Spoilers for the "Breaking Bad" finale after the jump:
The end result of "Face Off" is something we've been expecting for quite some time. Gus Fring had to die if Walter White was to survive, and this incredible stretch run of episodes has only hastened the inevitable. Had this been the final season there would be some true suspense as to who would come out alive, but the one key rule for most television shows is that you can't kill your protagonist with another season still to come. (Large ensemble pieces without a true main character like "The Wire" and George R.R. Martin's "Song of Ice and Fire" are the exception.) So Gus Fring dying is not a big shocker, even if it didn't necessarily have to happen in this episode. However, many of the other events which occur in this finale definitely are: including one notable and somewhat controversial development we'll get to in a second.
As with last week's episode, it's the way all this happens that provides the element of surprise. Gus is so well-protected that for the longest time Walt can't figure out how to get to him. That is, until Jesse remembers accompanying Gus on one of his visits to Hector. This is another stellar example of "Breaking Bad" never forgetting anything in its past. Just about every seemingly minor thing eventually plays a role, and it's always rather thrilling to realize just how well Vince Gilligan and company remember this small details from earlier in the season (or sometimes even a season or more ago) and how skillfully they weave these details back into the main plot. (The fact that Gilligan insists most of this stuff is made up on the fly is even more remarkable.)
Walt banks on the fact that Hector hates Gus even more than he hates him, and he's right. Yet even after the plan is hatched, the actual details are kept hidden until pretty close to the last minute. When Hector goes to the DEA, my initial sense was that he was playing his own angle: trying to set Hank on the trail of Walt while at the same time conspiring with Walt to kill Gus. As it turns out... no. Instead, it's all a ploy to lure Gus out for one final, fateful visit: the result of which is one of the finest scenes I've seen the series do.
The music as Gus walks into the building is just completely perfect. It sounds like the kind that plays when a Western hero walks out to the climactic gunfight, not knowing if he'll return. This feels weridly appropriate given Gus's status as a nearly mythic character in this show's universe, as well as the fact that he's heading into a final showdown with his longtime enemy. Hector finally looks Gus in the eye, revealing the rage he's been suppressing for so long. And then he pushes that bell, again and again. For one instant, you had to think it might not work. Then... boom. Somehow, even this isn't enough to immediately kill Gus. He gets up and starts walking. Then he turns, and the meaning of the episode's title becomes suddenly clear. And for the last time this season, I'm forced to say: wow.
And finally we come to the episode's game-changing final shot. A lot of last week's reviews speculated that Walt could have been responsible for poisoning Brock. This seemed like a bit of a stretch to me at the time, and truthfully it still does. For starters, when did Walt have the chance to do it, considering he's been busy moving his family to Hank's and plotting a way to get to Gus? How could he be sure the boy would eat them? It all feels a bit too convenient, though it's definitely possible. And I guess it's not that much larger of a leap than Walt's explanation (which I completely bought) was. In short... didn't love it, but in terms of furthering Walt's moral descent I see why it had to be this way. As such, it also didn't bother me, and it certainly isn't enough to drop this superb hour down from a richly deserved A.
So, where do we go from here is the question. After Gus's death, I fully expected Walt and Jesse to take over the meth cooking operation. Instead, they blew up the lab: which I took as a sign that they're ready to wash their hands of the business for good. At the same time, though, Walt's attitude during that final phone call with Skyler leaves some doubt in my mind. His cancer may be back (we still don't know), and even if it isn't will he really leave behind such a lucrative opportunity? Maybe. Maybe not. What's crystal clear is that "Breaking Bad's" endgame is going to somehow revolve around the DEA's investigation of Gus Fring, since they now have confirmation that Hank's suspicions were right. How this leads back to Walt is a question for next season, and I'm sure it will answered with the usual mix of intensity and intelligence we've come to expect from this great series. See you then, "Breaking Bad" fans.
- Mike's still missing. At some point he has to come back, and it'll be interesting to see how he reacts to what's transpired in his absence. Alas... we've got a bit of a wait before that happens.
- Same goes for Jesse's troubles with the FBI after his statement about the ricin. This could also play a big role in the final batch of episodes.
- Walt getting extorted by Saul's secretary was rather hilarious. One of several terrific moments of humor in this episode.
- The other two that stood out: Marie saying that Hank wasn't going to be allowed to leave the house, followed by a quick cut to Hank interviewing Hector. And the interview itself, which consisted entirely of Hector spelling out obscenities.
- Had "Breaking Bad" wound up not getting renewed for those final 16 episodes (still hoping AMC decides not to split them up, although I realize that's unlikely), this episode actually would have made a very appropriate series finale. It doesn't feel truly "final", but like the endings of "Deadwood" and "Party Down" it offers enough resolution that I could have been happy with the show conlcuding here. Glad it's not, though.
Episode Grade: A
Season Grade: A