A becoming narrative cleanness is settling into Breaking Bad as it nears its conclusion. While the show’s exceptional writers have proven themselves ahead of me at every turn, it’s probably safe to say that Walt (Bryan Cranston), Hank (Dean Norris), Jesse (Aaron Paul), and their various respective significant others are probably about to have their lives flipped open and torn apart once again, this time by Uncle Jack (Michael Bowen), the malevolent specter who represents the shadowy cartel of gangsters that Walt turned to in order to orchestrate those prison executions earlier in the season. Is Uncle Jack the man that Walt may eventually visit with that huge phallic piece of weaponry we saw him buy from an arms dealer at a cafe in the season’s first flash forward? It’s anyone’s guess, but Jack fits the image of the kind of Big Bad that such a weapon would appear to be suited for, as it obviously invites associations with gangster films, particularly the legendary climax of Brian De Palma’s Scarface, in which Al Pacino’s titular hood mowed down seemingly hundreds of killers with a similar gun.
If Uncle Jack lies at the end of Walt’s road to hell, the episode’s narrative contains a simple, potent irony: After bearing witness to a year’s worth of Walt’s egotistical scrambling and speechifying, which were spun from delusions of grandeur that appeared to be derived roughly equally from the work of William Shakespeare and Jim Thompson, Walt could very well be gunned down in the street or sand like just another stunted American hood with a little-man complex. As I’ve said before, Breaking Bad is a classic American gangster tale spruced up with contemporary proletariat outrage torn from the headlines, and “To’hajiilee” confirms once again that the writers are extremely cognizant of the tradition with which they’re working.
Last week’s “Rabid Dog” invited us to wonder how Jesse would strike out at Walt once he retreated from Hank’s proposed sting operation. I guessed that he would somehow attempt to destroy Walt’s reputation, and others assumed that Jesse might approach Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte) in some fashion. While reasonable, these guesses also confirm that we’ve gotten ourselves sucked into Walt’s hyperbolic fantasies, essentially accepting him as the grand doomed hero he likes to pretend he is. No, this week Jesse concocted a scheme with Hank and Agent Gomez (Steven Michael Quezada) to…go after the money.
“To’hajiilee” accomplishes something odd for Breaking Bad: It’s exhilaratingly routine. The statures of all the major players, including the good guy Hank, are reduced significantly, and we’re left watching a bunch of cops and robbers who’re scrambling after a pile of dough like any other motley crew of amoral, self-righteous crusaders. It’s a revelation and, for some viewers, a potential disappointment to see the characters take action in such banal ways after the preceding month of plotting and strategizing. “To’hajiilee” serves two functions within the series: Simply, we needed a bit of good old-fashioned, blood-thirsty action after a month of internal macho brooding, and, more complicated, Walt’s egocentric fantasies of himself as a complicated man in dire straits needed to be punctured yet again.
But it’s not just Walt’s fantasies that are on the chopping block this week. Hank’s stature has been reduced too, though we still sympathize with him, as it would almost be impossible to remain centered and forthright after the chaos he’s had to weather, but he’s still just another party attempting to chip Walt down by this point. Hank’s status at the DEA doesn’t matter any more (note how rarely we actually see Hank at work these days), as this is a mano-a-mano game that’s destined to play out in figurative and literal wastelands. “To’hajiilee” is composed of two extended bait-and-switch narratives: Hank and Jesse attempt to explicitly connect Walt to his huge buried drug fortune, and Walt uses Brock once again in a device intended to flush Jesse out of hiding, so that Uncle Jack and his crew can kill him.
“To’hajiilee” climaxes with Uncle Jack opening fire on Hank, Jesse, and Agent Gomez right after we witnessed the disconcerting sight of Walt finally in handcuffs. Jack and a crew of killers meet Walt out in the desert despite his eventual orders to abandon the hit because the former is presumably tired of screwing around with these pip squeaks. Jack needs Walt to teach him the secret of cooking his special meth, and couldn’t give a shit about the petty rivalries and allegiances of which we’ve grown so fond over the years.
Jack commands our attention in this episode, as he’s a mystery in the midst of characters who’ve been so mercilessly indicted by the writers. Bowen imbues Jack with a lean, grizzled intensity that’s new for the veteran character actor, and he effectively rattles the world of Breaking Bad just when we thought we may have confidently gotten our bearings. Jack is a new kind of bad guy for the series: One who has no room or patience for pretenses of civility. He gets shit done, and he appears to be ready to charge Walt, Hank, and Jesse their toll for playing in his netherworld, and for thinking they could leave unstained by the stink.
For more Breaking Bad recaps, click here.