Hold on, I feel like I need another hour to process the final act of “To’hajiilee.” Or another day. Or another week. Or another lifetime.
I mean, what do you even say after something like that? ‘Breaking Bad’ has never shyed away from big, bullet-laden set pieces with major characters in danger, and the series has provided so many adrenaline-drenched moments that we should all be somewhat used to it by now. But with the end of the series so near, the gunfight between Hank & Gomez and Todd’s crew ratcheted the intensity up to an 11.
In the current era of violent, dark television, the idea of “dangerous” is becoming increasingly popular. It’s not enough to be investigating random, one-off murders, ‘Law & Order’ style; shows now realize that the real way to viewers’ hearts is to make them care about a character, then threaten to take that character away from them. This is why Kevin Bacon is captured in virtually every episode of ‘The Following,’ for example; because nobody wants to see Kevin Bacon die (even if we all want to see his stupid show die).
But buying into this sense of danger requires a certain suspension of disbelief. It’s a paradoxical problem for TV shows: if the audience becomes familiar and comfortable enough with a character to be affected by his or her death, then it no longer makes business sense to kill that character. Creating and casting roles that resonate with audiences is mysterious alchemy, and when it works out, it’s generally best not to sacrifice it.
So ‘The Following’ can put Kevin Bacon in as many perilous situations as it wants, but audiences know he’s not going to die. Not because it wouldn’t make sense in the world of the show – because oh my gosh it certainly would – because it wouldn’t make sense in the world of television.
I’m picking on one particular show I dislike, but it’s true of virtually every dark crime drama these days, even ones I like (‘Hannibal’, for example). The show wants you to fear for the safety of its characters, but doing so requires you forget about the fact that, 95% of the time, you already know for sure that they’re not going to die. You can certainly enjoy the drama, but you’ve got to push the business reality of television to the back of your head.
Which is all to say: “To’hajiilee” is the first time I can ever remember not having to push anything to the back of my head. Aside from Walter White himself, I distinctly felt as if every character in that gunfight was at complete risk of dying. Who knows which bodies will actually hit the floor – damn you, Vince Gilligan, and your mid-action cuts to black – but just the idea that both Hank and Jesse (as well secondary players Gomez and Todd) could legitimately be dead at the start of next week’s episode is terrifying, fascinating, thrilling…what other words do you want to call it? It’s EVERYTHING.
It’s ‘Breaking Bad’. The series is treating its final countdown less like a victory lap and more like an extended grand finale at the fireworks show. And it’s made possible by the fact that everyone except Walt could be killed at any moment now.
Structured similarly to last week’s “Rabid Dog,” “To’hajiilee” is split almost down the middle between following Walt and following Jesse. After a brief scene of Lydia expressing displeasure over Todd’s first cook (gotta stay on-brand, Todd!), Jesse’s story picks up with him explaining his plan to Gomez. Jesse reasons that the best way to get Walt is to find the one piece of evidence he can’t destory, his giant mountain of money, and that the weak link in that chain is Huell. Hey, I’ll take any excuse to have more Huell in my life, and he doesn’t disappoint in a scene where he’s rather easily manipulated by a fully-back-on-his-game Hank into thinking Walt’s coming to kill him. Huell doesn’t know where the money is, but he reveals that it’s A) in barrels, and B) probably buried.
Meanwhile, after his failed heart-to-heart with Jesse at the mall, Walt meets with Todd and his uncle to schedule the hit. They don’t want money, though; they want Walt to cook again. Walt reluctantly agrees, though still holds strong that Jesse would never rat him out.
The problem is that nobody knows where Jesse is, but Walt’s got that taken care of, or so he thinks. The man who near-fatally poisoned Andrea’s young boy Brock happily waltzes right back into her house to ask her a favor, and the fact that that doesn’t crack the top-10 most loathsome things Walter White has done really tells you all you need to know about him. Andrea, ignorant to Walt’s misdeeds, obliges and leaves a message for Jesse that will surely lure him into a the waiting arms (or, guns) of Todd’s uncle.
Only Jesse doesn’t have his phone, Hank does. And Hank’s busy setting a trap of his own for his dear brother-in-law.
After an unproductive meeting with Saul, Walt gets is sent a picture of what he belives to be a barrel of his money from Jesse, followed by a call from Jesse claiming to have found it via the (non-existent) GPS on the van Huell used. All the dots connect, and Walt speeds off to save his beloved money, frantically yelling sweet nothings at Jesse like a spurned lover (never has “I RAN OVER THOSE GANG BANGERS FOR YOU!” been said with such tender pathos).
Upon arrival, Walt finds the site undisturbed, and quickly realizes that he’s the one being set up. He wheezingly scales some rocks with his little pistol and, upon seeing cars approaching, hides and calls up Todd’s uncle for backup.
But while he’s making those plans, out steps Hank and Gomez. A slowly-zooming close-up captures Walt’s confusion, disbelief, and utter defeat as he calls off the backup. You can see Walt’s gears turning, but for once, Heisenberg is out of options. In his mad rush to save his money, Walt forgot to pack a contingency plan. Game over.
Stepping from behind the rocks, Walt surrenders. Under normal circumstances, a near-ten minute scene of a criminal surrendering to police would seem indulgent, but here it’s fully earned. This is, finally, the end for Walter White. He calls Jesse a coward, Jesse spits in his face, and Walt watches, handcuffed, as Hank makes the victory call to Marie.
And then, all hell breaks loose.
Not the type to back down from a fight, Todd’s crew shows up anyway, much to Walt’s chagrin. A densely-tense standoff occurs, slow motion posturing and all, and finally the two sides open fire. Chaos. Panic. Credits. Drop the mic.
We only know for sure that Walt lives, thanks to the flash forwards from previous episodes. And hey, maybe next week we find out that nobody of note dies. Maybe Gomez, Todd’s uncle, and maybe Todd go down, Jesse and Walt get away, and the story continues. Maybe Hank ends up right back in a wheelchair. Maybe Jesse gets takes a run at Walt and gets himself killed.
I have no interest in trying to predict ‘Breaking Bad,’ nor do I have a rooting interest in whether any character lives or dies – save for Walt himself, who of course must die in the end (and we’ve known that from the start). But because the series is so near its end, and because it’s so f’ing good, “To’hajiilee” delivered something much more compelling: a true sense of danger.