Breaking Bad, Ep. 4.13: “Face Off”

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Breaking Bad, Season 4, Episode 13: “Face Off”
Written by Vince Gilligan
Directed by Vince Gilligan
Airs Sundays at 10pm ET on AMC

Now here’s an hour of television that had a lot to do. First, it had two incredible season finales to follow up on (Season 2’s “ABQ” and Season 3’s “Full Measures”). Second, it had to justify Season 4’s odd narrative rhythms (especially its mostly-glacial first nine episodes). Third, it had to tie up the bizarre-seeming plot contortions from last week’s “End Times,” including coming up with a reasonable culprit and motive for the Brock poisoning. So, how’d it do?

“Face Off” featured, surprisingly, more humor than possibly any other this season; from Walt bringing a bomb to a hospital and awkwardly breaking into Saul’s office, to Saul’s always-on-point situational awareness (and can we take a second to acknowledge what a boon Bob Odenkirk has been to the show since he first appeared mid-Season 2?), to Hector’s alternately confusing and vulgar messages, to the sort-of-tense, mostly-hilarious use of a chatty neighbor at the old folks’ home. After a mostly straight-faced season, it was nice to get constant reminders of just how darkly funny the show can be – and that it doesn’t hurt to have a lead who’s comfortable with pratfalls, even in a macabre crime thriller.

As for the Brock element, I have to eat some crow this week. See, Gilligan and co. pulled off one hell of a coup between this episode and last week’s “End Times,” and though it relied on a bit of sleight of hand that could have been executed a little more smoothly, it was still remarkably effective. As soon as the detectives mentioned to Jesse that they were waiting on tox-screen results, it was fairly obvious that they’d have to come back negative for ricin, since it was the only way he’d be getting out of the pen. Having Walt as the true culprit, though, was enjoyably devious. He seemed out of the question as a suspect because, well, Walt wouldn’t fatally poison a child. That’s (probably) true, but it is entirely within his nature to manipulate and hurt Jesse and his loved ones to his advantage (see also: Jane), which turns out to be exactly what he’s done. The previous episode’s beat of having Jesse immediately suspect Walt as a first impulse is still suspect – it served to throw us off Walt’s scent in a prescient bit of reverse psychology, but it still didn’t make much sense for Jesse in that moment to assume it’s anyone but Gus – yet the ultimate resolution is both elegant and satisfying. (Also, props to the internet trainspotters who noticed that Walt’s spinning gun pointed directly to Walt’s secret weapon back in “End Times.”)

And then there’s that other thing that happened; the Big One, akin to the plane crash (S2) or Jesse’s crushing act of violence (S3). It seemed plainly logical that Walt and Gus couldn’t both make it out of the season alive, and only one of them is the star and a co-producer. Walt’s use of Hector was delightfully cruel, especially in the context of getting to know and understand Gus’s past over the course of the season. The bell-bomb solution, too, was perfectly in keeping with Walt’s weirdly cunning sense of resourcefulness. And then came what’s bound to be the most divisive single image in Breaking Bad history: Gus, emerging from the smoke and rubble long enough to adjust his tie…with half a face. (Actually, “2/3 of a head” might be more accurate.) Followed by a collapse. (By the way, take a look at the episode title this week, and then ask yourself when Vince Gilligan started cribbing from the John Woo Book of Puns.) It’s a startling image, one that lands somewhere in that nebulous zone between “awesome” and “ridiculous.” Which end of the spectrum it’s closer to I’ve not entirely figured out just yet. But it sure was something. And while Gus’s fate was sealed the moment he insisted that he “take care” of Tio himself, which dulled the show’s usual “holy shit!” factor somewhat, his walk across the lot was an indelible, extended bit of doomy grandeur.

Where does that leave us? Gus and his latest enforcer, along with the cartel’s last living memory (that we know of) are gone. Mike is recuperating somewhere (no character that important has ever died unannounced, offscreen, in TV history – as far as I know), and will awake to find himself in an entirely new world. Hank will find the lab destroyed, and his pet lead is dead and gone. Then there’s the small matter of Jesse and Walt – nowhere to cook, and more importantly many reasons not to ever cook again. (And none at all for them to cook together.) With 16 episodes remaining, “Face Off” effectively ties up a whole lot of loose ends while leaving a few tantalizing possibilities open. Overall, the wonky pacing and slightly lacking character focus made Season 4 a slight step down from its series-best predecessor – the sketchy motivations and inner workings of Jesse and Skyler have been especially problematic – there’s still no question about Breaking Bad‘s status as, consistently, the most technically accomplished, tense, and fully realized drama around.

Simon Howell

  1. Vinnie says

    I have to say the spelling board was sooo tedious, has Walt ever heard of a rifle with a telescopic sight? he could of taken Gus out like a million times…. especially when he was on the rooftop next to the hospital car park. What would of been really freaky is if Gus was like some Terminator type robot…. its late at night and my imagination is getting the best of me. I have enjoyed watching all the episodes.

