There’s a certain type of silence that can be excruciating. You know what I’m talking about. You’ve all not heard it: Squirming in the dentist’s chair, anticipating the drill. A baby’s face the second before the tears arrive. The terrifying space between someone hitting play and a Lumineers song actually beginning.
It’s not a deafening silence, nor a vacuum. Rather, it’s inverted; a cup, not a bell. I’m talking about a silence that isn’t defined by the lack of sound, but by the awful inevitability of the noise yet to come. It’s silence like a threat, a marker that’s primed to come due. It’s not the silence of the grave. It’s the ominous stillness that comes just before.
Director Michelle MacLaren is the John Cage of this malevolent silence, able to wield it as precisely as a pointillist with a paintbrush. And with “To'hajiilee,” the final episode of Breaking Bad she’ll ever direct, she has painted her masterpiece. Under the unblinking eye of her relentless camera, this was television not as entertainment but as endurance. It was agonizing, nauseating, unbearable. I loved every minute but hated every second. I couldn’t wait for it to be over but I never wanted it to end. And I especially never wanted it to end like that.
Still, for a moment, let’s focus not on the noise of that ending — of neo-Nazi bullets thunk-thunk-thunking into the sides of cars, of Walter White’s shrill, impotent cries, of hope leaking out of this series like air from a punctured balloon — but on the silence. It descended on the episode at around the three-quarter mark, when Walt arrived at the site of his buried treasure, a pathetic pirate in a cerulean button-up. During the drag race out of town, he was as manic as we’ve ever seen him, as if he’d finally made up for all those years of not sampling his own product. Yet when he cut the engine, the piston-drums of the soundtrack began to fade, replaced by the banal donging of the Chrysler. Walt stepped outside and the noise washed away altogether. He was alone. There was nothing there. Just the soft scuffles of his own feet on desert sand, our own hearts, like his, jackhammering in our throats.
Are there birds? Maybe a few. I’d like to think they’re buzzards; better yet a murder of crows. But watch the scene again and it’s almost as if you can’t hear them; they’re temporary interruptions of that awful, awful silence. It’s so still out there on the Indian reservation. It’s the type of place where only two types of things can happen: terrible things and nothing. I think we all knew which to expect, even before the arrival of Hank’s car.
About that: two thoughts. One, Walt is a monster but it’s unhelpful and reductive to call him evil. Contrary to what Jesse believes, Walt isn’t actually the devil — he’s just willing to shake hands with one to consummate a business deal. Ultimately what blinds Walter White is the same thing that dooms him, not to mention the very thing that makes Breaking Bad so fascinating: his own unceasing, unquestioning commitment to himself. (Cue the other W.W.!) In those sick, ticking moments of indecision as Uncle Jack breathed into the phone and Hank yelled into the wind, we saw Walter come up against his own red line: He won’t kill family. (Jesse’s a gray area, though. He’s “like” family. So.)
This is admirable, I guess. And consistent. Destroying people’s lives but not actually ending them seems like a tough moral two-step to me but, then again, I’ve never had even a single barrel full of cash. (It’s the same distinction, I think, between killing someone and killing someone with “no suffering, no fear.” I mean, tell yourself what you want, but you’re still killing someone.) So bully for Walt for calling off the Nazis — though I don’t think for a minute any of us believed they were so easily mollified. History has demonstrated that they aren’t the type of people who like to take “no” for an answer. But what I was saying was this: Just because he tried to do the right thing by Hank when it counted, it doesn’t mean Walt’s not still a monster. After all, Godzilla’s ultimate intentions are kind of secondary. He can still knock over half of Tokyo just by turning around.
So the second thought: Hank got his hero moment. He got the villain in cuffs. Walter, beaten, broken down — coughing again, as the Heisenberg body armor weakened, allowing the disease to sink in — shuffling in a Christ pose. (Not an accident. In his mind, no one will ever appreciate the majesty of his sacrifice.) In the breathless moment of Walt’s approach, I think Jesse really expected his former teacher to sprout cloven hooves and horns. But no, he was defeated. Shamed. Shackled. Spit upon and then locked in the backseat of a car like a particularly truculent child. “He’s clean,” said Gomez after searching the man he and Hank had spent the better part of five seasons hunting. It was the opposite of true, but I wonder if it was nice for Walter to hear, to maybe have a chance to believe in his own righteousness for at least a few moments more.
This was when the quiet really started to get to me. It was high noon at the Not OK Corral, but the lawman and the crook were both still breathing. The standoff had stood down. This couldn’t last, of course. But before the bullets, Vince Gilligan (and episode writer George Mastras) had to twist the knife. The phone call between Hank and Marie was cruel and unusual punishment. In the first season, these two were at best comic relief, at worst a purple-and-racism-streaked waste of time. But one of the many cumulative triumphs of this impeccably constructed series has been the way the Schraders have been revealed to be a truly loving — if highly specific — partnership. She pushes him. He pushes her buttons. But their devotion to each other is real and earned and palpable.
