Breaking Bad: “Face Off”

Remember how I’ve suggested that maybe Walt is seeking a bit of redemption and moral correctness since the knock-down drag-out with Jesse? About how his real tragedy might be that doom arrives at a time when he had begun to restore some part of his soul, and at the same time, our sympathy for him?

Yeah, um… fuck all that.

I also talked about how we needed to see Walter sack up and execute once again, and THAT demand was certainly met with perverse glee. I was clapping for Walter White again at one point—clapping! For Walter Fucking White, by any account a miserable sociopath! Okay, it was when he busted into the lab to rescue Jesse, for the record. I think we can all agree Jesse’s a semi-decent human being, so that’s a clap-worthy moment right? And this was well before the final shot that signaled just how horrendous the man has become, a depth of cold-blooded depravity I was not prepared to believe possible as recently as last week.

When he tells Skyler that he’s won, Walter is not talking about the Good Guy vanquishing the Bad Guy. This was straight-up villain-on-villain crime. This was Walt claiming sole possession of the Leroy Brown Commemorative Award for Baddest Man In The Whole Damn Town.

Breaking Bad: "Face Off" - Aaron Paul, Bryan Cranston

In the past, he’s often contorted himself into knots rationalizing his use manipulation or violence to achieve his goals. Any sense of attempting such justifications, even to himself—any pretense of clinging to a pre-Heisenberg morality—has vanished. This is a man willing to send an elderly neighbor into a possible death trap, like a canary in a coal mine. This is a man willing to poison a child when he calculates that it is his only possible maneuver to win Jesse back solidly to his side.* This is a man willing to send a suicide bomber into a nursing home. Anyone other than himself and his family is merely a pawn at this point in the game—not excluding his partner.

*I’ve heard from some people that Walt, as a chemist, could be careful only to give Brock enough of Lily of the Valley to get treatably sick, but not to die. That may be so, and all things considered I’m sure Walt sincerely preferred this outcome; I’m sure he doesn’t enjoy murdering children. That doesn’t make him any less of a dick.

And all of it done because, as he correctly observes, Gus had to go. The two of them could not inhabit the same universe anymore. Walt’s transformation from Mr. Chips into Scarface required being free from any competition, let alone a boss. Both eliminating Gus, and striking at Jesse’s core with such a vile tactic, were necessary to further Walt’s evolution heading into the final season.

It’s extremely sad to say adios to Gustavo Fring, a true villain’s villain, a fascinating and frightening man who played such a huge part in elevatingBreaking Bad’s third and fourth seasons to another level. But if he had to go, there truly was no better way than in a scheme as operatic as it was diabolical. I registered no less than three out-loud “What the fuck?!” moments in the span of about twenty seconds when 1) Gus noticed the bomb on Tio’s wheelchair**, 2) The dude walked out of the explosion appearing to have not a goddamn scratch on him, which was actually plausible for a second becauseof course Gus would survive an explosion, except for 3) the big reveal that gave lie to the insidiously clever episode title.*** In the most fitting, darkly hilarious touch, he uses his last second of life to straighten his tie, not only a perfect encapsulation of the character but a fantastic callback to his fastidious pre-murder routine in “Box Cutter” and “Salud.”

**How perfect is it that the bomb was triggered by Tio’s bell, that awful, irritating bell that’s delivered so much tension and comedy in episodes past. And kudos to Mark Margolis, who acted the hell out of a part with no lines and just the simplest facial expressions. 

***Considering that Walter and Gus never did go mano a mano, the conspicuously hyphen-free “Face Off” was less a double entendre than a slyly misleading single entendre. Surely grammar nerds can breathe a sigh of relief.

So the Chicken Man is cooked, the Superlab is a smoldering hole in the ground, and presumably Gus’s entire organization is as stagnant as his station wagon abandoned in a hospital parking garage….except for Mike, who I imagine will be none too pleased to see what exactly went down while he was laid up. Walter is bearing one more unspeakable secret from Jesse. Hank will most likely close the book on Heisenberg, until Walter inevitably does something stupid to fuck that up again.

And we have to wait an entire year before we get to see how all of that shakes out. It’s enough to drive a guy into developing a rock-collecting habit. Sorry, minerals.

Other notes: 

  • “Did you just bring a bomb into a hospital?” “What, was I supposed to leave it on his car?” “You’re supposed to bring it into a hospital?!”
  • “I musta saw it on House or something.”
  • “Are in danger? Whoop-de-freaking-do! Why do you think he’s not here? And how is that news, exactly, you two being in danger after doing something stupid?”
  • Walter White, Master Criminal, hilariously, cannot pick up on an extortion threat. “No reputable vendor,” indeed. That was more Frasier Crane than Tony Montana.
  • “I told them they were a couple of dicks.” “He’s a wordsmith!”
  • “All I can say is, if I ever get anal polyps I’ll know what to name them.” Saul Goodman with the early frontrunner for TV Line of The Week.
  • “If you wanna go stick your wangs in a hornets nest, it’s a free country, but how come I always gotta get sloppy seconds.”
  • “What are you, Thomas Edison now?”
  • When Marie resolutely announces that Hank WILL NOT be going to the DEA, I particularly loved the way the camera lingered on her face just a second too long, subtly letting us know that yes, we all know the joke that’s about to happen here.
  • Tio’s entire Human Ouija Board routine at the DEA office was painfully funny, and you can’t help but think the chance to pull that shit was nearly as much reason to go along with Walter’s plan as the chance to get revenge on his nemesis. I’m sort of gonna miss the old coot.
  • “At least this time he didn’t shit himself. I guess that’s progress.”
  • On second viewing I noticed: just before Gus straightens up and keels over, you can see in the back of the frame what appears to be a body (either Tyrus or Tio) falling off the ceiling of the exploded room. Just in case that whole shot wasn’t gruesome enough for you.
  • “Gus is dead. We’ve got work to do.”
  • “What happened?” “I won.”

Originally published at The Vast Wasteland, Oct. 10, 2011.

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