Critic's Notebook: Bad, Blood and the Tonys
Devastating to the last shot: That was AMC's Breaking Bad this remarkable season. Sunday's season finale didn't so much wrap things up as trap our anti-heroes in a terrifying no-exit vortex that forces Walt to force Jesse to cross the final line of no return—to commit cold-blooded murder to save their skins.
No half measures for this series, ever. And harking back to the brilliant "Fly" episode, the contamination (moral) is now complete.
You may wonder if murdering Gale, the heir apparent milquetoast chemist who kingpin Gus has lined up to replace Walt, is really such a leap for Jesse. After all, he was prepared to take down the drug dealers last week in what looked to be a suicide mission—until Walt intervened with his car, mowing them down as they drew down on his partner in crime. But in that situation, Jesse was operating under what he saw as a moral code, avenging not only his buddy's death but also the terrible betrayal of his uneasy truce with Gus, who pledged using "no more children" in his drug trade but in so doing initiated the execution of young drug mule Tomas.
In one of the darker ironies of this gripping, unrelenting season, Walt had tried to rationalize with Jesse in last week's episode, "Murder is not part of your 12-step program." How quickly things change, after you've killed two of Gus's dealers and sent Jesse into hiding, prompting this chilling rebuke from Gus: "Has your condition worsened? No rational person would do as you have done." With Gale brought back to the lab to learn from the master, under armed surveillance from Gus's goon Victor, Walt knows his days as chief cook are numbered, and his secret meeting with Jesse (engineered by Saul in the Laser Tag facility) is fraught with emotional tension.
"Production cannot stop," Walt says, pointing out the one certainty where Gus's mass-production meth operation is concerned. And if Walt is the only chemist left standing, he'll still have leverage. Doing the math, if it's Walt-and-Jesse vs. Gale, Gale's got to go. But Jesse chokes. "I can't do it, Mr. White," he balks, although he agrees to help find Gale. Kind of hard to ignore a plea that goes: "I saved your life, Jesse. Are you going to save mine?"
Pure terror describes the scene in which Walt, en route to kill Gale, is intercepted by Victor and taken to the lab after hours, where Mike the implacable fixer plans to carry out Gus's orders. (Jonathan Banks is the epitome of deadly cool as Mike, and what an incredible moment when, in an earlier scene, he takes out one of the cartel stooges by shooting him through a wall.) "I'll cook for free," Walt begs for his life, offering to give up Jesse—although he uses the phone call to Jesse to spur him to action, desperately sending Jesse to Gale's apartment before any of Gus's crew can get there.
And that's where we leave it, with Jesse pulling a gun on Gale, who cowers and cries, "You don't have to do this." But in this case, he does. And the camera brilliantly shifts so Jesse's gun goes off right in our face, implicating us in this cold kill.
We saw very little of anyone else in this intense episode, but with Walt's wife Skyler now intimately involved in the money-laundering scheme, to provide for the wounded Hank (who's going to wake up from rehab at some point and demand answers), the bar has been raised for Season 4 while laying the groundwork for a number of instantly compelling stories. This is the best kind of cliffhanger: Not posing some contrived who'll live/who'll die scenario but leaving our characters in a moral quicksand from which we can't imagine how anyone can escape intact.
At the other extreme of the escapist-TV spectrum from the heightened reality of Breaking Bad, Sunday night also gave us the return of HBO's ridiculously overripe True Blood, with its erotically supercharged supernatural melodramatics in full gear.
"Trouble abounds in your fair state," says the creepy Magister (the reliably sinister Zeljko Ivanek), and he's not kidding. While Sookie is frantically seeking Bill, who's been kidnapped by a pack of joy-riding werewolves intent on draining him for his V juice en route to Mississippi, most of the rest of Bon Temps is shaking off the occult hangover from last season's orgiastic excesses.
It's all pretty well summed up by Arlene, who tells the grieving Tara, "I'm sorry you fell in love with a serial killer, all right? But honestly, who here hasn't?"
Meanwhile, we see A LOT of Eric, the ultimate bad-boy vamp, shamelessly flirting with Sookie ("Is Bill's stamina not up to snuff?") when she interrupts his rough sex with an Estonian newbie, and later lying about Bill's absence to the desperate Queen as we learn that hell hath no fury like a vampire queen broke. And Sookie's shape-shifting boss Sam is busy tracking family in Arkansas, but even he's got vamps on the brain, indulging an incredibly homoerotic shower dream about Bill. (Those blood bonds are truly fierce.)
Funny, scary, sexy, weird: True Blood is back with a vengeance, and it's finally starting to feel like summer.
Ironically, with all of the mayhem on display as Breaking Bad signed off and True Blood returned, the most violence on screen Sunday night may have been done to the Broadway musical in the technically inept broadcast of this year's Tony Awards. A lackluster year for new musicals was pretty much reflected in a show that came alive only sporadically (in Green Day's set during the opening hodgepodge and, later, in the original cast number from American Idiot, most notably). Sean Hayes was a versatile, self-effacing host, playing the keyboards in the opening number (like many throughout the night, plagued with inexcusable sound problems) and popping up in comical disguises including Annie and Spider Man—the latter, aping Lea Michele's belting reprise of her "Don't Rain on My Parade" Glee show-stopper, was especially inspired. It says a lot about this oddly eclectic and mostly forgettable Broadway season that the Glee performances by Michele and a breathlessly singing-dancing Matthew Morrison managed to upstage the Broadway status quo, which this year was closer to status woe—especially on a night when the theater community usually manages to put its best foot forward.
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