Now here’s an hour of television that had a lot to do. First, it had two incredible season finales to follow up on (Season 2’s “ABQ” and Season 3’s “Full Measures”). Second, it had to justify Season 4’s odd narrative rhythms (especially its mostly-glacial first nine episodes). Third, it had to tie up the bizarre-seeming plot contortions from last week’s “End Times,” including coming up with a reasonable culprit and motive for the Brock poisoning. So, how’d it do?
“Face Off” featured, surprisingly, more humor than possibly any other this season; from Walt bringing a bomb to a hospital and awkwardly breaking into Saul’s office, to Saul’s always-on-point situational awareness (and can we take a second to acknowledge what a boon Bob Odenkirk has been to the show since he first appeared mid-Season 2?), to Hector’s alternately confusing and vulgar messages, to the sort-of-tense, mostly-hilarious use of a chatty neighbor at the old folks’ home. After a mostly straight-faced season, it was nice to get constant reminders of just how darkly funny the show can be – and that it doesn’t hurt to have a lead who’s comfortable with pratfalls, even in a macabre crime thriller.
As for the Brock element, I have to eat some crow this week. See, Gilligan and co. pulled off one hell of a coup between this episode and last week’s “End Times,” and though it relied on a bit of sleight of hand that could have been executed a little more smoothly, it was still remarkably effective. As soon as the detectives mentioned to Jesse that they were waiting on tox-screen results, it was fairly obvious that they’d have to come back negative for ricin, since it was the only way he’d be getting out of the pen. Having Walt as the true culprit, though, was enjoyably devious. He seemed out of the question as a suspect because, well, Walt wouldn’t fatally poison a child. That’s (probably) true, but it is entirely within his nature to manipulate and hurt Jesse and his loved ones to his advantage (see also: Jane), which turns out to be exactly what he’s done. The previous episode’s beat of having Jesse immediately suspect Walt as a first impulse is still suspect – it served to throw us off Walt’s scent in a prescient bit of reverse psychology, but it still didn’t make much sense for Jesse in that moment to assume it’s anyone but Gus – yet the ultimate resolution is both elegant and satisfying. (Also, props to the internet trainspotters who noticed that Walt’s spinning gun pointed directly to Walt’s secret weapon back in “End Times.”)
And then there’s that other thing that happened; the Big One, akin to the plane crash (S2) or Jesse’s crushing act of violence (S3). It seemed plainly logical that Walt and Gus couldn’t both make it out of the season alive, and only one of them is the star and a co-producer. Walt’s use of Hector was delightfully cruel, especially in the context of getting to know and understand Gus’s past over the course of the season. The bell-bomb solution, too, was perfectly in keeping with Walt’s weirdly cunning sense of resourcefulness. And then came what’s bound to be the most divisive single image in Breaking Bad history: Gus, emerging from the smoke and rubble long enough to adjust his tie…with half a face. (Actually, “2/3 of a head” might be more accurate.) Followed by a collapse. (By the way, take a look at the episode title this week, and then ask yourself when Vince Gilligan started cribbing from the John Woo Book of Puns.) It’s a startling image, one that lands somewhere in that nebulous zone between “awesome” and “ridiculous.” Which end of the spectrum it’s closer to I’ve not entirely figured out just yet. But it sure was something. And while Gus’s fate was sealed the moment he insisted that he “take care” of Tio himself, which dulled the show’s usual “holy shit!” factor somewhat, his walk across the lot was an indelible, extended bit of doomy grandeur.
Where does that leave us? Gus and his latest enforcer, along with the cartel’s last living memory (that we know of) are gone. Mike is recuperating somewhere (no character that important has ever died unannounced, offscreen, in TV history – as far as I know), and will awake to find himself in an entirely new world. Hank will find the lab destroyed, and his pet lead is dead and gone. Then there’s the small matter of Jesse and Walt – nowhere to cook, and more importantly many reasons not to ever cook again. (And none at all for them to cook together.) With 16 episodes remaining, “Face Off” effectively ties up a whole lot of loose ends while leaving a few tantalizing possibilities open. Overall, the wonky pacing and slightly lacking character focus made Season 4 a slight step down from its series-best predecessor – the sketchy motivations and inner workings of Jesse and Skyler have been especially problematic – there’s still no question about Breaking Bad‘s status as, consistently, the most technically accomplished, tense, and fully realized drama around.