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Breaking Bad – Face Off

In the final installment of Breaking
Bad’s
fourth season every aspect of what makes the series so
brilliant was on display. “Face Off” featured a healthy dose of
comedy, superb acting, and thrilling drama to rival any other series
on television. With the exception of one crucial moment, it was an
absolutely incredible ride from start to finish. Though we were
saying goodbye to one villain, as it turns out, we were also saying
hello to another.

One of the most surprising aspects of
“Face Off” was the humor that made up the first few minutes of
the episode. It wouldn’t have been expected of Vince Gilligan, as
writer and director, to include any comic relief in the season
finale, especially with how grim the episodes leading into it have
been. It was certainly welcome though, especially since it didn’t
completely derail the tension that had been building, only lessened
the very dire atmosphere created with the end of “Crawl Space.”
The comedy started with Walt not realizing that there was a third
option other than leaving the bomb on Gus’s car or bringing it into a
hospital. Jesse, already on edge, pointing this out to him brought a
few laughs, which were cut off with the arrival of the detectives.
However that apprehension was forgotten in an even more uproarious
scene as Walt seeks out Saul at his office. With all the brilliant
dramatic performances Bryan Cranston has given in Breaking Bad
it’s easy to forget how much time he spent working in comedy. But in
moments like Walt’s hectic break-in through (and back out of) the
plate glass door, that experience shines. Unfortunately, the
episode’s comedic elements went a little too far, and seeped into a
scene in which they had no business being.

Because of the very different reactions
they elicited, Gus’s demise is best approached by dealing with what
led to it and the death itself. As Gus doffs his work shirt before
heading off to silence a rat, his removal of an article of clothing
once again heralds imminent death, as it has twice before this
season. His moments in the car waiting for the all clear from Tyrus
were extremely well portrayed. Giancarlo Esposito did an incredible
job silently emoting all the chaos running through the character’s
head. The man Gus wanted to see live out his days in pain, having
every moment he could to suffer, may have just turned him out to the
DEA. So it’s understandable if he’s somewhere between regret and
rage. The piece of music that all but screamed something was coming
to a head, Gus’s determined walk, and certainly the open-skied
surrounding desert, all built a feeling that would be right at home
in the O.K. Corral. Thus, “Face Off at Casa Tranquila” seems
just as fitting a way to describe the final moments of the Chicken
Man. Especially since it was in them that Tio finally looked right
into the eyes of his enemy, sending forth all the hate and anger he
felt as the two squared off inches from each other. The vehemence on
Tio’s face played perfectly off the confusion painted on Gus’s own.
Equally well executed was the look of understanding that comes all
too late as Gustavo realizes Tio’s bell tolls for him. Tragically
though, the payoff that followed such an incredible lead-in, turned
out not to be deserving of it.

There is no denying Gustavo Fring was a
larger-than-life character. He started the season bathing himself in
the blood of his loyal soldier while a quite literal captive audience
looked on. He’s walked into bullet fire and didn’t flinch. He’s
taken apart a cartel piece by piece, ending with him poisoning
himself to take the lives of his enemies, like some grand
Shakespearean revenge plot. Even with all that grandiose, all that
visual hyperbole, with his death the character was taken too far. It
isn’t a question of logistics or believability of any kind, just how
his death sat; which wasn’t well. The feeling of a western showdown
that built with every step Gus took towards the nursing home
dissolved into something far too over-the-top for anything but the
most exploitative of films. Less for the fact that he was adjusting
his tie with half his face gone, which is exactly the kind of thing
Gustavo would manage in his final moment, and more for the execution
itself. The leg falling from the ceiling, the way in which Gus’s
wounds are revealed, and his slumping fall to show the charred-out
remains of Tio’s wheelchair behind him felt far too cheesy. Add the
muzak, and the scene can only play as comedic, which just isn’t a
fitting end for a character that’s been the source of so many
stunningly dramatic moments.

Ruthless and unscrupulous, no more
regard for the life of a child than for an adult. That’s how we
would have once described Gustavo, but Walt has made it clear that in
his fall from whatever remaining grace he still had, that he now has
the same moral blinders as his former nemesis. Of course, Walt’s
journey into a darkness so deep there was no way he could pull
himself back out didn’t just occur in the final moment of “Face
Off.” Through his actions Walter White has murdered and through
his lack of action he’s let someone die; while always able to
convince himself that he’s doing what he has to do to survive. And
though he is still motivated by self-preservation, he has now gone
far beyond anything that can be excused or justified. Watching him
send an innocent neighbor into his home to ensure its safety was only
prelude to the moment that’s been coming since Walt’s spinning
revolver stopped on the plant in his backyard. The scene did instill
the fact that as we prepared for the death of one tyrant, another was
rising to take his place. The kingpin is dead. Long live the
kingpin.

As we watched the lab go up in flames
and the two men responsible walk out of the laundry for the last
time, the reign of Gustavo Fring truly came to an end. The moment
was only slightly less over-blown than Gus’s death, but unlike it,
Walt and Jesse’s confident walk fit perfectly with the moment.
Elevated even more so by the episode’s second, but not final, fitting
piece of music in the mariachi style guitar strumming over the scene.
It was in the final minutes that Walt’s corruption really came
through. Knowing the pain that he has inflicted on Jesse, that the
character himself does not, made their renewed friendship feel
sickening. Jesse, who was warned earlier in the season that he is
loyal to the wrong man, made a choice that he never actually had any
part in, but rather fell into the trap set by Walt just as surely as
Gus did.

With Jesse squarely back in his corner,
Walt breathes a sigh of relief he’s been holding for longer than he
can remember. Gus is dead, Brock will pull through, and one of
Walt’s plans finally played out exactly as he intended. He can
scarcely believe it himself, but still feels that rush of pride
overcoming the guilt that hardly even registers for him anymore. His
simple explanation to Skyler says it all: “I won.” Walt
is no longer under anyone’s thumb and the rush of freedom and thrill
of victory outweighs any regret, which he shows with a self-satisfied
smile at Gus’s car still remaining in the parking garage. Just as
the hauntingly beautiful song(“Black” by Danger Mouse and Daniele
Luppi, with Norah Jones lending her voice) playing over the last
shots of season four says, Walt has “no intent to repent.” The
only assurance he needs that he was righteous is that he’s still
alive and his enemies aren’t. As the last image of Walt’s “Lilly
of the Valley” confirms what was all but known for a certainty
already, Walter White loses all humanity, loses himself in fact.
It’s Heisenberg from here on out.

Beyond one misstep, Breaking Bad
brought a fitting end to what has been its best season. “Face Off”
saw the death of one of the show’s most monumental characters, and
though it wasn’t as good as it could be, everything before and after
it was amazingly well done. And with an abundance of questions still
swirling(Just how did Walt pull it off? What’s Mike going to have to
say about all this when he finally returns from Mexico? Will
Madrigal Electromotive come calling on those responsible for cutting
off one of their streams of income?), the fifth and final season is
destined to have all the tension and edge-of-your-seat moments that
made up the fourth.

Rating
9.5

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