Breaking Bad Review: "Face Off" (Episode 4.13)
One of the reasons Breaking Bad is considered one of the best dramas on TV right now (and I have a feeling that it will be soon ranked among the all-time greats), is that the writers do a phenomenal job introducing complex themes, plot lines and ideas, and they somehow manage to weave them all together for an extremely satisfying conclusion. It’s not an easy thing to do, especially when the show asks the audience to hold on until the end to see where it’s all going. In a lot of ways, I see a lot of similarities between Breaking Bad and The Wire, the latter being a show that didn’t hammer its audience over the head constantly with flashy moments, but instead expected the audience to be patient and see what all the plot threads and groundwork were building up to. And damn if The Wire wasn’t perfection. Where Breaking Bad differs is that it’s much more macroscopic in scope and focuses on a narrower set of characters and the world as perceived by them. The advantage to this kind of storytelling (if done right), is the stakes and emotional ties we have with the story and characters can be much higher. If the season premiere told us anything, it was that we were in for a lengthy chess match that would keep us on the edge of our seats until the final move was made. This couldn’t be truer for the finale “Face Off.”
Walt, having no more options after his attempt to blow up Gus in the parking lot failed, asks Jesse if there are any other places that he goes that are not heavily watched by his surveillance. But before he is even able to think about it, Jesse is escorted to the police station, where they ask him why he would tell Andrea that her son was poisoned by “Ricin.” It’s a very rare poison, so it makes sense that they are suspicious. Of course Jesse just gives them the run around. His response about seeing it on House was hilarious if not spot-on (on House, it’s always the rarest thing). After Saul finally comes in and whisks the detectives out of the room, it’s revealed that he’s actually there on behalf of Walt and asks Jesse if he’s thought up an answer. Saul then meets with Walt and tells him that Jesse told him Gus goes to a care center for old people to visit Hector Salamanca. Jesse and Walt know Hector from season two, when Tuco had tried smuggling them over to the cartel. The key information here though, is that Gus and Hector are enemies, as Jesse witnessed Gus torturing the guy.
When Gus’ past was revealed to us in “Hermanos,” we saw that he had a personal vendetta against Hector for killing his partner in the past. After we got this exposition, Gus’ motivations going back to season three started to take on new meaning. For Gus, almost all of the moves he made in regards to the cartel have been fueled by revenge. So when Gus kept visiting Hector to torture the old crippled man, he was trying to get that vindication of getting the man that killed his partner to look into his eyes and see what he had done to him. Hector’s refusal to look him in eyes just gave Gus more and more motivation to keep killing another one of his family members, until the man would finally understand and own up to what he did. After all, blood for blood. And while this would have been good enough just as a way to flesh out Gus’ character and give him more depth, Vince and his writers cleverly made these gripping moments the center of Walt’s final move in the game.
Fresh off of hearing this information from Saul, Walt confronts Hector, and proposes the plan that they strap a bomb to his wheelchair so that he can finally get revenge on Gus. For Hector, this is more than he could have ever hoped for. He’s in such a bad state medically, he really has no reason to live anymore anyway, and nothing would bring him more satisfaction than finally looking Gus in the eyes and having Gus know he was going to kill him too. When Hector rang his nurse over for assistance and had her use a spelling board to spell out what he wanted (using the Yes or No method), I was almost certain he would ask for Gus. But instead, he asked for the DEA. My jaw dropped, as my mind started to race as to what he could want them for. Hector lives by an old cartel code and never talks to the DEA. So when he told them that he would only speak to Hank, and their meeting ended up being nothing more than him taunting Hank, it all started to click. Walt knew that Gus had someone watching Hector after the incident in Mexico. Seeing Hector visit the DEA would make him think that he was talking to them, finally rolling after Gus had killed his entire family. But instead, it was Walt making his final move that would finally out-maneuver Gus. It was extremely well-written, and it showed Walt finally coming up with a genius plan.
Jesse finally gets released from prison after the test results come back, and it wasn’t Ricen that poisoned Brock. But before Jesse can even get to the hospital and process all this, he’s jumped by Gus’ men and forced back to the lab to cook the daily batch.
I could go on and on about how chilling Gus’ demise was. Seeing him slowly walk to Hector’s room had my heart pounding through my chest. As Gus enters the room he says, “What kind of man talks to the DEA? No man.” Pulling up a chair to sit directly across Hector, Gus is handed the syringe of poison by his henchmen Tyrus. As Gus is about to prick the needle into his skin, he offers up Hector one last chance to finally look him in the eyes, and he does. Gus’ expression was one of surprise and elation. He had been waiting for this moment for years, to finally have the killer of his friend and partner look him in the eyes—only, Hector’s eyes turned from a look of sadness to pure rage as he started clicking that bell. In a brief moment of confusion, Gus looks down and realizes that it’s a bomb and screams as he tries to jump back. Given how low budget this show is (relatively speaking), the effects during this scene were incredible. Seeing the door get blasted out, and Gus with half his face blown off (think Terminator meets Two Face) was extremely well done. The best part was how they handled his final moments. Gus’ body could have just stayed in the room with a shot showing his bloody remains. But instead, we get a side shot of Gus walking out slowly with a chilling piano number beneath it. As he first walks out, we only see one side of his body, but then the camera rotates and we see his front side which reveals half of his face melted off. He then adjusts his tie before falling over. This would have seemed absurd on any other character, but it perfectly matched Gus—that he would still think to adjust his tie before falling to his death (remember, this is the same guy that made sure his suit was okay before vomiting in Mexico, and the same guy that walked into sniper fire head-on).
