Well, that was…that was…
Well they blew up the Chicken Man in Albuquerque last night. And they blew up his henchman too.
That was some television, huh? Ridiculous episode. Ridiculous season. Each season of Breaking Bad has been an improvement on the one that came before, and against significant odds, season four managed to keep that streak alive.
I was wrong in thinking we might have a significant cliffhanger to end the season. Instead, the season’s throughlines were concluded symmetrically, and indeed, a multi-season arc of Walter and Jesse working for Gus came to an end. This was the end of a major chapter in the history of this series, and it was appropriately impressive and mind-blowing.
Season four was about two things to me: Gustavo Fring and the shifting sands of rootability.
Gus’s character arc, and the performance of Giancarlo Esposito, dominated the season. The show humanized Gus and made him something more than a one-dimensional bad guy, even as it seemed to make him a supervillain at times (As Walter said to Jesse in this episode: when did Gus suddenly get a sixth sense?) At times, we even rooted for Gus against Walt, particularly when Gus and Jesse were aligned.
Which brings us to the issues of likability and rootability. At various points in the season, we rooted for Gus, Walt, Jesse and Hank, even as they pursued paths that placed them in enormous conflict with one another. On The Sopranos, whose antihero protagonist shared some qualities with Walter White, the show and its creator has a passive aggressive relationship with its audience. It created a charismatic lead character, and then chided viewers for daring fall under the spell of said charisma. The Sopranos spent half of its time making you like Tony, and the other half embarrassing you for liking him.
Breaking Bad suffers from no such duality. It has no interest in teaching its audience a lesson, or slapping us on the wrists for having the gall to like Walter White. Vince Gilligan isn’t writing a thesis on human behavior with viewers as the unwitting subjects. Nevertheless, it’s been fascinating to watch the main characters evolve and deepen, and see how deep we’re willing to follow them into the dark places. Even after seeing Walter watch Jane die, order the death of Gale, and do countless other amoral and immoral deeds, we were still willing to believe him when he told Jesse that he would never poison Brock. Walter finally saw one of his plans succeed as drawn up at the same time that we saw irrefutable proof that Walter is not on the side of the angels.
Who are we rooting for as the season ends? Do we take any satisfaction that Walter indeed “won,” as he told Skyler? Do we root for Jesse to learn the truth? For Hank to nail his white whale? Damned if I know anymore. But I do know that I’m a little sad that Gus is gone, despite his willingness to kill in cold-blood, threaten infant daughters and the like. And a little stunned and how great his walkoff scene was, complete one of the great TV facial expressions of all time courtesy of Uncle Hector. (I don’t know that you can really call the final shot of Gus a “facial expression.”) Gus is gone, his need for vengeance trumping his sixth sense and his attention to detail: just this once, but once was enough.
At least this one time, Walter White was indeed the one who knocked.
I can’t wait to see what they do for an encore. The most immediate threat to Walter and Jesse has been removed. Where will the chief conflict come from in season five? Will Hank finally set his sights on his brother-in-law? Will Mike or someone from Gus’s outfit seek revenge? Will Gus’s mysterious Chilean past have an impact? Or will Walter’s misdeeds and manipulations of Jesse finally come to light? We’ll have a long dry spell to get through before we find out.
For now, though…bravo on one of the great seasons in television history. And on being the first show that I thought might give me a heart attack while watching.