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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Breaking Bad: “End Times”

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How many showdowns can you pack into one episode? If you are Breaking Bad season four, and you have spent 10 episodes establishing the grave disasters, psychological and criminal, that your characters are spiraling down towards, and one horrifying episode showing that no options are left, an impressive parade of climaxes is now within reach. Over and over again in “End Times,” people who have run out of choices face each other in high-stakes contests of will and desperation.

But maybe it’s more instructive to think of “End Times” as variations on a most unexpected theme: negotiation. Those showdowns are ways of moving the characters past their isolation and winning them allies, if they can get to “yes.” And allies are what everyone in the Breaking Bad season four world needs. Consider what isn’t the flashiest or tensest exchange, but yet could be the keystone moment of the episode when seen in this light: Steve’s little banter with Dennis the laundry manager. This is the most explicit quest for “yes” in the hour; Steve has to get Dennis to say “okay” to the warrantless search, and say it loud enough for his partner with the drug-sniffing dog to witness. So he pulls out a story about a chef with heroin in his uniform who protested when caught that the laundry must have put it there, makes with the buddy-buddy help-a-working-stiff-out routine by confiding that both he and Dennis know it’s all bullshit but because of the chef’s dad’s pull in government they have to pretend otherwise, and then tells him that they can do this the easy way, with two guys and half an hour, or shut down the place for a day while a phalanx of agents swarm in with all the official papers. If it isn’t a story he explicitly learned from Hank, it’s a Hankesque performance, and that’s because Hank got Steve to “yes” earlier by questioning his ability to pull off the old “knock and talk.”

We start with the first agreement Walter needs to forge: with Skyler, to go into protective custody with Walt Junior, Hank, and Marie, but without him.  It’s successful not because of bluster or subterfuge, Walter’s major trump suits this season, but because of a final, fatalistic honesty: “I have lived under the threat of death for a year now, and because of that, I’ve made choices,” he explains. “I alone should suffer the consequences of those choices,” consequences which are now “inevitable.” She finally agrees, and the cold open ends with the heartbreaking, prolonged sight of Walter saying what he thinks are his final goodbyes to his crying baby daughter, strapped into the backseat of the DEA Suburban of doom. Marie and Walter Jr. both question the outcome; Walter Jr. suspects his mom didn’t even try to get Walter to join them, while Marie wonders why the DEA didn’t just wrestle him into the truck, to which Hank deadpans, “Uh, because it’s not Nazi Germany?” Hank is barely concerned at all, as a matter of fact, because the threat to his life that Walter had Saul call into the DEA is, to him, a key piece of evidence in his Gus Fring: Meth Kingpin case. “Anonymous threat against me? I’m in a damn wheelchair, I’m not even on the job,” he gloats. “Somebody doesn’t like the way I’ve been spending my spare time.” And with a palpable sense of excitement, he sends Steve off to the laundry in his stead.

While Steve snaps pictures and the dog sniffs, Jesse is muttering impatiently in the superlab, waiting for his minder Tyrus to give the all-clear. And when Gus calls to impress on his new full-time cook what danger Walter White is putting them all in, Jesse clarifies the terms of his tenuous new position in two ways: by insisting again to Gus that injury to Walter will be the end of their partnership and by submitting to Tyrus’ petty little power play of holding the phone just out of reach, making him step over and grab it. He’s fully in Walter White land now, making the only threats he’s got left to make while enduring the meaningless humiliations of the wage slave. But as it turns out, these two, Tyrus and Gus, are the people he is going to have to manipulate if there is to be any way out of the impasse.

And luckily, he’s not going to have to do it alone. But holy crap, how fraught with terror is the road to back to Pinkman & White Against the World? The seeds are planted in Jesse’s brain when he ruminates on the unattractive life ahead of him as Fring’s meth manufacturer after being dropped off at his car in the middle of the desert, and then Saul’s frantic summoning supplies more food for thought. While shoving Jesse’s share of the cash into a duffel bag and explaining that Goodman and Associates will be taking an extended hiatus until the heat dies down, Saul mentions that Walter’s family was threatened by Fring, putting Jesse’s attempt at Fring control in an unflatteringly unsuccessful light. And finally, horrifically, Jesse gets the call from Andrea that Brock has taken ill and at the hospital discovers that he’s going downhill fast from a mysterious and sudden flu-like ailment. When he steps out for a smoke, he looks down at his pack and sees no upside-down cigarette. The ricin-laced lucky cancer stick is gone. Frantically, he persuades Andrea to tell the doctors that Brock has been poisoned by ricin “like rice,” evades her demands for an explanation, and heads for the White household to get a confession from Walter.

He has to hear it, apparently; he could blow Walter away with his own .38 snubnose in short order, sure of the righteousness of his cause, but he wants to hear from Walter that the manufacturer of the ricin, the only other person whom he thinks knows about it, is the person who gave it to Brock in some sick attempt “to get back at me, because I’m helping Gus, and this is your way of ripping my heart out before I’m dead and gone.” But Walter, again with the persuasive weapon of honesty, reminds Jesse that the only person around with the proven coldheartedness to use and murder children for his own ends is Gus, reveals the improbability of Jesse’s versions of when Walter lifted the ricin cig from him (the night before when Walter showed up while Brock was playing video games, or maybe earlier that day when Saul’s associate Huell patted him down), and substitutes the theory that Gus has been grooming Jesse into a Walter-murdering machine from way back, this being merely the final act. Then he invites Jesse to pull the trigger, which Jesse can’t do. Negotiation takes over from crisis, and while I cheered “Team up! Team up!” at my television, Walter implores Jesse not to commit suicide by running headlong after Gus with murder on his mind. “I’m going to do this one way or another, Mr. White,” Jesse insists. Walter: “Then let me help.” Team. Upped.