Killing Gus is no light matter. This has been one of the most well-written/crafted villains in television history. Giancarlo Esposito by all accounts deserves an Emmy for his portrayal of this sociopath. What made Gus so cunning and evil was how methodical and well reserved he was—how he would think three steps ahead of every plan he made. And well, he was just a major player in the Breaking Bad story. It’s hard to imagine what happens next, as it was him that allowed them to take the story to a new level (in terms of the cartel, them being able to cook mass amounts of meth, etc.) So his death had to be treated with respect, not only in the way they would go about killing him (Gus is no dummy), but how it was filmed as well. And I believe they nailed it. Walt’s clever plan to finally catch Gus off guard with his only weakness was perfection. Because we saw how much the cartel’s decision to kill his partner effected his life, it was believable. In a way, Gus’ visits to Hector were the only times he could be truly real and reveal the monster that he hides inside him. After all, his anger stems from what Hector did to him.
Sitting in a parking lot waiting for the news, Walt is relieved when he hears that three people died in an explosion at the care center across town. But he still has to deal with Jesse. Killing Gus alone felt satisfying, but seeing Walt return as Heisenberg as he coldly kills the two guards forcing Jesse to cook in the lab was just the icing on the cake. With blood splattered on his face, Walt approaches Jesse and says, “Gus is dead, we’ve got work to do.” It’s a call back to earlier seasons where Walt and Jesse used to partner up for a cook in the RV and also a nice nod to Gus’s opening scene in “Box Cutter,” where he tells them to “get to work.” Seeing this story start and wrap up in the lab with both protagonists as the survivors was so damn satisfying. The lab being burned down the ground not only felt like a conclusion to this season, but the arc from season three as well. Without the lab, Jesse and Walt no longer have a place to cook. Presumably, they can even be out of the game. But really, it was just great finally seeing Jesse and Walt work together on something.
The scene at the end where Walt and Jesse are on top of the roof of the hospital parking lot was extremely emotional. Their relationship had taken such a huge toll over the years, and specifically this season, that it felt rewarding to see them just stare at each other in happiness. So many of their problems stem from the fact that they can’t fully communicate or express how much they mean to each other. I keep bringing up the father/son relationship because it’s important to the show’s dynamic. Jesse even has to ask Walt, “Gus needed to go, right?” When Walt confirms, Jesse reciprocates the relief and happiness that Walt feels. Walt extends his hand out to Jesse, and they both shake. What’s important to note here is that Jesse has in a lot of ways became an adult this season after all the shit he’s been through—so seeing him and Walt on even ground, as they share their admiration, really is unlike anything either of them have experienced in their partnership up to this point. But this leads me to my next point.
Walt poisoned Brock. It’s hard to say what the implications of this will be. I think it was a great choice by the writers to make this decision, because Walt needed to grow at the conclusion of this season out of his experience with Gus. It’s one thing to have Walt finally beat Gus at his game, but it’s another for Walt to become closer to being Gus. If the story of Walter White is going to be a tragic one, I think it makes perfect sense to have him come out of this season as being capable of making that kind of decision. I use the analogy of Walter being a dog, with Gus as his master. Walter could either continue taking the beatings, or eventually adapt and bite his master by stepping up to his game. There have always been striking similarities between Gus and Walt. However, Walter still has a conscience and a moral compass. And in many ways, this was the weakness of Walt in regards to this “chess game” between Gus and him. Gus could do things, make decisions that Walt could never have. So for Walt to be able to take it to that level shows me growth (or decay) of his character. Still, I think it’s important to highlight the fact that Walter didn’t really need to poison Brock in the grand scheme of things. Jesse was still willing to defend him despite their blow-out. That’s Walt’s flaw—to keep making extreme decisions when his back is against the wall. It’s what got him cooking meth in the first place. So who knows, maybe Walt’s ultimate demise will be at the hand of Jesse. If there’s anyone Walt should eventually atone to, it’s Jesse. But the episode also highlights the fact that Walt isn’t completely gone yet. He even asked Hector if he had second thoughts about killing himself. Going into this final season, it will be interesting to see if they have Walt get completely lost in his darkness, or continue to show his internal struggle.
Season four of Breaking Bad was another superb season for a show that is consistently putting out high quality material. Breaking Bad is proof that a show can take its time fleshing out all the various plot elements throughout an entire season, and conclude in a way that brings it all together all while still being entertaining and gripping. Yeah, we still need to find out how Walt poisoned Brock. And it would be nice to find out what Gus’ past was in Chile. But the writers have always done a phenomenal job explaining things later on in a new season and incorporating it perfectly into that season so that it accompanies a current theme. It’s hard to say where Breaking Bad will go next. With Gus being killed, the cartel wiped out, and the lab being destroyed, it’s going to be an entirely new playing field come next season. But if the writers can come up with anything as half as incredible as this season, we could have ourselves a show that will be seen as a true modern classic.