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‘Breaking Bad’ White-Knuckles Its Way to a Showdown in the Desert

'Breaking Bad' White-Knuckles Its Way to a Showdown in the Desert

The article below contains spoilers for “To’hajiilee,” the September 8th, 2013 episode of “Breaking Bad.”

“Coward,” Walt (Bryan Cranston) hissed at Jesse (Aaron Paul) as his former partner watched him get cuffed and Mirandized out in the middle of the desert in “To’hajiilee.” It was a ridiculous insult — we’d just watched Walt phone in a hit on Jesse, one that’s “fast and painless,” like that makes it better — but it’s also an honor-among-criminals one and yet another peek into the warped headspace of the car wash owner/drug lord sometimes known as Heisenberg. Despite Walt getting huffily offended on Jesse’s behalf while ordered up his death by white supremacist, Jesse did actually rat him out, bringing Hank (Dean Norris) and Gomez (Steven Michael Quezada) into the game. He changed the rules on Walt — not that Walt’s rules have ever made sense to anyone but himself.

Walt was prepared to deal with a furious, betrayed Jesse — has remained so sure of his actions (“he just won’t listen to reason”) that he believed, up until Jesse got out of that car with Hank, that he could have talked the younger man around to his side, even if he still had to die.

It’s a combination of rationalization and delusion, that he was ready to kill Jesse, had in fact ordered it and called in backup, and yet also was sure enough of sense being on his side that he still felt justified in offering an explanation. But seeing the two together, his ex-protege and his DEA brother-in-law, made it clear that there was no way back, no squirming out for Walt in a way that wouldn’t involve a major price. Jesse had no interest in hearing why Walt thinks he’s in the right, why it’s all for his family, why he always knew what he was going and why Jesse owes him — not anymore.

Two great images in that showdown — Walt tearing up, crouched behind a rock, realizing that he’s genuinely out of options, and Jesse letting slip a display of giddy, desperate hope as Walt gets cuffed, allowing us to understand how little he believed the plan would actually work and how nearly supernatural his old boss has become in his eyes. The episode was directed by Michelle MacLaren, who’s reliably been one of the show’s best directors, and written by George Mastras, who most recently scripted train job installment “Dead Freight,” and it was pure Western when it arrived at its final remote location, a shootout in the wilderness that often looked up at its participants so that they were framed against the bright blue sky.

As beautifully, thrillingly done as much of that white-knuckle confrontation was, it was also one in which it was impossible not to be aware of the strings being pulled, which, as controlled as “Breaking Bad” has been over the years, remains a rare thing. When Hank and Gomez seemed to dawdle around forever after arresting Walt, when Hank took the time to call Marie (Betsy Brandt) and offer the kind of speech that usually spells instant death for a character, when they didn’t report in their location or call for backup when spying the arrival of two cars in the distance, it was a little maddening. Characters in “Breaking Bad” don’t always do the smartest thing, but it was an instance of one in which it felt like they were doing things for the sake of plot rather than their own logic — in the same way that Todd’s family shooting up the car containing the guy who’s key to their new meth empire felt like it was happening for the sake of an ammunition-heavy setpiece.

Minor complaints on the larger scale of things, but they’re why the strategic first half of the episode felt stronger than the action-filled second, as the characters tried to outfox each other via bluffs and threats rather than gunfire. Huell (Lavell Crawford), holed up in that underfurnished safe house for what he’s told is his own good, gets faked out by that photo of Jesse lying next to animal brains on the floor and offers up some essential information about what’s become of Walt’s money. Walt gets tricked by a staged image, too — of cash in a barrel, which Jesse and Hank use to flush him out and to get him to reveal the location of his illicit earnings (though would they have any way of legally linking him to whatever they find? fingerprints?).

For all the guns and the wild rides through to Indian reservations while talking frantically on the phone, the episode’s most gasp-worthy reveal had to have been that of Andrea (Emily Rios) opening the door to a solicitous Walt, who without a twitch greeted Brock (Ian Posada), the kid he almost killed, at the kitchen table and confided to Andrea that “Jesse’s using again, and I have a bad feeling about this.” The scene was such a masterful example of Walt’s capacity for cold-blooded calculation, as in the name of care for his poor, weak former pupil he managed to allow Andrea to make a threat on his behalf, with her not realizing a thing and with her son there in the foreground, eating his breakfast. If Hank hadn’t intercepted the call, it might have worked — it was exactly the kind of action that would send Jesse into an irrational spiral of alarm and that could easily have gotten him killed.

These last few episodes have taken place in such a narrow window of time that the scenes with Skyler (Anna Gunn) and Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte) in the car wash have the feel of a dream — while Walt’s world is imploding, they have no idea what’s going on, and they’re wishing people an “A1 day” (like Lydia, Skyler appreciates the power of branding) while he’s crouched in the middle of a fire fight. It seems impossible that the show will extricate itself from the scenario in which it left things without the death of at least one major character, but even when being as manipulative as the tail end of last night’s installment was, it’s too hard to guess the direction the show’s going to take. 

The next episode, “Ozymandias,” comes from “Looper” director Rian Johnson, and is named for a poem about the remnants of a forgotten empire and the man who once ruled it. We know Walt survives — we’ve seen him one year into the future, in the empty, abandoned house he once lived in with his family. All that’s left are the three episodes to get him there.

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