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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.