Breaking Bad season 4 finale: "Face Off"

Brow Beat
Slate's Culture Blog
Oct. 10 2011 12:15 AM

Breaking Bad, Season 4, Episode 13: "Face Off"

Bryan Cranston as Walter White in Breaking Bad.
Bryan Cranston as Walter White in Breaking Bad.

Photo by Gregory Peters/AMC.

[Caution: There are spoilers ahead! So if you haven't yet watched "Face Off," come back when you have and share your thoughts and theories.]

Jess:

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June, after such an amped-up season, the Breaking Bad finale had to end on such an insane crescendo, I spent all day wondering whether it could possibly live up to the massive expectations. It exceeded mine when Gus walked out of Hector’s nursing-home room with his face blown off, straightened his tie like the gentleman he’s always been, and dropped dead.

Did that bloody mug satisfy you?

Though this episode delivered when it came to quality, it was the first episode in recent memory where I didn’t feel like every move was unpredictable. As I said last week—I didn’t think Gus would survive the season finale, and he didn’t—though I was impressed with the plotting around Gus’ murder. Did you find his death (alongside henchman Tyrus and the mute Hector), surprising? Were you similarly impressed with the intricate way it went down?

I also said I didn’t think that Brock was poisoned with ricin—that was correct. But he was poisoned. Here’s where I wonder if we haven’t been giving Walt enough credit. For once, a plot that he masterminded went down precisely as he planned it. He cleaned up after himself, getting rid of the meth lab and walking away from the scene with a determined expression. He can walk away from the drug dealing life now—but I don’t believe he will, not for a second.

Walt knows he’s done good this time (And by good I mean he’s accomplished his goals—which is to say, he’s been perfectly bad.) He calls Skyler, who asks him what happened. “I won,” he said simply, and hung up the phone. Despite the fact that Walt is now irrevocably evil, I found myself rooting for him again this episode, which is surely the genius of this show. I listened to an interview with Bryan Cranston earlier this week, where he said that Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan’s intention was to have the viewer question his or her morals on a weekly basis—not just to have the characters mired in ethical quandaries. Do you think Gilligan has succeeded in doing this?

June:

Jess, I won’t even pretend that I didn’t enjoy that thrill ride. My jaw dropped when Gus’ disappeared—and not only because one of Walt’s plots finally worked out, and so perfectly.

I know it will bring out the haters like Heisenberg’s meth brings out the tweakers to say this, but I do have a few complaints about the resolution. There are some things that I loved: the masterful pacing (the spelling board!), the wonderful acting (I wish there were an Emmy category for silent performances; Mark Margolis would be a shoo-in for his portrayal of Hector Salamanca), and the great little details like Hector’s neighbor saying hello to Walt as he crouched outside her window. All that was superb. So what’s my objection? For me, there were too many bombshells.

HR consultants say there should be no surprises in a employee’s annual review—if criticism (or praise) comes out of the blue, it’s a sign that communication hasn’t worked throughout the year. Similarly, I do not want to find out in a show’s season finale that the guy I’ve been dissing all season for his lack of discipline and his complete inability to read people, is, in fact, a genius planner with a keen appreciation for interpersonal motivation. Last week we saw Walt baking up a batch of something nasty and tentatively testing out a detonator, so what went down in Hector’s room earned its pay-off big-time, but the Great Lily of the Valley Caper? That, my friend, was prime U.S. bull. I have complete faith in Walt's chemical knowledge, so when he uses science—as he did so impressively in the final two episodes, I'm sold. But I just don't buy him as a master manipulator.

I do think that Gilligan managed to move us beyond the day-to-day moral dilemmas and into larger questions of survival, but I feel a little unmoored now. Yes, Walt won tonight, but he was very wrong about something he told Skyler earlier in that conversation. “It’s over,” he said. “We’re safe.” There’s no way that’s true, as we’ll discover when the show comes back next year. Are you in for the final adventure?

Jess:

I’m so down for the final adventure. I see your point about Walt’s confusing newfound discipline, but remember that he’s had moments of glory before this week’s plan: At the end of last season, he managed to get Jesse to kill Gale. He may have been a bumbler for most of Season 4, but he hasn’t survived this long as a drug dealer without some cunning.

Still, I don’t fully understand the mechanics of how he managed to get Brock to take the Lily of the Valley berries. But you know what, it didn’t matter to me. And while we’re discussing small details, I want to say that the music has been perfect all year. I thought the final song of the season—“Black,” by Danger Mouse & Danielle Lupi—was dark and beautiful and evocative.

It’s so hard to know where the next season is going to go, now that Walt’s major rival is dead. As Vince Gilligan tells the New York Times’ Dave Itzkoff, Mike—who did not return from his Mexican sojourn—is not going to be happy when he realizes that Gus has kicked the bucket. I have a hard time believing that Walt is going to be out of the meth business for good, and even if he does stop selling drugs, Mike’s not going to allow Walt to feel safe.

In that same Times interview, Gilligan says that the Season 4 finale was written before they knew there would be a season 5, so this episode had to be satisfying as a series ender. Readers—would you have been sated with Gus’s head on a platter?