I was OMG-ing online like a little girl last night as the fourth-season finale of "Breaking Bad" exceeded even my high expectations. On most shows, the characters change in the tiniest increments if at all over an open-ended run, offering endless variations on essentially the same crime-solving exploits or sitcom capers. "Breaking Bad" has made good on creator Vince Gilligan's promise to turn its protagonist from a milquetoast into Scarface. Oh boy has it ever.
The series is one long, continuous arc charting the moral self-destruction of high school chemistry teacher Walter White, who turns to cooking crystal meth after a lung cancer diagnosis, in hopes of leaving his family some money when he's gone. His cancer is in remission, but his insides are still rotting.
Gilligan and AMC have promised that Walter's story will reach its conclusion after just 16 more episodes. If you have not watched the show, go get the freakin' DVDs today and start - but do not read the rest of this post because there are SPOILERS galore.
I've been thinking about "The Sopranos" and "Mad Men" and "The Wire" a lot these last couple of weeks, as "Breaking Bad" is now routinely mentioned in their company as among the best dramas in TV history, the four stars of a current golden age that's mostly on cable. I think in particular of "The Sopranos," because it covered some of the same ground as "Breaking Bad," namely the intersection of 20th century suburban America with violent crime, the story of a man and his morals and how they affect his wife and kids and friends.
But "The Sopranos" had an open-ended run, had good seasons and less good ones, and plenty of slack time. Remember that horrible dream sequence? "Breaking Bad" more than any of those other three shows has kept its relentless momentum, as the bodies pile up and Walter and his sidekick Jesse keep cookin' meth and facing new consequences.
Particularly amazing is that last night's season finale tied up with a plot line begun way back at the beginning of season two. That's when Walt and Jesse first encountered Mexican drug lord turned pathetic bell-ringing stroke victim Tio Salamanca. Last night when Tio agreed to help Walt take down meth kingpin/fried chicken baron Gus Fring in a wheelchair suicide bombing at the hilariously misnamed Casa Tranquila nursing home, it was the sum of an equation that Gilligan began writing something like 30 episodes ago. And it was perfect.
The waiting, the explosion and the aftermath were as gripping a sequence as I've seen on TV. Fring trudged zombielike out of Tio's burning room, and the camera slowly came around from the left side of his face to the right, which was mostly...missing. He straightened his tie, then fell down dead. I'd wager there were more viewers screaming "Holy ----!" in their living rooms than at any time since, well, the Red Sox won the '04 series.
His horrible injuries - the condition already known as "Gus Face" on Twitter - reminded many viewers of the zombies in AMC's "Walking Dead," which had been advertised during the episode. And in an interview published online as the episode ended, Gilligan revealed that "Walking Dead" special effects mavens had indeed done the work. (A favorite tweet: @jhowardrmit's "Well they blew up the chicken man in Breaking Bad last night. #brucespringsteen #breakingbad.")
But to just focus on the big bang would totally misrepresent this series, which for all its pulp entertainment value is at heart a brilliant character study of Walter White - Bryan Cranston has won three Emmys in the role and should get a fourth now. The finale reached a second climax of sorts when his wife, on the phone, asked him what had happened, and he said, "I won." I'm not sure there's ever been a TV character whose arc covered as much ground as his.
But wait, there's more.
Much of the last couple of episodes has revolved around Walt's sidekick/partner/pseudo-son Jesse Pinkman, played by Aaron Paul (one Emmy), and his concern for a little boy named Brock. Brock lay at death's door in the hospital, apparently because he'd been served the poison - ricin - that Walt and Jesse had intended for Gus Fring. (Funny moment. Cops to Jesse: Where did you hear about ricin? Jesse: I think I saw it on "House.")
Walt had made the ricin and given it to Jesse, and it seemed that Gus had outsmarted them and fed it to the kid. This bonded Jesse more tightly with Walt against Gus. But as the episode wound down, we learned that the kid had actually been poisoned by lily of the valley. He'd probably found it in his yard.
Or at least that's what we all thought, until the final shot of the episode, a lovely look at the pool and patio behind Walt's house that ended with a slow zoom... to...a pot of...lily of the valley.
OMG! Walt poisoned the kid to win back Jesse! Walt poisoned the kid!
Several people quickly pointed out on Twitter and Facebook that Gilligan and Co. tipped it the week before, when Walt was sitting on his patio, brooding and spinning a gun on a tabletop. Look where the gun points in that screenshot up above, which many posted online. Walt wasn't just idly contemplating a thing of beauty amidst all the ugliness of his life. He was thinking of using it to poison a child. Holy...
Walt, the former teacher, outsmarted everyone. He killed five people in just the last couple of minutes of the finale (although Brock will survive). Walt has totally broken bad. Now there are 16 episodes left, starting next summer. He thinks he has won, but the karma must come back to get him. The question is whether it will be the cancer that finally kills him, or Jesse, or his DEA agent brother-in-law, or the remnants of the Fring organization, or ...
I think the one thing we can be sure of is that whatever happens will be totally fitting, and even more mindblowing than last night's season finale.