'Breaking Bad' season finale review: 'We had a good run, but it's over'

It’s not often that Breaking Bad does flashbacks, so when it does — particularly as one of its always-crucial pre-credits sequences — we’d best pay close attention. Thus when last night’s season finale, entitled “Full Measure,” commenced with a scene of younger Walt and a pregnant-with-Walter-Jr. Skyler walking with a real-estate agent through the house-with-a-pool that would become their home-with-nightmares, fresh insight into these characters was gleaned. We saw that, even before he was diagnosed with cancer and started making meth to pay his future bills, Walter White was something of a dreamer, a suppressed risk-taker. Skyler loved the three-bedroom house, but Walt thought it was too small. Set our sights higher, he urged Skyler. “Why be cautious? We’ve got nowhere to go but up.”

It turns out, that Walt — a Walt with hair and an open smile — was right. He went “up” in a couple of ways: Increased his income (upping his chemistry-teacher salary by supplementing it with meth profits), increased his engagement with life (the overarching, entire-series irony of Breaking Bad is that Walt was a deadened soul until he got his wake-up cancer call, and came fully alive when he started doing things that can and do cause misery and death all around him).

After last week’s shocking final moment in which Walt shot and killed a drug dealer with less hesitation or remorse than his supposedly more criminal partner, Jesse, this week’s episode, “Full Measure,” began with Walt wearing his flat-top black cap: his Heisenberg identity; the image that we saw drawn for the killers meant to identify Walt, at the start of the season.

Walt and Gus met in a neutral spot, a barren stretch of Albuquerque landscape. Gus told Walt he questions Walt’s sanity in doing what he did last week (killing the two drug dealers who were going to kill Jesse). “I saved his life… now he and I are done,” Walt told Gus in regard to Jesse. This set up something that would happen again in this episode written and directed by creator Vince Gilligan: Walt protects Jesse even as he suggests to others that he’s willing to sell out Jesse. Yes, it’s a strategy to keep Gus from realizing how committed Walt is to Jesse, but it left open the notion that, if push came to shove, the now deadly-ruthless Walt might indeed betray Jesse.

There followed a fantastic Mike sequence: He went to a meth-ingredient location (the idea recently in Breaking Bad has been to make it clear that Mike’s decades-long work as a for-hire “clean-up man” is never-ending and as much as he’s aging and getting more tired of it, his skills are still superb). He found the employees being held hostage by some Mexican cartel thugs, and Mike killed them in a couple of nighttime action sequences worthy of Michael Mann’s Miami Vice.

Gale had reentered the show, and I was glad to see him. Gus insisted he be re-hired as Walt’s assistant, with another Gus henchman, Victor, watching over the two meth-manufacturers. Now we saw Gale at home, where he’s a fastidious man, fussing over the making of his “perfect” cup of coffee, watering his plants while singing along to Spanish-language music I am too musically illiterate to recognize. (Anyone wanting to fill me in here is most welcome. Some of the music seemed to have been sung by Betty Boop but not played for laughs; Gale clearly loves the music, and actor David Costabile sang along beautifully.)

Gus paid Gale a visit, informed him of Walt’s health condition, making it sound more grim than it is. He wanted to ascertain whether Gale can take over from Walt because Gus had now made the decision that both Walt and Jesse must go; they’re the “soft spots,” the weak links in his operation. Gale was surprised but willing to take over after “one more cook” during which he’d extract the remaining chemical info he needs from Walt, whom he described to Gus as “a master.”

What would a season finale be if we didn’t get one more glimpse of Saul? Mike went to the shady lawyer, who was easily intimidated into giving up the address of Jesse’s whereabouts — or so Mike thought. Saul then took Walt to the laser-tag store he’s wanted Walt to buy as a drug-laundering investment. It’s also where Jesse is really hiding. Bob Odenkirk made the most of the hissy-fit Gilligan wrote for him here, yawped to Walt about how Mike, “my own P.I.,” had threatening him, comparing the act to “Thomas Magnum threatening that little guy with the moustache.” Saul also referred dismissively to Jesse as “Hiphop.” I love Saul, yo.

At this point, the rest of the season finale became a dramatized philosophical discussion that summarized the entire season’s themes of loyalty, betrayal, pride, guilt, and the possibility (or not) of redemption. Walt knew why Gale had been returned to the meth lab, and told Jesse, without saying these exact words, that they must kill Gale to remain alive. Walt’s reasoning is that, as long as Gale is unable to reproduce Walt’s classic blue meth, he’s still invaluable to Gus. “I’m the only chemist he’s got,” says Walt. “Production cannot stop.” In essence, Walt was making a Marxist move — a worker who would “seize the means of production,” in Marx’s phrase — a thought that might be appreciated by Gale (see bullet-point below).

