Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman and Bryan Cranston as Walter White in BREAKING BAD - Season 5 - "To ha'jiilee | ©2013 AMC/Ursula Coyote

Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman and Bryan Cranston as Walter White in BREAKING BAD - Season 5 - "To ha'jiilee | ©2013 AMC/Ursula Coyote

Stars:  Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte, Bob Odenkirk
Writer
: Vince Gilligan and George Mastras
Director
: Michelle MacLaren
Network:
AMC, airs Sunday Nights
Original Telecast
: September 8, 2013

Even if I were not a fan of BREAKING BAD and its characters, and not particularly interested in how the complex moral universe of this show is going to resolve itself in the next month, I’d still have to tip my hat to it only for the sheer skill and craft on display during the final half hour of “To’hajiilee.”  BREAKING BAD’s creators really put on a clinic on how to build suspense and keep fingernails digging into sofas last night.  This was a great thing, because with the first half of this plot-heavy episode racing frantically towards a conclusion, it was impressive to see how much more interesting things got when the show focused on small moments, and began to slow everything down.

“To’hajiilee” kicks off with a scene we could probably all see coming from the last several episodes.  Todd (Jesse Plemons) cooks a batch of obviously substandard methamphetamine for Lydia (Laura Fraser), while his Uncle Jack and his Nazi prison gang buddies watch.  Lydia realizes that this cook isn’t up to Heisenberg’s standards, and that her distributors won’t be happy with this.  Besides being less pure than Heisenberg’s stuff, it needs to have a blue color to maintain its brand identity, and it doesn’t have that either.

Uncle Jack tries to intimidate her into accepting that the meth they’re cooking is the meth she’s going to get.  It doesn’t seem like he’s a man she can get to follow her business logic, and she may just have to make due with bad meth.  But the odd twist comes at the end of this scene, when Todd, (who’s basically still a cipher who’s just happy to go along with whatever an authority figure tells him), puts his arm on Lydia in a clumsy show of affection.  Lydia sees her opening to exploit this act, since he’s probably the only one of her new allies she now has any influence over, and tells him that it’s “very important to me” that the cook gets better, leaving Todd to interpret this in the manner she knows he will.

As Lydia leaves, Todd gets the phone call from Walt we heard at the climax of the last episode.  Walt is explicit that the person he wants Todd’s Uncle Jack to kill is Jesse Pinkman.  Todd does not seem bothered or surprised by this in the least.  While Todd’s Uncle Jack and his friends are pretty standard movie/TV criminals, Todd’s sociopathy makes him a unique and suddenly more interesting character.  You get the sense that a guy like this, who’s not driven by pride or ego, and who has no capacity to understand the difference between right and wrong (even in principle), could be a far more successful criminal than any other character BREAKING BAD has yet presented us with.  Although he’s also not very bright, so there’s that.

Meanwhile, Hank (Dean Norris), Jesse (Aaron Paul) and Steve Gomez (Steven Michael Quezada), have just come from the botched meeting with Walt (Bryan Cranston) at the plaza.  Steve’s upset that Jesse ruined their sting operation, but in the time since that happened Jesse’s laid out his plan to nail Walt for Hank, and Hank has come to agree that it’s a better plan.  Jesse thinks he has a way to get evidence against Walt using the one thing he truly seems to care about:  His money.  And even though Jesse himself doesn’t know where Walt’s money is, he thinks he knows who does.  Back at Hank’s house, we see Hank drop bloody meat on his kitchen floor for some reason.

Before we know it, Hank and Steve have picked up Huell (Lavell Crawford) and taken him to a safe house, telling him that this is actually for his own protection.  Hank says they’ve intercepted a wiretapped cell phone call from Walt to Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) that strongly implies Walt is “tying up loose ends” and wants to kill everyone who knows where his money is.  To hammer the point home, Hank tells Huell that Saul’s other employee, Kuby (Bill Burr) is already missing, and he shows Huell a cell phone picture of Jesse, on Hank’s tile floor, his brains apparently splattered in a pool behind him, (this was the payoff for the bloody meat scene earlier).  Huell buys this story, and immediately starts spilling his guts.  He doesn’t know where the money is, but he does know how much it is (7 barrels worth), and where he and Kuby got the rental truck Walt then used to transport it to its final destination.

While Jesse’s plan to take down Walt is taking shape, Walt’s plan to take down Jesse is in the advanced stages as well.  Walt meets with Uncle Jack to discuss how he wants Jesse killed.  Uncle Jack is somewhat incredulous that Walt isn’t going to do the job himself, but Walt explains that Jesse is “like family to me.”  He also doesn’t want him to suffer.  Uncle Jack is perfectly amenable to a bullet in the back of the head, however, but his price for doing this is that he needs Walt to come back and show Todd how to fix the flaws in his cook.  Walt’s says no at first, but ultimately relents and agrees to “one cook – after the job is done.”  They shake hands.  Now Uncle Jack just needs to know how to find Jesse.  Walt doesn’t know, but says he knows how to flush him out.

Walt’s plan to do this involves Jesse’s ex-girlfriend, Andrea (Emily Rios).  Walt shows up at her house, feigns concern about Jesse’s whereabouts, and even though she hasn’t seen him in months, lets Walt in and gives him the opportunity to explain what he wants. Andrea’s son Brock, (who Walt once poisoned with lily of the valley as a means of tricking Jesse into helping him), is indifferent to Walt’s presence there, though the camera seems to spend an inordinate amount of time on his blank face during this scene.  There’s no reason the boy would know who Walt is, but BREAKING BAD seems to know that the audience will be studying both of their faces for any hint of recognition on Brock’s part, or any hint of guilt on Walt’s part, and that they won’t find any.  They’ve pulled this trick before, and it still manages to create tension here.  Because Walt is completely evil in this scene, Andrea doesn’t catch on to Walt’s ulterior motive, and believes Walt is really looking for Jesse to help get him off drugs.  Walt convinces Andrea to leave Jesse a voicemail telling him that his friend Walt stopped by to see them, which is all he’ll need to light a fire under Jesse.  Outside Andrea’s house, Uncle Jack and his associates are watching, and waiting for Jesse to show up in a panic so they can execute him.  Walt reminds them to do it painlessly and then take the body away so that Andrea and Brock don’t see it.

