Did "Breaking Bad" stumble near the finish line?

Either clumsy plotting broke a great season's final momentum, or this show is ahead of its audience yet again

Published October 3, 2011 3:03AM (EDT)

 (DG Strong)
(DG Strong)

[Note: This recap of "Breaking Bad," season four, episode 12, "End Times" contains spoilers. Read at your own risk.]

"He has been ten steps ahead of me at every turn," Walt said, begging Jesse for his life in "End Times". He was talking about Gustavo "Gus" Fring, the drug dealer and fast food magnate who'd made his life hell.

But the line lingered in my mind as I sat down to write this piece and weighed whether to come down hard on some of this episode's more absurd sequences, especially that business with Andrea's young son Brock apparently becoming poisoned after ... well, after what? Bear with me here, because the "what" seemed uncharacteristically muddy for a "Breaking Bad" subplot. Bottom line: I hope -- and expect -- that "Breaking Bad" is ten steps ahead of its audience, as it often tends to be, and that it didn't suddenly exhaust its cleverness this season and start winging it.

First, the business with the ricin. When Jesse dumped his pack out on the sidewalk in front of the hospital and figured the boy had ingested the ricin he'd been smuggling for weeks but couldn't bring himself to use on Gus, I thought maybe it just was a horrible accident -- that maybe Brock filched a smoke, as curious boys sometimes do, and picked the absolute wrong one to experiment with. But Brock is probably too young for that -- six, according to the "Breaking Bad" wiki entry on Andrea -- and the cigarette pack time line established in subsequent scenes would seem to rule that out anyway.

During the scene where Jesse storms over to Walt's house and threatens to kill him, something happened to me that almost never happens during a super-intense "Breaking Bad" scene: I started to zone out a bit and wonder about what the writers were trying to do rather than what was happening in the scene. Nothing that either character said made much sense given what we know about them and their world.

Why would Jesse think that Walter White, even at his most unhinged, would poison a child, or use poison against Jesse or anyone Jesse knew? Walt is desperate -- scared of losing his job, and of being killed, and seeing his family killed -- but he's a father of two, and in general just not the sort of guy who would do something like that.  I think that Jesse, even at his most furious and sad, would realize that. He might come up with some other cockamamie reason to blame Walt - for example, he might accuse him of using the poison to try to kill Gus or one of Gus' men, but so sloppily that an innocent child died instead -- but I can't buy that he'd seriously think Walt would kill a six year old boy "to get back at me, because I'm helping Gus... [to rip] my heart out before you're dead and gone."

Another thing: Yes, Walt's improvised theory about Gus somehow engineering the poisoning to provoke Jesse into killing Walt fit with Walt's long history of improvising b.s. theories to talk people out of murdering him. But Walt himself seemed to legitimately believe his theory about Gus. He argued that Gus employs children as meth sellers and apparently had murdered Andreas 10-year old kid brother, Tomás (see season three's "Half-Measures"), and that it wasn't unthinkable that a man who's "OK with using children" would come up with such a diabolical scenario.

The most truthful and fascinating part of that exchange was Walt's statement that Gus "has cameras everywhere" and knows everything. This is demonstrably true -- and if he had cameras in Walt's and/or Jesse's house that we never saw being installed, or if he had the ability to hear what Walt and Jesse talked about during smoke breaks at the laundry plant, he could have known about their plot to poison him, which would explain why he served Jesse from a common food pot when he came over for dinner.

But Gus is also smart and leaves little to chance. His master plans are fiendish and flamboyantly theatrical -- the mass poisoning of his cartel enemies two weeks ago might have been the show's most satisfying demonstration of this -- but they always take the form of a trap that leaves the trapped persons little option but to behave as Gus expects them to behave, to revert to type and seal their own doom as a result. He rarely lets pride dictate his in-the-moment choices. He's a chess master, always thinking about his end game. (Look at how he handled Jesse at the hospital. He went there determined to force Jesse to return to work immediately, and then when he realized Jesse wouldn't budge, told him to come back in a week.)

Walt's theory about Gus' participation in the poisoning didn't track because it doesn't seem like something Gus would do. The killing of Andrea's kid brother was a delayed response to another crime, and it was a very definite action with its own reasons and goals. The poisoning as envisioned by Walt was more vague, the sort of thing a coldblooded but inexperienced loose cannon might come up with. With some exceptions, "Breaking Bad" doesn't ask us to believe that characters will suddenly act against their nature. It's set in a heightened and somewhat metaphorical universe, but on its own terms the plotting usually makes sense because it proceeds from psychology.

