Normally I start out these reviews with a look at the cold open, and progress in a more or less linear fashion from there. But “Tohajiilee” is so defined by its climactic confrontation that I am going to skip over the bulk of the episode and skip right to the showdown we’ve been building towards for years.
I speak, of course, of Saul and Flynn finally coming face to face. These are the type of fireworks we’ve been waiting to see in the final season!
Okay, there was another showdown that was some time in the making, so I’m not going to spend time talking about Huell’s big showcase or how Lydia and Skyler and even Saul, who makes sure to remind Flynn that he takes teenage DUI cases, are all concerned about their branding throughout the early portions of the episode. The episode takes a hard, clutch-less shift into a higher gear once Walt gets the photo of the money barrel and takes off for the titular Navajo reservation, and the remaining 20 minutes are heart-attack inducing.
On the one hand, there is nothing wildly unpredictable about any of this. That Jesse and Hank would try to trap Walt by fucking with his money is a sensible approach, though quite clever in the details, and it was immediately apparent that the Nazis were going to show up anyway despite Walt cancelling his order. But Breaking Bad and titanic director Michelle MacLaren (the last time she directed an episode that was ostensibly building up to Hank’s death, she gave us “One Minute”, which climaxed with one of the most suspenseful sequences ever filmed and is for my money the single best episode of the series thus far) manage to put little twists on things to make them feel different and leave me off-balance. Seriously, someone get this woman on a feature stat – at the very least she could kick the shit out of whatever Bourne re-side-quel we’re on now.
There’s a quote about drama, apocryphally attributed to just about every major writer going back to Aristotle, that says that great drama should be both surprising and inevitable. For my dollar, there’s no show that threads that needle as well as Breaking Bad. It’s impossible for me to guess the next plot twist on Mad Men, but that’s because that series values digressiveness over plot momentum at every turn. It certainly doesn’t feel inevitable that [spoiler, I guess] someone would get run over by a lawn mower at a party. Conversely, The Wire made “all the pieces matter” it’s motto, such that the tragedy at the end of each season felt wholly appropriate, as if it could not have gone down any other way, such that later in the run you could recognize the blueprint of how things were going to go down in advance. Not that this was a flaw, as the larger point of that show was to demonstrate how the same patterns repeat themselves across different strata of society.
Likewise, The Sopranos or Game Of Thrones may have surprised me more with wild plot twists, but that’s because those were frequently designed to feel more raw and organic. Breaking Bad wants to keep you off guard, but the basic contours of this journey have been clear from the beginning. The title tells you that Walt is not going to redeem himself in a blaze of glory at the end, and Vince Gilligan has not been shy about telling everyone the “Mr. Chips to Scarface” progression that has driven the series from Day One. And this final season particularly has further been designed with the flashforwards to the Bearded Future at the beginning, underlining the inevitability of Walt’s upcoming fall. The question has been: how will things fall apart, and who will the collapse take down with it?
The “how” is, as always, with every last drop of tension squeezed out of foregone conclusions. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a sequence exactly like the race out to Tohajiilee with Jesse taunting and Walt snarling back all the way. It isn’t actually a chase, and we know at that point that there’s no direct threat to anyone’s safety, but it’s shot with the energy of an action sequence. The way Cranston oscillates between anger, bewilderment, resignation, and desperation on that ride, then all over again once he gets there and the dominoes start falling that he was tricked, the DEA is coming, and the Nazis too…if anyone had any objection to his picking up another victory lap Emmy on his way out the door, just watch those 20 minutes again. There’s a short list of performances where the actor inhabits the character so fully that they can clearly process such a tidal wave of conflicting emotions so clearly in such a tight window. I will shock no one by saying this, but Cranston’s Walter White is one of those all-timers.
But it’s once Walt gets there, realizes he’s been played, that things really slow down, and get painful. Honestly, if everything ended out there in the desert, with Jesse and Hank working together to bring down the man that has done so much to ruin both their lives at his very first cook site, that would have been a perfectly good ending for the entire series. Maybe not enough to be up there with the very best TV endings like say The Shield, but certainly not something I would complain about. But we know it doesn’t end here. We all know that the Nazis are still coming. And so we get that interminable sequence where Hank, Jesse and Gomie are luxuriating in their victory, and starting to finally exhale at what we know to be the exact wrong moment to unclench…
This is such a perfectly cruel moment to go to real time. From the final commercial break, where Walt is giving himself up, to the shootout, there is just over 10 minutes of screentime. That is just enough time for the Nazis to semi-plausibly make it there, since they appear to be on alert and outside of town already, but it also allows for any feelings of triumph for Hank and Jesse to curdle into ever-mounting dread as the minutes tick away and Hank makes a horrifically poignant call to Marie instead of alerting federal or Reservation authorities that they are there. And it is a bit of sadistic genius to cut out where it does. Again, I’m struggling to think of another example of a show doing a cliffhanger like this (feel free to correct me), cutting out in media-action scene, not with the Nazis pulling up (as I was briefly convinced it would), or with the first shots ringing out (as I was subsequently convinced), but right in the middle of the firefight, before any casualties are confirmed. Jack’s guys may have suddenly been afflicted with Stormtrooper-Aim, but I really don’t think that’s going to last when we come back next week and we find out the “who” part of the question posed a few paragraphs up.
