Tuesday, 11 October 2011

BREAKING BAD, 4.13 - "Face Off"

Tuesday, 11 October 2011
written & directed by Vince Gilligan

Incredible. When Walt (Bryan Cranston) shocked his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) by saying he was "the man who knocks", it was nothing but an empty brag on his behalf because Walt's spent this season under the heel of druglord Gus (Giancarlo Esposita), who has managed to outmaneuver him at every turn—even turning close partner Jesse (Aaron Paul) against him for awhile. "Face Off" (a title to be taken more literally than expected) marked the point when browbeaten Walt, backed into a corner with nothing to lose and his family's safety at stake, unleashed the full "Heisenberg" on his ice-cool boss—with gripping, shocking, exhilarating results, off-set by a last-second dropkick to the soul.

After last week's episode, where Gus avoided becoming the victim of Walt's car-bomb because of an unshakable feeling he was being setup after visiting Jesse at the hospital, this episode had a very simple focus and direction: kill Gus. With Jesse taken in for questioning by the police over his suspicious suggestion that Brock was poisoned by ricin (a very rare, dangerous chemical), Walt was alone for the majority of this episode and frantically trying to get the overcautious Gus into a vulnerable position. The story had to be inflated slightly because it was such a straightforward plot (most notably with an opportunistic employee of Saul's who demanded $25,000 in exchange for the absconding lawyer's phone number), but in some ways the slow-burn style and protracted sequences worked in the show's favour by building a deep mood. And it was notable how ruthless Walt can be, as evidence when he manipulated a kindly neighbour into checking his house (claiming a stove may have been left on), knowing there's chance she'd be killed by gunmen he suspected would be on the premises waiting to assassinate him on sight. That would, of course, be the least shocking evidence of how Walt's moral compass has spun in the wrong direction.

It was also a fantastic and unexpected idea to have Walt get help from crippled Hector (Mark Margolis) at the nursing home, after hearing from Jesse that it's the only place Gus visits that isn't under surveillance or crawling with henchmen. Vince Gilligan's script did a remarkable job of keeping its secrets hidden, as it was hard to see exactly how Walt would use Hector to kill Gus. When Hector communicated the message "NEED DEA" to a nurse (an amusing moment of comedy to ease the tension, as she didn't understand the acronym!), I was just as interested about what Hector had to say to Hank (Dean Norris) in person, and confused when it was seemingly an excuse to waste some time communicating obscenities. Walt's masterplan was expertly played, however, as Tio's visit to the DEA got Gus's attention and he travelled to the nursing home to kill his old adversary because he's becoming a problem. But even then, with Gus taking such precautions as having Tyrus (Ray Campbell) sweep Tio's room with a surveillance detector before his arrival, it was hard to see exactly what Walt and Tio's play was. So the moment all became clear was joyous, and one of the startling sequences of television in years: with Tio's gaze finally meeting Gus's eyes, but raging with defiance and anger that visibly shook and confused Gus, before Tio's infernal ringing of his wheelchair's bell reached fever pitch... and, as the usually unflappable Gus let out at a panicked gasp, noticing the bomb wired to Tio's chair, KA-BOOM!!

A great scene in its own right, but the cherry on top was the extraordinary moment when Gus calmly walking out of Tio's destroyed room, straightening his tie, only for the camera to reveal the horrifying truth that half his face has been blown off, exposing muscle and skull. An unforgettable scene. It was dangerously close to being cartoonish (Gus was so much of a supervillain it looked like he was being exposed as a Terminator), but somehow got away with it. You hear tales of chickens having their heads chopped off and remaining "alive" to run around the farmyard, so it was ghoulishly amusing for the show's "chicken man" to suffer a similar fate. Gus was so composed he didn't even know when to die.

And then, the great undoing of Gus's empire: Hank and his DEA pals watching a news report of Hector and Gus's death at the nursing home, utterly baffled by the event; Walt returning to the Superlab to kill the henchman who'd kidnapped Jesse to resume cooking meth at gunpoint, Jesse and Walt both sabotaging the Superlab by ignoring its spilled chemicals and evacuating the laundry above; Jesse later revealing that Brock's going to survive because he wasn't poisoned by Ricin but a poisonous berry that grows on the "lilly of the valley" plant; and Walt's quietly victorious call to his anxious wife ("I won"). But the season couldn't resist one final twist, as we saw that Walt's garden contains a lilly of the valley plant (close to where he was seen spinning his revolver in "End Times"), meaning he was the person who risked an innocent boy's life as Jesse suspected last week.

