So Season 4 is the best season of this show so far. I didn’t know if I’d misremembered the show when I was in the middle of Season 3, because I kept thinking to myself that there’s no way it gets better than that “Half Measure”/”Full Measure” two-parter, but to my surprise, I found myself totally engrossed in Season 4 from start to finish. It’s kind of easy at times to think that the newest thing is the best thing, and that was what I kept fearing I had done with my memories of Breaking Bad. It’s a show that’s so good at parts, that you kind of can’t believe a show like this can keep getting better. But it does. It really does. There’s not a moment wasted in Season 4. Everything is integral to Walt’s malicious trajectory, even the things that are happening with other characters. Actually, especially the stuff that happens with other characters this season.
Of course, the events pick up immediately where they left off last season, where we see without a shadow of a doubt that Jesse did shoot Gale. It’s getting to the point in the show where Jesse is the only character you want to make it out alive. The stuff with Jane was heartbreaking, but having so much of Jesse’s life being completely ruined by what Walt does is hard to watch. And it’s easy to sympathize with Jesse, too. What other choices does he have at this point? He’s in too deep with the shit to just cut and run. I like that eventually we get to see him work with Mike, and even though we find out that Gus is the one setting it up so that Jesse puts more trust in him than he does in Walt, it still feels good for Jesse. He needs that paternal figure, someone other than Walt, who might be in the same business, but isn’t as vile. Mike’s definitely killed more people, but from what they’ve shown us in the show, he’s ten times more loyal than Walt is. Also, I forget how much I like hearing Mike call Walt “Walter” every chance he gets. That subtle level of enmity can easily be linked to how their relationship unfolds.
Another thing that helps this season so much, is that from the very first episode, hell, even the very first scene, we know that Walt’s forced Gus to be the villain. Now, you can argue that Gus forced his hand by trying to get Gale to learn Walt’s meth formula, but it’s a chicken or the egg type argument, because Walt was the first one to disobey Gus and take matters into his own hands at the end of “Half Measure”. Whatever the case may be, one thing is certain: Gus is the show’s Bond-villain. From the way he slices open Victor’s throat, showing no emotion in the process, it’s clear that he can play the role of despotic businessman with little to no regard for human life. Gilligan and his writers (along with the actor portraying Gus, Giancarlo Esposito) impart Gus with enough character quirks to make him seem larger than life. His nickname, “the chicken man”, is even a suburbanized version of a Bond-villain’s name. Dr. No, Goldfinger, Jaws, or “the chicken man”? It’s goofy, but it fits nicely into the archetype of the transcendent sociopath that the writers have molded him from. I look at the Walt/Gus duel as an allegory for what would happen in the Bond world if two of his worst villains decide to take each other out before they dealt with him. I’ll even take it further! Is Hank the show’s stand-in for Bond?! Maybe a reach. But it’s still a fun way to look at the broad strokes that embody Walt and Gus.
Something else that also gets played with a lot this season is the way that Walt and Skyler have rekindled their romance, even though it’s a bit creepy because of how different they both are now. Walt is on his way to being the drug lord, and Skyler is along for the ride, even though she still has no idea how deep in it Walt is. Walt doesn’t help ease her fears with the classic “I am the danger” speech (Also, only the second best thing Cranston did this season…!). She almost takes Holly and runs away, and when she can’t, I think that’s her way of committing to Walt’s criminal activity for the long haul. She’s in it as much as he is now, even if she doesn’t fully know what “it” is.
Also, one of the better threads of the season is the return of Hank to the DEA. He gets handed Gale’s notebooks along with other clues, and it brings him back to life. He’s done feeling sorry for himself and chincing out on rehab sessions like he was doing in Season 3. Hank is slowly but surely resuscitating his life, and the irony can’t be accidental that what’s bringing him back to the real world is something that is so obviously going to crush him when he figures it out. He’ll feel dumb, but more importantly, you know the cop in him won’t let Walt get away with it. There’s no way Hank is going to find out and not do something about Walt.
