By Todd VanDerWerff
Chain reactions are the miniature explosions that drive most of the hard sciences, particularly chemistry, where you usually know the links and bonds that are going to be formed between elements but there will occasionally be something unexpected that pops up as a byproduct. We're all linked at a rather primal level, the same elements making up all of us, as well as all of the other living things we share the planet with. Chain reactions, though, are the stuff of good drama, too—this affects this, while this affects this, and the two results are added together into one, big result. Good drama is a lot of things, but one of the things it is is chemistry, a collection of chain reactions that add up to things we've seen before but occasionally come together in unexpected ways. But one of the elements used in drama is the element of coincidence. Indeed, it's hard to have a traditional narrative structure without some level of coincidence (even the idea that these people would necessarily come together to make the cast of our story involves coincidence on some level), but coincidence is the easiest thing to abuse in the dramatist's toolbox.
As the ending of Breaking Bad's second season, "ABQ," written by series creator Vince Gilligan and directed by Adam Bernstein, was unfolding, I actually found myself cringing, convinced that the writers of the show had come to over-rely on coincidence. (To be fair, I thought this after I got done worrying that the writers were going to have Jane's dad (John de Lancie) carry out some super-villain-ish plot to drop a plane on Walt's (Bryan Cranston) house. After seeing the huge fires and the NTSB trucks at episode's open, I was expecting some sort of plane-related trauma, and when we found out her dad was an air traffic controller, I feared the worst despite all the faith I have in this show.) The roundabout, circuitous logic that gets us from the place where Walt lets one man's daughter die and ends with him standing in his backyard and looking up into the sky to see two planes colliding, the indirect result of his decision to do that, seemed a bit strained at first. But as soon as Gilligan's executive producer credit came up, I started to rethink that position, and now I'm pretty sure it's the perfect capper to one of the best television seasons I've ever had the pleasure of seeing.
I think the writers tipped their hat to this connection between Jane's dad and Walt last week, when the two improbably met in a bar to talk about family. Albuquerque's a mid-sized city, smaller than LA or New York, but not THAT small, so it seems odd, initially, that of all the bars in the world, Walt would walk into that one, but he does. At this point, the writers are letting on that these two men are linked at some odd, cosmic level. The Breaking Bad universe doesn't seem to have a lot of room for a traditional "God," per se, but it does have room for some sort of vengeful, judgmental force that both allows one father to indirectly rain punishment down on the man who took his daughter's life and greatly increase the other man's guilt (even if he never realizes that guilt) by just compounding the numbers of people who have died because of his influence (directly or indirectly) by adding to that death toll the passenger lists of two airliners.
That pink bear in Walt's pool wasn't a clue of where the story was going (as it seemed to be all along to those of us who kept trying to find it in the edges of frames in various episodes); it was a symbol of the sorts of innocence that get destroyed indirectly when we choose to do very bad things. The child who was holding that bear is dead now, and even if Walt didn't have anything to do with it directly, he did somehow, and this is that cosmic force's way of letting him know the terrible toll his actions take out on the world around him. Walt, to a degree, can tell himself that when a junkie dies from being poisoned by his product, they made the choice to inject it. But all of the people caught in the crossfire who never made that choice—Jane's dad, the little kid who lived in Spooge's house, Jesse's family, the airline passengers—just become cannon fodder, pink bears falling from the heavens who never chose to go skydiving.
I can see why this ending has irritated so many fans of the show. The flash-forwards we've gotten all season seemed, almost deliberately, to point toward some sort of very bad ending for Walt and his family, from the way Walt's glasses ended up in an evidence bag to the two bodybags in his driveway. The final flash-forward, which opened this episode, decidedly played fair by pulling back to show us the complete picture (and those two ominous plumes of smoke in the distance), which included other bodybags on other lawns, but because of the placement of other opening segments (like that narcocorrido from earlier in the season), a lot of fans, myself included, were thinking that the cartel would catch up with Walt and exact revenge.
Even after that flash-forward, the episode still raised enough plot points that seemed to point toward a gruesome end (Walt was on local TV! Surely Tio would recognize him! The show cut from Jane's dad laying out a blue dress for her to be buried in to Skyler (Anna Gunn) dressed in a similar shade of blue!). Because Breaking Bad is more of a plot-driven show than other dramas on its quality level, we often try to put more of a plot straitjacket on it than it necessarily needs. That scene where the news crew interviews Walt and his family is less about someone who shouldn't know his true identity finding it out and more about how hearing his son describe him as a wonderful man strikes Walt to his very core. He's not that wonderful man anymore, and it's possible he never will be again.
"ABQ," like seemingly every drama since The Sopranos debuted, was more of a contemplative hour than the episode that preceded it, aside from the plane crash at the end (which, I'll admit, is the most hilarious qualifier ever). The Sopranos model of having the penultimate episode be the one where the major plot stuff goes down followed here, where "Phoenix" saw the death of Jane, the birth of Holly and Walt's deal with Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) go through to the tune of $1.2 million. "ABQ," then, was about Walt getting a moment to truly feel the human toll of what he's embarked upon. Not for nothing did the episode end with Walt sitting by his pool, contemplating the turns his life has taken, looking for all the world like a gaunter, balder Tony Soprano.
There were other Sopranos finale echoes here. The other big development in the plot here was Skyler's decision to leave Walt, prompted by him asking which of his two cell phones she was inquiring about while drugged up before the surgery to remove his cancer. Skyler takes this as a cue to dig into Walt's life in the last few months and uncover all of the lies he's told her. And as she digs and digs, thinking first that he may be engaged in an affair and then that he's just too embarrassed to tell her he borrowed money from his mother, she begins to understand that he's done something that has made him a lot of money very quickly and that something is something she'd probably rather not know about. She's not quite making the highly moral choice here (we've already seen from how she acts with Ted that she'll excuse illegal behavior if she thinks the rationale is OK, so she perhaps knows that if Walt tries to rationalize her behavior, she'll go along with it), but she's making a choice, of the sort that Carmela on The Sopranos never could, so tied to the life of leisure she led as a mob wife was she. The scene where Skyler brutally lays out exactly how she knows that Walt has been lying to her all this time is a perfect little bit of scripting and acting, each new revelation from Skyler twisting the knife in just a little deeper.