  2. Joseph F. McNulty says

    Walt has now become the new Gus — a cunning killer willing to use anyone and anything to accomplish his purposes. Gus died because he violated his own rules of caution, blinded by his hatred of Tio. He wanted to have the bitter pleasure of injecting the fatal shot into Tio himself, so he exposed himself in the one place where he was not protected. He realized his mistake at the last instant—too late for him and Tyruss. He did not realize that Tio hated him so much that Tio was willing to cooperate with another enemy — Walt — and give up his own life, to kill Gus. Truly, “Mr. Chips” has become “Scarface,” as Vince Gilligan has said, especially since Walt, asked by Skyler as to whether he was involved in the death of Gus, answered laconically “I won.” He also murdered without hesitation at the laundry. I have been watching television over 50 years, and I cannot think of a better show that “Breaking Bad.” The recent episode “Salud” was the best hour of television since the moon landings. The only show that comes close to “Breaking Bad” in cinematic quality woud be the early episodes of “The Sopranos.” I think that “The Sopranos” lost something when Big Pussy went to sea. Nothing else comes close. I fear that “Breaking Bad” has lost something irreplacable with the death of Gus. Giancarlo Esposito deserves great praise for creating a great villian without histronics, a courteous monster, killed by a vicious, if crippled, beast, Tio. I have watched the episode again, and, if possible, I like it even more. It is finely crafted and layered. It has subtlety that rewards repeated viewing. I feel that I picked up so much seeing it again, For example, the mordant humor of Sol Goodman’s secretary grabbing her pathetic can of Mace when she hears the door shatter. Sol Goodman explaining to Walt the old, sick guy in the wheelchair—who Walt will remember—who has to communicate by ringing a bell—if that “rings a bell,” of course. Or the flop of Walt —an aging man with a fatal disease—crawling over the wall in his backyard. The gnarled glee of Tio as his message—“Suck My Dick”—is spelled out to the DEA in their meeting, as they anxiously scribble it down, letter by letter. This is a triumph. I just hope the Emmy’s realize it.

  3. tmack says

    My 2 cents: I chose to reflect on this finale for a few days before shooting off a response about it. I really liked it, but I didn’t love it. Maybe I’m just disappointed that a sniper didn’t off Skyler like I predicted. But I’ll get over that.

    What Breaking Bad writers have become very adept at is taking its viewers down blind alleys or distracting them from some vital tidbit of information that ultimately comes back to bite you in the ass…or doesn’t. Sleight of hand moments in BrBa would be a good column. Say, for example, Walt poisoning Brock with ricin. Now we know that Walt is not that low that he would kill a child to manipulate Jesse (despite his having withdrawn an impulse to first save Jane only to let her die instead). While he wouldn’t kill a child, he would make a child sick by finding a way–and I can’t imagine how he found that way–to feed him some kind of concoction made with poisonous berries. Just enough to make the child sick but recoverable with immediate and first rate medical care. Of course that Jesse could recall his every move with the cigarette and use that timeline to charge Walt and not himself was a bit forced. This is one of BrBa’s most “worked” plot points; it reeks of elbow grease. It could have succeeded brilliantly if the writers had spent more time greasing this chute in previous episodes instead of forcing us to watch Skyler propose frozen peas for Walt’s eye or buy a car wash.

    I enjoyed Tio Hector agreeing to a jihad on Gus and martyring himself in the nursing home. Gus emerging from the blast looking like two-face Harvey Dent was indeed a bit over the top, though I liked his last effort to pay attention to his appearance before dying. If I had to pick the 2 most memorable scenes it would be this one and the lab cleanup scene –Walt & Jesse together again, working with focus and easy synchronicity accompanied by a fantastic tune.

    I noticed some odd camera work in the last scene between Walt & Jesse in the parking lot. At one point, the camera angle abruptly shifts to what I would call a pov shot from an opening on a lower garage floor. But whose pov was it? Perhaps the ABQ PD surveilling Jesse because of the ricin comment? Will the FBI now join in the scrutiny of Jesse…and Walt?

    Simon, you are a really good writer, and I’ve enjoyed reading your analyses of my favorite TV show of all times.

  4. Michael K says

    I do see season 5 being a thing where the DEA are investigating why the whole gus / cartel empire went up in smoke and the laundary factory. Hank is a smart man, He’ll put 2 and 2 together eventually and walt will be in the lime light. And small part of me thinks walt wants to get caught he wants to be known as who he truelly became in the end. I definately predict walt will get caught in the end of season 5. Can’t wait for mike to come too.

    1. tmack says

      If Hank doesn’t put 2+2 together NOW, then he needs to turn in his badge. Walt is an underachiever in Hank’s eyes–brilliant but unable to parlay that into status. But suddenly Walt is able to make over a million dollars gambling and buys a car wash, kinda like Gus has (had) a laundry. The ABQ PD has seen Jesse and Walt together–things will go down rapidly now. But we have to wait an effin year to see it happen. Walt is thrilled with his new identity and he’ll keep pushing the envelope, confident he’s smarter than everybody.

  5. Kate Kulzick says

    I love the scene with Gus in the nursing home parking lot. He has that same look on his face as from the end of “End Times”. He knows this may be a trap. He knows something about it isn’t quite right. Perhaps a part of him even knows he’s going to his death, but he can’t stop himself. He can’t let go of Hector and his rage. Great stuff, and excellently informed by that amazing end of episode 12 scene.

  6. Mario in Philly says

    I loved this season of BB as well as checking in each Monday for your take on the episodes, Simon.
    Can the last season only focus on the personal lives of Walt and Jesse? Or can there be a higher power than Gus to swoop in wreak havoc on our protagonists? I can’t see anyone living happily ever after. And then, as you said, there is Mike…

    1. Simon Howell says

      Thanks Mario! I had a blast writing these, even on weeks like this one where the combination of watching the show and writing about it kept me up till 4am.

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