'Breaking Bad': Bang bang
I'll preface this by saying that I usually hate action sequences, especially ones involving cars, shootouts or anything of the elaborate sort. Too often, they just seem to be trying a little too hard, relying too heavily on the flash of special effects and such rather than the substance of the story.
But this is AMC. "Story matters here," the catchy slogan goes. And on Sunday night, "Breaking Bad" made art of the action sequence. In the end, the show that's always played so cinematically on our television screens once again left us shaking our heads, mouths agape, thinking the same old thing -- "This show is just so good..." -- as it cut to black and those credits rolled, a car alarm blaring in the background. At some point, our mouths closed and our pulses finally slowed. Bravo, "Breaking Bad." Once again, bravo.
The trick? As always, it begins with the story, the writing. Here, Thomas Schnauz -- Vince Gilligan's longtime pal who actually planted the seed for "Breaking Bad" when he once told Gilligan about an article he'd just read about mobile meth labs -- gets credit for piecing together these wonderful scenes, including that epic final sequence between Hank (Dean Norris) and the cousins (Luis and Daniel Moncada) in the parking lot. Kudos also to Michelle MacLaren, the director who also directed this season's superb "I.F.T."
And, of course, Norris, the marked man. Until this season began, Hank had probably been my least favorite character. Not a knock on Norris, necessarily; the character of Hank just hadn't been fleshed out quite like the others, and so Hank had always felt a little too one-dimensional, his tough-guy bravado getting a little stale after awhile. But as they did with Jesse (Aaron Paul) in Season 2, the writers remedied the Hank problem by focusing more on that tough-guy bravado -- or, rather, breaking the bravado to pieces. And by breaking him down, Hank suddenly became a guy we cared about. But that's what TV shows do these days -- they make us care about someone just before killing them off. If we care, we feel the impact. TV can be cruel in this regard.
And so we came to Sunday's Hank-centric episode. Last week's "Bad," of course, ended with Gus' blessing to kill Hank. With that seed firmly planted in the mind, this week, we saw the guy go through the emotional ringer of having his badge taken away after he unleashed a hellacious and unlawful beat-down on Jesse. He even opened up to his wife about his post-traumatic stress and, at one point, cried in her arms, if only for that one purposely brief moment.
And then, the end. Admit it -- when you saw those flowers and that little grin on his face as he told Marie by phone that everything was going to be OK, you thought he was a goner.
But here's the thing: "Breaking Bad" knew this is what we'd be thinking. That's what they were going for. That's probably why the camera focused on those pretty flowers for a moment once he'd gotten into the car, and then why it focused on the key going into the ignition. These writers know what kill-off techniques we're accustomed to on TV. And so this whole episode just toyed with us in that regard, giving us scene after scene of Potential Kill Spots. It seemed as if those cousins were always present; they'd be around the corner or on the other side of those elevator doors. We knew they'd be somewhere soon.
Finally, it happened. Hank was back in his car, ignition turned successfully. That's when he got the call from a disguised voice at 3:07. In one minute, the voice warned, two men would be there to kill him. (And this must have been Gus who made the call, right? But then again, in this "Breaking Bad" world, if it must have been Gus, then it probably wasn't Gus.)
Hearts began to beat -- ours, Hank's. The camera toyed with us again, showing us Hank's frantic point of view -- his eyes coming in and out of focus and falling on everyone around him, potential killers everywhere, even a bald cousin lookalike with a squeegee.
The clock turned, 3:08. Still nothing.
And then there it was, a gun in the rear-view mirror, pointed at Hank. The suspense had at that point been ratcheted up so much that just about anything would have sufficed, but the action that followed was stellar. It was more than gunshots. There was Hank's desperate face as he slammed into one of the cousins with his car, there was the close-up of that stray bullet falling onto the pavement beside the boot, and there was that absolutely wrenching shot of the shiny ax skimming across the pavement of the parking lot.
Yes, I'll admit that the one cousin saying "Too easy" and walking off to get the ax was the one thing that did feel very Hollywood, the move allowing Hank the extra time to load that final stray bullet. But I was willing to give the show a pass there because the rest of it was just so good. That ax skimming across the ground as Hank's bloody hand simultaneously fought with the bullet -- what a shot.
And so it seems that Hank might just live after all, though scenes from next week's episode appear to take us back to the hospital, presumably Hank's next stop as he did suffer multiple gunshot wounds and is thus not out of the woods just yet. I'm already drooling at the prospect of Jesse, Hank and the one surviving (it seems) cousin ending up in the same hospital. The preview showed someone going into cardiac arrest, and if you're like me, you went back and paused the DVR, trying to figure out who it was. Though it wasn't totally clear, it looked more like it was the cousin the doctors were trying to revive rather than Hank, and that would seem to make more sense from a storyline perspective. But if it looked like the cousin and would seem to make more sense for it to be him, then it probably isn't him. (See how my mind is beginning to work?)
Some final thoughts on other happenings:
-- Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), of course clothed in a somehow hilarious tracksuit, was in prime form at the hospital. Easily the funniest line of the episode: "You're now officially the cute one of the group," he said to Walt when he approached Jesse's bedside. "Paul, meet Ringo. Ringo, Paul."
-- Aaron Paul, we have your Emmy episode entry. How good was that devilish monologue that he delivered to Walt (Bryan Cranston), venom dripping off his words? "You're my free pass," he said, his mind as dark as his face. I kind of wish he'd have stayed strong and not let Walt off the hook so easily by later taking the deal to partner up again; seeing Jesse have such power over Walt was a brief delight. Oh and that pain assessment chart in the hospital room? Absolutely hilarious.
-- The super-brief cut of Hank crying in the elevator was great. Finally, we saw Hank completely broken down. For a second. Only a second. Another show might have overplayed such a scene.
-- More words that cut: "Hank is your family," Skyler said. "Not currently," Walt replied.
-- Josh Gajewski
Photo: Dean Norris as Hank Schrader in "Breaking Bad." Credit: AMC