If you could chart changes in tone and style on a graph, you'd see a dramatic evolution from season to season of Breaking Bad. Season four is where it turns grimly nutty, becoming a cat-and-mouse (or cats-and-mice) tale of plots and counter-plots. At its giddy peak, it reminds me a little bit of Wile E. Coyote vs. the Road Runner (with Walter White serving as his own Acme corporation), and Antonio Prohías' Mad magazine comic "Spy vs. Spy." Everybody is bugging everybody else, planting tracking devices on their cars, and trying to out-think and out-play them. Every major Breaking Bad character is obsessed with trying to guess what the other guy will do, and with formulating a plan that'll play on his worst instincts or greatest weakness, and by so doing, destroy him — or trick him into destroying himself.
The tonal/stylistic trajectory is astonishing, even by the standards of a risk-taking cable drama. Vince Gilligan's show starts out somewhat realistically (notwithstanding that a high school chemistry teacher becoming a brilliant meth cooker and tough criminal overnight is itself a stretch), and continues in that vein throughout most of season two, up until Walt shaves his head — at which point both he and the series start to take on progressively darker and more grotesque colorations, becoming more baroque, more figurative.
There was always a plot-counterplot element in the show, of course, but season four is where it starts to dominate. In its perverse, elaborate way, the season is a prison-break story. Walter and Jesse (and, to an extent, everyone associated with their criminal enterprise, including Skyler and Saul) are prisoners of Gus Fring. From the end of season three, which I wrote about here, the goal is to escape death at Gus's hands, or imprisonment by his business schemes.
The season three cliffhanger shows Jesse shooting Gale, the docile chemist that Gus hoped would replace the troublesome, back-talky Walter. The first episode, "Box Cutter," picks up seamlessly from that moment, setting up one of the most gruesomely violent set pieces in the show's history (Gus's murder of his man Victor, for screwing up at the scene of Gale's murder and making it possible for witnesses to identify him). From that point on, Walter and Jesse are Gus's prisoners: highly compensated slave laborers whose every move is monitored and tracked, and who can barely lift a pinky without Gus finding out.
Soon Walt's turned into, or is slowly becoming, his alter ego Heisenberg — the puppet now controlling the puppet master, rather than the reverse. And as we watch this struggle take place within Walt, the show itself increasingly plays like a nightmarish projection of Heisenberg's world view, his mentality, his vibe. Heisenberg's mind is a disordered place, a world of cruelty and selfishness, and the world of the show increasingly comes to reflect it, with its exaggerated angles, flashy point-of-view shots, jittery jump cuts, and super-short lenses that make peoples' heads look like peanut M&M's in close-up. Over time, it seems as if Heisenberg's evil — projected onto the world and infecting it, like an externalization of the cancer that Walt theoretically no longer has — is engulfing reality itself.
Season four might be Breaking Bad's most relentlessly plot-driven one. It proceeds organically from the back half of season three, which introduced the super-lab and showed Gus plotting to destroy the Mexican cartel and have the southwest U.S.-Mexico meth trade to himself. When Gus and Mike take Jesse to the cartel's lab, we think it's a gesture of business détente, but it turns out to be the pretext for revenge-mass-murder-by-poison that both pays back Don Eladio's long-ago murder of Gus's partner and destroys Gus's competitors in one fell swoop. Sklyer gives money to Ted to solve his IRS problems and prevent an audit that would expose their scheme, but Ted sits on the money instead, using a piece of it to lease a luxury car, and telling Skyler he plans to use the rest to resuscitate his dead business. She confesses that she gave Ted that money (via a nonexistent dead relative); when Saul sends henchmen to intimidate Ted into giving the money to the IRS as he should have done in the first place, it causes a panic accident so awkwardly, horribly funny that it could have come out of season two or three of The Sopranos. There's so damned much plot, in fact, that cataloging it all here would be exhausting, so I won't try. Suffice to say that here, as in previous seasons, one domino hits another hits another hits another — and there are more dominos, and more people playing dominos, than ever before.
