Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Breaking Bad Season 4 Review

Full spoiler review of Breaking Bad season four behind the cut, bitch!

If there's one thing Vince Gilligan and the Breaking Bad writers deserve credit for, it's their grasp on how to perfectly pace and structure a season of television. It can be deeply unsatisfying to have a TV season lose its momentum (24), peak at the wrong place (ditto), not resolve anything (Lost), or, most problematically, just feel soft and formless (The Walking Dead), and this latest season of Breaking Bad, while not perfect, avoids all that in a tremendous way.

The season kicks off with a bang (the first episode, "Box Cutter," is the best of the first six or seven), and, from episode two on, with the lone exception of episode twelve (the somewhat problematic "End Times"), every single episode is better than the one before it. This is a rare, awesome and no doubt incredibly difficult thing to maintain across an entire season of television (although Game of Thrones also comes close), one that I wish more TV shows would take a swing at pulling off.

But the thing I find most interesting is how this season really seemed to belong more to its most prominent casualty than to the show's nominal protagonist. Well, not nominal – Breaking Bad is obviously Walter White's show, with Jesse Pinkman as the firm second lead – but I feel like when I reminisce on this season a decade from now, almost all the images that ring clear in my mind will be of one Gustavo Fring.

Yes, there's Walt's final, prideful "I won," and his already-iconic "I am the one who knocks!", but by and large when I think back on Walt throughout season four, I remember him crying to his son while calling him by the wrong name, getting tazed by Tyrus, starting a hissy fit fight with Jesse, getting punched out by Mike, and sending his little old neighbor in as a meat shield to flush out assassins; a pathetic man, more or less.

With Gus, on the other hand, I remember his fearless walk into the line of sniper fire in "Bug," gloating over Hector ("Look at me."), taking out an entire cartel and getting his revenge in one fell swoop, ingesting fatal poison and not only living but walking from Mexico to Texas the same day, killing Victor with horrifying yet utterly cool efficiency (while Walt babbles like an idiot), and of course, managing to be cool – if not at his coolest ever – even in death in his spectacular Two-Face-evoking final shot.

Between all that and the awesome flashback scene in Mexico at the end of "Hermanos" – one of the lengthiest scenes I've seen on TV in a long time, let alone one entirely in a foreign language – this is one of the greatest showcase seasons for a single character in TV history.

Now, I will confess that after "Box Cutter" and up until "Hermanos," the eighth episode, I did find the season to be merely good, with moments of greatness (Jesse's support group monologue in "Problem Dog," the ultimate Emmy clip, for one), rather than amazing. The events of episode two through seven run together in my mind. There are clear images in the blur – Marie stealing silverware, Hank poring over Gale's murder, Jesse partying, the car wash, the ricin cigarette – but it's hard for me to really nail down what happened, how, and in what order. It was a long stretch of laying pipe for the season's second half, but what a second half it was.

"Hermanos," the eighth episode, marks the moment when the season jumps from "pretty good" to an ever-expanding firestorm of "holy shit!" The arc with Gus and Don Eladio that begins in that episode comes to about as satisfying a climax in "Salud" as I can imagine. Granted, yes, it boils down to murderous drug dealers killing other murderous drug dealers, but it was the murderous drug dealers I like killing the ones I don't, which makes all the difference. That arc also did a sublime job illuminating some of Gus's background without robbing the character of his fundamental mystery (aka pulling a Darth Vader).

"Salud" is immediately followed by "Crawl Space," as pulse-pounding an episode of thriller television as I've seen all year, and, from Gus's death by Hector to burning down the meth lab to "I won," the season finale "Face Off" was utterly terrific, everything I could have hoped for and more. It's one of the best TV episodes of the year, hands down. (It also helps that, from that episode to the third season finales of Friday Night Lights and Mad Men to the first season finale of Spartacus, I absolutely love TV season finales that have the guts to basically blow up the whole premise of the show and stroll away whistling.)

I mentioned above that I did find the season's next-to-last episode, "End Times," to be the lone outlier in the otherwise smooth quality incline from episode two to thirteen. Now, it was essential setup for "Face Off," which alone justifies its existence, but I do have trouble getting over the scene where Gus detects that he shouldn't go near his car via what can only be described as spidey sense. It sent his character careening past cool and into the realm of the magical.

Ultimately, I would still rank Breaking Bad's third season as the show's best, despite not being crazy about the bottle episode "Fly." While the first half of season four is mushy and indistinct in my mind, the first half of season three is this explosion of awesomeness that can best be summed up as HOLY SHIT THE COUSINS. The Hank / Cousins shootout episode, "One Minute," is a very real contender for best episode of the series, and a perfect example of how to pull off a spectacular climax in the middle of a TV season.

But rather than cooling down anticlimactically post-"One Minute," the season just starts amping back up again for the one-two season finale punch of "Half Measures" and "Full Measure," which ends in a way both more understated but also way more impactful than the plane crash of season two. Breaking Bad season three is just a one-for-the-history-books example of how to utilize television as a storytelling medium.

But all that is to say that, rather than being one of the best TV seasons ever ala season three, Breaking Bad season four is merely really, really, really, really good. A horrific fate, to be certain.

What's interesting to ponder at this juncture is what the fifth and final sixteen-episode season might entail. Will there be a new big bad? After the rising stakes of Tuco, the Cousins, and finally Gus, it could feel a little silly to introduce yet another higher, deadlier echelon of drug lord, especially since Don Eladio's crew is wiped out and Giancarlo Esposito as Gus set a nigh-impossible hurdle to clear.

It seems possible that for the final arc of the show, Walter White himself may finally, at long last, take his place as antagonist, albeit one that also happens to be protagonist. With poisoning Brock and sending his little old lady neighbor into the lion's den (the latter of which, I might add, was darkly hilarious) joining letting Jane die as the worst things Walt's ever done, it seems like his breaking bad is now well and truly complete, and there's no way he won't attempt to keep tapping that sweet meth money. Meanwhile, Gus's murder will probably have pretty well taught the DEA to listen to what Hank has to say, so a final collision could be brewing.

I obviously have no clue what Vince Gilligan has up his sleeve, but all I hope is that the show has the guts to go out with an earth-shattering bang. I'm hoping that before all is said and done we get to see the looks on Hank's and Walt Jr.'s faces when they find out the ultimate truth about Walt, and perhaps even Jesse's if he finds out what Walt did to Jane and / or Brock. I want shit to get apocalyptic in Albuquerque, basically.

But as is I'm still on a bit of an excitement high from Breaking Bad's fourth season, one that has made the second seasons of Boardwalk Empire and The Walking Dead feel rather staid in comparison. I'm definitely thinking a second journey through this season is in the cards for me once it hits DVD, and, as Community and Friday Night Lights are the only TV shows I've rewatched on DVD after first seeing all the episodes on TV since Arrested Development, that's not something I say lightly.

4 Stars out of 5


Anonymous said...

Are you going to review "The Walking Dead" season premiere? I'd be interested in what you'd have to say. I think it's a good show that gets bogged down in too much drama.

Tim Kraemer said...

I think I'm probably going to wait and talk about it when the half-season ends in 7 weeks. I have a lot of problems with the premiere, but they're things that could get ironed out in the weeks to come.