Walt most felt the toll of his choices when he had to go and rescue Jesse (Aaron Paul) from the shooting gallery where he had passed out on the floor, high from heroin, presumably. Walt confronted almost a haunting mirror image of himself (a similarly tall, bald man) in the doorway, then headed inside, waking Jesse up and then trying to comfort the boy who clearly seemed to think the death of Jane, whom he loved, was all his fault. As Walt tried to tell him it wasn't (though he could never say just how much it wasn't), Jesse broke down in his arms. Later in the episode, Walt checked in on Jesse in rehab (where we left the character), and Jesse continued to insist that Jane's death was, at some level, his fault. This is maybe the episode's most obvious character cliffhanger—will Jesse come back to the life of crime after sobering up?—but it was so delicately written and so expertly played by Paul (who was maybe my least favorite member of the cast last season) that it felt real, and it seemed to resonate even with Walt, who's been shutting off parts of his humanity left and right.
The episode also checked in with Hank (Dean Norris), who mostly just continued his investigation into the local drug trade and continued to push his theory that the real Heisenberg isn't in prison, that he's still at large, that the death of Combo offers up some sort of clue that everyone's just missing. He also meets with the sponsors of the unit's fun run, which include Gus Fring, who's apparently going to be around more next season, keeping tabs on Hank and peddling Walt's product. Esposito created such an exacting character that it's nice to get some hints that he might be back next year, and the show has probably bolstered the character of Hank the most this season, turning him from a macho man buffoon into a very smart agent who has his own, bullheaded way of going about things, a man who also suffers from a fair share of stress from the grind of his job and taking the life of Tuco earlier in the season. In that sense, he's linked to Jesse, a character he's met only briefly but who is also poorly suited emotionally for the line of work he chose.
Breaking Bad really plays off of these links, the ones its characters know about and the ones they don't know about. It looks at the way these relationships shift over time, from the actions of the people who are in them and the way they treat each other. Jesse wants Walt to be the father he doesn't have anymore, but only in the last two episodes has Walt, somewhat reluctantly, realized that he can step into that role. Walt and Jane's dad are linked together in a way neither will ever know, as are Jesse and Hank. Marie (Betsy Brandt) and Skyler, of course, are sisters, and that link has seen its strength tested over the course of the series, and the marriage of Skyler and Walt has eroded from the pure acid of dishonesty that Walt poured all over it.
What makes Breaking Bad such a good show, what made its second season so truly impressive on almost every level, is the way it examines in excruciatingly specific detail both how one man incrementally changes from a goodhearted family man into something approaching a sociopath and how that choice spirals outward to encompass everyone in his immediate circle and then people whom he will never meet. When the debris of the planes start raining down from above into his pool, it's not a simple avoidance of what the show was building to before in an effort to shock. It's the universe reaching out to give that man a nudge, to tell him that he is on the wrong path, and if he stays there, he can only bring more death to those around him.
Some other thoughts:
- So, yeah, now you know why I hate speculating about what's going to come on a TV show (though this season of Breaking Bad made it very hard to not speculate). In a way, I'm relieved that no regulars will be killed by the freak accident (since only Walt is home at the time the events occur), since the show has such a small cast, but all of the speculation was fun none the less.
- In this excellent interview with Vince Gilligan, Alan Sepinwall gets the creator to spill the beans on a secret message hidden in the episode titles (a sly joke I'm really disappointed I missed) and on the fact that the bodybags are for people from the plane, as suggested by the other bodybags littering the neighborhood in that opening wide shot.
- After a season when I praised the direction of this show so much, I was lax in citing Bernstein's steady hand at the helm of this episode, but I loved the shot of Walt's face right underneath the "Wanted" sign in Hank's office, the photo then revealed to be on a jar collecting funds for Walt's treatment. A great joke, told almost entirely via framing. Not an easy thing to do.
- I loved the constant dinging of the donations to Flynn's (RJ Mitte) site driving Walter nuts as he had to stand and listen to the drug money come in in tiny increments, reminding him constantly of how he will never be able to take credit for it, never able to know exactly which donations are real and which are from his drug funds. Very reminiscent of "The Telltale Heart."
- I almost hope that Walter and Jane's dad are locked in some sort of weird connection through the rest of the series, even though that would be unspeakably stupid, just because I want to keep seeing John de Lancie in that part.
- Having the pink bear turn up at the motel and in the mural on Jane's wall now seems both a way of the writers giving us viewers a nod and also a way for them to suggest that the bear is, ultimately, just a symbol, not a major plot point.
- I do hope that the cleaner Saul sends in to take care of Jane's death scene returns. He's another fascinating sketch to be deepened next season.
- So this is my last TV recap for the House for the time being. I will ideally be back recapping something else at some point, but my schedule is filling up more and more. If you liked these pieces, click on my name in the tags list to find my other writing for this site (though not all of it is tagged—a project for the summer, I suppose), or you can check out my writing at a variety of other sites, including The AV Club, where I'll be beginning a recap of the entire run of House favorite Deadwood beginning Wednesday. While the Breaking Bad recaps didn't have the huge audience other House recaps have had, you were all great commentors, and it was fun talking about this great show with you. We'll see you down the road.
House contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark and co-host of the podcast TV on the Internet. His writing also appears at The AV Club.