BREAKING BAD: 'Face Off'
I'm honestly not sure how to react to 'Face Off'. By any rational standard, it was a superb episode of television, expertly paced and filled with the big moments of tension and satisfaction that are the stuff of any excellent season finale. On the other hand, this is Breaking Bad, the series which has produced episodes like Crazy Handful Of Nothin', 'One Minute', Crawl Space and which counts the astonishing 'Full Measures' as one of its previous finales. By those standards, 'Face Off' was a frustrating stumble at the final hurdle.
It is an episode of two sides, appropriate given the grizzly image which turned its title into a morbid gag, the best of which was the last move in a battle between two men who had pushed each other to their furthest limits. The less successful side was the one justifying how these events came to play out, giving an unusually cheap answer to the question central to last week's episode but which ended up having few consequences in this one. For a series which has come to be defined by surgically-precise storytelling, laying out every dramatic beat as a chemical sequence of action and reaction, the decision to leave gaps in the viewers' knowledge of how what could prove to be a vital series of events unfolded felt more like stop-gap writing than tantalising mystery.
Fingers crossed that at some point in the future, perhaps when Jesse learns how Walter has been manipulating him for so long through terrible misdeeds, the precise events of how Brock came to ingest the poisonous berries will be detailed for us. Until then, it will remain a rare occasion when the writers tried to push through an occurrence that didn't quite add up by trying to hide it under a veil of the enigmatic unknown. Leaving little gaps for the viewers' imaginations to fill can be enormously rewarding - you only have to look at the amazingly detailed backstory that commenter Kot789 devised for Gus on my Crawl Space review to see the results it can produce - but only works if those gaps are in material that supplements the main story, rather than is vital to it. Not knowing everything about Gus makes us more compelled to work him out for ourselves. Not knowing the details of an event crucial to the main characters' decision making is annoying.
Worse still is that Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan seemed no more able to provide a compelling explanation for how it happened when interviewed by Alan Sepinwall, admitting that it was a 'tricky' situation where he couldn't remember the specifics. If Jesse's cigarette was lifted by Huell, or if the packet was swapped, that's an inconsistency with a character who has been delineated as anything but delicate and whose clumsiness has been a repeated source of comic relief. Those who went back over the scene where he frisked Jesse have also pointed out that his hands were empty. If Gilligan is 'remembering' correctly and that was supposed to be the moment when the ricin cigarette was taken away, it's an egregious example of deliberately being dishonest with viewers to engineer an otherwise impossible situation, putting a tiny crack in Bad's otherwise rock-solid reality. That's all saying nothing of how Walt even managed to get Brock to eat the berries. Fingers crossed that Gilligan and his writers recognise their mistake and do some retconning while wrapping up the series next season.
My second big issue with 'Face Off' - and I only have two, but ones sadly big enough to have marred an otherwise very entertaining hour - was that it offered few surprises in paying off everything that has been building in the season until this point. That Hector Salamanca delivered the coup de grâce was perhaps the only trump card the episode had up its sleeve, with everything about Jesse's burgeoning confidence, Walter's fall from power, or the possibility of Mike being concerned after witnessing his boss' skills with a box cutter thrown to the wayside in favour of a straightforward conclusion where Walt devised a plan and saw it through without much trouble.
Bad's big moments are usually the results of everything being so well tied up that any previous missteps are immediately forgiven and forgotten - see how quickly fans started calling this season one of the best ever following 'Salud' and 'Crawl Space', even though reactions up until then had been considerably more muted. 'Face Off' was tense and exciting, but slightly weakened the worth of the season leading up to it. What was the point, in the end, of Jesse being taken under Gus' wing? Why was Hank on the sidelines for the final outcome when we have spent so much time following his investigations into Fring?
There may well be answers provided next year, probably when Mike returns from hospital, but considering how vital those two players have been in the build-up to the big showdown, it was disappointing to see them barely play any part in it at all - Jesse's only real contribution was allowing Walt to find out about Gus' visits to Tio. On that same note, while Walt's survival instincts have led to him devising his greatest plans on the brink of death before (see 'Full Measures'), it didn't exactly chime with the arc of a character who has been made increasingly powerless throughout the year, without a notable telling point to make him aware of how irrational his decisions have been and to reverse that trend.
On the plus side, though the Brock situation was not sufficiently well explained, the reveal was an ominous enough moment marking another big step in how far Walt is willing to go to achieve his goals and get Jesse back where he wants him. It might have worked better had Brock died, thus taking Walt's previous moral low (allowing Jane to die) and making him directly responsible for the death of a completely innocent child, but it said enough about how ready he is to harm anyone to get what he wants that the impact was still there. The moment when Walt called a neighbour to get her to go over to his house when he feared that Gus' goons might be waiting inside to kill him was an effective piece of foreshadowing.
The episode also marked the final bow of Gustavo Fring, aka the Chicken Man, who will surely go down as one of television's greatest villains. As much as it was a shame to lose characters so distinctive as Fring and Hector Salamanca in the same episode, having their fates be so intertwined at the last was a very satisfying result of Gus' widening hubristic streak in recent weeks. Walt's victory came at the moment when he started to think more like Gus, ready to use the people around him in any way necessary to ensure his own survival, while Gus' slip into adopting some of Walt's arrogance was the cause of his downfall. Having Hector's bell be the detonator was a delicious touch and while Gus' last moments verged on the comic book, with him adjusting his tie even with half his face blown off, it was enough fun not to matter. Kudos also to whomever chose the wonderfully Morricone-esque music as Gus made his last walk into the old folks' home, and scored the final shot with Black by Danger Mouse and Norah Jones, a song which could have been written exclusively about Walt's increasingly dark view of the world.
Breaking Bad's third season represents the series' highest point to date and as outstanding as much of its fourth year has been, the underwhelming finale and slightly-too-long build-up to the big points of conflict mean that it ended up falling slightly short, perhaps coming in equal to or slightly above season two in my personal order of preference. (The first season being the weakest, as might be expected). Nevertheless, it is testament to the remarkable work done last year by Vince Gilligan and his crew that even a season giving prominence to characters so vivid as Gus, Mike and Tio, or including moments as jaw-dropping as the final scene in 'Crawl Space', Gus' elimination of the cartel in Salud or the eponymous killing in Box Cutter, could be seen as anything other than a complete success. We should be thankful to live in a time when we can enjoy stumbles this wonderful.
OTHER ARTICLES YOU MAY ENJOY