Our main men’s role reversal begins. Jesse is the one who suggested they give themselves up to the DEA (which would certainly buck up Hank in his recuperation, wouldn’t it?) and enter the witness-protection program. “We had a good run, but it’s over,” said Jesse. It’s Walt who’s now the guy who favors taking Gale out and resorts to gangster loyalty: “I saved your life, Jesse; are you going to save mine?” Later, Jesse said, “Don’t do this, Mr. White, please — go to the cops.” It’s a measure how far Breaking Bad has moved along the moral map that Jesse is the voice of reason, and Walt the voice of fatalistic doom and violence.

Walt decides he’ll be the one to kill Gale, but he’s intercepted by Victor, who insisted Walt go with him to the lab because of a “chemical leak.” There, Mike is waiting — he wants Jesse’s location and Walt’s life. Instead, Walt turns the tables neatly, warning Jesse and dispatching him to kill Gale. Explaining what he’s done to Mike, Walt believed he’d guaranteed his own survival.

Jesse arrived at Gale’s place, nervous, reluctant. In the final seconds, he pulled his gun on Gale, who spoke Jesse’s very thought: “You don’t need to do this.” Tears in his eyes, Jesse raised the gun, the camera’s point of view shifted to a shot of Jesse aiming his weapon at a now-unseen Gale — and really, aimed at us. Jesse’s arm moved slightly to his right, he fired the gun. Bang, and fade to black. End of season three.

My take? Jesse has decided he can shoot (but can’t kill) Gale, but in that decision, he has thus placed Walt in grave danger. Maybe in your interpretation, Jesse did shoot (and kill) Gale. In the real-time construction of Breaking Bad, this means next season must grapple immediately with the aftermath of Jesse’s decision. And now Walt and Jesse are complete equals: Both dangerous criminals, both haunted by the frayed edges of their consciences.

This was a satisfying conclusion to a superlative season. For me, Breaking Bad had as much to say about the nature of the soul and how we create our own destinies as did Lost, only without the glowing yellow-magic-water-holes or the slo-mo, feel-good sentimentality. I can understand why many people find Breaking Bad difficult to enjoy because they feel there’s no one to root for; that the very thing Walt did from the first season to make money — drugs manufactured to provide a cushion for his family when he dies of cancer — is too immoral an act (in the street-level devastation it causes) to enable some to remain engaged by Walt and Jesse’s constant and various predicaments. My excellent colleague, The Chicago Tribune’s Maureen Ryan, has made an eloquent case for such disenchantment, as well as for giving the show its proper due.

It may be that what tips me to the Breaking Bad side is that I love the hardboiled thriller framework around which the series is constructed, and regularly deconstructs. But the bottom line is, this is great storytelling, great acting, and some of the greatest TV cinematography ever.

A couple of stray questions:

• Gale’s bookshelf pretty much gibes with his description of himself earlier in the season as a “libertarian”: works by or about Marx, Engels, Lenin, plus literary critic Hugh Kenner’s study of Buckminster Fuller, Bucky. (Lighter reading on a nearby table: a book by Breaking Bad super-fan Stephen King. In the blurry shot, I didn’t recognize the dust jacket. Did you?)

• The conversation Mike had with his granddaughter, in which he says the rhinoceros they saw at the zoo would “come running for his dinner,” felt as though it was meant to carry some metaphorical weight that for the life of me I can’t tease out, beyond a rather obvious point that appearances are deceptive. He jokes that the rhino has a “big nose” and she corrects him, saying it’s the animal’s horn. “I always learn a lot from you,” he says. Was there a bigger meaning to this, something Mike is working out shortly before he uses the rest of the balloons for his attack?

• Update: In interviews with The A.V. Club and critic Alan Sepinwall on Hitfix.com, Vince Gilligan says he didn’t intend the ambiguity I see about whether or not Jesse killed Gale. Still, I wouldn’t put it past the wily, inventive Gilligan to toss a curve-ball into next season’s opening moment…

I wonder what you thought, taking the full measure of the season.

Follow @kentucker

Comments (148 total) Add your comment
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  • John

    That Stephen King book was (I think) Bag of Bones.

    • LJT

      The book was Everything’s Eventual: 14 Dark Tales

      • Robert Singleton

        Definitely Everything’s Eventual.

      • Music

        And I could be mistaken, but the music sounded more Italian than Spanish … it was certainly operatic.

      • Mo

        It was definitely Italian. Most definitely not Spanish (I am a native Spanish speaker.)

    • Luk

      Lost is done I was confused, but I’m over it.I tried to start Mad Men but got ritedsacked probably finishing lost, or starting Breaking Bad. Either way it’s on my hard drive, so it’s not going anywhere.

      • Naila

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  • todor

    Ken, you should look up the interview with Vince Gilligan at The AV Club, where he talks about the season and especially about Jesse shooting Gale. Check it out.
    By the way a great season and a great finale.

    • Mimi

      I just read the interview. Excellent!

