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Late to the Party: Josh Reviews Breaking Bad Season Four

I started watching Breaking Bad a few weeks after its series finale aired, and I’ve been slowly catching up ever since.  Click here for my review of season one, here for my review of season two, and here for my review of season three.

I found season four to be very strong, building nicely on the narrative momentum set up in season three.  It’s fun to see a show at the top of its creative game.  And, because creator and show-runner Vince Gilligan was given the luxury of ending the show at the time and place of his choosing, watching these middle seasons unfold it’s a delight to relax and know that the story is heading somewhere, that it’s all heading towards what I expect to be a mighty crescendo in the show’s final season.  This is a rare privilege for a show-runner, to be able to craft one’s final seasons to build to an ending that comes when you want it to come, and watching season four I could see the creative confidence in every frame of the show.

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(Please beware some spoilers as I dig into my thoughts on season four, friends.  If you haven’t yet watched this season of this show, you probably want to stop reading here.)

Season four picks up right from the terrific cliffhanger that ended season three, with Gus and Mike ready to terminate Walt and Jesse with extreme prejudice, a pickle the boys only wriggle out of with Jesse’s murder of chemist Gale so that Gus once again needs them to cook their product for him.  The season premiere, “Box Cutter,” is a hell of an episode, tense and twisty, and a great way to kick off the season.  I’d commented in my review of season three that I enjoyed that the show seemed to be taking its time with the development of new villain Gus Fring, and I was glad to see that continue throughout season four, which is basically structured as one long duel of wits between Walt and Gus.  Gus, played so memorably by Giancarlo Esposito, is an incredible character, one of the most iconic TV villains of all time.  He’s a phenomenal foil for Walt, just as fierce and intelligent as Walt is.  As the season progresses, it’s fascinating to see just how similar Walt is to Gus, as our hero slides further into anti-hero.  (I was stunned to learn at the end of the season that it was Walt, not Gus, who was responsible for the poisoning of young Brock.  Can I still root at all for Walt after that?  We’ll see when I move on to season five…!)  I was very happy that the Walt-Gus conflict was given a definitive conclusion in the season finale, “Face Off” (a title that we’d learn in the final gruesome minutes was even more appropriate than I’d originally suspected!).  That final image of Gus is horrifying and unforgettable, a spectacular conclusion for a spectacular character.

Jesse also gets a lot to do in this season, and I found myself more invested in and sympathetic for Jesse than I had been before.  After Walt stopped Jesse from committing murder last season, it was sad to see Jesse forced to kill in the season premiere.  I was glad the show took the time, in the first half of the season, to explore the impact that had on Jesse’s fragile personality.  Watching Jesse slowly dissolve, and then gradually find himself again, was powerful and, I think, the strongest arc the character has had so far.  I also, of course, loved his pairing with the tough, gruff Mike in the season’s second half.  Season four included quite a lot of Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) and Saul Goodman(Bob Odenkirk), and I love how indispensable those two amazing characters have become to the series’ story.  More Mike and more Saul is always a good thing.  I was a little worried for Mike’s safety at several points this season, as Gus’ war with the cartel escalated, and I was glad that he made it through to the season finale in one piece.  Getting back to Jesse, it’s fascinating to watch how damaged he has become by the violence he has been forced to commit and be a party to.  Walt, meanwhile, has gone in the opposite direction, growing more cold and ruthless and not batting an eye about nearly killing Brock, an innocent young boy.  I can’t wait to see where these two characters go in the final season.

Watching Breaking Bad’s early seasons I would never in a million years have predicted where the show was going to take Hank’s story.  That he’d get shot and almost crippled, and that he’d be bed-ridden for a season-and-a-half, was a huge surprise to me.  I love that about this show.  Hank is such a delightfully flawed character, and I was impressed by the honesty of the characterization as we watch him struggle with his terrible injuries.  We can be impressed by his stubborn tenacity and also disappointed by his cold treatment of his wife Marie all at the same time.

I was pleased that the show sound good stories for both Skyler and Marie this season.  It seemed honest that Skyler would leave Walt last season, and I wondered if and how she would continue to be involved in the story as the show continued.  I loved the whole story-line of her and Walt’s ownership of the car-wash as a way to launder his money.  It’s a nice tie-in to where the show began back in the pilot (in which we saw Walt’s humiliating second job working there) and a great way to keep Skyler and Walt connected.  I also liked the continued involvement of Skyler’s on-again off-again flame Ted Beneke, though oy, what a left-turn of an ending for that character!  I imagine that is going to blow up in everyone’s faces next season.  As for Marie, sometimes I’ve felt the show didn’t know quite what to do with her.  Is she a compulsive liar/crazy-person?  It was hard watching the way Hank treated her this season, though watching that unfold I also found myself caring more about this character than I had in the past.

Some other thoughts about the season:

I loved the continued way in which the angry crippled old drug-dealer Hector Salamanca continued to be involved in the story.  And the way everything came to a head with Hector and Gus in the finale?  Amazing.

I loved the flashback in “Hermanos,” as we learned more of Gus’ past and his rise to power, and the sad story of the origin of the name of his chicken business.  I loved that this show could make us sympathize with Gus, the main villain of the season.  I loved Gus even as I was rooting for Walt to be able to outwit and defeat him.  It was also fun seeing Manny Rivera (Scarface) as Gus’ nemesis Don Elario.

I loved seeing Jesse stand up to the cartel’s meth cook in “Salud,” using all the knowledge he’d learned from Walt to show that cook what’s what and to impress the cartel.  That was so funny and also such a cathartic moment for the character of Jesse.  One of my favorite moments from the season.

Another of my favorite moments?  Jesse’s comically shocked reaction ton discovering that Walt has brought a bomb into a hospital!

Still another of my favorite moments?  Hector’s nurse patiently using his bell and alphabet board to, slowly, reveal his profane message to the cops.  So funny!

I have to admit that I’ve never grown to love Breaking Bad the way I’d expected to after so many years of reading about what a spectacular show this was.  I like it very much, and I hugely respect it for the incredibly high quality of its writing, directing, acting, and all the other aspects of the execution of the show.  But I don’t LOVE the show the way I’d expected to.  As I have wondered in previous reviews, is it because the characters are all such unpleasant people, dealing with such unpleasant things?  That certainly must be a factor, but I have loved other shows about miserable people.  (As I have also commented in my previous reviews of Breaking Bad, I eventually grew to love Mad Men deeply.)  But this has never been a show that has left me desperate to see the next episode the way so many other serialized shows do.  With Breaking Bad, after each episode I find I need some time to recover, emotionally!  That’s why it’s taken me so long to make my way through the show’s five seasons.

Be that as it may, at this point in my viewing of the show, I find myself more invested than ever before in where all these story-threads are going as I wonder where all the characters are going to wind up in the final season.  Is Walter White going to go out on top or is he going to have a mighty fall?  Is Jesse ever going to find out about Walt’s involvement in Brock’s poisoning, or the death of Jane?  Just when is Hank going to put all the pieces together about Walt, and what’s going to happen when he does?

I’m excited to watch Breaking Bad’s final season (which aired as two half-seasons) to see if this show can stick the landing.  I hope it can.  So far, I have had little reason to doubt.  It’s awesome seeing Vince Gilligan — a writer I loved for years on The X-Files — confidently at the helm of this show.  I can’t wait to see where this all goes and how everything wraps up.  I’ll be back here soon to let you know what I thought!

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