Okay, so this was where the decision to marathon this entire show began to pay off. I quit feeling like such an idiot for wasting all of a week trucking through over fifty episodes of a television series about halfway through this season. The stuff with Walt gets even more compelling. Skyler evolves into more than just the wife Walt always has to lie to (even though he does continue to lie to her profusely). Bad stuff happens to Hank, but he also proves himself capable in a way that would have been laughable if he was still the Hank from Season 1. Jesse even becomes a decent cook in his own right, and we get more emotional shrapnel embedded in his soul for future seasons. Gus! Gustavo Fring finally becomes the major player he was hinted as in the second season, and it keeps the show’s tension sky high in this one, and well into the next. Walt’s lawyer, Saul, proves himself to be a capable crook, maybe more so than even Walt. And if Breaking Bad was any other show, this season’s finale would have been heralded as one of the best of all time, but Gilligan and the other writers in his stable don’t seem content in just putting on great television; they keep striving to shatter what television’s ever been with every episode. And this is the first season finale that really wrecks the show’s audience with how fast the show’s dynamics can shift in a single hour. The plane crash from Season 2 never affects the show like what happens to poor, poor, Gale.
But first, let’s go through Walt’s own journey in the season, even if we do it in a Cliff Notes way. We start and he’s being offered to work with Gus full-time, cooking his blue meth with a return of $3 million for 3 months, which eventually gets extended into $15 million for the entire year. Walt isn’t some small fish cooking in an RV anymore. He finds that Gus has not only has given him a ridiculous super-lab to work in, but he’s also hand-picked a laboratory assistant named Gale Boetticher to work with Walt. Gale’s obviously more competent than Jesse ever was when he and Walt were first starting out, but of course, Walt has to convince Gus to let him give Gale the boot so that Jesse can come back. It also doesn’t help that the reason he needs Jesse back so bad is because Hank beat the living hell out of him after he almost connected Walt and Jesse to their RV. It’s just another instance of Walt’s own self-preservation. He’s becoming less and less about provision, and more and more about survival. He’s already sold his soul, but it’s starting to become apparent that Walt is desperately trying to hold on to the lie he started this venture with, that he “needs to leave something for his family behind”. This season, we start to see how the pride that’s been in Walt from the start begins to manifest itself in his ambitions. Little touches that the showrunners sprinkle into Walt’s appearance also start to make their debuts. We saw Walt’s goatee at the end of last season, but this is the season where Walt starts to dress in those muted shirt/slack combos and strutting around the ABQ in those goofy suede dad shoes. It’s a great joke that what the show has established as Walt’s meth-lord look is what your dad would buy himself if someone gave him a $1000 gift-card to Sear’s.
And Jesse? Jesse becomes the most sympathetic character in the show during this season. We see how much Jane dying really affected him, with his stint in rehab granting him sobriety, but not peace. When Hank almost beats him to death, that caustic rage at the world comes to the fore. Aaron Paul gives one of his best performances with Jesse’s speech to Saul and Walt as he lies in a hospital bed with one half of his face the size of a cantaloupe. I imagine it’s kind of difficult to act with so much prosthetic over one side of your face, but Paul is scary good in portraying Jesse here. He’s so beaten down, both physically and emotionally, by what he’s been through, that the only response is this vengeful diatribe that probably guaranteed Paul his Emmy that year without voters having to see anything else. Just look:
Jesse also gets to take a moral stand against Gus’ organization when he opposes their use of children. This is, of course, tied to Combo’s death from last season, when Jesse finds out it was his friend Andrea’s brother who was put up to gun him down. The stand he takes against Gus ends up costing him that much more of his soul. At this point in the show, anyone who tries to do the right thing is immediately, and vengefully, brought back down to Earth. Walt and Gus are thriving by being the most maniacal bastards in the series, while Jesse and Hank are left rotting on the side of the road.
Speaking of Hank, he gets his greatest moment in the show yet this season, but it also hampers him for a long time. We get introduced to Tuco’s cousins in the very first episode of Season 3, but it takes multiple episodes before they make their move against the people they deem responsible. At first they want to go after Walt, but Gus is able to misdirect them and point them to the man who actually took down Tuco, Hank. “One Minute”, the seventh episode of the season, has the coolest action sequence in the show, with Hank getting an anonymous call from someone, warning him that the Cousins are coming after him while he’s sitting in a parking lot. Hank has just been suspended for beating up Jesse, so he doesn’t even have a badge, much less his service gun. Again, the writers take this opportunity to show how much of a badass Hank really is, as he subsequently takes down both of his would be hit-men with his truck’s rear bumper and one bullet. Watching one of the Cousins’ heads get blown open like a coconut was the first time I realized that the violence on this show wasn’t going to be toned down just because it’s on cable television. And it still makes me audibly yelp when I watch it, just because I kind of can’t believe how well-choreographed everything in the scene is. Hank fumbling for the bullet, finding it, then slotting it in the chamber and firing it directly into his assailant’s face is so heart-stopping that the only reaction is to pump your fist and scream.
While everything with the rest of the cast is going on, we also get more quality time with Skyler in this season. Walt tells her that he cooks meth, and in turn she starts an affair with her dorky, soap-star doppelgänger boss, Ted Beneke. She starts to retaliate against Walt and everything he’s come to represent, kicking him out of the house in the process. But she also takes her turn at playing the mafia wife, because by the end of the season she’s fully involved in Walt’s business affairs, desperately trying to get him to launder the money he’s making from Gus correctly. What’s done with Skyler this season is incredibly interesting, because it adheres to an archetype, while at the same time shattering it. Pretty much every character in Breaking Bad is a result of the same process, but Skyler’s journey is so different because of how she’d been characterized up until this point. She’s the uber-responsible mother who is her entire family’s emotional rock. Walt had obviously relinquished the pants of the house to her at the series’ opening, and even through all his dealings with Gus and the drug business, he still can’t get enough of a foothold back in his own household to claim control. It’s the one area of his life that’s still ruled by someone else, and that someone else is Skyler. He’s putting her through torture by making her out to be the bad guy to Walt Jr., but she still keeps him out of the house, and when she decides to take over the business side of his affairs, she proves to be much smarter about it than he ever was. She knows they need to start coming up with a story to explain their finances and she willingly comes up with the fake gambling alibi. Skyler bites into Walt’s madness and never looks back, and even though their circumstances keep getting more dire, Skyler proves herself a competent criminal in her own right.
And finally, the last two episodes of this season change the show irrevocably. “Half-Measure” and “Full Measure” together, are Breaking Bad operating at its highest level. The ending of “Half-Measure” alone is worth more than other entire television series. The way that it’s staged, where you think Jesse is going to be the one to unload on the corner dealers who murdered Andrea’s little brother, would have been tense enough. But to have Walt fly in and run one over one with the Aztek, run and grab the other dealer’s gun, before shooting him in the head, changes what we think Walt is capable of. He can be the guy that kills first now. He’s no longer the man who needs to be constantly prodded and pushed to murder. Walt can do it with nary a grimace. The way Cranston delivers the last line (“Run.”), too? It’s perfect television! It’s everything that’s ever been great about dramatic storytelling, rolled into one line.
And the finale is more about how what Walt does in “Half-Measure” started to change his relationship with Gus permanently. In “Full Measure”, we see that Gale is being groomed to replace Walt in the super lab, and Walt isn’t in the dark about this for a second. He knows that to keep his job and save his life, Gale, the only person who can make his own meth besides him, has to die. Once again though, another of Walt’s burdens falls on Jesse. And as the season fades to black, we’re forced to experience another soul crushing moment in Jesse’s life: he’s become a murderer.