Breaking Bad really has made story pacing into an art. Its scenes stretch on and so little seems to happen, yet at the end of the hour you’re reeling from how the status quo has changed. The show excels at creating dramatic tension.
As we push toward the grand finale, much of that tension comes — more than ever — from the uncertainty of what will happen next. Each and every one of its characters is a wild card, with ambiguous motives, a tendency to respond unpredictably to being cornered, or both. Only the most minor supporting cast members demonstrate any sort of clarity of purpose; Marie, for example, simply wants to stand by her husband Hank. So when Marie comes to realize the enormity of all that Skyler has kept hidden from her over the past year, and the harm those secrets have inflicted on Hank, she explodes in rage. Breaking Bad revels in coming full circle, and it’s difficult not to remember Skyler’s passive-aggressive fury at Marie’s shoplifting hijinks now that Skyler’s complicity in Walt’s crimes become clear and the shoe is on the other foot. Those long-ago offenses seem so trivial in comparison. A tiara? Who cares?
But what motivates Skyler now? When Hank turns to her to spill evidence against Walt, she withdraws and runs away, refusing to speak. But is she protecting Walt? Protecting herself? Is she simply reacting in instinctive fear? Both Walt and Skyler seem to be operating under some strange delusion that they can simply carry on with life as usual, returning to their own home as if their brother-in-law weren’t a single piece of hard evidence away from bringing the full weight of the justice system down upon their heads.
Of course, they don’t know about either of the dangerous dominoes that have begun toppling after being set up in the previous episode. Jesse, nearly catatonic with depression and guilt, didn’t even bother completing his money-chucking spree before giving up and letting the authorities take him in. And Lydia, ever skittish, ever squeamish, nevertheless has no reluctance about bringing in nasty people to do nasty work for her while she averts her eyes and shudders at the inevitable sound of gunfire. Men who have no compunctions about gunning down not only Walt but everyone he holds dear.
Meanwhile, Walt holes up in his proverbial bunker, his metaphorical Eva by his side. But unless that ricin capsule is meant for himself, he doesn’t seem the type to hold a gun to his head. Even on the ragged edge of physical exhaustion as his cancer tightens its grip, he refuses to give up, insisting that no matter what happens Skyler makes sure their vast drug fortune makes its way to their children. “So I won’t have done all of this for nothing,” he wheezes, and in that moment he’s Walt again, not Heisenberg: A family man who wanted to give his children a future as his dying wish. A well-meaning soul who regrets that his choice went so horribly wrong.
But he’s also still Heisenberg, a man who intimidates others on his reputation alone. As Saul’s associates help bundle up the meth fortune and marvel at the pile of money before them, they decline the opportunity to swipe a few bills for themselves. After all, Heisenberg has done terrible things, brutal things, murderous things. Who would willingly make an enemy of a man like that? They haven’t seen his ridiculous Marvin the Martian moments where things blow up in his face or he practically pisses himself in terror, only the cunning Bond villain moments in which a clockwork scheme comes to fruition, money pours in, and people die. Walt wants what’s best for his kids, yes, and he wants to keep his family together, even refusing to let anyone off his brother-in-law despite the fact that Hank represents a tremendous threat to his freedom and life… but at the same time, Walt is guilty of countless crimes of hubris, megalomania, intimidation, manipulation, and even murder. Whatever nobility exists in him has been blotted out by his misdeeds.
Even Hank — pure, noble crusader Hank — lurks in shades of grey as he comes up against wall after wall in making his final case against Walt. Rather than go forward with his revelation, he chases leads, desperate to close the case in a single blow. He assumes — probably correctly — that the moment he reveals his own brother-in-law as the criminal mastermind behind Blue Sky, his career will be over. Did he pressure Skyler to turn evidence on Walt without proper legal representation out of an eagerness to protect her, or in desperation to put his obsession with Heisenberg to rest?
Really, though, the pivot now turns on Jesse, whose role in the case ahead echoes that of Don Salamanca so long ago. Will his unhappy history with Hank make him refuse to cooperate with los federales? Or will his perception of a greater common foe — in this case, Walt — cause him to collaborate with a man he would otherwise despise? As Hank closes the door to the interrogation room and the credits roll, it’s absolutely impossible to know which direction his conversation with Jesse will go. And a slow burn of an episode culminates in a nailbiter of a finale. A quiet, low-key nailbiter, but tense all the same.