"I'm just not the man I thought I was." -HankUm...
Sorry, just need another minute to pick my jaw up off the floor after that.
What an incredible, bananas finish to the strongest episode yet of this third season. As written by "Breaking Bad" newcomer Thomas Schnauz (another of many "X-Files" vets Vince Gilligan has brought in) and directed by Michelle MacLaren (who joined the staff full-time after last season's gorgeous "4 Days Out"), the parking lot climax was a perfect model of suspense filmmaking. We'd already been primed all episode to fear that the Cousins could hit Hank at any moment (every time the elevator doors opened, I know I gripped my armrest), but then to have someone(*) warn Hank ahead of time kicked things up several levels. Suddenly, we and Hank were in the same mindset, looking around every corner, jumping at shadows (and/or men with squeegees), waiting for the two men to come and wondering if an unarmed Hank possibly had a chance against those two unrelenting figures of death.
(*) So, is there anyone it could have been other than Gus? Gus clearly wanted the Cousins the hell out of his territory, and I can see him warning Hank in the hopes that he might be lucky enough to take them out - or, at least, to bloody them enough that they'd have to re-cross the border in a hurry rather than hanging around in the hopes of also killing Walt. Other than Mike making the call on Gus's behalf, there doesn't seem to be a character in a position to know or do anything about the planned hit. For that matter, I'm not sure how even Gus would have known that Hank had roughly a minute to act, but I'll accept that he could for the sake of what that call added to the scene.
In many ways, the parking lot shootout evoked the failed hit on Tony Soprano from the end of "Sopranos" season one, down to the use of an SUV as a weapon. But I'd argue this scene one-upped that. Violence on "The Sopranos" always had something of a black comic tinge to it (the lead-up to the hit is Tony wandering around in a depressed stupor, and the hitmen were introduced in a scene played for laughs because of Uncle Junior hiding in the back of a car), and these guys didn't have the kind of mythical build-up the Cousins got. And on top of that, Tony Soprano was the star of the show, and it wouldn't work with him dead, whereas "Breaking Bad" would miss Hank but could easily continue without him. So the danger was far more real even without the Cousin factor.
In the end, though Hank is tough and resourceful, he won the only way anyone could against these two: through luck. He was warned in advance and was still in his car. Leonel's(**) gun also happened to fall right where Hank could reach it, and Marco conveniently had an extra, special bullet in his jacket pocket courtesy of the friendly gun dealer, and the duo's flair for the dramatic gave Hank just enough time to find the bullet on the ground and load it and shoot out the back of Marco's skull before the shiny ax could finish its backswing.
(**) Nice of the show to finally give the Cousins names - and a backstory - right before Hank killed one and either crippled or killed the other. The flashback with a middle-aged Tio at the height of his powers was chilling in its portrait of the culture those two grew up in. With Don Salamanca as the dominant male in their lives, and giving them "lessons" like that one, is there any wonder how they grew up to be these two unflappable killing machines? Note also that Leonel, the one who as a boy cries over Marco's destruction of his toy, is the one who's now hardcore enough to tell the other to finish the job rather than staying to help him. Tio made him that way.
But here's the thing: even without those crazy final minutes, "One Minute" still would have been one of the best "Breaking Bad"s to date.
What an amazing showcase for both Aaron Paul (who seems a lock to repeat his Emmy nomination next year, and possibly to win it if he submits this episode) and Dean Norris (who sure deserves to join Paul, but may not in what's always a crowded category).
Hank's beatdown of Jesse brings both men to a crossroads. Having lost his girlfriend, his partner, and now his source of income in the RV, Jesse finally tumbles over the abyss after Hank puts him in the hospital. Acting with half his face hidden by some really convincing prosthetics, Paul showed us a Jesse even colder and angrier than he was in his "I'm the bad guy" phase earlier this season, giving a riveting monologue(***) about all the ways he intended to punish Hank - and the way he'd drag Walt down with him if the DEA came after him.
(***) If the parking lot scene reminded me of "The Sopranos," Jesse's speech was like a more controlled version of Al Capone's speech from "The Untouchables" about what he wanted done to Elliott Ness.
