By Ken Tucker
September 03, 2012 at 01:27 PM EDT
  • TV Show

Culminating in a scene that gave new meaning to the term “info dump,” the mid-season finale of Breaking Bad on Sunday night was at once revelatory and frustrating, sweet and sour. The hour was constructed around what has become a familiar framework this season: It spent much of its first half tidying up the loose ends of last week’s episode, and then spent the second half creating another fine mess.

Thus there was an exciting action montage — the execution of all nine of “Mike’s guys” scattered among three jails in the space of two minutes, set to the tune of Nat King Cole crooning Jerome Kern’s “Pick Myself Up” — which had been preceded by an exciting stationary scene, a marvelously fraught meeting between Walt/Heisenberg and Lydia/Nervous Nellie in a coffee shop, as she tried to negociate a new business plan and her own survival plan, even as Walt’s goal was simply to get the nine guys’ names.

Both of those scenes were beautifully executed. The coffee shop klatch was another of Bad‘s variations on the DeNiro-Pacino scene in Michael Mann’s Heat, while the prison murders were shot with a fluid rapidity like something out of a Martin Scorsese gangster film — GoodFellas or Casino. (And it turned out Todd’s uncle and his skeevy white-supremicist crew, including another Friday Night Lights alum, Kevin Rankin, proved surprisingly useful and efficient.) The night’s other set-piece was a dazzler montage demonstrating just how rapidly Walt, Lydia, Jesse Plemons’ Todd, and Anna Gunn ‘s Skyler were making money — a kind of cinematic schematic of how the drug-making made money and how both ingredients were distributed (hello, quick-shot-of-lawyer-Saul!), this one set to the music of Tommy James and the Shondells’ “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” (How long had creator Vince Gilligan waited to use that perfect-for-the-show song?)

I found the hour frustrating in a few ways. Foremost: I hope Gilligan is planning a very prominent final back-eight-episode arc for Aaron Paul’s Jesse, because since he bowed out, the series has lost its most engaging dyad. The scene in which Walt went to visit Jesse, ultimately leaving him a bag of money, was one of the hour’s least stylized, most unadorned — yet it was also one of the most powerful, because Bad knows that all you need is Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul in a room and you’ve got a likely superb moment.

Their tense but heartfelt reminiscing about the early days of meth-making in that battered old RV was an opportunity for viewers to measure how far these characters have come, and to put the show’s current situation in perspective. Jesse was always too fragile, too sensitive, too good to make the kind of moves Walt has: In a way, he’s more fully formed, more completed as a person, than the older man, because of the tough life that led him to partner up with Walt in the first place. By contrast, Walt has moved from being fragile/sensitive/good to being tough, callous, and evil — his “journey,” as therapists and filmmakers like to say, is one about an ultimate corruption, as contrasted with Jesse’s too-late attempt to find salvation by “getting out.” In terms of storytelling, I understand why Jesse had to remove himself from the drug trade; as drama, the show has been left with a hole in its soul. So, next year, when Bad returns, I fully expect Gilligan and company to reinsert Jesse in a prominent, doubtless surprising way.

We may have thought Jesse would be the only person who could jar Walt back to some semblance of reality, but the episode, titled “Gliding Over All,” had Skyler do that. In another striking visual, she pulled back a tarp to reveal a gigantic pile of money, a dramatic gesture made to jolt Walt into answering the question she and others have posed: How much is enough?

What followed was a brief shot of Walt in a hospital, getting what I assume was an MRI exam, a reminder that real cancer is the source of much of his moral cancer, followed a while later with his declaration to Skyler, “I’m out.” Like Jesse, and like Mike, Walt uses those words to shorthand his recognition that the drug trade that has flourished all around him has exceeded his needs. Or at least that was true with Jesse and Mike; with Walt, you don’t know what’s the truth and what’s a lie of convenience.

Rarely has a work of poetry figured so prominently in a work of pop culture as Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass has in Walter White’s Breaking Bad world. The final scene — a time-shift jump-ahead — was a family get-together with the reunited White family plus Hank and Marie, shot and edited so that the banal suburban conversation was an aural blur of banality. The idea being conveyed here by writer Moira Walley-Beckett and director Michelle MacLaren was that it was the visuals, not the words, that were important.

Which in turn gave the words that followed all the more emphasis. Heading into the Whites’ bathroom to sit on the toilet, Hank groped for some reading material and found that copy of Leaves of Grass that had been emphasized a number of times now, the lingering connection to the dead culture maven Gale. Reading the inscription to “W.W.,” Hank recalled the similar W.W. entry in Gale’s journals, and the scales fell from his eyes as surely as his pants had fallen around his knees.

Yes, it was a sturdy cliffhanger: Who among us is not going to tune in a year from now to see what Hank does with this information? But, sorry, a couple of things took me out of this scene. The first is the idea that Walt is so arrogant or so foolish that he’d leave that book around. I cannot believe he’s never noticed the inscription before, since it had been his bedside reading material for a while. And I cannot believe crafty Walt would still possess the book in the first place — this is the Walt who’s always been so careful to destroy any connection to any criminal act.

As for Hank’s reaction: His look of surprise at this sudden, clear connection was effective as an hour-closer, but hasn’t Hank been suspicious of Walt this season anyway, commenting on his new car and his new watch in the same sly way he talks to suspects in interrogation rooms? Perhaps this had been simply a matter of Hank sublimating, of not wanting to believe there’s a connection between Walt and the crimes that haunt Hank — “chasing monsters,” as he said this week.

Breaking Bad has become a significant piece of popular art. Not so coincidentally, even the ads that ran during this episode demonstrated how far Bad has come in making its stars shiningly prominent. An ad for Ben Affleck’s new movie Argo was shown with a Bryan Cranston-introduced, Bad-tailor-made trailer; Aaron Paul partied with Diddy in a vodka spot. (Even Jesse Plemons popped up the ad for the film The Master.) To finish out its run as a great series, it’s going to have to pay off as convincingly on its carefully embedded coincidences as it has its brilliantly forefronted performances and notions of mortality, morality, physical and soul sickness.

Twitter: @kentucker

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Walter White descends into the criminal underworld.
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