A grisly season finale gives new meaning to the words "Face Off"

By Melissa Maerz
Updated October 10, 2011 at 07:15 AM EDT
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Gregory Peters/AMC

Breaking Bad

S4 E13
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  • TV Show
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Once, he was a good guy who did bad things for good reasons. Then, he was a good guy who did bad things for bad reasons. Now, it’s official: Walter White is just bad. Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Hello, Scarface.

Has Walt ever endangered so many innocent people in a single episode? He carries a bomb into a pediatric hospital in his baby daughter’s diaper bag. He uses his next-door neighbor as bait for Gus’s hired guns. He sets fire to a laundromat that’s still packed full of employees. He lures his own brother-in-law out into the open, where Gus’s henchmen are waiting to kill him, just so that he will realize that Hector’s been inside. He straps a bomb to a frail old man inside a nursing home. (Admittedly, that particular old man isn’t an innocent, but the Casa Tranquila comrades playing Bingo within range of his exploding wheelchair might be.) And then, of course, there’s Brock. Looking back, Saul’s advice to the kid—”Carpe diem, okay?”—feels prescient.

What kind of man kills a child just to send a message? As Gus would say: No man. No man at all. Back in “Half Measures,” Gus told his dealers, “No more children.” Even Scarface abides by one hard-fast rule: “No f—in’ kids!” Has Jesse traded the world’s most evil villain for a guy who’s much worse? Walt’s already dissolved at least three human beings with acid, watched a woman choke to death on her own vomit, and now this? How much more will it take before we stop rooting for the guy?

Now, Walt’s become exactly what Gus once was: the all-seeing, all-knowing Almighty who somehow manages to be everywhere at once without anyone noticing he’s there. (Well, no one except that little old lady. “Hi! Hello!”) How did this poisoning go down? In the scene where Walt plays roulette with his gun by the swimming pool, it’s now quite clear where he got the idea to poison Brock: the gun was pointing directly to the Lily of the Valley plant. (Kudos to the commenter who noticed this last week.) But after that, things get a little more ambiguous.

When did Walt steal the ricin cigarette off Jesse? He couldn’t have broken into Jesse’s locker at the meth lab without Gus seeing him on the surveillance cameras. Yes, Huell could have taken the whole cigarette pack during that split-second pat-down. (Some people believe they can see Huell pocketing something in that scene. You can watch it here to judge for yourself.) But Huell would’ve also had to find a way to replace it quickly with another pack, and it’s hard to believe that Walt would trust that numbskull with such an important job. Could Saul have helped out? His calls to Jesse did seem awfully urgent. And Saul was friendly with Brock, which leads to another question.

Who actually fed the plant to Brock? If Walt didn’t enlist Saul to help him, he would’ve had to hide the berries in Brock’s food without hurting Andrea. Otherwise, if he fed them to the boy himself, Walt’s going to have a major problem next season. Once Brock pulls through (and, according to Jesse, the doctors think that’s likely) that kid’s going to tell his mother exactly what happened, and this time, Jesse won’t think twice about pulling the trigger once it’s pressed against Walt’s head.

Still, how would a brilliant chemist—one who can cook the blue stuff with 99 percent accuracy—possibly miscalculate how much poison to give to Brock? Is it possible that he only meant to make the boy sick, not kill him? When Jesse tells Walt that Brock’s odds are good, there’s a million emotions sweeping across his face, but it looks like at least one of them is relief.

NEXT: Gus’s best battle cry ever? “I do this!”

As long as Jesse’s none the wiser, Walt’s right: He’s winning. And what leads up to that win is nothing but unbearable tension. The slowness of spelling out words on Hector’s letter board. (“Honey, dea isn’t a word.”) The hovering of his shaking hand above that little bell. Even Gus’s methodical removal of his tie, which starts the clock ticking down to the moment he’s undone by his own arrogance. (“I do this!” should grace the first page of The Quotable Gustavo Fring.) After about ten billion of the most tense seconds ever, Walt finally gets rid of his archenemy and the last cartel man standing in a single checkmate move. And Hector gets to take out Gus with one final terrifying look in the eye. (After watching Mark Margolis’s performance, the Academy should create a special Emmy for Best Nose-Breathing and Best Performance With One’s Eyeballs.)

