‘Breaking Bad,’ the final season: The wizard of ABQ

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The team. (Ursula Coyote/AMC)
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Starlee Kine

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Each Monday, Starlee Kine will write about the previous night's episode of "Breaking Bad." This is the second installment. Earlier: The Mirror Man.

As soon as I saw the German Mr. Schuler, I knew he wasn’t long for the "Breaking Bad" world. Men with heads of hair like that have no place on this show.

And yet, showrunner Vince Gilligan and his team devoted the same care to his character as they do to the characters we’ve grown attached to on this show over four seasons. The way his assistant, Frau Tromel, was the only one who was able to penetrate his blank stare and the fact that later, in his final moments, he chose to answer her at all through the bathroom door, accomplished with incredible efficiency a picture of their whole relationship. With just a simple, wordless craning of the neck to more closely examine the photo of Herr Schuler and Gus together, we know what Frau Tromel meant by there being “three this time.” Likewise, we get a sense of the scientist at the lab, a sort of Bizarro version of Gale, brimming with the same pride over his formulas (Mr. Schuler is also a Bizarro Gus, whose tie-straightening way he emulated when he took the time to hang up his clothes before his suicide, instead of just tossing them on the bathroom floor.)

Now that we’re in the final season, it was fitting to be brought an episode that was so much about how people react to knowing their end is near. In the premiere I worried that everything was moving too fast, that the show was feeling the pressure of the clock running down. I felt the panic too and kept thinking, “It all has to really count now, every moment, every line, because there are so few left.”

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Then last night’s episode happened and we were brought, for example, a condiment tasting test where not one but five different flavors were slowly, patiently sampled. I had been so worried the show would overexploit the whereabouts of the ricin cigarette. It always felt to me like, "yes, we get it, Walt switched it with the help of Huell and then whipped the Lily of the Valley poison up into some sort of chocolate bar for the little kid to eat, delivered by either Huell or Saul." And yet, I could’ve watched the fastidious packing of the salt into the glass vial and then the transferring of that vial into a decoy cigarette all night.

Same goes with the upending of Jesse’s house. Believe me when I say that it will be those crayons in the ashtray that I will think of when I’m feeling sad and need to laugh. Instead of speeding up, Gilligan slowed the show back down while at the same time, in the same hour, introducing us to a new major character, killing off three people, advancing Hank’s investigation significantly and starting the meth business back up.

One of the hardest parts I found of watching a show like "The Sopranos" was that eventually, because of the nature of the “waste-management” business, nearly everyone who I cared about was dead by the end. We were left with no one to connect with, just like Tony. Post-"Sopranos" the trend on a lot of shows has been to kill major characters off earlier and earlier on, in shocking turns of events. Even when these deaths transcend the bravado, the viewer is left with the same problem.

Comparatively, "Breaking Bad" inhabits rather tight quarters. Its cast of main characters is more like that of a sitcom than a sprawling, epic drama. And everyone who we first started off with is still alive, for tightly written, rational reasons. Instead of killing off its main characters, it’s gradually added a select few new ones who are then developed just as rigorously.

The greatness of "Breaking Bad" lies in the fact that it understands that it’s had enough to work with all along, while revolving around a man who can never stop at good enough. Season 3 ended with Jesse shooting Gale and then, at the start of season 4, it was like the camera sort-of shifted a little to the right and there, in the frame, was Gus, whose character the show then proceeded to unpack. Then it slowly expanded out to encompass deeper inspections of Jesse, Skyler, Hank, Mike and Marie before its ripples were once again wide enough to lap at the feet of its original protagonist, Walt.

Last night belonged to Mike, but before that there was the sight of Jesse in tears. At first I thought his eyes were welling up because he realized Mr. White had planted the cigarette but then, no, it was because he once again was having a hard time living with what he had done. With the exception of his role in paving the streets of Albuquerque with meth-heads, which to him, not unlike Tony Soprano, is just part of his job, Jesse yearns to be on the side of the innocents. He’s losing sleep thinking of a child picking up the ricin cigarette. He’s incapacitated by the thought of having almost killed Walt. While under the "My Two Dads" influence of Gus and Mike, his self-confidence grew. Now that he’s back with Walt, he’s once again berating himself for his own stupidity. He’s feeling too guilty to think straight, or else maybe he would be suspicious of Walt’s newfound ability to praise him. When was the last time Walt handled a Jesse fuck-up with this kind of breeziness?