  • Bruce in NC

    Jesse may be the voice of reason but sadly he was one flame away from hitting the pipe again (if he hasn’t already) before Walt’s call came in. No, Jesse did not kill Gale. I hope he got Gale to high tail it out of town and out of the business forever. Gale does not have the stomach for the work – he just wants to do the work but the fallout is too much to handle. At some point Walt’s family will be used against him. I pray they don’t become collateral damage. I am going to miss this show until S4!

  • Rock Golf

    One correction, Ken. When the Whites bought the house, Walt wasn’t a chemistry teacher. He was working for Gray Matter Technologies. We don’t know the details yet, but the company made a fortune of Walt’s work and he didn’t get a penny.

    • J

      Exactly. In that first scene we see Walt in rare form: confident, ambitious. He’s nothing like his later self that we saw at the start of season 1.

    • R.J.

      Not necessarily. I believe Walt left Gray Matters when his relationship with Gretchen did not work out and she began dating his partner. If Walt was with Skylar and she was eight months pregnant, that had to be well after he left his career at Gray Matters.

      • jennrae

        I agree. I think I remember Gretchen telling him that HE left HER when they were having a family get-together at her dad’s house. He just walked out of the relationship and out of the business.

    • MexiChick

      Yeah, he told the Realtor that he was working for Sandia Labs, one of the biggest employers here. Lots of people from LANL transfer down from Los Alamos. So I think it went: Grey Matter, LANL (where he might have been working with the chemicals that gave him cancer) Sandia, Teacher/Car Washer, Meth Manufacturer

  • gah

    ken tucker has really turned to mentioning lost when talking about breaking bad. i enjoy both in different ways and yes they both talked about destiny blah blah blah, but so does ghost whisperer.

  • bubba

    Minor issues, when they were house shopping, Walt wasn’t a chem teacher. He was still working for that pharmaceutical company, so if anything, his salary was pretty decent and if he hadn’t had that falling out, he would have been loaded.

    • Monica

      in the opening flashback, Walt says he is working for Sandia Labs. That’s our local ABQ labs for military stuff, hence the real estate agent’s reference to lasers or rockets or something. I don’t know how Walt goes from there to the place that screwed him to the HS?

  • Linda

    Great ending to a great season. Also — great review!

  • John

    The Stephen King book was Everything’s eventual. Its a collection of short stories. Its pretty good and has a short dark tower/Roland story in it.

    • stephen

      I think it was Everything’s Eventual, too. Kind of a interesting title for this series.

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  • Logan

    Nice review, but you have an error in paragraph 7, “…..Gus had now made the decision that Walt and Gus must go…”. No, Gus had made the decision that Walt and Jesse must go.

  • liz

    I think Jesse absolutely killed Gale. Despite his struggle to try to be good, Walt is the only person who has truly cared for Jesse (well, Jane is gone so I can’t count her, and I was never sure that she cared as much as he did) so in the end he owes Walt and wants him to be safe.

    • JPasteurized

      I think it would be more in Jesse’s nature to have shot past Gale, to scare him. Then he kidnaps him, and we’ve got a fine start to season 4 with Mike in hot pursuit.

  • phan

    The King book was Everything is Eventual

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  • Xochitl

    that Spanish language music was actually Italian. I watch the show with the captions on..don’t want to miss a thing. Great ending.

    • Mo

      So what’s the deal with the close captioning blanking every even remotely offensive word being said out loud in the dialogue? I mean, I also keep the CC on, and one day I was washing dishes and couldn’t hear, and when I read C—- in the subtitles, and couldn’t come up with a swear word that made sense given the context, I had to rewind, and he had said “Christ”. They also go G– for “God” and h— for “hell” (I know EW will censor this last one too, so let’s just call it “heck” here :-P) I’d just like to know why they think deaf and hard-of-hearing people would be prissier about these things than people with normal hearing, or if there is a difference in the FCC treatment of spoken and written words? Because I just don’t get it otherwise. Imagine watching this show and every ten words or so there’s a bleep.

  • Jay

    I’m pretty sure the King book was Everything’s Eventual. Best show on TV right now.

  • MikeC

    Can anyone recall exactly what Walt said to Jesse at the end? I know he told him he had to kill Gale but what did he say about the time it would take him to get there?

    BTW great show, great finale!

    • Edgar

      Walt told Jesse that he (Jesse) was closer to Gale than Walt was. About 20 minutes closer. Said that he (Walt) was about to be killed and that it would have to be Jesse who killed Gale.

      The import was that Jesse could get to Gale first (by about a 20 minute margin) and kill him, thus saving both of their lives.

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  • MikeC

    BTW if anyone is interested in that song Gale was singing it’s called “Crapa pelada” and can easily be found on Youtube.

    • Tully

      Thanks, Mike. Love that scene.

    • Che

      “Crapa pelada” means “Crap Naked” in Portuguese. Hee hee hee!

      • Mikie

        According to the posts on YouTube the Milanese to English translation of the title is “Bald Pate” and the lyrics has something to do with brothers who create dishes (tortellini, omelets) but don’t share with each other. Where on earth did Gilligan find this song???

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