But when Walt returns to Jesse's hospital room later in the episode to try to save his former brother-in-law, Jesse's evil calm is replaced by raw, unbridled pain, as he unloads on Walt with the laundry list of all the ways his life has gotten worse since Mr. White came back into his life. These are words Walt has needed to hear for a long time now - to have someone he can't tune out explain how toxic he's become to everyone in his life - and it's to Walt's credit that he already seemed aware of this after first seeing Jesse's ruined face. When he chews out Gale for screwing up the temperature, it comes in part from his need to feel superior to others (he does this shortly after Gale starts working two steps ahead of him), but also clearly out of guilt for what he saw happen to his previous lab assistant. Walt is a monster, but there's enough humanity left in him to recognize the pain he's caused, and the debts he owes, and so he manages to talk Gus(****) into letting him fire Gale and bring Jesse into the Walt-cave.
(****) And Gus's willingness to go along with that plan torpedoes my theory that he was using Gale to appropriate Walt's methods and then say goodbye to the loose cannon. It's entirely possible he still has that in mind (maybe the Walt-cave is tricked out with surveillance gear?), but could Gus have far grander plans for Walt that extend past the initial three month agreement?
And in the wake of putting Jesse in the hospital and his own career on life-support, Hank finally lets himself open up to Marie. Getting back to my fear of the elevator doors, when Hank got on the elevator the first time with Marie, I was expecting Cousins and was then floored to see husband and wife sobbing in each other's arms (and amused to see them completely composed by the time the doors opened on the ground floor, because there are some things Hank Schrader will not show the world). Even better than that scene, though, was Hank getting ready for his hearing with OPR, where he talked about his PTSD (in terms he could use), and about how much he's been struggling since he killed Tuco.
So here's what I wonder: the shootout with Tuco is what started Hank down this mentally unhealthy road, and the exploding turtle made things worse, but he finally seemed to be at peace by the time he left the DEA field office, knowing he'd probably lost his job but wouldn't go to jail. Now that he's barely survived a horrific ordeal, seen more people killed in front of him (and because of him) and killed one or two more himself, what happens? Does Hank's psyche shut down on him again, or does knowing he overcame two unbelievable bad-asses give him a new sense of invulnerability? And will this give him a road back into the DEA? Surely, the Cousins are in a law-enforcement database somewhere, and the man who took them out is about to become a legend - and someone who perhaps might be put back on the trail of Heisenberg.
It certainly makes sense for the show to have Walt being pursued by a (former) family member, but how will Hank (and Marie) cope with being thrust back into this violent world right when it looked like he was out for good? And now that Hank has taken out three members of the Salamanca family, will the cartel be even hotter for his blood, or might they want to stay far away from the brewer of Schraderbrau?
Damn, damn, damn that was good.
Some other thoughts:
• Of course the only thing Walt could tell Jesse to heal their rift was that his meth was good. That was all Jesse wanted to hear when he showed the stuff to Walt in the high school parking lot - really, it's all he's wanted to hear from the guy since the partnership began. Jesse (whose parents have cast him out) needs a surrogate father even more than Walt (who has a good relationship with Walter Jr.) needs a surrogate son.
• As Hank beat on Jesse and asked how Jesse knew his cell phone number and wife's name, I began to worry that Walt took things too far with that gambit. I understand why Hank has blinders on about Walt, but sooner or later, he has to make the math work, doesn't he?
• Note that the Tio/Cousins flashback also included Tio on the phone discussing the start of the cartel's business relationship with Gus, whom Tio dismissively refers to as "The Chicken Man."
• Saul had a few good funny lines at Jesse's expense (comparing him to Rocky, then Ringo), but the scene in the hallway - shot, appropriately, in half-darkness - where he started preparing Walt for the idea of killing Jesse was a reminder that this guy is not a joke.
• Hands up: who would be happy to go to their local supermarket and buy a "Breaking Bad" brand pre-made PB&J sandwich, cut up Walt-style?
• A few years back I was in a car accident where I broke several ribs, and I am very familiar with that pain assessment chart. After Jesse's half-face stared at it, I may never think of that thing the same way again.
Finally, in case you've missed the news, this is the last "Breaking Bad" review I'll be doing before I relocate to HitFix.com. I'll still be reviewing every episode here the exact way I did here, so just change your bookmarks accordingly.
What did everybody else think?