Breaking Bad, Ep. 5.13: “To’hajiilee” nails a key moment and flubs another

Breaking Bad, Season 5, Episode 13: “To’hajiilee”
Written by George Mastras
Directed by Michelle MacLaren
Airs Sundays at 9pm ET on AMC
Remember a couple of weeks back, when it seemed like Breaking Bad couldn’t milk its cliffhanger tendencies any more than it already had? Those days seem so quaint now. “To’hajiilee” puts that notion to rest with closing seconds so tense, so fraught with peril, that no sane viewer could possibly not be at least a little miffed with Vince Gilligan and co. Imagine if “One Minute” had ended just after Gus Fring made that crucial phone call. That’s how the last minute of “To’hajiilee” is structured. And it’s infuriating. It is almost amusing, however, that a series known for its sophisticated storytelling and bone-deep characterizations has come to resemble the adventure serials that date back almost to the very beginning of film itself. What’s old is new again.

With three episodes still to go,  Breaking Bad has yet to even come close to reaching the flash-forward point we saw in the first episodes of each half of the season. Here’s what we know: one way or another, Walt-as-Heisenberg gets exposed; Walt’s hair grows back, signalling either remission or simply a ceasing of treatment (maybe because he simply can no longer afford it?); Walt is alone, for whatever reason; and, oh yes, he finds himself in New Hampshire with a whole lot of guns on his fifty-second birthday. (Based on the fact that the penultimate episode is named for the New Hampshire state credo, it seems likely we’ll have a better idea of the location’s significance in two weeks’ time.)

With all that once again established, let’s get one more thing out of the way: at the risk of being made to look like a massive idiot in a week’s time, I will state with some confidence that Hank will not perish in the firefight that erupts near the end of this week’s outing. “To’hajiilee” goes out of its way to flaunt convention by having Hank call Marie to trumpet the news proudly, only to survive the episode (if barely); it’s the sort of cliche-subverting move Vince Gilligan and his writers love to pull, and to have Hank take one to the head next week would undermine that. (I suppose one could argue that it would only serve to further subvert TV tropes by killing off a principal character at the top of an episode, but that suggests a level of perversity at work that I don’t even think Breaking Bad is capable of.)

At a key juncture of “To’hajiilee,” an unlikely point of comparison came up: Law & Order. If you’ve seen any episodes of L&O, you’ll know that around the 25-30 minute mark, someone’s getting collared, complete with the requisite Miranda spiel. When Hank finally gets his man, Michelle MacLaren directs the most fantastically detailed arrest in TV history, drawing out every individual step. In an episode packed with incident, it’s the easy standout.

The details of how we got there are somewhat less riveting. It’s a little disappointing that Walt is brought down so easily, complete with a recorded phone confession that neatly and definitively spells out his murder credentials and calls Jesse “stupid” at the very moment Jesse has outsmarted him. It’s the first time in this half-season that the plot’s strings have been all but visible, and not even the great Bryan Cranston can quite hide the transparent sense of manipulation.

Given the breakneck pace we’ve now reached, I doubt if there will be much more time left for the more reflective moments we got in last week’s “Rabid Dog,” but hopefully the writers will be able to keep moments like that one at bay en route to what will almost certainly be one of the most contentious and meticulous endgames in TV history. Bring on whatever New Hampshire holds.

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