Walt’s plan would have worked if he had gauged Jesse’s actions correctly.  He believed Jesse was the “Rabid Dog” of the previous episode, hell bent on killing Walt, and acting completely on his own.  Unfortunately for Walt, Jesse’s working for Hank, and Hank is the one who hears Andrea’s voicemail.  Knowing immediately what Walt’s trying to do, Hank does not relay the contents of that voicemail to Jesse.  Instead he puts the finishing touches on his plan.  Steve comes back with the news that the truck rental company Walt used to transport his money did not come equipped with any sort of GPS tracking.  Hank realizes that Walt doesn’t know this.

At the A-1 Carwash, Skyler (Anna Gunn) gives Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte) a tutorial on how to run the cash register.  There’s a nice line where Skyler talks about the importance of saying, “Have an A-1 day” to each customer as they leave, as “it reinforces our brand.”  This is the same logic Lydia was using earlier with the blue meth.  Unexpectedly, Saul shows up at the carwash, looking for Walt.  He’s wearing a bulletproof vest, which Walt doesn’t understand.  He tells Walt that Huell’s missing, and that he’s certain Jesse’s responsible, and he doesn’t want to be his next victim.

Walt seems prepared to disregard Saul’s paranoia, but then he gets a text from Jesse’s phone that shows an open barrel of money, presumably the loot that he buried in the desert.  The subsequent phone call between them involves Jesse taunting Walt, saying he’s at the hiding place, he’s got all seven barrels and is going to torch them, while Walt gets in his muscle car and drives like a lunatic to that location.  As he drives, Walt gives his version of all the “good” things he’s done to or for Jesse, and rationalizations to explain some of the stuff that wasn’t so good.  This includes a description of how he was careful with the dosage when he poisoned Brock, and a run-down of most of the other various and sundry crimes Walt’s committed.  The audio recording of this is the evidence Hank would need to convict Walt, and Walt’s just given it to him.  Walt also tells Jesse that the only person he’d be hurting by torching that money are Walt’s children, since he’s dying and they’ll get the loot once he’s gone.

When Walt arrives at the location, gun drawn, he finds no one there, and realizes he’s been had.  He climbs up on a rock formatting then sees a vehicle coming.  He assumes it’s Jesse coming to murder him, then, frightened, calls Uncle Jack to give him the GPS coordinates of the location so they can come finish the job they were hired to do.  When Walt realizes that it’s not just Jesse, but also Hank and Steve who have come to collect him, he looks defeated, and tells Uncle Jack to “Never mind.  Don’t come.”

The next sequence is masterful, because this is the kind of jam Walt usually gets out of by having something up his sleeve.  As the scene builds, we wait for that moment, but it never comes.  Walt’s bag of tricks is suddenly empty.  He surrenders to Hank, drops his gun, is ordered to walk towards them backwards, and is put in handcuffs.  Hank reads him his rights.  Walt’s only statement is to Jesse, and what he says is, “Coward!”  Jesse’s not in the mood to be talked down to by a man who poisoned a ten-year-old and he spits in Walt’s face.

But afterwards everyone just hangs around in the desert for what feels like excruciatingly too long.  Hank then calls Marie (Betsy Brandt) to tell her that he’s just taken down Walter White, which she’s thrilled by, and he tells her that he’s on his way home.  Once he gets to the part of the call where he says, “I love you” we know he’s in trouble.  And, sure enough, when the pick-up trucks full of Nazis show up with automatic weapons show up, he really is in trouble.  Hank and Steve are completely outgunned, and the ensuing standoff looks like it’s poised to take BREAKING BAD in an even darker direction, with Jesse, Hank, and Steve all getting blown to bits with three episodes remaining.  From the back of Hank’s car, Walt screams at Uncle Jack to stop, which is the only decent thing Walt has done all episode long, (and thus, part of the great mystery of Walt), but it is to no avail.

The episode ends with bullets flying, and Hank and Steve taking cover behind their vehicle.  Somehow they are not hit by the time the episode ends, even though they were standing out in the open and five muzzles were trained on them.  This bodes pretty well for their chances of survival next week, I suppose.  But with not much time left in this whole series, and the number of bullets that apparently flew in that last sequence probably topping four-digits, it would shock me if one of them does not wind up having been shot.  Walt’s most extreme actions (things like hiring a Nazi prison gang to commit murder) rarely end up without horrendous collateral damage.

But besides continuing the streak of great cliffhangers, what I liked best about the episode was the way it varied its approach so effectively.  Because there were moments in “To’hajiilee” that were plot-intensive and required the audience to absorb a lot of details quickly, (Hank spinning a complicated story about Walt on a killing spree to try and turn Huell against his bosses, for instance), it was wise the way this episode slowed its pace down as it headed towards a confrontation between Walt and Hank, and then again as things started to spiral even further out of control with the arrival of an even greater threat.  The mastery of tone and pacing BREAKING BAD exhibits again and again gives me a great deal of faith that, however I wind up feeling about the resolution they provide for this series, actually watching the final episodes will be a viscerally satisfying experience that won’t disappoint.

AGREE? DISAGREE? LET YOUR VOICE BE HEARD – COMMENT BELOW

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