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'Breaking Bad' recap: The end is nigh

September 26, 2011 |  6:30 am

'Breaking Bad' recap

If there’s one thing “Breaking Bad” does better than any other show in the history of TV, it’s getting the characters into situations that seem impossible to get out of and then continuing to pile on the horrors. Last night’s episode, “Crawl Space,” trucks along well enough, seeming like a slight breather after the ultra-intense ending to last week’s episode, when abruptly — and almost out of nowhere, mind — the episode shifts into one in which everything Walter White has carefully constructed to keep himself alive comes crashing down around his ears. He gets fired from his job. He realizes his wife has been giving money to Ted. He knows that he’s a dead man, and he’s probably taking his family with him. And he figures out that the only reason he’s still alive is because of the reluctance of his former partner, a man who no longer likes him very much, to wish him dead.

Walter has spent the run of “Breaking Bad” believing that he is special, that he alone can cook the blue meth, that he alone could have made the calls that got him to this point. And although he invented the blue meth and though he, indeed, was the one making those calls, Season 4 has been all about showing Walter just how very non-special he is. And in the final indignity, in tonight’s episode, he learns that even the blue meth has been taken from him. Jesse figured out how to cook it just by being his assistant. Doesn’t it seem just as likely that nearly anyone could figure out how to cook the meth by spending enough time in the super-lab? Walter’s belief that he alone is key to Gus’ whole operation gets directly taken down, and while he’s still scrambling to figure that out, he finds himself hauled out into the desert, presumably to die.

He doesn’t die, of course. Jesse and Walt are the only two people who know how to cook the blue meth now, and Jesse, despite his lack of love for Walt, doesn’t want the guy killed. (Despite becoming Walt’s new assistant, Tyrus doesn’t seem to know enough to cook yet.) So Gus is forced to fire Walt, in a way that immediately underlines — if it wasn’t clear already — that Gus is not the guy you want to be cheering for here. As he threatens Walt’s wife, son and “infant daughter” (two words Giancarlo Esposito pronounces in such a way as to induce maximum terror), Gus drives home just how in control of the whole situation he is. Any control Walter thought he had, any importance he was arrogant enough to believe was his, is washed away in this moment. Gus is in control. Walter has lost, and Gus has won. And now Gus is going to kill his brother-in-law.

It’s easy to want to focus on the final 10 minutes of this episode, packed with happenings as they are, but this is an episode rich with incident and moments that let us see just how trapped all the characters are. Only Gus is finally triumphant, finally able to go to the nursing home and gloat to Tio about how the Salamanca name will die with the old man, now that Jesse has killed Tio’s grandson. (Gus gets lots of great moments to luxuriate in his victory in this episode.) Jesse, even if he seems to be growing closer to Gus, has a moment where he realizes that Gus is completely OK with leaving Mike to get better — or perhaps pass on — in a makeshift hospital built in what appears to be a Mexican warehouse. (He’s also present for the Tio gloating, which should make anyone ill at ease.) Skyler realizes that Ted, for all his talk about how he’s a good guy, just isn’t going to pay the money he owes the IRS, leaving her waiting for them to start digging into her books. And Hank doesn’t even realize how much trouble he’s in, but Gus is going to kill him before he can look into something he shouldn’t look into. (Walt actually gets into a car accident to keep Hank from poking around the laundry where the super-lab is hidden.)

But this whole season has been about reinforcing to the characters that they’re stuck, that they’re cornered. “Crawl Space” is where that reinforcement breaks down as the snare finally closes around all the characters’ legs. Gus issues the death warrant for Hank. Walt has Saul call in an anonymous tip to the DEA, even though he knows it will mean the death of his family. But when he goes to collect the money needed to pay the man who will provide him with a new identity, letting the whole White family escape into the middle of nowhere, he finds he doesn’t have enough. And why? Because Skyler’s given Ted that money to pay back the IRS. And even though Ted’s apparently dead — in a freak accident that happens when he makes a break from Huell and the other member of Saul’s “A team” while they’re trying to get him to write that check — the check that will pay off his back taxes is still apparently about to be UPSed. The Whites are stuck, but they’re also finally doomed, waiting for Gus to come and get them. (I love the final shot here, Walter framed by the small hole into the crawl space, his face — bruised from the accident — erupting in maniacal, terrifying laughter. The show’s framing has often trapped Walter in confined spaces this season, but this is the most confining of all. The more the camera pulls back, the more the space he’s stuck in seems to shrink, boxing him in more and more.)

If there’s something that doesn’t quite work here, it’s the business with Ted, which feels slightly too convenient, slightly too much of a way to make sure Walt and the family will have to stay in Albuquerque and face their judgment day. This whole storyline has always felt slightly convenient, honestly, but it’s given Anna Gunn some good material to play. On the other hand, having Ted die abruptly and in such a strange fashion — I’m assuming he’s dead since I don’t see how anyone could survive that injury, and in true “Godfather” fashion, oranges (which spill over his prone form when his head hits the counter) equal death — feels a bridge too far, even for this show. Sure, weird, freaky things happen every day. But a problem being removed because someone trips on a rug? That’s not nearly as clever as I expect from this show, particularly in an episode filled with as many white-knuckle moments as this one.

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-- Todd VanDerWerff
Twitter.com/tvoti

Photo: Jesse (Aaron Paul) finds his sojourn in Mexico coming to an end. Credit: AMC

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