All of which leads me to believe that any vagueness or absurdity related to the poisoning of Brock will be explained soon, in a way that's true to "Breaking Bad" -- a show that ultimately gives us a rational explanation for everything.

Consider the parking garage scene at the end of this episode. While I found it a bit hard to believe that Walt would be able to find a rooftop spot that gave him a clear and precise view of Gus' rigged-to-explode car -- what if Gus' men had parked on a side or a floor of the garage that could not be seen from an available rooftop? --  I found the rest of the scene quite credible. I read some complaints last night that Gus' sudden decision not to get in his car was too mysterious -- that it made him seem like too much the arch-criminal, feeling bad stirrings in The Force and acting on them.

But those complaints are shortsighted. His behavior here was classic Gus, totally consistent with what we know about him.

Why was Gus at the hospital? Because Jesse demanded it, with a stubbornness that he had never expressed to Gus before. It seems quite plausible that Gus would leave his conversation with Jesse pondering the circumstances that led up to it. Maybe as he made his way back to the car he thought something like, "Why did Jesse insist that I come here?  He's never disrespected my authority so flagrantly before. Maybe he made me come here so that he could kill me. And since the car was left unattended, a person -- for example Jesse's partner Walt, a brilliant chemist and tinkerer -- could easily accomplish that with a bomb." When he surveyed the skyline around the garage, I don't think he knew where Walt was, or that he was even looking for any one person in particular, or that he knew there was a bomb in his car. I think he just wanted to see if it was possible to monitor what was happening in the garage from somewhere else downtown. Once he realized that it was in fact possible, he turned around and walked out. It doesn't matter if suspected car bomb, a sniper attack or some other threat. He just thought there was something fishy about the entire meeting, and that it was better not to hang around in the garage any longer.

Which bring us back to the poison. It's really not like "Breaking Bad" to fudge things so blatantly and hope nobody in the audience questions it, so I have to assume they'll eventually clean up any lingering confusion. To that end, here are a couple of points to consider as we head into the season finale next week:

(1) Although Jesse assumed the poison was ricin, there was no objective corroboration of that in the episode, and in fact the writers took pains to establish in two separate scenes that Jesse was not allowed past the admission desk because he wasn't related to Andrea or Brock. Maybe the poison was something other than ricin, or maybe it wasn't poison at all. And maybe Jesse, a criminal with a powerful sense of guilt and a tendency to reflexively beat himself up over his failures, jumped to the conclusion that it was the ricin from the cigarette. Alternately:

(2) Maybe somebody did use the ricin in the cigarette to poison Brock, but wasn't Gus. Maybe it was Gus' minion Tyrus. He neither likes nor respects Jesse, and he often finds himself serving as a metaphoric janitor on the show, cleaning up messes created by the ego clashes of Walt, Jesse and Gus. Who did Gus say would clean the lab while Jesse stayed at the hospital with Andrea and Brock? Tyrus. When Walt was lying on the floor trying to talk Jesse out of shooting him, he said in passing, "You don't think it's possible that Tyrus lifted the cigarette out of your locker?" I think it's very possible.

Tyrus strikes me as another Gus in the making, icy and smart. He's working for an organization with, er, a high turnover rate. Why wouldn't he try to come up with a bloody way to hasten a promotion?

Two more things, then I'll shut up.

First, it seems increasingly clear that the "German multinational whatever" that's bankrolling Gus' operation is being set up as Gus and Jesse's adversary in the fifth and final season. Although I fully expect Gus to be killed next week -- I have no inside information, just a feeling -- the conglomerate sounds like "the guy behind the guy behind the guy" that many crime thriller heroes must ultimately confront.

Second, I want to highlight the idea that Hank isn't blissfully ignorant of the possibility that Walt is Heisenberg, but is in fact banking on it, and is trying to rope Walt via the law enforcement version of a long con.

A commenter last week got into this, and if Salon's maddeningly complex technical upgrade hadn't lost or hid part of the Letters section, I'd quote it here and link to it. (Hopefully we'll get all that stuff figured out soon; be patient.) If you're the person who left that comment, I wish you'd try to remember what you said and quote in the Letters section below, because it's fascinating and I want us to talk about it.

I love the idea of Hank playing Inspector Porfiry Petrovich to Walt's intellectually arrogant Raskolnikov. I wouldn't put it past this show to set Hank up as a guy who habitually fails to see what's right in front of him, only to reveal later that he was just playing dumb all along. "Breaking Bad" is filled with characters who do slightly mystifying things for reasons that are explained in detail later, after they've gotten what they wanted.

By Matt Zoller Seitz

MORE FROM Matt Zoller Seitz

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