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Breaking Bad Recap: Truth or Consequences, New Mexico

“There isn’t. There was. But now there isn’t … Those consequences, they’re coming.” There’s no way out: All the exits are closed now that this phenomenal show is racing toward its finale next week. Just one more recap to go. That is, after we all stop hyperventilating.

Where to even start? How about with Gus? Just when you felt like he couldn’t possibly be a more evil or manipulative puppet master, the man with the all-seeing-eye necklace doesn’t just poison a poor young kid with ricin to contrive Walt’s murder, he stands in front of Jesse and placidly offers to help get Brock the best care money can buy. It’s now clear, as Walt tells Jesse, that Gus has “been ten steps ahead of me at every turn … He has known everything, all along.” Walt, who prizes nothing but his own bright mind, has lost the chess game and can’t do anything but laugh his screw-loose laugh and admit his respect for Gus’s masterful moves. “Think about it,” he says, writhing on the floor like an asylum patient. “It’s brilliant.” And that’s before Gus, either psychic or well-informed, wisely avoids the pipe bomb.

Spot poll: When Jesse held that revolver to Walt’s head, did you think Jesse might actually kill Walt? Even though it’s impossible, on a network level, to imagine that Emmy god Bryan Cranston could be offed, I did believe that Jesse might pull the trigger. (After that nutso laugh, you couldn’t blame Jesse for thinking that Walt might have truly lost his mind.) On some level, this show has been so surprising that it seemed plausible — and more likely, in fact, because it would have been for the wrong reason. I also believed that Gus might get blown to bits in his car — did you? It just feels like something has got to give in the finale next week. I can’t imagine they all make it out alive.

“Why did you stop?” Walt wonders, when Gus turns around and leaves. Was Gus spying on Walt’s home as he cooked up that pipe bomb? Did he have someone watching his car? Or was he just suspicious after seeing Jesse? Bottom line, Gustavo Fring is still alive. And so is everyone else, if only just barely. But if Gus did know, open warfare could be declared soon.

What’s Gus’s next move? Wouldn’t it make sense to just kill both Walt and Jesse, fill up that basement lab with dirt, and start fresh? And Walt? If he knows he’s the walking dead, why wouldn’t he just confess everything to Hank now? Paying a shady guy who works out of a laundromat is one way to disappear yourself. Another is federal witness protection. For Walt, who’s seeing more clearly now that his glasses have been repaired, that might be the last card left to play. All those qualms about telling Walt Junior are minor compared to the threat against Junior’s life.

Meanwhile, Saul is clearing out because he can’t take the heat and Walt is so distracted by his eminent death that he hasn’t even taken the time to get pissed off at Skyler, who’s been demoted to hand-wringing spouse. Hank is so close to finding the meth lab that all he needs is for Walt to look over his shoulder at the photos and say, “Doesn’t that machine look funny?” But Steve Gomez still isn’t convinced.

I’m running out of ways to praise this show (what more can you say about Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston?), and, on some big-picture level, I’ve got to admit that I just don’t get how they do it. That is, I don’t understand how, technically, a show can keep ratcheting up the tension over 30-plus episodes, bit-by-bit, and almost never feel contrived. Every time you feel like the show couldn’t get any more tense, any more do-or-die, Vince Gilligan ratchets the vice even tighter.

You look back at the crazy plot twists of this season and just marvel at how well each one has been sold. Right now, the show’s pulling off hairpin turns and outlandish set pieces that would have seemed utterly preposterous in season one: If you’d told me that a child-murder attempt by ricin could in any way be a believable plot twist, or that Walt would be planting pipe bombs, I would have laughed. On the face of it, these moves are outrageous, but we’ve been pushed so far, and so constantly, along with these characters, that each new move just flows from the last (while the sole off-key note, Skyler’s embezzlement, was the least violent).

I don’t get how they do it. But I think a lot of this has to do with the way the show’s creative, technical choices also keep you in a state of suspense. All those unpredictable shots, those giant vistas contrasted with those claustrophobic spaces, those headlong leaps that drive the story forward in fifteen minutes (whereas other shows might linger for half a season). With a fraction of the budget, the show has been shot with more ingenuity and vigor than the more predictably tasteful and much more expensive Boardwalk Empire. There are very few conventions left that you can trust, very few expected cues that play out as you might expect, very few beats that fall where you anticipate them.

The soundtrack and sound design this season have been spectacular, too, destabilizing you in the same way the constant twists and reversals throw you off balance: The show has never settled for the easy irony of old tunes or opted for too many on-the-nose Southwestern ditties, and for a show about drug slinging, there’s been surprisingly few drug songs. Instead, we get that ominous Fever Ray track playing while a freaked-out Jesse rides go-carts, that eerie Alexander Ebert track “Truth” at the end of this season’s premiere. And now, Apollo Sunshine’s “We Are Born When We Die” feels like a perfect counterpart to Walt’s suicidal reverie. In that final scene, that throbbing, clanging, in-house ambiance rises and then cuts out completely, segueing into that brief moment of exhaustion. Cranston’s devastating in that scene, but he gets a huge assist from the score.

And then, of course, there’s the way the script catches the delusional, ego-mad morality of our manly hero. “I have lived under the threat of death for a year now, and because of that I have made choices, and I alone should suffer the consequences of those choices, and no one else,” Walt says. It’s an admirable line. But it’s bullshit. Walt’s always wanted to be the big man. He has always wanted this whole dramatic crisis to be about him. But it never has been. And, right now, it doesn’t seem he can do anything to change that.

Photo: Gregory Peters/AMC