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Breaking Bad Recap: The Man With Two Faces

Mid-season, Walt was firmly stuck under Gus’s thumb when he yelled at Skyler, “I am not in danger, Skyler, I am the danger … A guy opens his door and gets shot, you think that of me? No, I am the one who knocks.” That was a little much. Even after that episode, Walt was the one who kept getting knocked around by Gus — and it must have burned him up that Skyler’s worries were all reasonable: All season, Walt did seem in over his head. Gus had the upper hand and it burned Walt up that Gus was “ten steps ahead of me at every turn,” as he bemoaned to Jesse. Only we now know that at the very end, Walt wasn’t the bumbling, desperate victim he so convincingly pretended to be. In a spectacular capper to the best season of one of television’s best shows, Walt won.

“What kind of man talks to the D.E.A.?” Gus asks Hector. “No man. No man at all.” Aside from the bleak irony of this line (soon, Hector is no man at all), the line is a reminder of how this whole season has been about this primal question of manliness: Gus resented being bossed around by the cartel and wanted to take over and get his revenge. Hank resented the way Marie treated him like a child — and, in this episode, storms into the D.E.A.'s office largely to spite her. Jesse resented the way Walt treated him like a dog and bit back. Hector fumed and drooled impotently while Gus killed off his family.

Each man on this show was jockeying for power, trying to reclaim some mojo and yearning to be his own boss. Since Vince Gilligan has said the show is about a “Mr. Chips to Scarface” transformation, we knew Gus would end up dead and Walt would grow more powerful. Maybe that’s why this episode was so startlingly good: At a certain point, you knew what was going to go down, but the show is so surprising, shot-to-shot, that it barely mattered whether you predicted the "Gus Dies" spoiler. (Particularly since the lily of the valley twist was even more shocking than Gus’s murder.) I mean, could you have ever predicted that the iffy pipe bomb trigger would be activated by Hector’s bell? Or that zombie Gus would straighten his tie before collapsing to the ground in a cloud of smoke? (That shot, below, was insane! And, designed by the Walking Dead crew, it was also brilliant AMC cross-promotion!)

The standard way a crime story like this plays out is that one ruthless boss will do anything to maintain his power, while a more decent man lives by some sort of a code. The innovation of this series is that Walt becomes every bit as ruthless, manipulative, and selfish as Gus. Mid-season, the car-wash owner Bogdan said, “Being boss is tough … The real important thing is to be tough.” Bogdan wondered whether Walt could be ruthless enough — and so did we. Could he, like Gus, do whatever it takes? Well, now we know the answer.

How bad does Walt break? Let’s run it down: He sends an innocent neighbor over to his house to check the stove, so that she might be murdered by Gus’s thugs instead of himself. He kills Gus, Hector, and Tyrus with a pipe bomb — and does so in the middle of an old folks home. Then, with the 38-snub he purchased in episode two, Walt coldly shoots two men dead in the lab. (Did he use the revolver for “defense” as he’d promised the gun seller? Only if you buy into his premise that the best defense is a good offense.) Finally, in a beautifully shot, slow zoom-in shocker, we discover that Walt nearly murdered a child beloved by his best friend — Jesse, whom he, in a drug-induced delirium, recently confused with his own son — by poisoning the kid with his Lily of the Valley.

When Walt was sitting by the pool with that Lily of the Valley flower, spinning his revolver on the table, he wasn’t thinking for a second about suicide, as many assumed. He never had a death wish. He’s always been a survivor. By the pool, he was thinking about how to use the death of a child to get to Gus. Was it plausible to you that Walt was so desperate he would launch a gambit like that? Last week, I couldn’t imagine that Walt would have killed a child to survive. Could he be so focused on his own self-preservation that he would risk the death of a little boy? From a distance, I question the logic of that subplot, but in the white-knuckle hurly-burly of last night’s episode, I bought it entirely.

Gilligan’s able to pull it off because of the previous episode’s setup: Last week’s demanded that you imagine Gus was so horrible he would do something even worse than all of the devious crimes he’d committed over the last two seasons. At first, it seemed absurd (and, honestly, it still doesn’t pass the Occam’s razor test) but you knew Gus would do anything to survive. Once the show established the relative plausibility of that sadistic trick, it paved the way for the anti-empathetic leap of the finale: If you believe that Gus would murder a child (or at least risk a child’s life) in order to protect himself, then why wouldn’t Walt do the same? Once you buy that these men will do whatever it takes to survive, it’s just a question of who did what. This season, the gap between Walt and Gus just disappeared.

As Walt told Gus in the season premiere, if you make it a fight for survival between Walt and Gale, Walt’s going to win every time. But it wasn’t just Gale he was determined to beat. For the last several decades of Walt’s life, everyone around him has thought that he was a loser. Then he got a taste of power, got addicted to that mojo, and had it taken away from him. Now we know that he will, indeed, do absolutely anything to be a winner. “I’m good,” he tells Skyler. “I won.”

Giancarlo Esposito and Mark Margolis will be missed — but you can’t say that Gilligan didn’t give them one hell of a sayonara. Cranston and Paul couldn't have been better. As a season, this unrelentingly tense show just seemed to up the difficulty level episode-to-episode, and, in this live wire finale, Gilligan stuck the landing. Was anyone disappointed? If so, how could you be? Was The Sopranos really ever any better than this show? I'd say no.

Obviously, this leaves us in a crazy position for season five, with a massive power vacuum opened wide. The collateral damage is spreading, with innocents dying or endangered. Will Saul’s secretary get her job back? What about Skyler’s tax problem? Hank’s investigation? And what the hell will Mike think of all of this when he returns? If Walt will nearly kill a child, will next season end with him killing his partner and maybe his brother-in-law too? Is anything off limits anymore? Vince Gilligan keeps calling this show the journey of “Mr. Chips to Scarface,” and Scarface went power mad and sociopathic. Is Walt almost there? How much uglier can it get?

Photo: Ursula Coyote/AMC