“Breaking Bad” kicked off the last half of its final stretch Sunday with the best episode of the batch yet.
Supremely clever, suspenseful and perfectly paced, “To’hajiilee” is a tour de force. It pit Walt and Jesse in a thrilling battle of wits as each man attempted to trick the other into taking his bait. Walt used a little boy to try to get to Jesse; Jesse used a big barrel of money to try to get to Walt.
“To’hajiilee” also marked a pivotal moment for Walter White — a hollow victory of sorts against Heisenberg in the tug-of-war for his soul.
In the very first episode of “Breaking Bad,” Walt delivered this telling speech about chemistry to his high school class:
“Chemistry is the study of matter,” Walt said, “but I prefer to see it as the study of change … Well that’s, that’s all of life, right? It’s the constant. It’s the cycle. It is growth, then decay, then transformation.”
We’ve watched Walt decay over the course of five seasons, crossing one moral line after another. In Sunday’s episode, we saw a glimmer of transformation. This man who has become a master in the art of justification, rationalization and self-preservation was willing to sacrifice himself in order to save his DEA brother-in-law Hank.
You could argue that Walt didn’t have much of a choice when he surrendered to Hank, slithering out from the rock he was hiding behind in the desert. I’d argue that he did have a choice. Walt could have let Uncle Jack and his merry band of white supremacists carry out the hit as planned, Hank be damned. He then could have tried to make a run for it, take his chances with Saul’s vacuum man and do a disappearing act.
Instead, Walt did everything within his power — admittedly limited — to protect Hank. That un-Heisenberg gesture likely won’t do his brother-in-law any good, given all the hell that broke loose in the episode’s final, heart-pounding moments.
Let’s back up and start at the beginning of “To’hajiilee,” an episode that echoed much of the series’ pilot, both in subtle and obvious ways.
Todd has cooked up a mediocre batch of meth that’s not exactly flying off the shelves in the Czech Republic.
“Lean In” Lydia — Todd’s cougar crush — isn’t happy about this new version of blue, which is about as blue as chocolate milk.
After everyone takes turns weighing in on just how blue Todd’s cook is, one of the guys describes it as aquamarine. The scene is reminiscent of Hank and Gomez’s debate in the pilot about whether a meth cook’s house was green or sage.
“Breaking Bad” has always put an importance on color, whether it be the names of the characters (Jesse Pinkman, Walter White) or their wardrobe choices. (All the beige Walt and Skyler are wearing lately is no accident. It’s their We’re Normal, Law-Abiding, Boring Suburbanite uniforms.)
Walt needs to get rid of Jesse, so Uncle Jack agrees to do Walt a solid — send Jesse to proverbial Belize — as long as Walt will put on a private cooking class for Todd and teach him how to make Heisenberg blue.
Jesse, whom Saul presciently notes later in the episode “is not as dumb as you think,” is hatching his own plan to take down Walt. Jesse promised Walt in last week’s “Rabid Dog” that he would get him “where you really live.” For Walt, that’s the pocketbook. Jesse knows how important all of that meth money is to his former teacher; it represents proof to a pride-obsessed Walt that his life wasn’t an epic fail.
In a clever plan ripped right out of the Walt playbook, Jesse leads Hank to Saul’s bodyguard, Huell, in an effort to find out where Walt has hidden his cash.
Meanwhile, Walt is using his own mindgames to flush out Jesse. Walt drops by Andrea’s house, where a wary Brock is enjoying his morning Froot Loops. Walt knows that as soon as Jesse finds out he’s hanging at Casa Brock — the kid he once poisoned with Lily of the Valley — Jesse will rush right over. That’s when he’ll be greeted by Uncle Jack and a bullet to the back of the head.
“I want what you do to be quick and painless,” Walt instructed Jack. “No suffering. No fear.”
That plan gets derailed when Hank intercepts Andrea’s voicemail on the Hello Kitty cell phone. Jesse and Hank’s plan, however, is coming along quite nicely. Using another fake cell phone photo — this one showing a barrel full of cash — Jesse convinces Walt that he’s tracked down his buried treasure.
Walt goes crazy at the prospect of losing the fruits of Heisenberg’s labor, the spoils of his victory.
“Don’t you touch my money!” Walt growls into his cell phone. “No no no no no!”
While Jesse taunts him on the phone — “I’m burning 10 grand a minute until you get here starting right now. Fire in the hole, bitch!” — Walt races to To’hajiilee, the Native-American Navajo Reservation where Walt buried his cash. It’s also the same place that Walt did his first cook with Jesse in the pilot.
Walt has spent the last five seasons calling Jesse stupid, which makes what happens next extra poignant. When Walt arrives to an empty desert, he realizes he’s the one that’s been played. Jesse (via Hank) was tracking Walt’s location through the battery in his cell phone. (I realize Hank came up with the details of this clever cat-and-mouse game, but give Jesse props for being the mastermind.)
The adrenaline-pumping gets taken up a notch when Walt makes a frantic call to Uncle Jack, telling him to hightail it to the desert to nab Jesse. Walt probably expected Jesse to hop out of the car with Badger and Skinny Pete. Instead, Walt’s mortified to realize Jesse’s cavalry is Hank and Gomez.
Walt has done plenty of bad things during his metamorphosis from Mr. Chips to Scarface, but he can’t abide Hank’s blood on his hands. He orders Uncle Jack to stand down, don’t come to the desert. Walt’s finally had enough.
For several minutes, it looks like the gig really is up. Walt surrenders to a downright giddy Hank, ebullient about finally netting his Heisenberg. He’s put in the back of Hank’s car, handcuffed, much like Jesse’s hands were tied together in the pilot when he and Walt were under siege in this same spot. (Back then, Walt unshackled Jesse and saved him. Might we see Jesse return the favor?)
One of the many beauties of “Breaking Bad” is its ability to paint characters into a corner and get them out of it. “To’hajiilee” appeared to be doing just that when Uncle Jack, Todd and the rest of the itchy trigger finger posse arrived on the scene.
It’s ironic that the same thing that led to Walt’s downfall — pride — could be Hank’s undoing as well. Hank wanted to be the one to bag the big game all by himself. Forget warrants and back-up and notifying the tribal police. Hank had tunnel vision when it came to catching Heisenberg, and it looks like it’s going to cost him his life.
“It may be a while before I get home,” Hank said to Marie, when he called her from the desert to gloat about Walt’s capture. “I love you,” he added, with an eerie air of finality.
Moments later, Uncle Jack and company showed up, leaving Hank and Gomez outmanned and outgunned.
It brought to mind a line that Hank uttered in that very first episode, when he was showing off his .40-caliber Glock 22 at Walt’s 50th birthday party: “If you’re gonna bring a gun, baby, you gotta bring enough gun.”
For last week’s recap of “Rabid Dog,” click here.
And if Todd’s ringtone left you hankering for some Thomas Dolby, enjoy: