By Ken Tucker
June 14, 2010 at 12:00 PM EDT
  • TV Show

It’s not often that Breaking Bad does flashbacks, so when it does — particularly as one of its always-crucial pre-credits sequences — we’d best pay close attention. Thus when last night’s season finale, entitled “Full Measure,” commenced with a scene of younger Walt and a pregnant-with-Walter-Jr. Skyler walking with a real-estate agent through the house-with-a-pool that would become their home-with-nightmares, fresh insight into these characters was gleaned. We saw that, even before he was diagnosed with cancer and started making meth to pay his future bills, Walter White was something of a dreamer, a suppressed risk-taker. Skyler loved the three-bedroom house, but Walt thought{C} it was too small. Set our sights higher, he urged Skyler. “Why be cautious? We’ve got nowhere to go but up.”

It turns out, that Walt — a Walt with hair and an open smile — was right. He went “up” in a couple of ways: Increased his income (upping his chemistry-teacher salary by supplementing it with meth profits), increased his engagement with life (the overarching, entire-series irony of Breaking Bad is that Walt was a deadened soul until he got his wake-up cancer call, and came fully alive when he started doing things that can and do cause misery and death all around him).

After last week’s shocking final moment in which Walt shot and killed a drug dealer with less hesitation or remorse than his supposedly more criminal partner, Jesse, this week’s episode, “Full Measure,” began with Walt wearing his flat-top black cap: his Heisenberg identity; the image that we saw drawn for the killers meant to identify Walt, at the start of the season.

Walt and Gus met in a neutral spot, a barren stretch of Albuquerque landscape. Gus told Walt he questions Walt’s sanity in doing what he did last week (killing the two drug dealers who were going to kill Jesse). “I saved his life… now he and I are done,” Walt told Gus in regard to Jesse. This set up something that would happen again in this episode written and directed by creator Vince Gilligan: Walt protects Jesse even as he suggests to others that he’s willing to sell out Jesse. Yes, it’s a strategy to keep Gus from realizing how committed Walt is to Jesse, but it left open the notion that, if push came to shove, the now deadly-ruthless Walt might indeed betray Jesse.

There followed a fantastic Mike sequence: He went to a meth-ingredient location (the idea recently in Breaking Bad has been to make it clear that Mike’s decades-long work as a for-hire “clean-up man” is never-ending and as much as he’s aging and getting more tired of it, his skills are still superb). He found the employees being held hostage by some Mexican cartel thugs, and Mike killed them in a couple of nighttime action sequences worthy of Michael Mann’s Miami Vice.

Gale had reentered the show, and I was glad to see him. Gus insisted he be re-hired as Walt’s assistant, with another Gus henchman, Victor, watching over the two meth-manufacturers. Now we saw Gale at home, where he’s a fastidious man, fussing over the making of his “perfect” cup of coffee, watering his plants while singing along to Spanish-language music I am too musically illiterate to recognize. (Anyone wanting to fill me in here is most welcome. Some of the music seemed to have been sung by Betty Boop but not played for laughs; Gale clearly loves the music, and actor David Costabile sang along beautifully.)

Gus paid Gale a visit, informed him of Walt’s health condition, making it sound more grim than it is. He wanted to ascertain whether Gale can take over from Walt because{C} Gus had now made the decision that both Walt and Jesse must go; they’re the “soft spots,” the weak links in his operation. Gale was surprised but willing to take over after “one more cook” during which he’d extract the remaining chemical info he needs from Walt, whom he described to Gus as “a master.”

What would a season finale be if we didn’t get one more glimpse of Saul? Mike went to the shady lawyer, who was easily intimidated into giving up the address of Jesse’s whereabouts — or so Mike thought. Saul then took Walt to the laser-tag store he’s wanted Walt to buy as a drug-laundering investment. It’s also where Jesse is really hiding. Bob Odenkirk made the most of the hissy-fit Gilligan wrote for him here, yawped to Walt about how Mike, “my own P.I.,” had threatening him, comparing the act to “Thomas Magnum threatening that little guy with the moustache.” Saul also referred dismissively to Jesse as “Hiphop.” I love Saul, yo.

At this point, the rest of the season finale became a dramatized philosophical discussion that summarized the entire season’s themes of loyalty, betrayal, pride, guilt, and the possibility (or not) of redemption. Walt knew why Gale had been returned to the meth lab, and told Jesse, without saying these exact words, that they must kill Gale to remain alive. Walt’s reasoning is that, as long as Gale is unable to reproduce Walt’s classic blue meth, he’s still invaluable to Gus. “I’m the only chemist he’s got,” says Walt. “Production cannot stop.” In essence, Walt was making a Marxist move — a worker who would “seize the means of production,” in Marx’s phrase — a thought that might be appreciated by Gale (see bullet-point below).

Our main men’s role reversal begins. Jesse is the one who{C} suggested they give themselves up to the DEA (which would certainly buck up Hank in his recuperation, wouldn’t it?) and enter the witness-protection program. “We had a good run, but it’s over,” said Jesse. It’s Walt who’s now the guy who favors taking Gale out and resorts to gangster loyalty: “I saved your life, Jesse; are you going to save mine?” Later, Jesse said, “Don’t do this, Mr. White, please — go to the cops.” It’s a measure how far Breaking Bad has moved along the moral map that Jesse is the voice of reason, and Walt the voice of fatalistic doom and violence.

Walt decides he’ll be the one to kill Gale, but he’s intercepted by Victor, who insisted Walt go with him to the lab because of a “chemical leak.” There, Mike is waiting — he wants Jesse’s location and Walt’s life. Instead, Walt turns the tables neatly, warning Jesse and dispatching him to kill Gale. Explaining what he’s done to Mike, Walt believed he’d guaranteed his own survival.

Jesse arrived at Gale’s place, nervous, reluctant. In the final seconds, he pulled his gun on Gale, who spoke Jesse’s very thought: “You don’t need to do this.” Tears in his eyes, Jesse raised the gun, the camera’s point of view shifted to a shot of Jesse aiming his weapon at a now-unseen Gale — and really, aimed at us. Jesse’s arm moved slightly to his right, he fired the gun. Bang, and fade to black. End of season three.

My take? Jesse has decided he can shoot (but can’t kill) Gale, but in that decision, he has thus placed Walt in grave danger. Maybe in your interpretation, Jesse did shoot (and kill) Gale. In the real-time construction of Breaking Bad, this means next season must grapple immediately with the aftermath of Jesse’s decision. And now Walt and Jesse are complete equals: Both dangerous criminals, both haunted by the frayed edges of their consciences.

This was a satisfying conclusion to a superlative season. For me, Breaking Bad had as much to say about the nature of the soul and how we create our own destinies as did Lost, only without the glowing yellow-magic-water-holes or the slo-mo, feel-good sentimentality. I can understand why many people find Breaking Bad difficult to enjoy because they feel there’s no one to root for; that the very thing Walt did from the first season to make money — drugs manufactured to provide a cushion for his family when he dies of cancer — is too immoral an act (in the street-level devastation it causes) to enable some to remain engaged by Walt and Jesse’s constant and various predicaments. My excellent colleague, The Chicago Tribune’s Maureen Ryan, has made an eloquent case for such disenchantment, as well as for giving the show its proper due.

It may be that what tips me to the Breaking Bad side is that I love the hardboiled thriller framework around which the series is constructed, and regularly deconstructs. But the bottom line is, this is great storytelling, great acting, and some of the greatest TV cinematography ever.

A couple of stray questions:

• Gale’s bookshelf pretty much gibes with his description of himself earlier in the season as a “libertarian”: works by or about Marx, Engels, Lenin, plus literary critic Hugh Kenner’s study of Buckminster Fuller, Bucky. (Lighter reading on a nearby table: a book by Breaking Bad super-fan Stephen King. In the blurry shot, I didn’t recognize the dust jacket. Did you?)

• The conversation Mike had with his granddaughter, in which he says the rhinoceros they saw at the zoo would “come running for his dinner,” felt as though it was meant to carry some metaphorical weight that for the life of me I can’t tease out, beyond a rather obvious point that appearances are deceptive. He jokes that the rhino has a “big nose” and she corrects him, saying it’s the animal’s horn. “I always learn a lot from you,” he says. Was there a bigger meaning to this, something Mike is working out shortly before he uses the rest of the balloons for his attack?

• Update: In interviews with The A.V. Club and critic Alan Sepinwall on, Vince Gilligan says he didn’t intend the ambiguity I see about whether or not Jesse killed Gale. Still, I wouldn’t put it past the wily, inventive Gilligan to toss a curve-ball into next season’s opening moment…

I wonder what you thought, taking the full measure of the season.

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Walter White descends into the criminal underworld.
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  • 01/20/08-09/29/13
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