The second season of AMC's "Breaking Bad" wrapped up last night and, I must say, this show is evolving into one of TV's great dramas. When it debuted last year amid the writers' strike, it showed a lot of promise, but ended its first season before its ideas were really given a chance to flourish.
But this season, the saga of chemistry teacher turned drug dealer Walter White (the brilliant Bryan Cranston) and his junkie sidekick Jesse Pinkman (an equally amazing Aaron Paul) came full flower. Last season we saw Walt, diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, become a crystal meth manufacturer to help provide money for his family after his death. This season, Walt became more and more invested in his new "career" -- and increasingly ruthless. His relationship with the loyal but dense Jesse also became increasingly charged, leading up to the moment in last week's episode when Walt let Jesse's troublesome junkie girlfriend Jane (Krysten Ritter) die of an overdose. The moment has drawn a lot of comparisons to Tony Soprano's murder of his nephew Christopher in the famous "Kennedy and Heidi" episode of "The Sopranos" (though Walt's is mainly a murder of inaction). However, the episode -- and the Walt/Jesse dynamic -- reminded me in a way of another dark, departed drama, "The Shield." The relationship between Jesse and Walt is a lot like that between Vic Mackey and Shane Vendrell. Walt, like Vic, is convinced that what he is doing is for the best, and finds creative ways to keep his criminal activity hidden -- particularly from his wife. Jesse, like Shane, is more of loose cannon. Just as Shane told his wife Mara everything about his business, Jesse spills all his drug-dealing secrets to Jane. These are two men who, as Shane put it in his suicide note, "made each other into something worse than our individual selves."
At any rate, not only has "Breaking Bad" become a program that bears comparison to "The Sopranos," and "The Shield," it's also become a strong, must-see offering in its own right. Last night's finale episode, "ABQ," showed several turning points for its characters. Skylar finally bucked up and left Walt, after his "which cell phone?" slip lead her to investigate a bit deeper into her husband's activities. Jesse is finally getting clean (for now). Walt's cancer is officially on the run (though not gone for good). And, of course, we learned exactly what caused that charred teddy bear to be floating in Walt's swimming pool: a plane crash inadvertently caused by Jane's heart-broken air traffic controller dad.
Here are a few more of my thoughts on "ABQ."
* Let's start with the revelation about the source of the Great White Swimming Pool Massacre. I just don't know how I feel about it. On the one hand, I get that it's something of a sign; that this crash is evidence that Walt's drug-dealing business is costing the lives of more and more innocent people. I know that, without Walt and Jesse, Jane wouldn't have died and her dad wouldn't have been distracted and grief-stricken enough to let the plane crash happen. On the other hand, it just seems a little too poetic and coincidental to me. I mean, really: of all the places the planes could have collided, they crash over Walt's yard? It's a little much. And I felt a little ripped off that this was the payoff we'd been leading to all season. I expected something more directly related to Walt's business. I mean, I get what they were trying to do here. I'm just not sure how I feel about it. Thoughts?
* That said, the rest of the episode was full of spectacular moments. The scene with Walt venturing into the junkie flophouse to find Jesse was probably the most powerful one of the whole episode, if not the whole season. It's also the first time in a long time we've seen Walt behave somewhat admirably. Saul's fixer offers to go in for him, but Walt insists on doing it himself. He knows that he's the reason Jesse's in the flophouse, and he feels a responsibility to get him out. The horror, sadness and revulsion on Walt's face as he walks among the house's many junkies is just perfect. And the moment when he finds his partner is simply devastating. Cranston has been (deservedly) praised up and down for his genius work as Walter, but this scene proved yet again that Paul is more than a match for him. He plays so many notes, here -- guilt, shame, pain, drug-induced disorientation -- and doesn't miss a beat.
* By the way, the fixer who takes Walt to the flophouse (and covers up Walt and Jesse's involvement in Jane's overdose) was played by the great Jonathan Banks, who, to me, will always be the surly yet lovable Frank McPike from the classic crime drama "Wiseguy." I'm sure he'll be another great addition to the show's ever-expanding gallery of supporting characters.
* Speaking of which, how priceless was it that Gus the drug distributor was one of the local businessmen participating in the DEA fun run? I'm hoping we see more of Gus (and of Giancarlo Esposito's marvelous, restrained performance) next season. I'm dying to know what he thinks of the fact that Walt is the brother-in-law of a DEA agent.
* As previously mentioned, Cranston has been lauded so much for his work as Walt that there doesn't seem to be much more to say on the subject. But I have to mention his performance during the scene when Walt Jr./Flynn praises him effusively to the TV journalist reporting on the web site donations. Despite his praise, Walt knows he doesn't deserve to be commended as "decent" and a "good guy." He looks guilty, pained and miserable. Nice touch: a chipper Marie in the background, feverishly urging Walt to smile for the camera.
* The departure of Skylar and the family officially sets Walt up as a man with nothing to lose. The death of Jane essentially does the same for Jesse. So what are they going to do now?