At this point in its run, it’s plain that there is no better-made show around than Breaking Bad. In terms of its distinctive visual universe, its brilliant performances, its clever, tricksy editing, and its remarkably inventive use of music and original scoring, nothing else on TV is half as cinematic, immediately distinguishable, or aesthetically sumptuous. Every episode drips with atmosphere, crackles with memorable bits of dialogue and characterization, and is rich in both specificity and scope. Its place in the medium’s history is assured.
So why does “Gliding Over All,” the mid-season finale of the show’s final run, feel so strangely airless and disappointing? To figure that out, perhaps the most useful first step is to look back.
For me, the show’s third season remains its apex; it found Vince Gilligan and his writing staff hurtling from one seemingly impossible cliffhanger to another, moving with the most propulsive power the show’s ever had, all while introducing stellar new characters and building each new plot and character thread logically – but, crucially, unpredictably – while also striking a perfect balance between horror and humor. Season Four scaled back its predecessor’s chaotic approach, favoring a very, very slow burn that culminated in some of the deftest plot twists the show has ever employed.
As discussed last week, though, Season Five faces a burden the show hasn’t had to as of yet: it’s all gotta end somewhere. The show can’t escalate much more than it already has; by the midway point of “Gliding Over All,” Heisenberg has officially gone global, expanding to the Czech Republic with the help of Lydia (who seems much more together all of a sudden, no?), not to mention accumulating a stack of money so ludicrous you can almost picture Heath Ledger gleefully setting fire to it. It can’t keep throwing pulse-quickening scenes of Walt-and-Jesse-threatening tension at us, now that the particulars of the business are so thoroughly worked out, all competition has apparently been vanquished or otherwise nullified, and the partnership is no more. Should it follow the path of least resistance, all it can do is gradually dole out the showdowns that need to finally occur.
“Gliding Over All” would seem to indicate that Gilligan and co. are playing the long game much more safely than the previous two seasons have. The episode’s closing sequence is a perfect example of the show’s evolution. It opens with a wide, static shot of Hank, Marie, Walt, Skyler and the kids enjoying a placid get-together, of the sort they frequently had a couple of seasons ago. The sheer banality of the dialogue, combined with the scene’s late-episode placement and the stubbornly un-dynamic camera, makes for a minute or two of incredibly unsettling television. Then…Hank leaves to use the White restroom, and immediately, it becomes clear what must happen: one way or another, Hank must discover the truth. Which he does, by discovering an incriminating inscription on Walt’s copy of a Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass.
First of all: really? Hank uncovers the Great Secret of Walter White via a particularly head-smacking bit of dumb luck? And Walt is dumb enough to leave something signed by Gale – even if it’s only initialed – in plain sight when Hank is at the house almost literally all of the time? Nevermind that. What’s frustrating about this development isn’t just that it feels like an obligatory development, but that it happens in a way that isn’t at all connected to anything that’s happened in the last season and a half. Every single one of Walt’s plans – from the destruction of evidence, to the methylamine heist, to this week’s (admittedly spectacular in its grimness) mass murdering of potential squealers – has gone off without any hitches that could lead back to him, with the exception of the swiftly-dealt-with loose ends from the first instance. For all that meticulous planning and ruthless cunning – the latest and greatest of which is predicated on Todd’s extraordinary prison connections, which feel awfully convenient all of a sudden – Walt leaves a spectacularly obvious bit of evidence lying around? That crosses over from hubris into the sort of straight-up sloppiness that does not currently characterize Walt, but more frustratingly, it doesn’t feel like a development that’s tied in any way to the events of this season or last. It could have happened at any time, thus countering one of the show’s most important resources: the way it manages to advance its master plot in ways that are both symbolically powerful and directly contingent on what’s come before. (Another squandering: Skyler. Her horror-then-flight-then-resumption narrative over the half-season has been incredibly disappointing and tension-dissipating.)
Moreover, it reinforces the feeling that, increasingly, the options for where the show can go from here are finally narrowing rather than expanding. Though it’s the last season, that’s not a good development for a show that’s always been predicated on unpredictability. Obviously, Hank doesn’t just walk out of that bathroom and arrest (or shoot!) Walt for his many crimes against humanity; he’ll need to be more deliberate. Perhaps he’ll flip Skyler. Maybe he’ll form a surveillance unit to firm up some hard evidence. Maybe he’ll just be content with having the answer and go back to tree-marking. The possibilities were never endless, but they now feel narrower than ever, and if they continue to play out in as arbitrary a fashion as they do in “Gliding Over All,” the show risks going out with a whimper. That’s not something that should befall a show this frequently brilliant. In this episode alone: the reappearance of the Fly of Doom; Hank’s sad, stunning monologue; the aforementioned montage of gory shivvings; the obvious-but-satisfying deployment of “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” The list goes on, and will continue to go on. But it may not be enough to make the show’s endgame rank with the greats.