‘Breaking Bad’: Once upon a time in the West

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“Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan grew up in a small Virginia town where he watched “Star Wars” and westerns and spent his summer vacations making backyard movies with a Super 8 video camera that he borrowed from a teacher. From the third grade on, he knew he wanted to be in show business.

Well, lucky us.

Sunday night on AMC, Gilligan put his own personal touch on the third season finale of “Bad,” both writing and directing for the first time since he did so for the pilot three years ago. And although it may have been “Star Wars” that primarily fueled Gilligan’s childhood dream of show business, it was clearly his love of the western that colored this very solid season finale.


Admitting recently that he watched the 1968 classic “Once Upon a Time in the West” for inspiration, Gilligan began with a standoff of sorts in the beautiful, untamed desert and then ended with a climactic showdown that led to the barrel of a gun and a gunshot. Just like that, it was over, the third season now gone.

But before we move on, let us look back, one more time. ...

-- A long, long time ago, Walter Hartwell White was an optimist. “Why be cautious?” he said to his pregnant wife in the hallway of what he considered to be a too-small “starter house” for their boundless future. “We’ve got nowhere to go but up.” This came during the opening flashback teaser, a Season 3 staple. Going back even to prior seasons, “Breaking Bad” has always mastered the flashback, and Bryan Cranston has always been remarkable within them, portraying a Walter White who is so different from the one we normally see. The younger Walt has always been relaxed, confident, bold. And it’s just another testament to the infallible Cranston that as such, these flashbacks have always been so jarring because of the stark contrast; the Walt we’re used to is something of a tense, conflicted, broken individual.

-- After the nowhere-to-go-but-up opening, we came to the nowhere-to-go-but-down present. Arriving in the desert in his poor, poor Aztec, this is where Sergio Leone’s “Once Upon a Time” influence was clearly felt; the whole sequence was marvelous and played so much like the opening of Leone’s masterpiece. And goodness, did we get a delightful shiver when Walt reached for his Heisenberg hat and made that long walk toward those headlights in the distance. Kudos to Cranston, who suggested the hat for the scene. “We hadn’t had the opportunity to wear it all throughout the third season,” he said recently. “I thought, ‘Here’s a genuine opportunity where he needs all the power he can get going into this negotiation with Gus.’ ... And it’s much like if a man is wearing a tuxedo, you sit differently, you act differently, you present yourself differently because of how it makes you feel. And so it’s the same thing with the Heisenberg hat and glasses. It has that same effect.” Wearing the hat, Walt negotiated the temporary reprieve from Gus (Giancarlo Esposito). It should also be noted that the hazy early-morning sky that hovered over them was absolutely stunning, lensed beautifully as always by cinematographer Michael Slovis.

-- Rare gripe, Part I: For all of Mike’s talk about how Walt needed to get his car fixed, I’m a little disappointed that we then immediately cut to Walt pulling up at the laundry, his car fully repaired. It’s a minor thing, I know, but “Breaking Bad” is usually good at filling in these cracks. In this case, I’m sure Saul Goodman knew a guy who knew a guy ... who knew another guy, but some kind of explanation would have been nice. In fact, I probably would have preferred such a scene to what happened next, which leads me to ...

-- Rare gripe, Part II: As Mike, Jonathan Banks is a wonder to watch. There is just a richness about his character, a cool confidence that always plays so well. Plus, he’s just a bad, bad man when the situation calls for it. But I think “Breaking Bad” may have dipped into that well when it wasn’t wholly necessary here, as Mike showed up at a random warehouse and coolly erased four apparent members of a cartel at the drop of a shoe. It’s not that the sequence wasn’t cool or occasionally funny; it’s just that it seemed to come out of nowhere. And dare I say it was a little too cool? On rare occasions -- and I do mean rare -- “Breaking Bad” can get a little too Hollywood for my taste, going for an exclamation point when all that’s necessary is a period. The cousins coolly walking away from that exploding truck at the start of the season was one such overcooked instance that made my eyes roll a little, and this shootout -- beginning with the ol’ balloons-in-the-power-lines trick and ending with a bullet in that poor man’s hand -- was another. There was no buildup and little explanation. And we’re still not exactly sure how that man behind the desk and his assistant (or wife?) fit into Gus’ whole operation, though I suppose the “chemicals” mention led us to believe that they’re either a supplier of some of the meth-making material or possibly even a distributor of the meth. That aside, if we needed to be reminded that the cartel was still involved in this whole mess, I think there could have been a more subtle and not so showy way to pull that off. Now, back to the good stuff...

-- As I first watched this episode, I actually wrote this down: “Gale. Perfect. I want Gale as a regular. He just adds so much and is so interesting, in a completely different way than Mike is interesting.” Well, so much for that, but David Costabile’s guest turn here should again be celebrated. The scene in Gale’s home in which he happily watered his plants while singing along with that Spanish tune was just priceless and made us fall in love with the guy even more. Little did we know this was just the bait that we were biting.

-- Favorite Saul Goodman quote: “Do not touch anything on my desk. I’m gonna leave the room, make myself a Nescafe.”

-- As for the lovable Gale, well, shoot. “When it comes down to you and me versus him, I’m sorry, I’m truly sorry, but it’s gonna be him,” Walt said to Jesse (Aaron Paul). They needed to kill Gale, who was being groomed as Walter’s replacement. It was the only leverage that remained. “I saved your life, Jesse. Are you gonna save mine?”

-- Mirroring the opening teaser, one of the most beautiful shots in the history of this show was the proverbial calm before the storm, Walt holding his baby daughter, her tiny hand reaching up and playing with his glasses. With Skyler (Anna Gunn) and Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte) in the background, this was precisely the image of what Walt was trying to provide for and protect: his family, and these little beautiful moments.

-- 6353 Juan Tabo Blvd., Apartment 6. Gale’s address.

-- “You don’t have to do this.” Twice in the final 10 minutes, this line was uttered by a desperate man. First it was Walt who said it at the laundry, Mike asking him to go fix a chemical leak that was obviously a setup. Then it was Gale, standing in his own doorway, a gun pointed at his head. For Gale, these were his final words. For Walt, these are the words that will continue to hang over his existence and the choices he’s made.

-- We may one day look back on this as The Season of Jesse. “I’m the bad guy,” he plainly said to Walt early on, accepting his role in the world. Willingly back in the meth-making game even while sobering up himself, Jesse became so interesting this season and has come so far as a character. He was so sweet (to the kid), so cruel (to his parents), so loyal (to his friends). When it came to Walt, Jesse was all of those things. And here, Gale was right: Jesse didn’t have to pull that trigger. He could have taken his money and ran away from this. But in the end he was there for Walt just as Walt had been there for him. Loyalty came at a price, though, and the tragic look on Jesse’s face as he held the gun with a trembling hand told us what that was; if it wasn’t already, Jesse’s innocence is now gone. And this violent ending certainly puts our two main characters in an especially precarious position heading into next season, another dark corner from which they must escape.

In all, this was a great finale to a marvelous season, one that further solidified “Breaking Bad’s” place among the very best that television has to offer.

Your move, “Mad Men.”

-- Josh Gajewski

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