So to hear this phone call — him staring at his conquest, her staring at a pile of viscera in the trash can — was almost too much to bear. The whole thing was so fraught, so loaded, so downright McBain-ian in its foreshadowing finality that it inspired me to contribute this piece to the Grantland precap, about how our excitement about the Breaking Bad endgame may have overlooked how agonizing the end might actually be. (Next week’s episode is called “Ozymandias,” meaning it shares a title with a famous poem about a ruined king and a colossal wreck in the desert. You do the math.)
Look, I was shaking my head in admiration even as I was shaking it in disbelief. It was a particularly ingenious bit of plotting to allow Hank his victory in this way. It gave the show a chance to have its cake and eat hot lead too. But god, it was rough. It’s easy to sit here and mock Walt for wanting to walk away from a murderous trade without any blood on his hands. But on some level that’s no different from what I wanted, in that weak-kneed moment, from Breaking Bad. To wit, here are my notes, unedited, taken as I watched the phone call for the first time:
“Things gonna be a little rough for the next couple weeks but they’ll get better.”
PLEASE don’t do this!!!!!
“I’m much better now”
I gotta go, may be awhile before I get home
I love you.
I love you too.
Wait, I’m getting worked up again. I can hear the silence that announced the arrival of Uncle Jack and his unmerry men and it’s taking me right back. My stomach is imitating Chekhov’s — Chekhov’s! — in Badger’s Star Trek script, post-transporter mishap. So let’s interrupt the inevitable by rewinding a bit. There was plenty about this episode to love, some of which I didn’t even need to watch from between my fingers. The strange, lovesick politeness of Todd as he runs his fingers over Lydia’s lingering lipstick stain. The brilliant soft-rock choices sprinkled through the opening — “She Blinded Me With Science” as a ringtone; “Oh Sherrie” playing just before that — that functioned like white (very white) noise, masking the deathly quiet still to come. Skyler teaching Walter Jr. the importance of branding at the car wash, just moments after we heard, yet again, the importance of the blue color in the meth. Hank and Jesse’s double whammy of successful bluffs. Saul unraveling beneath his well-maintained billboard. That so much should come down to Huell.
Oh, and then there was the surprise return of Andrea and Brock. This was a terrifying bit of misdirection, one that caused me to forget nearly all the breakfast jokes I had planned for the week. (Although I’d like to think Walt never actually felt remorse over poisoning the kid until he saw him shoveling in Froot Loops like they contained the antidote. Something something cereal killer.) I like to credit Gilligan for the way no characters are ever wasted (again, look at how much hinged on Huell!), but Andrea and Brock’s presence here made me look at it a different way: No one touched by Walter White remains unmarked. It would have been awful if Hank hadn’t intercepted Andrea’s call and the Nazi bloodbath had been served up to her front door. But it wouldn’t have been all that surprising.
When the final shootout actually did arrive, well, that wasn’t so surprising, either. Just like the last time gunmen came for Hank, someone tried to give him at least a minute to prepare. But what good’s a minute, after all these years? Or in the face of all those guns? The camera pushed violently into the faces of all the characters: Walt screaming at Jack to stop, Jack showing no intention of stopping. (This wasn’t justice as Agent Schrader intended it, but it was poetic for Walt: forced to watch, powerlessly, as his own worst-laid plans exploded in front of him.) Hank not flinching. Jesse ever so slowly unlocking the passenger-side door …
And then it was quiet again. So, so quiet. As the sound stopped and the trigger fingers itched, MacLaren built a buzz saw of tension and agony out of nothing but images and quick cuts. She’s the most kinetic, expressionistic director of action I’ve seen since Kathryn Bigelow — that they both are women may be a coincidence, but it’s an awesome one. If Alan Taylor can parlay a few episodes of Game of Thrones into a new career as Hollywood’s go-to guy for big-budget spectacle, then MacLaren should be turning down those scripts before he even sees them. It seems unfair that someone else should have the honor of finishing a firefight she started — though Rian Johnson, arguably the show’s second-best director, is a pretty good backup plan — but cutting to black, mid–heart attack, is actually a pretty appropriate way for MacLaren to go out.
Breaking Bad has never shied away from cliff-hangers, of course, but this was something else. This was a fingernail scrabbling for purchase on a sheer drop. We don’t know for a fact that Hank and Gomez are dead, that Walt is now a prisoner of Uncle Jack, cooking meth to keep the same thing from happening to his goose. But we don’t not know it, either. One of the things that everyone loves so much about Breaking Bad is the way it doesn’t make us wait too long for the things it promises; instead of stalling, it sends the biggest scenes hurtling at us with the subtlety and velocity of a freight train: Hank finding out the truth in one episode, Hank punching Walt in the face an hour later.
But what about the scenes we don’t want? The deaths of old friends. The ruination of lives. And, worst of all, the final showing of cards. There are only three episodes left now, and with every one of them that airs there is less and less uncertainty for Heisenberg and his family. That means less to dread, sure, but in Breaking Bad terms that just means there is less to look forward to.
No. Just this once, I’m grateful for ignorance. Better to take a moment out in the desert, in To'hajiilee. Better to live in this gaping, hideous silence. Because it beats the hell out of the alternative.