Week after week this season, Breaking Bad has been topping itself. I suppose it's inevitable that we'd have a merely good episode at some point. "Mandala," despite an ending as gripping as as the show has ever produced, seemed to be mostly concerned with moving the pieces into place for the finale. Based on that final scene, though, I'm expecting powerhouse television for the last two episodes of the season. The conflict between Walter's desire to be a major player in the meth world -- and make major money doing so -- and his obligations to the family life from which he's increasingly estranged has come to a head. Will he continue to try to negotiate a middle way? Will he make a life-altering choice? Or will one be made for him?
The context: Walter's oncologist wants him to have a $200,000 lobectomy in four weeks, and the ob/gyn schedules Skylar's C-section for two weeks out because of concern about her low level of amniotic fluid. Cue race against time ... now.
Finale set-up plotline #1: The Heisenberg crew gets connected to the big time. In an opening that didn't play as chillingly as might have been intended, one of Jesse's street dealers, Combo, gets shot by a shorty at the behest of a rival operation. (Walter spoke for me when he asked Jesse, "Which one was Combo again?") And in a burst of uncharacteristic exposition, Skinny Pete tells Jesse that all his foot soldiers are jumping ship: Badger laying low in Fresno after the DEA pickup, Combo in the grave, and Pete afraid of going to prison if he gets nabbed on parole. Walter and Jesse go see Saul to try to rebuild their operation, and Saul gives it to them straight: "You guys suck at peddling meth, period." He knows a guy who knows a guy who knows a guy (et cetera) who runs a wholesale operation to several neighboring states, and sets up a meet.
If you were paying attention to the opening credits, you knew who to watch out for: Giancarlo Esposito. I like the low-key way that he was introduced though -- no meaningful closeups at first, just a quick visit to the table of his Los Pollos Hermanos customers to check on their satisfaction, and a distant blurry view later as Walter scans the restaurant for the kingpin he's supposed to be meeting. Gus Frings is a businessman, and he's got his employees trained to the hilt. (When Walter comes back in search of Gus after getting a text message that the deal is going down, the fast-food peon he approaches parrots Frings' exact words about going to the website with any complaints.)
The initial meeting doesn't happen, though, because Frings doesn't like what he sees of Jesse. He arrived late, and he was high. To Frings, Walter's choice of partners shows that "you are not a cautious man at all. You have poor judgment." When Walter protests that the person he works with is none of Frings' business -- that he needs Jesse "because he does what I say. Because I trust him" -- Frings speaks with crushing finality: "You can never trust a drug addict." Which leads us to:
Finale set-up plotline #2: Jesse is so crushed by the death of Combo (hey, Breaking Bad, the whole soft-hearted-Jesse-can't-handle-death thing should be a complex character trait, not a simplistic deus ex machina) that he needs to smoke some crystal. He tries to get Jane to leave so he won't corrupt her, but she stays and falls off the wagon instead. Fast and hard, that fall. It's not long before she's cooking up a syringe of heroin for Jesse and sending him floating to the ceiling in a special effect that didn't play as freakily as might have been intended. So when Walter gets the news from one of Frings' subalterns at Pollos to bring their entire supply of meth to a truck stop in one hour, he can't get high-as-a-kite Jesse on the phone or answering the door, let alone helping him unpack the meth from its hiding place under the sink and coming with him to the buy. Which leads us to:
Finale set-up plotline #3: Skylar's unhealthy relationship to the boss gets weirder when he insists she sing happy birthday to him, in front of the whole Beneke Fabricators family, in the style of Marilyn Monroe serenading JFK. Then she tells him exactly what crimes he's committing by keeping revenue off the books, only to have him claim it's so he can keep the workforce employed during the economic downturn, and beg her not to turn him in. To Ted's relief, she shows up the next day for work. But then she starts having labor pains at her desk. So much for the birthday they'd already selected for their little girl.
The crux of the matter: If Walter doesn't get the drugs to Frings' exchange point on time, that connection is dead and he's back to square one -- no distribution, no muscle, no nothing. But just as he's searching for something to carry the bags of crystal lying all over Jesse's kitchen floor, he gets the text from Skylar: The baby's coming now. And at the moment of decision, he doesn't change direction. He's off to the truck stop. Meth 1, offspring of his loins 0.
- The heroin floating was hokey, the endgame arranging was fairly rote. But Giancarlo's utterly convincing competence (and anonymity) and that final moment of Walter's decision as he heaves the garbage bag onto his shoulder and lurches for the door bumps "Mandala" up a letter grade.
- And speaking of "Mandala," did I miss something? To what does the title refer?
- Jesse uses Saul's scales of justice as an ashtray. Take that, justice!
- I always enjoy seeing Walter in the classroom, and the vignette where he admonishes his students to turn off their cell phones during a test, only to discover it's his special drug-dealer cellphone vibrating in the drop ceiling, was terrific.
- Walter describing the last few episodes to Saul: "It's always been one step forward, two steps back."
- "Diet Coke, please, and five minutes of your time."