Now, 99 times out of 100, if a show ends on a cliffhanger about whether a character lives or dies (generally right after a main character is shot), it’s a given that the answer is “lives”. But that phone call (wherein Marie found a wad of “brains” in her kitchen!) makes me think that this is not going to be one of them. Well, also that the show doesn’t mind mucking with convention and only has 3 more episodes left, regardless of how this shakes out. There’s really no plausible way that Hank or Gomie could triumph here, as they are thoroughly outgunned and outnumbered by opponents in body armor, with nowhere to run. But I suppose we can hope against hope that Jesse manages to start up Walt’s sports car and ram through the little roadblock they have set up, giving them time to…
A fool’s hope, no doubt, but in any case we should find out in a week. Now if I could just shake the terrible suspicion that the cold open next week will just show the shootout site, with a smoking SUV and spent shells everywhere and pair of feet in a pool of blood, then skip way ahead in time, possibly to the Bearded Future…
Not even Breaking Bad could be that cruel. Right?
Murders – Emilio, Krazy 8, Jane, two of Gus’s dealers, Gale Boetticher, Gustavo Fring, Tyrus, Hector “Tio” Salamanca, two other Fring goons, 14 year-old arachnophile Drew Sharp, Mike Ehrmantraut, Dennis the Laundry Manager, Dan the lawyer, 8 more of Mike’s guys
Collateral Damage – One innocent janitor loses his job and goes to jail on a bullshit marijuana charge. Hank had to kill a guy, even if he was an insane, degenerate piece of filth who deserved to die, giving him fairly severe PTSD. Combo was killed dealing for Walt. Jane’s father’s life is utterly ruined. 167 passengers on two planes are dead. Skyler is forced to become an accessory after the fact (or take down her son, sister and brother-in-law with Walt). 3 broken Pontiac Aztek windshields. Jesse’s RV is destroyed. On their mission to kill Heisenberg, the Cousins kill 9 illegal immigrants and their coyote, an old woman with a handicap-accessible van, a grocery-shopping bystander, an Indian woman and the Reservation sheriff that investigates. Also they shoot Hank multiple times, forcing him through a long, painful physical therapy process. Andrea’s kid brother is murdered by Gus’s dealers due to trouble Jesse and Walt stirred up. Jesse murders Gale, crushing him with guilt and destroying his hard-fought sobriety. Gus murders Victor to send a message to Walt and Jesse. Three Honduran workers get deported (or maybe worse). Walt purposefully wrecks a car, straining an already-injured Hank’s neck in an unspecified fashion. Ted Beneke breaks his neck fleeing from Heisenpire goons. Brock is poisoned and nearly dies. Tio blows himself up, but no one’s weeping for that vicious old fucker. The staff of an industrial laundry is out of their jobs. Dozens (hundreds?) of criminal prosecutions are compromised when the guys wreck the APD evidence locker. Hank’s boss gets pushed out of his job for his failure to apprehend Fring or Heisenberg. Herr Schuler, Chau and a low rent hitman get offed as Lydia scrambles to cover up Madrigal’s connection to Fring’s drug empire in the wake of his death. Walt manipulates Jesse into breaking up with Andrea. Mike’s lawyer is arrested, depriving his favorite banker of sweets. Hank has that last great pleasure of a middle-aged man, a quiet, leisurely excretion, ruined by one of history’s greatest monsters. Walt’s tutelage of Todd and enabling of Lydia lead to their murder of Declan and a half dozen of his guys. Jesse beats Saul for his role in Brock’s poisoning. Walt’s living room carpet and car upholstery are ruined via soaking in gasoline. Hank and Gomie are (presumably) gunned down in the desert by Jack and the Nazis.
Best Lie – Walt telling Andrea that Jesse is back on drugs to #flushhimout was one of his better performances. But it’s gotta go to Jesse and Hank’s elaborate ruse (complete with a fake picture of a money barrel and the former’s homemade “corpse” that would make Tom Savini proud) to get Walt to incriminate and isolate himself somewhere they can slap the cuffs on him
Official Walter Jr. Breakfast Count: 15.
We Are Done, Professionally – Huell is, it would appear, no longer in the employ of one Saul Goodman, Esq.
It’s The Little Things – Todd’s “She Blinded Me With Science” ringtone. “Fire in the hole, bitch.” Lydia sipping tea from a “These Colors Don’t Run” mug while fretting over the blue (“Aquamarine!”) coloring. Todd’s Freddy Krueger shirt visible over Walt’s shoulder as he meets with the Nazis, underlining that he is consorting with monsters. The ridiculous old-timey moustache on the nazi driver waiting outside Andrea’s. Huell’s poker face.