimate episode. But had we all just been watching Breaking Bad for the whole, and not for its parts, maybe none of us would have talked (or written) that whole thing into the ground. The finale could have just appeared and, for the most part, explained it all away.

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I really do think this is important. Because “Face Off” took Gus out of the equation (regarding the ricin), which I think perfectly explained his paranoid reaction in the parking lot. And the fact that it wasn’t ricin at all, but berries from a bush in Walt’s backyard, allowed me to completely accept Walt poisoning Brock as a legitimate extension of his character’s moral spiral. Ricin, no. The lesser berries, yes. Do you know why? Because it’s still fucked up that Walt poisoned a child (and there will be immense fallout from Jesse if he ever finds out), but to me it’s a plausible step in Walt’s breaking bad progression whereas dosing the kid with ricin is more of a leap, character-wise.

So, on those accounts, I’m very impressed by how Gilligan handled the situation and a little miffed that, by engaging in the practice of instant analysis (or, in my case, less than instant analysis), I’ve deprived myself of just going along for the ride (yet still an active viewer, not a passive viewer), open to leaving the faith in the writers’ hands. I mean, had they completely mangled the logic of it all, then I could have used all my vitriol now, when the season is over, rather than last week, when the end hadn’t played out.

As it turned out, I loved this finale, or at least most of it. More on that momentarily, but first a bit more about putting every episode under a microscope each week:

Yes, I think the writers still stretched with the poisoned berry idea. Reconstructing the chain of events and keeping in mind plausibility certainly raises some doubts. But here’s the thing – I’m fine with it. Although I only do these deconstructions for what I believe are great series, even great series cannot always be perfect. They can’t have airtight plotlines, believability, dramatic tension and crisp storytelling that unfolds like science every single time. It’s not the nature of fiction, and certainly not realistic when you’re trying to create 13 hours of television each season, strung together with the 13 you finished the season before and linking to the 13 others you’ll do the next season.

There will be flaws, people. Even in the most brilliant of series.

That’s where I think this incessant devotion to deconstructing episodes is, fundamentally, flawed. The words “dramatic license” have been linked through the years for a reason. And beyond that, I think a logistical stretch here and there could and should be excused in great series (primarily because, hell, they’re great series precisely because they very rarely have lapses in logic or ridiculous twists or Gumby-esque stretches). Mostly, great shows are pretty great on a consistent basis – which certainly holds true for Breaking Bad and Mad Men, the two best series on television.

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If we all want to get super picky about minutia every single week, I think it’s ultimately unfair to the series in question.

So I’m not particularly concerned that the timeline of Walt getting the berries to Brock and getting him to eat them, etc., doesn’t somehow add up. For me, the motivation did add up (but it wouldn’t have if Gus had done the poisoning). So, I’ll cut them whatever slack is needed and flog myself for jumping to conclusions last week (the nature of weekly dissection, as I’ve said). If anything, I’m more impressed by the spinning gun scene and slapping myself on the forehead for not paying more attention to Walt’s light-bulb moment when the third spin doesn’t rotate back to him like the first two but points at the Lily of the Valley plant. Gilligan and his writers put the evidence out there and did it just subtly enough to have most people miss the connection (which was likely made for those who did figure it out when the ricin storyline just didn’t make sense). In any case, points for the writers on that one.

Had I not done any of these Spoiled Bastard deconstructions (and this might be the last one), I probably would have enjoyed this season of Breaking Bad more than I did (which is, don’t get me wrong, still quite a lot – though if I had to rank the seasons so far in order, I’d go 2, 1, 3 and 4 without second-guessing that ranking).

No, I loved the last hour and eight minutes of this season, except for a couple of elements. I said long ago that Gus (and by extension the superlab) would have to die for the story to continue logically. Then I stated definitively after Ep. 11 that Walt would have to be the one who takes down Gus, because Walt needed to experience cold-blooded, premeditated murder and not Jesse (again). For character development alone that was a must. Thus, knowing Gus would die tonight was no big stretch. Seeing the episode title, however, pretty much ruined the surprise. I knew immediately that Gus would have his face ripped off some how.
Also, as much as I loved that Jesse didn’t immediately say, “He visits Tio in the nursing home!” two seconds after Walt asked him when Gus’s schedule would leave the detail-specific kingpin vulnerable, I knew right after Walt told Tio he could exact revenge that the bomb was going to be put on Tio’s wheelchair and that he’d detonate it by ringing the bell.

So that wasn’t the shocker it may have been --  I just saw it coming. And I loved the execution of it right until Gus walked out of the room like Terminator – face off! -- when the bomb exploded. I thought that was a little too much, honestly.

But guess what? I know the vast majority of fans will love that scene and it has an instantly-memorable element to it which means people will be talking about it for a long time. And that’s fine by me. Do you know why? Because I think that’s the kind of prerogative, the kind of “dramatic license” or stretching that writers should be allowed when they craft fiction. It’s the berry poisoning logistics played out it in a more, um, awesome fashion.

Gus’s face blown off and still walking, adjusting the tie – precise neatness to the end – then dropping dead? Not my favorite ending, but I’m fine with it. To me, the brilliant part of the finale came in those last few minutes when Walt talked with Jesse and Skyler.

That extended scene I loved. Because Walt had just pulled off a bad-ass plot that worked. He killed Gus and there was triumph in it – triumph that Breaking Bad has used in the past to get everyone fist-pumping about Walt’s evolution. In the process, Walt had killed two people dead, at close range, in the superlab elevator. When the berry issue was explained by Jesse, we knew that Walt did it – and that was a new level of evilness, a step closer to the Scarface end of the spectrum. (The berry revelation also dulled the impact of the final scene, of course – and I wouldn’t have made the connection if I hadn’t been over-analyzing the ricin scenario and run into a handful of people who truly believed it wasn’t ricin at all, but a plant in Walt’s backyard. You know, the one the gun was pointing to. D’oh!

Sooooo, this is another example that validates my point about sucking so much meat off the bones each week – literally the final shot of the season was a foregone conclusion to me once Jesse mentioned the Lily of the Valley plant while he talked with Walt at the parking garage).

However, that’s not a disturbing ruined moment. Because what came before it was more powerful, even, than that reveal. I loved how Walt, his evolution continuing, talked with Skyler via phone from that same parking garage:

“It’s over. We’re safe,” he tells her, as she relates the crazy breaking news about the nursing home explosion.

“Is this you?,” Skyler asked – with a look that was part repulsion, part shock with a hint of being impressed. “What happened?” she asked.

“I won,” Walt said.

Excellent! You can have Gus’s blown off face. I’ll take that triumph for Walter White – the cold-blooded victory that signals his further descent. It’s a great scene.

And again – the finale really does set up the final season. The superlab is destroyed. Hank will be proven right (though his curiosity will certainly come back again). Gus and Tyrus are dead. Jesse is feeling better and has bonded again with Walt. Skyler has just realized she may be dealing with someone much different than she imagined (now she knows Walt really is the one who knocks – and maybe that scares the shit out of her).

The beauty here is that Walt actually hasn’t won. It’s not like he’s rich (he even had to pony up $25,000 in extortion money to Saul’s secretary). Walt is effectively street-level again. He’s alive. He’s still a meth maker. But his family is no better off. I would expect the beginning of the end to happen fairly soon for Walt/Heisenberg. The implications of his actions will come upon him – and there’s no atonement.

That’s a compelling, fulfilling restart button for the last 16 episodes. Well done, Breaking Bad.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com