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'Breaking Bad' recap: The one who knocks

Waltersaul

Warning: Major, season-ruining spoilers for the "Breaking Bad" finale follow. Do not read if you haven't watched!

All season long, the question “Breaking Bad” has asked is simple: Can Walter White become the one who knocks? Or must he always remain the one who answers the door, living in fear of people like Gus, who lord over him? In “Face Off,” we get a definitive answer: Walter White is finally the one who knocks. He just had to poison a child and give away a little more of his humanity to get there.

Walter does any number of terrible things in this episode. In fact, the three killings he carries out are probably toward the bottom of the list of his misdeeds here. (In particular, Gus and Tyrus were trying to kill Walter as well, so it would be possible to argue this was self-defense, while Tio was happy to commit suicide if it meant he brought Gus down with him.) Not only does Walter somehow poison Brock with lily of the valley, something the doctors catch in time, but he also sends a defenseless old woman into a house where there might be gunmen lying in wait to kill whoever comes through the front door. The sequence in which Walter watches his neighbor toddle her way into the house, then sees the gunmen emerge from the backyard is wonderfully tense, mostly because you wonder just how many sins Walter can have on his conscience.

Some of the show’s viewership has complained that this season hasn’t spent nearly as much time watching Walter get moments where he wins, little victories that allow him to have the triumphs that keep him going and keep us watching. He has spent the season cornered and beaten down, abandoned by just about everyone who cared about him, told by Skyler that his recklessness was the whole reason she was sticking around, and made into a clock-punching working stiff by Gus. It’s been a difficult road for him to walk — and for many of us to watch — but in this episode, he finally reaches the end of the desperate scheme launched two weeks ago, when he realized it was going to be Gus or himself.

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When Gus grows suspicious at the hospital (where last week’s episode left off), Walter frantically goes to detach the bomb he’s planted beneath Gus’ car. From there, he needs to find a way to lure Gus into another location where he would never suspect Walter’s influence. This means recruiting Tio — based on a tip from Jesse — who’s only too happy to have the bomb strapped beneath his wheelchair and rigged to his little bell he constantly dings, allowing his only method of communication to become his final instrument of revenge. It’s a bravura sequence, and it’s nice to watch the episode play all of this out so slowly and deliberately. In particular, I love every time the woman had to work through the long chart of letters so Tio could communicate his wishes, especially when she misread D.E.A. as “dee-ah.” And Gus lasting just long enough for us to see the other half of his face utterly destroyed by the bomb blast was a great, ghoulish moment, too.

But the strength of this show has always been that it weds those moments of sheer “did I just see that?!” excitement to a more serious contemplation of what these people have sacrificed to get where they are. To me, the strongest moment of this episode comes at the very end. Skyler asks her husband on the phone what happened, if he was involved in the nursing home blast that killed three, including Gus Fring (perhaps validating Hank’s theories at the same time). “I won,” says Walter, and his voice sounds at once triumphant and haunted. Yes, he’s won. Yes, he never has to worry about Gus coming after him again (though Mike, still convalescing in Mexico, may prove another matter). But in the process, he’s hollowed himself out. By becoming the one who knocks, he’s also distanced himself from his family. He’s no longer able to be honest with his son, and his wife seems slightly terrified of him half of the time. He’s won in the sense that he’s finally become the one he wanted to be, but he’s lost in the sense that to do so he had to sacrifice almost everything that made the mild-mannered Walter of the pilot a good man.

There are other story lines in the episode. Jesse is interrogated by two detectives, who are very interested in his mention of ricin poisoning. (Could the FBI, mentioned by said detectives, fill the antagonistic role Gus filled this season in another season?) Skyler tries to figure out just what her husband is up to from Hank and Marie’s house, while Hank goes over the photos Steve gave him, trying to account for why the laundry Steve photographed would need as much power as it seems to. The episode is also, perhaps remarkably, incredibly funny, from the little old lady waving hello to Walter while he tries to hide from Tyrus to Saul's receptionist-extorting Walter, to any number of hysterical lines and gags. But, ultimately, this is the Walter White hour in a way no other episode this season has been. He gets to “win,” and it feels, in some ways, like an ending.

Photos: Hollywood Backlot goes behind the scenes of 'Breaking Bad'

To that end, I’m impressed by just how many story points this finale closes off. Intellectually, I know there will be a fifth season, but this could stand quite well as a series finale. (It almost had to be one, thanks to tense negotiations between AMC and Sony, the studio that produces the show.) Obviously, Hank is still out there, still waiting to catch on to just what his brother-in-law has been up to. And by the same token, Jesse now has two potentially devastating pieces of news to learn about Walter’s involvement in the tragedies and near-tragedies in his life. So it’s not as though the show will lack for conflict.

At the same time, though, this feels like an ending, more than any other season finale the show has offered. This feels like the closing of a triumphant chapter in Walter White’s life, one where he was beaten down and reduced to a mere servant to someone more powerful but one where he somehow managed to overcome that and win. Still, is it any surprise that Walter’s success ultimately tastes like ashes, that his final victory is not enough to make up for everything that brought him to this moment? This was once a good man, who was perhaps frustrated by the life that he’d been shoehorned into but was someone who cared for his family and the other people around him. Now, he is the one who knocks, and no matter how much he tries to say he’s still that good man, it tastes a little more empty every time.

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Complete Show Tracker 'Breaking Bad' coverage

-- Todd VanDerWerff
http://twitter.com/tvoti

Photo: Walter (portrayed by Bryan Cranston), left, and Saul (Bob Odenkirk) contemplate how Walter will escape Gus' wish to kill him. Credit: AMC

 
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