Back at the hospital, banished from the PICU for not being family, Jesse gets poked awake by Tyrus and summoned to his job. “If my employer has a problem” with Jesse staying at the hospital and keeping watch over Brock, “he can tell me himself, not his errand boy,” he sneers at Tyrus, then starts yelling about assault to an audience of shocked hospital personnel and visitors when the muscle tries to manhandle him into compliance. Tyrus walks away flipping open his phone to report a hitch in the cook to Gus, and Jesse simultaneously texts Walter, kitchen-chemistry-lab Walter, brewing up something nasty and black and rigging some motherboard out of a household appliance into a fuse, with science!, “Think I got his attention.” Walter tests his triggering device by standing across the room and keying a walkie-talkie; it’s imperfect, taking a dozen clicks or so, but it finally pops. The plan is starting to come together.

And when Gus arrives at the hospital with another bodyguard in tow and meets with Jesse in the chapel, it’s clear Jesse’s gotten to the “yeses” he needed without the people across the table knowing they’ve uttered them. Tyrus and Gus have done his bidding, and it appears that Gus still considers himself in control of the situation; expressing condolences and understanding of Jesse’s vigil, the boss does not fail to tell Jesse exactly how much rope he has: “You will start a new batch when you are ready to return… next week.” Yet somehow, after everything goes right and Jesse has played his part to the hilt, the seemingly superhuman Gus stops on his way to the car that Walter is waiting across the street to blow up. He senses something. He sees nothing. But after agonizing minutes of observation, he turns around and strides away from the car, leaving Walter, still purple with bruises from his many recent beatings, glasses propped up on his bald head, sprawling defeated on a rooftop, his best chance thwarted by Gus’s unaccountable instincts.

That brings us back to Steve Gomez’s “getting to yes” moment. He gets what he was looking for, the search, but Gus has outsmarted him; Gus is too good. There’s nothing for the dog to sniff out. And Hank is left deflated, flipping through Steve’s pictures on his laptop. The last two we see are the tank under which the superlab entrance is hidden, and the crevice between that tank and the next piece of machinery, a narrow crawl space from which the camera POV was oriented right before we sank down into the superlab earlier in the episode. Is it too much to hope that Hank, scrutinizing that picture with all the time in the world and the conviction of a driven man, could see something that reignites his suspicions? Just like I can’t believe that this failed attempt on Gus’s life is the last gasp of Walter’s hard-won alliance with Jesse, I can’t believe that the “yes” Steve got for the search and the “yes” Hank had to get from Steve beforehand won’t lead to progress. And in all those cases, progress means only bad things for Gustavo Fring.

Stray observations:

  • Thanks to Noel for an able job once again in his annual middle-relief inning on this show. His A-, by the way, was an honest one; we watched the episode together but did not discuss the grade before I left for an overseas trip. You may have noticed, however, that he’s had second thoughts. I let slip after I returned that I’d probably have given the episode an A if I had written it up, and he decided to make the change. Not my call either way. Now (as if I have anything to say about it), let this be the end of the discussion of grades.
  • How about the bravura deployment of Chekhov’s Vacuum Cleaner Repairman Card this season? Seed planted in “Bullet Points”, then number delivered last week, and now? No call to Last Resort Guy, because no money to pay him. I don’t know if he’ll be back, but I kinda hope not; it’s so ridiculously ballsy to drop in that plot device and then prevent it from going off. As a rug pulled out from under Walter last week, it could not have been more chilling.
  • Hank describes his identification of Los Pollos Hermanos as the biggest meth distributor in the Southwest as “just one man’s humble opinion.” Then he goads Steve, who protests “if we had just one shred of evidence,” with “Isn’t that what you get paid to get?”, simultaneously questioning Steve’s abilities and pointing out that he, Hank, no longer has that job. Man, it’s a joy to watch Hank work.
  • When Steve and the K-9 unit drive away, I was pounding my chair in frustration, then had to question what I wanted. Did I really want Gus taken down? Not exactly, Noel reminded me. I want Hank vindicated. Yes, that’s exactly my rooting interest at this point. Just like I want Jesse and maybe even Walter returned to autonomy and released from powerlessness.
  • Brock’s illness raises so many questions, and no answers are apparent yet. Is Jesse right that it’s the ricin? What did happen to that cigarette? If Jesse is correct that he had it that morning, then was there enough time for Tyrus to lift it from his locker and somehow get it to Brock; haven’t we established that it takes 24 hours to show effects? Or would that be accelerated for a child? Or is it possible that all of this is a massive coincidence, with no ricin and no poisoning and no Gus master plotting?
  • The imprint of the snubnose barrel between Walter’s eyes after Jesse finally pulls it away is wrenching.
  • When Gus expresses sympathy to Jesse (“I am very sorry. Is there anything I can do? I am on the board of this hospital; I can recommend doctors, get the best treatment …”), is he subtly telling Jesse that he is in charge of whether Brock lives or dies? Regardless, I flinched and sucked in my breath right along with Jesse when Gus grasped his shoulder. Must have felt like the devil’s handshake.
  • Beautiful, quiet, explosively funny scene when Walter waits by the White family pool (now Wayfarer debris free) for Gus’s goon squad to show up, the grill where he once tried to burn the meth money nearby. He spins the revolver on the patio table like a roulette wheel; it comes to rest pointed straight at him. Another spin, this time looking stoically away, and it implicates a potted plant. (At that point, I yelled at the screen, “Shoot the plant!”)
  • Skyler: "There’s got to be another way.” Walter: “There isn’t. There was. But now there isn’t.”