A tremendous ending, with Walt becoming the thing he most despised in Gus—although you could argue Walt knew the poison berries wouldn't kill Brock, but would be enough to convince Jesse that Ricin was to blame and set things in motion with Gus. This finale also proved that Walt's forward-planning surpassed even Gus's, as his plan was put into action much earlier than we thought (burly Huell must have lifted Jesse's deadly cigarette when he was searched at Saul's), and his triumph has come at a price. Walt isn't a bad man, it's just that he's spent too long in a world where good and bad are subjective, fluid terms.

It was also very interesting just how effectively "Face Off" works as a series finale, perhaps because Vince Gilligan got wind that AMC might pull the plug over money. (They've since arranged for the show to have a final 16 episodes, possibly split into two batches of eight hours.) If Breaking Bad had ended here, it wouldn't have been such a terrible thing, but I'm also glad the show has a chance to put a neat bow on things that weren't resolved: like Walt's cancer issues, or his secret being exposed to the likes of Walt Jr (RJ Mitte), Hank and Marie.

So what does the future hold for season 5? The Superlab had to be destroyed because the DEA were too close to discovering it (Hank was already questioning the excessive power-supply to the laundry), but this means Walt has no physical operation to inherit from Gus. Will he go back to basics and cook meth in a more homespun manner? Seeing as there are no enemies around with Gus and the cartel eliminated, there's no pressure on Walt to do anything. He could easily go back to his normal life and put the past behind him, but I suppose Walt's pride and greed will encourage him to continue on his own terms. Will he think big and build his own Superlab? Is that feasible in 16 episodes, seeing as it appeared to take Gus 20 years to build his own cover-story and drug empire? Will Walt's cancer return? Will Jesse discover that Walt (a) let his girlfriend die in season 2, and (b) poisoned another girlfriend's son to manipulate a situation? What will assassin Mike make of all this when he returns from Mexico? He owes Jesse for saving his life, so he shouldn't be a problem, but would he consider working for Walt? Will a new character try to fill Gus' shoes now he's gone? And will Hank's investigation into "Heisenberg" die along with Gus and Hector, or will his nose once again start leading him towards the truth of his brother-in-law's pivotal role in events?

Overall, "Face Off" was another sublime episode (easily the show's best finale) of a terrific fourth season, with a particularly strong second half. I know some people have had concerns about how a few things were handled this year, but I just can't agree that the show did much wrong. This was the season where Walt was oppressed and mistreated by those around him, sometimes relegated to a background role at times, but it was all building towards this moment where the tables were turned and Walt took a step further into darkness. I've felt passionate and connected to a handful of shows over the past five years, but Breaking Bad's the only one that's kept the quality so high and refuses to get stuck in a rut.

It's a shining example of what television drama can accomplish when the writers have freedom to tell a story on their own terms, with actors who are at the top of their game. Despite the fact a fifth season will have to rebuild a lot of the show (now that so many characters have been killed who were a key part of the show for so long), and resolve everything in 16 episodes, I have absolute faith in Vince Gilligan and his team. They know these characters, they understand the power of good storytelling, and I'm sure there will be plenty more shocks and surprises, as the show starts to focus on its big ending.


  • In many ways it was a shame we never got a scene where Gus and Walt had a final moment together, as the misleading title suggested we would. I can't deny I was looking forward to seeing Gus and Walt share some words together, but it was also more plausible that Walt would have to keep his distance and defeat Gus in an indirect way. Ultimately, this was a more interesting and believable way to kill someone as vigilant as Gus, even if I'd still have loved to see that non-existence Walt/Gus scene.
  • More colour symbolism throughout: most notably that so many people wore the show's signature green. Gus also switched from his yellow (cowardly, inconspicuous) shirt to his blue power suit when visiting Hector. Orange was also noticeable, as it was throughout The Godfather (a clear influence on this show.)
  • The special effects for Gus' half-destroyed face apparently took months to achieve, and it showed. Amazing work for a US cable show, surpassing similar effects I've seen in many movies.
  • Will this show sweep the Emmy's next year? It's hard to see Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul not getting a nod, as most episodes gave them an Emmy-worth scene to play. But Giancarlo Esposito also came into his own this year as imperturbable Gus, and might be a dark horse for Supporting Actor. The show itself deserves to take Best Drama, right? I don't care how "depressing" the show is perceived as, it's also engrossing and invigorating.
9 October 2011 / AMC