At this point, Walt has become Oz behind the curtain, holding nothing more than megaphone. It is he that needs the meth business to start up again, both spiritually and practically, not Jesse. It will be Jesse’s money that funds their reboot. Jesse has proven he can mix up a batch of meth that’s just as blue. If only he realized that he has as much right to be the kingpin or, even better, that he could simply retire and, provided he doesn’t get arrested, have a normal stab at a life. He could even disappear if he wanted to. What’s left for him in that town? But Walt’s hold on Jesse’s sense of self-worth keeps them tethered. Walt places his hands on Jesse’s shoulders, pats them, kneads them. An inch or two further in on either side and it’d be called strangling.

I’ve always been impressed by this show's refusal to do that one trick where, let’s say, two characters hug and the camera shows one of them glaring, dead-eyed off into space while the other character can’t see. All the same, there were a whole lot of pointed looks in this episode. Hank’s expression when his soon to be ex-boss (can I just call him Not Sam Elliot?) talked about how Gus, a D.E.A. booster who came to his house for a barbecue, had actually all along been someone else completely, standing right in front of him. Hank's face after that seemed to imply that he was putting the pieces together about Walt, but that could’ve been a perfectly fair misdirection. There was one like this last season actually, when Hank was unraveling his theory about Gus and the camera kept flashing on Gomez and also Not Sam Elliot in a way that made it seem like they were perhaps in on it too. At the time I remember thinking it was way too much of a regular cop-show move for "Breaking Bad," but so far it seems to have been just a misdirection Gilligan was throwing at us (although Gomez could still be dirty). I can so clearly picture Gus teaching Not Sam Elliot how to fold a tinfoil pouch when barbecuing sea bass that it might have been a flashback scene.

Now, Mike. Walt is the emasculated teacher who broke bad, but Mike is the cop. His reasons for embracing the criminal life have nothing to do with not feeling enough like a man. In season 3 he tells Walt a story about his time on the force. Mike was called in to settle a domestic violence disputes, between a man and his wife, a little thing with “wrists like birds.” Mike stuck a gun in the guy’s mouth and told him never to lay a finger on the wife again. Two weeks later she was dead and Mike swore no “half measures” ever again. I have a feeling that’s what Hank’s use of the word “dramatically” was about.

Mike uses his granddaughter’s plush version of Jesse’s Roomba to outsmart an attempt on his life. Even though his hit man had been bought out for 30 grand, Mike still refers to him as a good man. It’s too bad that the words Fifty Shades of Grey will always be associated with such a particular book because this show certainly utilizes at least that many. Every character has his or her own code, and part of the pleasure as a "Breaking Bad" viewer is seeing whether they either continue to live by it or break it. The needle of Mike’s inner compass has never once twitched, at least in the time we’ve known him.

So while by this point we have seen him do plenty, Lydia still seems worse than he, and more dangerous. She lies, she orchestrates murders, she’s passive-aggressive to her nanny. But just when we think we’ve got a lock on her, that we hate her, there she is begging Mike to let her daughter find her dead body, and know that she did not leave but that she was taken away, and we go spiraling like a football across the moral playing field again.

No more half measures. And yet this episode ended with Mike again pointing his gun at someone’s head but ultimately deciding not to take the full measure after all. It's not that Mike has gone soft. He's just gone poor. The bomb may have wiped out Gus, but the magnet trick they pulled to cover all that up revealed Gus' Cayman accounts, and allowed the D.E.A. to wipe out the life savings of 11 people who spent years working hard at keeping Gus’ well-oiled network up and running, all while living in crappy houses. Gus paid them enough to keep their mouths shut if and when the cops showed up. With that money gone, Lydia's right: These guys are likely to talk themselves out of trouble, which means naming people like Mike. So in the most practical, strategic sense, he needs to build the funds back up to keep his men quiet. In the sentimental sense, I'm sure he'd like his granddaughter to end up with a better life than his, one that doesn't emulate a game of Hungry Hungry Hippos quite so much.

Last night we understood why Mike has been so weary of getting involved with Walt and Jesse from the start. We were shown the importance of vetting one’s colleagues. Walt has always only wanted to be the boss, even though he’s never grasped what it means. He will continue to set off chain reactions because, from the start, and still, he hasn't the foggiest idea how anything is connected to anything else in this business. He is very much the guy who thinks once you own Boardwalk, the other players might as well pack up their Monopoly boards; the game is over. He can’t even find the language to describe his dream lab, now that he gets to make it himself.

God exists in the understanding but so far, bigger and brighter than an R.V. is the best that Walt can do.

Starlee Kine is a a frequent contributor to PRI's "This American Life." She previously wrote a weekly column for Capital about "Mad Men." Those columns can be found here.

Photos by Ursula Coyote/AMC unless otherwise noted.