Both Hector and Walt get the satisfaction of knowing that Gus—a guy so unkillable, Jesse once compared him to The Terminator—went down just like Schwarzenegger, with half of his face melted off. Say what you will about the cartoonish violence in that scene, but a villain this monstrous deserves a death that makes him look like he’s not human.

Throughout season four, many episode titles have had double meanings. “Open House” focused on Marie’s open house visits and Jesse’s open house parties. “Bullet Points” showed the cartel’s bullet points in the Los Pollos truck, and Skyler’s bullet points for Walt’s talk with Hank and Marie. “Shotgun” found Jesse riding shotgun with Mike, and fending off a shotgun-toting bad guy. Turns out, the title of the finale, “Face Off,” wasn’t just a reference to the showdown; it was also a sick joke.

Breaking Bad‘s writers have always been so smart about subverting classic Western tropes by playing them out in the suburbs. (See also: Walt practicing his quick-draw on an upholstered dining room chair, and Walt lining up bullets on the same counter as his brown-bag lunch.) And setting Gus’s High Noon moment in a home for the elderly was a particular stroke of genius. From the cool, soothing music (Apparat’s “Goodbye”) to the mundane rituals of Gus parking his car and embarking on that long, slow walk across the handicapped spots, the message is clear: this kind of evil isn’t just relegated to some criminal underworld. Eventually, what happens in the Mexican drug cartels trickles down to regular people, too.

And speaking of regular people, what will happen to the Whites now that the meth lab has burned down? (That great song that plays while Walt and Jesse torch the place is “Freestyle” by the Taalbi Brothers, two teenage Spanish-guitar proteges.) Hank, who was so close to discovering the laundromat’s secret electricity-sucking room, is back to square one. The cartel’s highest ranking kingpins are gone. And the DEA’s got their Heisenberg, or so they think. In the Bible, the Lily of the Valley is a symbol of the Second Coming, and the beginning of a better world. Is Walt right when he says “It’s over. We’re safe. I won”?

Well, there’s still one season to go. So it seems like Saul’s prognosis is more fitting: “[Walt’s] okay like a fruit fly’s okay. We’re all on the clock here.” Sure, now that the lab’s gone, Walt and Jesse could go back to their old street-level operation, or give up the game completely. It would be interesting to see Walt try to resurrect his old life before cancer beats him. But it’s doubtful that things would end that way. Surely, Walt’s fingerprints will surface somewhere, as will that video of Jesse cooking in Mexico. The detectives investigating that ricin tip aren’t done with Jesse. (“Until next time,” they tell him as they walk out the door.) Tyrus could still be alive. (The original radio report says that “as many as three people may have been killed,” and later, when Walt calls Skyler, she tells him, “Gus Fring is dead. He was blown up along with some person from the Mexican cartel,” but there’s no mention of Tyrus.) If Mike’s not rotting away in the Mexican desert, he could be back. And are we so sure that Ted’s dead, never to lead anyone back to Skyler again?

Everything that Walt’s done will catch up with him eventually. Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan once admitted that he feels “some sort of need for biblical atonement, or justice, or something. I like to believe there is some comeuppance, that karma kicks in at some point, even if it takes years or decades to happen.” So maybe there’s some foreshadowing in the lyrics to that final song of the episode: “Some day they’ll punish my deeds / And they’ll find / All the crimes.” This isn’t an ending. It’s a Second Coming. And judgment day’s waiting for Walt.

NEXT: Some final questions for you readers

What did you think of Gus’s melted face? Genuinely shocking? Just cartoonish?

Did you suspect Walt of poisoning Brock before the camera focused on the plant? (I’ll admit it: Even after reading the many comments last week that suggested Walt was the culprit, I remained unconvinced until the very end.)

Now that Gus is gone (read Ken Tucker’s great interview with Giancarlo Esposito about That Scene here), what do you think will be the focus of next season?

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Breaking Bad

Walter White descends into the criminal underworld.

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