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Breaking Bad: “Face Off”

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I’m going to pretend the last shot of “Face Off” doesn’t exist. In my mind, I’ve replaced the push-in to the plant's tag with LILY OF THE VALLEY printed in large sans-serif capitals with a less overt version — perhaps a flashback to that gun spinning and pointing with a little extra rack-focus for emphasis, or better yet, a camera drift around the pool with the plant as its pivot point. Now that this bit of imaginary post-post-production is out of the way, we can focus on the shot to the gut that is “Face Off,” replete with revenge, Achilles’ heels, danger from both sides of the law, badass explosions times two, and most sickeningly awesome of all, final confirmation of Walter’s current moral depths.

After the comments started rolling in on last week’s episode, I was shocked to discover that some people felt Walt had poisoned Brock. While watching and writing up “End Times,” the possibility had never entered my mind. I doubted Walter’s claim that it was Gus, because the timing for ricin (as it has been established) didn’t work out for any scenario where Gus could get hold of the cigarette. But it also didn’t work out for any scenario where Walter either manufactures or lifts the ricin from Jesse. My best guess at the time was that Brock had swiped the cigarette from Jesse’s pack the night before and had opened or broken the vial inside; my second guess was that it wasn’t ricin at all but just a random and sudden illness. When commenters started playing out every possible scenario, though, I began to doubt myself.

What gave me the most pause was the abrupt change in Walter’s demeanor. From sitting by the pool waiting for death, gun in hand … to running around frantically peering through curtains in a barricaded house, when Jesse shows up. That transformation happens after Walter looks at the plant. It was just possible, I thought, that the plant gave Walter an idea and that his otherwise inexplicable onset of paranoia was playacting for Jesse’s benefit — just barely possible, enough for me to decide not to go on record in the comments with my 95% conviction that Walter didn’t do it.

And now I’m on record as being wrong. But then, so were we all*; the ricin was misdirection aimed at Jesse. Presumably Huell’s patdown was designed to grab Jesse’s pack and replace it with another, directions given by Walter through Saul; presumably Saul told Walter where to find Brock; how Walter got Brock to eat the berries we don’t yet know. I’m not worried about the details, because this show has never been a locked-room mystery. The takeaway from “Face Off” isn’t “how did Encyclopedia know?” but “Holy shit, Walter is willing to kill both the innocent and the guilty to save himself and his family.”  And not incidentally, “Holy shit, Gus Fring is dead.”

My tiny suspicion that the commentariat might be right about Walter’s capacity for harming the innocent became a nagging fear when Walter sends his poor neighbor Rebecca Simmons hobbling into the White homestead to spring any traps that Fring’s men might have left for him there. He needs to get inside to retrieve $25,000 from the crawl space to pay off Saul’s longsuffering (but exceedingly self-interested) secretary “H.T.,” who demands an outrageous sum to compensate her for the busted glass door and to cough up Saul’s number. (Funniest moment in an episode surprisingly full of humor: Walter crawling back out the empty bottom door pane rather than asking her to, y’know, just unlock the whole thing.) Stopping down the street from his house, he calls Becky with a story about being on vacation with Skyler and Walter Jr. thinking he left a burner on. Neighbor lady's entrance doesn’t spark a hail of gunfire, which seems to genuinely relieve Walter, but she does flush out a couple of goons who exit the pool area and head back down the street. They return in a creepy shot as shadows crossing the air vent while Walter is head down in the crawl space fishing out bundles of cash, sending him fleeing awkwardly over the pool fence just as he came.

Why does Walter need Saul? Because the ABQ PD have picked up Jesse to see what he knows about ricin — and they’ve alerted the FBI as well. When Saul finally bursts into the interrogation room to save his not-under-arrest client, Jesse has the chance to relay to Walter crucial information gleaned from his recent proximity to Fring: The boss makes regular not-so-friendly visits to Hector “Tio” Salamanca at the Casa Tranquila nursing home. That’s the only place where they might be able to isolate Gus from his surveillance system and catch him off guard.  

The plot Walter devises to lure Gus to Casa Tranquila is ingenious, and ignites a slow burn within the episode that serves as a microcosm for this whole suspenseful season: the lengthy, methodical process by which the nurse and Tio spell out words using a transparent board and Tio’s insistent bell. Tio asks the nurse to call the DEA (nurse: “Dear? Deal? Honey, dea is not a word”) and demand a sit-down with Hank at their headquarters. Everybody at the Schrader household thinks that Hank leaving the cul-de-sac is a terrible idea; Marie categorically forbids it ("It is a ridiculous idea, and there is no way you're going to do it, end of story"), which leads to the predictable but still highly satisfying smash cut to Hank sitting down opposite Tio at the DEA offices. But Tio’s urgent messages turn out to be SUCK MY and FUC; the only reason he’s there is so that Tyrus, who’s apparently keeping an eye on Hank, can witness him being loaded back into the nursing home van and relay the news to Gus.

And what a sequence that sets off. Gus and his team are as careful as they know how to be before entering the nursing home, but they are undone by the personal connection Gus has to the man (“I do this,” he responds when Tyrus offers to be the executioner.)  The slow camera push toward Fring’s impassive face, waiting in the car for Tyrus to give the all-clear, should let us all know that we are saying farewell to El Pollo Hermano.  Tyrus sweeps Tio’s room for listening devices — because of Hank’s involvement in Tio’s little journey, he's hypersensitive about planted bugs like Hank has used before — but he misses the bomb strapped to the wheelchair, the one that Tio sets off with repeated bell-dings that aren’t dings because the clapper has been replaced by a trigger. Gus’s sixth sense kicks in a moment too late, when Hector finally looks him in the eye in a twisted gaze of pure hatred. And then, in a special-effects sequence that makes the episode's title gorily literal, Gus walks out of the bombed room, straightens his tie, reveals that half his skull is exposed, and falls over dead.

