Sunday, September 8, 2013

REVIEW: 'Breaking Bad' - 'To'hajiilee' Feels Like a Series Finale Up Until Uncle Jack's Crew Destroys Everything

AMC's Breaking Bad - Episode 5.13 To'hajiilee

Things heat up for Walt in unexpected ways.

The last half of "To'hajiilee" feels like the series finale Breaking Bad has been building towards for six years. Great television is escapism. It draws us into a world that's interesting and presents characters that we slowly but deeply start to invest in. And through George Mastras' amazing script and Michelle MacLaren's phenomenal direction "To'hajiilee" accomplishes just that. The last half hour or so is so rich in tension and pushes these characters backs against the wall unlike anything the show has ever done before. It's a long sequence that simply leaves the audience speechless - and breathless. If it weren't for the flash-forwards and some dangling plot threads elsewhere, this hour feels like a satisfying conclusion to this tale. Walt in handcuffs with Jesse and Hank coming out on top is the ending we wanted to see. But the show still has more story it wants to tell. That all should make the actual series finale even more bonkers - and probably more ultimately satisfying - than we possibly could have ever imagined!

The sequences in the desert leading up to Walt's arrest and the shootout will define this episode of television. Walt has been bested by Hank and Jesse and he accepts defeat. He slowly follows Hank's orders as he crosses over to be put in handcuffs. The tables have turned on him. He is used to being the one to defeat the worthy adversaries like Tuco, Gus and Mike. But now, Hank and Jesse have him where it really hurts. He placed the call to Uncle Jack out of desperation. He wants to do something without just giving in. But when he realizes that he has been betrayed by Jesse. There's a brief moment where you think Walt will choice suicide-by-cop. Of course, that won't happen because there's still three more episodes after this and he's alive in the flash-forward sequences. But he's ultimately just defeated - choosing to follow instructions and trying to get Uncle Jack and crew to stop what they're doing. But Uncle Jack simply has too much investment in Walt and will not let him slip away. It's hard to know exactly what's rushing through everyone's minds in that standoff but one thing is immensely clear: Not everyone is making it out of there.

The end result simply will not end well for Walt, Hank, Jesse and Gomez. But the shootout is most tragic for Hank. He has finally caught the great Heisenberg. He gets to cuff him and read him his rights. He is the most prideful he has ever been. Even though his career will likely be over, he has accomplished the one thing he has set out to do. But the longer the sequence went on, the more likely it seemed that not everything was going to end up okay even though we have no clue what's about to happen. He calls Marie before the DEA for backup because this is the landmark moment of his life. The revelation that Walt was Heisenberg destroyed this family. Marie's "I'm much better now" line and their declaration of love for each other is sweet and heartfelt but also underlines the pending tragedy on its way. If Hank simply got out of there more quickly, the confrontation would not have been as dire and he would have gotten away with Walt in custody. But now, everything is up in the air.

Another small theme throughout the hour was the use of branding. Walt Jr. notices Saul from his "Better Call Saul" commercials and billboards - one just so happening to be right outside the car wash. Lydia notes that her Czech buyers recognize and need the blue in the meth product. While training Walt Jr., Skylar tells him he needs to say "Have an A1 day" because it's on brand. And that final sequence is very thematically resonant to Breaking Bad as a whole and the way it changed the TV medium. The shootout will definitely be one of - if not the best - moment of the year (possibly only being bested by what the show does in its series finale).

And finally, I have to point out the amazing performances this outstanding cast continues to turn out over these final episodes. The look on Walt's face throughout the entire second half of the hour is truly stunning work by Bryan Cranston. He goes from playing his own mind game to anger to frustration to desperation to realization to defeat. Then that all boils up at once when Jesse spits on him and he head-butts him back. Its a phenomenal performance by Cranston. If I wasn't certain the series finale would be even better, I'm sure this would be his Emmy submission episode next year.

Some more thoughts:
  • "To'hajiilee" is a Navajo phrase. Breaking Bad has filmed on a Navajo reservation in New Mexico since the pilot episode - with many iconic desert sequences being filmed there including the majority of this episode. It translates as "Bringing up water from a natural well."
  • Uncle Jack and his crew are perhaps the slimiest scumbags the show has created. They are criminals who have no remorse for what they do and enjoy the pleasures of every violent task they are asked to do. Gus and Lydia strive to be respected businesspeople. The cousins had familial vengeance. These guys came to the desert to protect their own investment in Walt. They need him for the cook and will do absolutely anything to ensure he will comply with their orders despite Walt's desperate pleas otherwise.
  • Emily Rios - who's been doing great work on FX's The Bridge this summer - returns as Andrea. Walt uses her simply as a prop to lure Jesse than seeing her as an actually human being. But it's also very nice seeing Walt face-to-face with Brock - the kid he poisoned who honestly has no clue who this man really is.
  • How long will Huell be kept in the safe house?
  • While Todd was confident and precise at killing Drew Sharp, he simply is no comparison to his uncle's crew.
  • And Todd seriously ups the creepy factor with his closeness and gentleman attitude towards Lydia - wanting to make her tea perfectly for her and making sure to drink from the cup in the exact same spot she did. If she did not need him for the business, she would have laughed right in his face.
  • So, do you think Walt's phone call with Jesse was being recorded? If so, it would be a crucial piece of evidence for Halt. But also, what are the odds of it surviving the final shoot-out?
  • Michelle MacLaren simply cannot do any wrong as director but this sadly is her final episode of Breaking Bad as helmer. Whatever her next project is after this - whether it's more television or a movie - I'll be on board.
  • I must have been inhaling and exhaling during this episode because I'm still alive writing this review. But damn, it sure didn't feel like it.
  • But the how the hell are they getting to the flash-forward sequences. I simply don't see how they'll get there satisfactory in just three more hours.