Note: Do not read on if you have not yet seen Season 5, Episode 9 of AMC's "Breaking Bad," titled "Blood Money."
When a great show enters its home stretch, it's impossible not to be nervous about the ending, but "Breaking Bad" reminds me of "The Shield," in that it seems to work harder to satisfy and to earn every single moment and plot twist the closer it gets to the end.
I have to think that "Blood Money" was a reassuring hour for those who were wondering whether or not the show is going to stick the landing. The biggest indication that "Breaking Bad" is not messing around came at the end of "Blood Money," when we had that intense confrontation between Hank and Walt.
It almost goes without saying that the performances were stellar, and every moment of that sequence gave Dean Norris yet another moment to shine. I loved how uncomfortable he was when Walt first showed up in his garage; Hank could barely look him in the eye, and Norris played the character's mixture of suppressed rage and forced politeness perfectly. I had no idea what would happen after he closed the garage door, but it took some stones to do that -- to enclose himself in the same space with someone he knew, at that point, to be a mass murderer.
And as much as Hank would like to build a legal case against his brother-in-law and observe the letter of the law, what kind of human being wouldn't want to take a swing at someone who'd been so cruelly deceptive for so long? Hank was owed at least that punch, if not more. It was a typically genius move by "Breaking Bad" to have that kid's remote-control car wheeling around in the street as the two men sized each other up; it helped reinforce, through sensory input, the idea that something about Walt had been a buzzing irritation to Hank for years. Hank always knew there was something off about the guy, and he couldn't get rid of that small but insistent sensation that Walt wasn't all that he seemed.
As was the case with the wonderfully still, sad scene with Jesse, the garage scene gave Bryan Cranston another chance to show us Walt switching effortlessly between various con-man modes. (Seen from one angle, Walt is a Willy Loman for a new age; what mattered about the character was not what he was selling but how the constant need to close the sale -- and the need to be seen as a good man who was "well liked" -- came to define him.)
With Hank, Walt wheedled, he begged, he used logic, and when none of that worked, he switched effortlessly into Heisenberg mode. You don't fool a DEA agent for five years and then ask him to "tread lightly." What's ironic is that at times, Walt is sincere -- he has given up the life; he thinks he is devoted solely to pursuing "an ordinary, decent life." Will Hank come to realize, as many of us have, that Walt probably never truly wanted that? That his ego most likely never would have let him settle for that kind of quotidian existence, even without the cancer diagnosis?
Speaking of the cancer, "Breaking Bad" put another card on the table by having us find out that Walt's cancer really is back. Presumably the pills he took in the flash-forwards in last year's season premiere were part of his treatment regime. Another dose of White-style irony: The nausea brought on by his cancer treatment brought about the discovery of the missing book of poetry. Poetic justice?
Jesse tried distributing his own kind of justice -- to the family of the murdered kid and to Mike's granddaughter -- but once again, his best instincts were thwarted by the cancer that is Walter White. Eventually, Jesse made it rain in a poor neighborhood, and his face in that scene was heartbreaking, as it was in the Walt-Jesse scene in his living room. Aaron Paul portrays abject depression and grief so incredibly well; Jesse's pain was almost like a third person on that couch. Jesse is the physical manifestation of Walt's continual need to wear down and use everyone around him. It's tragic that Jesse has so little fight left in him.
It's hard to think that there's anything left for Walt to lie about and ruin, but the look on Jesse's face said he was sure Mr. White would find something else to destroy.
A few more bullet points:
- I spoke to Vince Gilligan briefly about Badger's "Star Trek" pitch, which amounted to two minutes of pure awesomeness (and by the way, "147 Kirks" is the name of my new band. Our debut album: "Five Parsecs Out of Rygel 12"). Here was his explanation of where that came from: "Peter Gould did a great job writing ['Blood Money']. But ... two, three years back in the writers' room when we were stuck, I remember saying, 'Hey, I've got this great idea for a "Star Trek" episode.' So I've never pitched it to anyone at Paramount, but I pitched it to the guys in the writers' room and they all seemed to dig it. So we finally found a place to put it on the show."
- The flash-forward at the start of the show sees the re-appearance of the infamous ricin capsule, and also lets us know that Walt was not only driven out of his home but also -- per the graffiti on the living room wall -- publicly identified as the meth lord Heisenberg (not surprising, given Hank's discovery and what presumably followed). Well, Walt, you wanted people to remember your name, right?
- The direction, music, cinematography, sound design and production values were typically stellar in this episode, but I particularly enjoyed the way they came together to indicate Hank's dislocation and visceral reaction after they left the Whites' house.
- Speaking of the show's aesthetics, do check out this fine interview with the show's director of photography and occasional director, Michael Slovis.
- Do not f*** with Skyler. Having said that, I don't think we've seen the last of Lydia Rodarte-Quayle.
- With that nifty musical montage in his garage, Hank got his own "previously on Walter White" segment.
- One thing I've always enjoyed about "Breaking Bad" is its embrace of the soul-killing chipperness of American retail. One of Giancarlo Esposito's most memorable line readings was, "Thank you for calling Los Pollos Hermanos, where something delicious is always cooking!" "Have an A-1 day!" serves a similarly not-intentionally-funny-but-funny purpose.
- "Look it up! It's science!" Best Skinny Pete line ever? Speaking of science, Gilligan and Aaron Paul will be on a "Breaking Bad"-themed "Mythbusters" episode on Monday, which promises to be possibly too much fun. Check out a sneak peek here.
- In the full interview with Gilligan, he said he would not ever go back and re-edit the upcoming series finale, but he would consider a 3-D or "holodeck" version of the show, and I hope the latter becomes a reality in our lifetime.
- Ryan McGee and I discussed "Breaking Bad" in a recent Talking TV podcast, which is here, on iTunes and below. By the way, I'll be posting reviews of "Breaking Bad" until it ends, but next weekend I'll be traveling back from vacation on Sunday, so the review might not go up until Monday morning.
"Breaking Bad" airs 9 p.m. ET Sundays on AMC.