(Episode Ruining Spoilers Abound!)

“I won.”~ Walter White

“I do this.” ~Gustavo Fring

It’s been well over 12 hours since I finished the flawless season finale of Breaking Bad. The emotions, shock, and general awe are still so strong that I almost feel ill-equipped to write a review of the episode. Every time I try to turn my mind back on the stunning events of the episode and the closure and resolution that has been coming for years now, two moments spring immediately to mind and recolor the entire nature of the season/series for me. The two quotes topping the page (and by proxy the events surrounding them) are going to be burned in my brain for months to come. With a season finale that was so perfect and fulfilling that I nearly wish it was the series finale, Breaking Bad has officially overtaken Game of Thrones as the best series of 2011. At around the half-way mark of the season, the show flipped a switch and went into plot momentum hyper-drive, and for everyone who thought there was no way for the series to top itself after the last series of episodes, allow me to simply say, you were wrong.

After the failed attempts last week to blow up Gus’s car, Walt and Jesse find themselves scrambling for a plan to take Gus out once and for all. After Walt carries his improvised bomb into the pediatric wing of the hospital to grill Jesse about what could have gone wrong, cops show up to whisk Jesse away and interrogate him about why he thought Brock was poisoned with ricin, and this is where Jesse spends most of the episode. Walt is forced into action and has to break into his own house which is being watched by Gus’s goons to grab money to pay off Saul’s secretary so he can get ahold of Saul and get Jesse out of jail. In order to break into his house, Walt first sends one of his neighbor’s in just to make sure the house isn’t a trap (which it was) and this marks Walt’s first big evil move of the episode. It will not be his last. After Saul gets Jesse out of police custody, Jesse is immediately kidnapped by Gus’s goons and driven back to the superlab to cook. However, Saul is able to get one juicy bit of info out of Jesse before Jesse leaves and it is what allows Walt to send Gus’s whole empire to a literally explosive end.

Jesse is able to relay the story of Gus Fring visiting Hector Salamanca after returning from Mexico to torture Hector with the news of the destruction of the cartel. The little gears in Walt’s head start spinning into motion and he pays Hector a visit and devises his plan to get rid of Gus once and for all. Hector heads to the DEA and asks to speak to Hank Schraeder in person. He has no plans on telling Hank anything. He just wants to get Gus’s attention and force Gus to visit Hector. Gus shows up and despite offerings from Tyrus to handle this himself, Gus says “I do this!” and walks to murder Hector at the nursing home. After taunting Hector one last time, Gus is preparing to poison Hector when he suddenly realizes the plan which is that the car bomb is strapped to Hector’s wheelchair. Hector blows himself up and kills Gus and Tyrus in the process and the audience is “gifted” with a shot of  Gus walking from the explosion, straightening his tie, and then falling over when we see that he now only has half a face. Two-Face in The Dark Knight didn’t even look that gross. So, using a suicide bomber in a nursing home is evil move number two. Once again, it’s not his last. After hearing of Gus’s death, Walt races to the super lab to rescue Jesse and kills Jesse’s guards in the process. Jesse and Walt methodically destroy and blow up the super lab, at which point they return to the hospital. Jesse informs Walt that Brock is going to live and that it wasn’t ricen poisoning, but berries from a plant called Lily of the Valley. Walt and Jesse shake hands as partners once again. Walt calls Skylar and tells her “he won” in his most chilling Heisenberg persona yet, and at the episode’s end, we see Walt’s backyard and the camera stops on a Lily of the Valley plant and implies that it wasn’t Gus that poisoned Brock but rather Walt. I am the one who knocks indeed.

From day one, series creator Vince Gilligan has said this series has been about one man’s transformation from Mr. Chips to Scarface. More than any other season (though we’d seen flashes of it in the past), Walt had embraced the dark side of his personality. He had become more Heisenberg and less Walter White. There were moments when he would retreat to being Walter, moments when he felt he was in too deep and couldn’t win, but whenever there was the slightest glimmer of hope that he could still come out on top, he would switch right into Heisenberg. After the big reveal of Walter poisoning Brock and the terrifying way he uttered “I won,” the audience almost has to wonder if he hadn’t been Heisenberg all along and was simply pretending to be the old, terrified, moral Walter. Whatever questions you may have about his motives all season and where this transformation finally occurred, I think we can all agree that after “Face Off” (an incredibly hilarious title in retrospect) Walter White has ceased to be. He is no more. There is now only Heisenberg, and woe is he who gets in his way.

Much like No Country for Old Men, Breaking Bad is one of the foremost examples of the burgeoning neo-Western genre where many classic American Western narrative conventions are updated and revised to be placed in a modern setting. “Face Off” is easily one of the most striking examples of the Western themes of the show being used for obvious dramatic effect. The scene where Gus is in his car and declares “I do this!” before being shot (by the camera, not a gun) from behind as he walks to the nursing home is accompanied by music that could have come straight out of a spaghetti western, and all I could think of the entire time was High Noon. In fact, the level of tension and suspense that permeated every second of that classic Western was at work in this episode, but instead of wondering when our hero would die (who lived to the end of High Noon), we sat on pins wondering when Gus was finally going to be forced to face the music (and ultimately make Harvey Dent look like a beauty queen). I’m really going to miss Giancarlo Esposito’s presence on the series as he has easily become one of my favorite TV villains of all time.

This has perhaps been one of the most consistently great seasons of television since Season 4 of The Wire (which longtime views will know I hold as the single greatest work of fiction ever). Even when the season was a little slow at the beginning, it was laying the foundations and placing the pieces of the puzzle that allowed the back half of the season to be so explosive. While I always enjoyed Breaking Bad, it always pained me to admit that it was a great show that had the potential to be a master piece. This season I don’t have to make that distinction any more. This season was simply put the definition of what stellar television looks like. It never missed a beat. It rewarded patient, diligent viewers with a morally ambiguous and sweeping tale of greed, pride, and brilliant criminals. The episode ended with just the right amount of closure mixed with possible story hooks that I still wish this was the way the series ended. No matter what next season’s final conflict is, whether it’s Walt vs. Jesse (cause Jesse has to find out about Jane and Brock one of these days) or Walt vs. Hank (that old war horse isn’t done investigating yet), neither of these battles will have the same ruthless intensity of Gus vs. Walt. This was a season of TV for the ages and a battle of wills for the ages. Both will be sorely missed.

Final Score: A+