I wonder if Vince Gilligan and his merry band of "Breaking Bad" writers ever fully comprehended the enormous impact that their tantalizing flash-forward would have on the way fans process the show this final season. You know what I'm talking about: The scene featuring Walt with the ricin and the machine gun in the trunk.
That single brief sequence has touched off an avalanche of theories as to how the show's end game will play out. It got people talking. But it also dramatically changed the way we watch the show.
To wit: During tonight's episode, "To'hajiilee," Walt appeared to be in an absolute impossible situation out there in the desert before the "cavalry" arrived. But because we'd seen the flash-forward, we knew that this was not the end for him. We knew he would again somehow pull a Houdini and squirm his way out of this one.
Consequently, the scenes were robbed of some dramatic oomph. On the other hand, they were enhanced by a sense of suspense -- one that had us guessing right up to the end and into next Sunday.
After Hank handcuffed Walt and read him his rights, I found myself wondering HOW he was going to get out of this. Would Jesse suddenly have a change of heart and help Walt escape? (The way director Michelle MacLaren drew out the scene and kept delivering tight, tense close-ups of Jesse's face seemed to hint at the possibility).
Or would Walt somehow wriggle loose during the drive out of the desert, knock out Hank and flee? (The decision by Hank to have Gomez and Jesse stay behind and drive Hank alone is what fueled this possibility).
I even found myself wondering if Hank would, indeed, get thrown in the slammer and then eventually get out of there (with some sly negotiating from Saul). It's an example of how "Breaking Bad" is always playing head games with you. Always keeping you on edge.
Of course, I'm sure some viewers caught on right way to what, in hindsight, was the obvious option: That Todd's uncle would ignore (or not understand) Walt's order to back off and arrive on the scene anyway to ignite total chaos.
And now "Breaking Bad," with this tantalizing cliffhanger, has done what all good thrillers do by provoking a whole new set of questions: Primarily, how many casualties will this audacious hailstorm of bullets produce? Are we about to say good-bye to Hank and/or Jesse? ... And when the dust settles, what frame of mind is Walt going to be in? Will he follow through on his promise to do one final cook for Lydia and her crew? And then, will he eventually unleash that machine gun on those neo-Nazi scuzzballs?
Before the epic, jaw-dropping desert shootout went down, the primary talking point of this episode figured to be Hank's two brilliant phone-camera tricks. First, with the help of some gooey red meat doctored to look like brain matter, he had Huell believing that Walt had killed Jesse (and that Huell was next). Then, with the aid of a barrel bought at Home Depot, he had Walt convinced that Jesse had discovered the buried money and was intent on burning it.
Props to whoever came up with these twists (George Mastras penned the episode). Not only were they clever in and of themselves, they represented a dramatic turning-of-the-tables between Hank and Walt. After being outsmarted and basically punk'd by his brother-in-law at every turn, it was if a light bulb suddenly turned on for Hank.
He at last realized that, in order to beat Walt, you have to shift strategy and play the game like Walt. You have to fabricate and lie and con and spew BS. You have to become an actor. And it was exhilarating -- and shocking -- to see Hank grab the upper hand for once, while Walt flailed away in desperation and utter disbelief. He simply did not see these moves coming.
Of course, it now looks like Hank's advantage might be short-lived -- ironically not because of any brilliant strategy on Walt's part, but because Uncle Jack and his cold-blooded gunmen Walt didn't want on the scene decided to show up anyway.
As Jesse pointed out last week, Heisenberg is not only smart, he's very, very lucky.
Some random thoughts:
-- To'hajiilee, we've learned, is the name of a Navajo reservation in New Mexico. It's where Walt and Jesse had their first cookout and, obviously, where Walt buried his money.
-- How cold (and subservient) is Todd? When Walt called and told him the target for the hit was Jesse, he didn't bat an eye. What a bastard!
-- I'm a big sports fan, but a cautious one. I never gloat or brag before a game is completely in hand. Even if my team is ahead by two touchdowns with a minute to go, I keep my mouth shut. So I was incredibly edgy when Hank did some trash-talking to a handcuffed Walt. And even edgier when he called Marie to crow. I just KNEW something bad was about to happen.
-- I've also seen too many TV shows in which an "I-love-you" call to a spouse (Hank/Marie) portends doom. So I'm convinced Hank is a goner. Then again, "Breaking Bad" rarely follows TV form.
-- The scenes of Walt and Brock in the same room were so appropriately awkward. Brock seemed to know that this guy did something very bad to him.
-- Jesse spitting in Walt's face? Wow. There's no going back now.
-- Who knew Todd had a thing for Lydia?