Adios Gustavo Fring, and adios superlab. Walter waits in an airport parking lot until he hears on the radio that traffic is going to be a real mess near Casa Tranquila because of a tragic explosion that killed three. Jesse, having been kidnapped right outside the police station, is cooking under the sneering gaze of Tyrus’s substitute before Walter shows up and blows their minders away with his .38 snubnose. (Finally!) The two of them dump out all the chemicals onto the floor, rig an exposed electrical wire to a lamp timer, change clothes, wipe their fingerprints off of the superlab entrance with identical yellow rags, and authoritatively tell the laundry personnel to “vamanos!” — with no discernible effect until the blast shakes the place and smoke starts pouring out from behind the vats.  

Then, in the chilling what-next denouement, Jesse tells Walter that the tox screen revealed no ricin — it was the poisonous berries of lily of the valley — and that the whole premise of their desperate pursuit of Gus was therefore null and void. “But he had to go, right?” Jesse says uncertainly. Walter agrees, and their handclasp makes a mockery of my excitement last week over the team-up.  It’s based on yet another lie, the worst yet — a frameup, a manipulation more cold and callous than anything I thought Walter capable of. Then he calls Skyler to claim that it’s over, they’re safe,“I won.” No more meth lab, no more boss, no mas … what? Will Gus’s death stop Hank’s investigation, or will the laundry explosion reinvigorate him by confirming his suspicions? Has Walter covered his tracks enough with the rental cars and the wipedowns? Will Jesse’s mention of ricin keep the police and feds on his back (“Until next time,” the detectives warn him as he leaves their custody), and lead them to Walter? Is Ted alive or dead, and is the unlaundered money Skyler gave him going to come back to haunt her? How does Skyler deal with the reality of the killer she conveniently neglected to divorce?

Walter has fallen far enough to poison a child without batting an eye or betraying a blink of remorse. He’s a guy who carries a bomb around in one of his baby daughter’s diaper bags and pokes at his enemies’ defenses with other people, as if their lives were ten-foot-poles whose function is simply to allow him to stay at a safe distance. And there’s no bottom yet in sight, which could make the remaining seasons of Breaking Bad a hellish descent indeed.

* The sole exception on this site, at least: Commenter soundandfury, who identified the plant and expressed a conviction that Walt did it, although without letting on to the rest of us that the plant is poisonous. Possibly the deciding factor was the lily’s association with death rather than its chemical properties. Either way, credit where credit is due.


Stray observations:

  • Noel disagrees with me that the final shot is too explicit. We agree, though, that this episode is a fantastically fitting end for a season that ran in slow motion, starting and continuing with so many crises begging for resolution week after week. Now the decks are cleared, but that doesn’t mean anybody is home free. Nothing’s ever easy on Breaking Bad.
  • Speaking of this season as a whole, creator Vince Gilligan will be breaking down the entirety of season 4, episode by episode, exclusively on the A.V. Club this coming week. Join me over there, won't you?
  • I’m sure some will take issue with the fantastic depiction of Gus’s demise, but I loved it.  A character this iconic deserves a mythic death, realism be damned.
  • Many of you have been adamant that Steve Gomez is a Fring mole inside the DEA. I personally don’t see it, but if you prefer to believe that Tyrus is sitting outside the DEA keeping watch because Gomie tipped him off (rather than because he’s keeping tabs on Hank), you have more ammunition.  (Counting against that theory: Surely Gus would be suspicious when Steve passes along the supposed threat to Hank’s life, one that Gus would know to be fake.)
  • If I may allow myself one moment of triumph: I called it on Gus’s obsession with revenge against Hector being his eventual undoing.  Check the last paragraph in my “Hermanos” writeup a month ago.
  • Clever — and generous — of Vince Gilligan and his creative team to leave Mike in that Mexican tent hospital recuperating during all of this carnage. Otherwise he’d be as dead as Gus. Now we can look forward to more Mike in season 5!
  • Interesting roundelay of vehicles in this episode. Gus is being driven around in a nice SUV rather than his usual vintage Volvo. Walter has rented a tiny white compact after wrecking the Aztek.
  • To the list of Breaking Bad spinoffs I’d watch, add one featuring the Albuquerque PD detectives who tag-team Jesse: "You know how it is when the lawyers get to it, suddenly it's like a big pissing match. Every time.” “Every time!” “Adversarial."
  • Jesse thinks he might have seen ricin mentioned “on House or something … Sometimes your brain just makes these connections.”
  • Thank goodness Saul going to ground last week didn’t mean he was gone for good. He’s got some parting words for his two most troublesome clients: “If I ever get anal polyps, I’ll know what to name them.” And when Jesse asks him if Walter is okay, he retorts: “He’s okay like a fruit fly’s okay. We’re all on the clock here.”
  • Hank sees the bright side of Tio’s visit to DEA HQ: “At least this time he didn't shit himself. I guess that's progress."
  • What a season of television — truly something none of us could ever have expected, or claimed we deserved. I’m grateful that you watched it with me and hashed it out in the comments even when we disagreed. I wish season 5 started tomorrow.
  • "Coming up on Coyote 102.5, Aerosmith, Def Leppard, keep it right here!"