And as good as all of these things about the show are, the real treat of this season is the way the last few episodes just continue to pick up in pace and tension, to the point that it becomes hard to believe what is happening right in front of you. Also, it’s not because the writers kept throwing things out of left field at you either. The things in this show always feel earned, and that goes double for the last four or five episodes of this season. For me, “Salud” kicks off the greatest collection of episodes the show’s had yet (even though Season 5’s ending is sure to try to outdo it). Watching Gus wipe out the entire Mexican Cartel, along with getting some much needed revenge on Don Eladio was cathartic as hell. After we see Gus’ background in “Hermanos”, you just knew someone as badass as Gus appears to be wouldn’t let the Cartel get away with what they did in that episode, along with what they’ve been trying to do to him all season. They were going to die, no matter what, and it was always going to be because of Gus. Now, I’d be lying if I said I knew it was going to be that thrilling. Because damn. Once again, the show’s creators know how to craft action scenes almost as good as they know how to frame character moments, and this was another shining example. From the way Eladio crashes into to the pool, to watching Gus try to expunge the poison he killed them all with from himself (after ingesting the tequila he spiked to show he wasn’t trying anything) in the bathroom, yet still keeping his composure as the most gentlemanly psychopath there’s ever been, it all feels right.
From there, we get to “Crawl Space”, where Cranston delivers, to me, the best piece of acting he’s done on the show. We’ll get to it. First though, Gus, having dealt with the Cartel completely, decides to turn his gaze on Walt and his unpredictability. Once Walt killed the dealers and had Jesse take out Gale, it was only a matter of time before Gus took Walt off the board for being too unpredictable. He’s got Jesse in his back pocket, having taken him to Mexico for the deal with the Cartel, and the only thing left to do is take Walt out. Walt is kidnapped and taken to the desert, where he realizes that the only reason Gus won’t kill him is because Jesse won’t cook for him if he does. He tries to drop this on Gus, but Gus calmly tells him he’s fired, and on top of that, he’s going after Hank. If Walt tries to stop him, Gus states that he’ll kill his whole family. Walt calls Saul and tells him he needs a previously discussed ejection plan, where he’ll pay a guy for a brand new identity for he and his whole family. It costs over $600,000, which Walt has stored in the crawl space of his house. One problem: when he goes to his house, he doesn’t find enough money. He asks Skyler where it is, and she explains that she had to give it to Ted Beneke so his company wouldn’t go bankrupt and the IRS wouldn’t look into who was keeping his books, and discover just how illegal Skyler’s entire financial situation was. The result is this scene:
It’s the most disturbing scene in a series built on them. This is Cranston at his absolute best, people.
“End Times” is the penultimate episode of the season, and it sets in motion the way Walt gets back into Jesse’s good graces (by poisoning Brock, and getting Jesse to think that it was Gus), and allows him to use Jesse to draw Gus out to the hospital that Brock is being treated at, mainly so that Gus can defend himself against Jesse’s allegations. The ending has Walt failing to set off a pipe bomb he set under Gus’ car, and Gus walking away suspecting something was up. Once again, the tension is unbearable during this episode, but it also lacks any kind of real payoff. We see Walt wilting in the New Mexican sun because of his failures at the end, but we also get the sense that he’s done for. And this season can’t end like that! That’s why it’s the perfect cliffhanger for the next episode. Because you see the beginnings of Walt’s plan for the finale (“Face Off”), but you still see him lose one last time. Getting to the top can’t be that easy.
When “Face Off” starts, Walt disarms the bomb and desperately tries to figure out a place that Gus won’t expect any threat to find him. He and Saul finally get enough out of Jesse for them to realize the nursing home where Tio Salamanca lives is the perfect spot, because Gus visits often, trying to tear a singular ounce of respect out of Tio. Now, this could have been cheesy as all hell. Gus goes down because of an 80 year-old invalid? But the actors involved make the moments work. Mark Margolis does an especially great job of letting the audience know how much Tio hates Gus. The way he rings the bell, and the contortions he puts his face through, sell the disdain. All without saying a word, too. It’s remarkable stuff. We also get the great exchange Walt has with Skyler at the end of the episode, where he sums up what happened simply, with an arrogance-laden “I won”.
The fourth season of the show is so dense, but so fast-paced, that it’s pretty much impossible to judge the other seasons against it. But without those other seasons putting all of the pieces on the board in such a smart way, Breaking Bad would hardly be able to pull off any of the feats it does during this year of the show. It’s such a great payoff season for viewers, but it still keeps the character moments front and center, even with the action of the show literally blowing up around them. This is a show where the shrapnel is just as important as the detonations, and that’s what makes it so satisfying to watch.