Arguably, the peak of the show's diabolical gamesmanship is that business about the poisoning of Brock, the son of Jesse's girlfriend, Andrea, in "End Times," written by Thomas Schnauz and Moira Walley-Beckett and directed by Gilligan. We ultimately find out that Walt did indeed poison the boy, using Lily of the Valley extract taken from his own backyard. But until the final shot of the next episode and season finale, "Face Off," we're in doubt — or at least I was, maybe because I just didn't want to believe that Walt, a doting father, would cross that final frontier of viciousness. This is probably the point at which particular viewers may want to congratulate themselves on figuring it all out long before everyone else did, and they're entitled: When you look back over "End Times," you can see that Gilligan and his writers played fair with us. The "pat down" that allows Saul's henchman to swap out the two cigarette packs is right there onscreen — it's even a GIF now, if you're curious — and later on, the exchange is sussed out verbally, with Jesse figuring out what happened. The only thing we don't see onscreen is Walt poisoning Brock. We still don't know exactly how he did it. That's a very clever, old-movie way of getting around a plausibility problem: Don't show the moment that everyone is talking about; that way nobody can complain about the execution.
There are quite a few plausibility problems in this season — moments that don't withstand logical scrutiny even for a second. When Gus parks in the garage at the hospital, how is it that he just happens to park in the exact spot at the exact level where Walt can watch him from an adjoining rooftop? Why does Walt talk to Jesse on that bench at the hospital? Doesn't he know that every square foot of that hospital is covered by surveillance cameras? (At least the show covers its surveillance tracks when Walt plants the bomb at the hospital; there's dialogue specifically stating that it's a great location for a lot of reasons, including the lack of video surveillance. That's a bit far-fetched too, come to think of it — what reputable nursing home has no video surveillance at all? But hey, this is Breaking Bad, and none of what we're seeing is real, just "real enough.")
If you stand back from the series and look at its episode guide as one might a map or a blueprint, the back half of season three, all of season four, and the first half of season five feel like one extremely long season divided into sections. That so much of this material was, by Gilligan's admission, written on the fly (no season-three pun intended!) is amazing. It all fits together better than it has any right to.
Gus turns the screws on the cartel and tells Hector about the death of the cousins, an eff-you that sets the stage for Gus's eventual death by wheelchair bomb in "Face Off." Walt and Skyler work through their car wash money laundering plan, and ultimately carry it out. But Walt is so proud of his super-brainy bad-assery that he can't fully commit to their gambling winnings cover story, and he's so certain that he'll get away with everything that, when Hank suggests to a drunk Walt that Gale was secretly the genius Heisenberg, Walter can't resist outing him as a copycat and a hack. (Walt does this a lot, throughout the run of the series: He reaches a point in a conversation or confrontation where he could just walk away, but doesn't, because he's too much the preening silverback.) Skyler later calls this act of self-sabotage "a cry for help," which sets up Walt's "I am the danger/I am the one who knocks" speech.
It's in this season that Walt goes from desperate, scheming, periodically horrible man to full-on, 24-hours-a-day bastard. The most conspicuous example of this, I think, is the moment when Walt picks up the keys to the new car wash from his former employer, Bogdan. Bogdan asks if he can take the framed first dollar that he ever earned. Walt refuses to give it to him, then uses the dollar to buy a soda from a vending machine: a gesture of pure contemptuous dominance. He buys Walt Jr. a fancy car, more as a demonstration of manly awesomeness and rich-guy pride than because the kid really needs one, and when Skyler pressures him to return it — rightly worrying that it'll be a red flag for the feds — he takes it out to a parking lot, turns donuts in it (a visual analogy for Walt's own self-defeating cycles of behavior), and destroys it, an impulsive act of vandalism (against Skyler more than anyone) that costs him $52,000. (His pettiness is actually costing him money, but he makes so much that he doesn't really care.)
Skyler's moral compromise is disturbing, maybe more disturbing than what's happening to Walt, because some of us expected better of her. The moment where she visits the Four Corners, hoping the cosmos will decide for her whether to leave Walt, is one of the show's saddest moments. She knows deep down what she has to do, or would've done anyway — "Somebody has to protect this family from the man who protects this family," she says — but she doesn't want to make the choice herself. She wants the universe to make it for her. (Visually, the scene hearkens back to a Jesse quote from season one: "Coin flip is sacred, yo.")
Walt is acting like a man who wants to get caught, and considering the scale of the deception he and Skyler are engaged in, and the fact that one wrong move could result in his death or the deaths of his loved ones, it's a very dangerous game. The culmination of this behavior appears during the final episode of season five, part one, when Hank discovers the inscribed copy of Leaves of Grass on top of the toilet at Walt's own home. A man doesn't behave so carelessly unless he believes, on some level, that he is invincible — that he'll never be stopped, much less caught. "I won," Walt's statement of smug braggodocio, makes me laugh out loud now because it reminds me of the scene in Woody Allen's Tolstoy spoof Love and Death in which a Russian officer explains war. "If we kill more Frenchmen, they win," he says. "If they kill more Russians, they win." Allen asks, "What do we win?"