I’m almost at a loss on how to begin this review. We’re down to two episodes left of the fourth and penultimate season of the nearly peerless Breaking Bad, and Vince Gilligan and co. just threw a curveball at me that is so extreme, it’s the sort of thing I’d expect the show to end on. This season of Breaking Bad has not simply kicked into high gear, but it’s turned on the rocket boosters and shot out of the atmosphere. For the last couple of episodes, the ante has slowly but surely increased and moments of explosive drama have  trickled in, but tonight says all bets are off. We may have a 16 episode final season to hold us over after our last two episodes this year end, but I have no clue how the show has any material left. Last night’s episode seemingly put all of the chips in the table and the show has gone all in (to steal Walt’s gambling story), and we are set for moments of resolution that the series has been working towards since the pilot. It’s game time.

All of the various subplots of the season finally come to a crashing head in this, the finest episode of the finest season of the show. After the shoot-out and poisoning that Mike and Gus suffered at the cartel mansion, the episode’s cold open finds Jesse rushing Gus and Mike to a make-shift hospital in the Mexican desert where Gus and Mike are saved, but Mike is too injured to leave for now and so Jesse and Gus leave him behind as they return to America. Gus triumphantly walks into Hector Salamanca’s nursing home and taunts the mute, old man with the medallion of Don Eladio as well as parading Jesse in front of him as the man who killed his grandson. The Ted problem takes on unforeseen proportions when (after he refuses to use Skylar’s money to pay off his back-taxes) Skylar sends Saul’s heavies to convince Ted to pay his taxes, but Ted tries to escape, trips on a rug, and dies. The situation with Hank’s investigation into Gus is spiraling as well when Hank tries to stake out the laundry and Walt has to crash his car in order to prevent that from happening. Walt realizes that Gus can now cook with Jesse and doesn’t need him anymore (although Jesse has ordered Gus not to kill Walt), and he is spiraling himself into fear and paranoia. Finally, Gus drags Walt out to the desert and offers him an ultimatum which is to stay away from Jesse and the lab because he is fired and to also not interfere in an assassination attempt on Hank who has become too much of a problem. Gus tells Walt that if he interferes, Gus will murder Walt’s entire family. Walt decides to vanish using one of Saul’s guys and has Saul call the DEA to protect Hank, but when he arrives home, he suddenly learns that Skylar has spent the last of his money on Ted and now it’s too late to save himself or his family at which point Walt’s mind basically snaps.

Let’s talk about that final scene for a moment. That is the kind of way you end a season of TV and the perfect shot of Walter screaming/sobbing/laughing like a psycho framed within the door of the crawlspace reminded me perfectly of the shot of Jack and Locke’s face as they looked down the hatch on Lost. If this is the way you end episodes when you still have two episodes to go, I can’t even begin to imagine how this season is going to end. Literally, the only way they can top a moment like this would be with the death of a major character like Jesse or Walt (which I don’t see happening). I thought Bryan Cranston’s Emmy tape was going to be his monologue with Walter Jr. last week but I may be wrong as that scene in the crawlspace showed him displaying such a wide and passionate array of emotions in mere seconds. It was an animalistic transformation that was chills-inducing and terrifying beyond anything I’ve seen him deliver. Bryan Cranston is arguably the greatest leading man in the history of the television. He’s that good.

I’m glad the Ted Beneke subplot has been resolved and I appreciate the way the show managed to bring it full circle with the over-arching story of the entire season. At first, I thought this whole story was just to give Skylar something to do other than be a mini-Carmela Soprano, but now I see the way the series is forcing Skylar to reap the karmic revenge that she has sown through her moral backslide. Walt got into the drug business to protect his family, but now all he’s managed to do is endanger their lives and drag them into the same pit of corruption and greed where he finds himself. Walt is able to commit one selfless act this episode which is to try and save Hank’s life, but much of the selflessness of that act is balanced out by the fact that he thought he was going to walk away from it unscathed as well as knowing his days as a meth cook for Gustavo Fring were finally over. It’s easy to see why Walter’s mind has finally broken under the pressure and realization that he’s backed himself into a seemingly inescapable corner.

One last thought before I draw this review to a close. That shot in the desert where Gus is delivering his ultimatum to Walt and the cloud passes over and the shadows slowly rolls over the scene was beautiful. It just continued to show how great the cinematography on this show can be as well as the crawl-space shots. As to thoughts to hold me over til next week, I am at a complete loss on how this show will have enough material to continue on into another season. Unlike season’s past, the way out of their situations was semi-clear, and the fun came from watching Walter’s genius mind figure out his escape. I have no clue how he or his family will still be alive by season’s end with let alone enough material for there to be a 16 episode final season. Breaking Bad has matured this season into being simply one of the best programs around, and I will be there with bated breath for its explosive final moments.

Episode Score: A