If it came down to it, you know, gun to my head, or desert island and I can only take one episode of Breaking Bad, I think this would be it. It seems like half the episodes would be on my top five list (the show is just too good), but if we are talking absolute favorite, not one of, not a handful of choices, well, “Full Measure” is in first place.
I’m not exactly sure what it says about my psychology or twisted mind that I love this episode so much, an episode where the sweetest, most innocent (aside from being a meth cook) character gets shot in the face. But I love this one like no other.
Let’s talk filming before plot. I must really have some sort of kindred spirit thing going on with Vince Gilligan (as a teenager, long before I really got into TV the only show I watched with any regularity was The X-Files, which is also VG, oh and My So-Called Life) or something because he directed this favorite episode of mine. It’s just so superb. All the unique camera angles, the parallels of panning around the Whites’ house twice, once in the beginning when Walt and Skyler are young and about to have Jr, and once later, before Walt leaves to try to kill Gale. The wide shots of the desert. This episode is a visual masterpiece.
As far as cinematography goes, I think only one other episode compares and perhaps surpasses, and that’s 505 “Dead Freight.” There are so many brilliant artistic choices in “Full Measure.” All those shots of the desert when Walt has his showdown with Gus are just magical. Walt walking towards them, slowly, filled with dread, and the clouds and the headlights on the horizon. The four men standing in a row as Walt and Gus talk. The strange clouds with an almost orange undertone in part of the sky. That whole sequence is breathtaking. Just as beautifully composed is the scene in the laser tag place, all the different colors flickering and creating this gorgeous backdrop for this scene of the utmost emotional intensity. There are also some great reflection shots, Victor’s face in mirrors, twice, and Walt’s reflection when he is getting Gale’s address from Jesse.
And the list just goes on and on and on. The angles on Mike during the Saul and Mike scene, the balloons on the power line, the close-ups on Gus in the desert, everything about Gale’s apartment. If there were ever an episode with an equal eye for detail and artistic composition, this is it.
The filming is only one aspect of what makes this episode so fantastic. It’s also the story. This is when I got hooked even deeper than before, where the darkness of the show deepens into an abyss of nothing but more darkness. Before, there were places to turn back. In fact, Walt was trying to turn back for the first third of this season, but this? There’s no coming back.
I want to talk a little bit about the differences in Season Two and Three and how they were created and laid out. Season Two was planned to every little detail. From the opening moment of 201, the writers knew how 213 would end. There were bookends, which I tend to love to an unsophisticated degree, and all that pitch-perfect plotting where every detail lead to the events in the finale. Season Three, as I understand it, wasn’t conceived that way. When the writers first introduced Gale early on this season, they didn’t know where the season, or Gale, would end up. When Jesse said, “I’m the bad guy” in 301, they didn’t know what he would do as the bad guy in 313. They just took the characters and the story where it needed to go, episode by episode without a master plan.
I’m usually a bigger fan of planning. I love how little moments, details and intricacies can weave together and built to a finale. And like I said, I like bookends. But in this case, I think something really works in not having this season plotted to such detail ahead of time. That sort of plotting creates a certain tidiness, and you can see that in Season Two, and it’s lovely and brilliant. But the lack of that tidiness in this season gives it a feeling of being a little more out of control, a little more random and chaotic, which fits the darker feel of this season so well.
And what better way to highlight that sense of darkness and chaos than with contrast, opening on Walt and Skyler as a young couple, years and years before cancer and meth cooking and murder and money laundering, when Walt was hopeful he would make a living, or much more by the way he was talking, as a chemist. Pairing that with later when he is waiting for Gale’s address so he can go kill an innocent man is just perfection in the juxtaposition.
So is lingering on Walt playing with Holly before his phone rings. It’s a scene that so easily could’ve been cut for time (and if you watch the DVDs you can see there are deleted scenes from this episode so time was an issue) but it’s such a great choice to leave it in. This episode showcases a lot of characters’ dualities, and this was a perfect one for Walt, to show this almost precious scene with his baby daughter right before he leaves to kill the sweetest man in the world.
Mike has a very similar duality in this episode. He’s playing with his granddaughter (there’s a deleted scene that’s an extension of this) and being all sweet and adorable and grandfatherly and then he goes and kills a whole bunch of cartel dudes. The cartel scene feels almost like a non-sequitor. You have to think it’s payback for what Gus did to the cartel earlier in the season (there’s no way that could’ve just ended things with no retaliation) or setting something up for next season. Or both.
But the real story in this episode is about Walt and Jesse, how far they will go to protect themselves and each other. Their relationship has been fractured at times during this season, as recently as the previous episode, which just puts more weight on what happens in this hour of drama.
It starts with Walt and Gus, Mike and Victor in the desert. For as much bad luck and loss Walt and Jesse’s meth empire endeavor has brought to their lives, I think in a strange way, they both have gotten something good out of it, and that is a certain ability to stand up despite fear, to not be intimidated. There will be more to say about that next season because they will each have a crowning moment of this type of thing. But there are great smaller moments here. Last episode, we saw Jesse stand up to Gus a bit, say no, I won’t make peace with these assholes who use children in their games of guns and drugs. In this episode, Walt can’t be intimidated by Gus in the desert. He doesn’t give up Jesse and he doesn’t kowtow to Gus, even though he’s outnumbered and in the presence of three very deadly dudes. He’s got the Heisenberg hat on, and he is his own form of deadly, telling Gus what his options are, suggesting Gus ordered the hit on the little boy. He even goes so far as to list them killing him as one of the options. This is a much less afraid Walt than we’ve seen in awhile, maybe ever.
There’s a deleted scene from this sequence where Walt tells Gus that if they kill him, if Jesse found out that Walt had been killed or gone missing, Jesse would go to the cops and tell them everything. And then he says the same goes for him, vice versa, if Jesse were to disappear. I wish that scene was still in there, because it makes me so proud of Walt. For the moment.
Sweet, sweet, nerdy Gale. It’s so great to have him back, to get to know him a little better. He is still all kissing Walt’s ass in the lab at first. It’s in his apartment and its decor and his music and his singing that we really get a sense of this goofy, smart, sweet man. It’s also significant that Gale is wearing a green shirt in this scene. Green has always been associated with life and vitality on Breaking Bad. Think Jesse in rehab at the beginning of this season, and those plush lime green shirts and robes. I actually have this weird theory about Gale in this episode that I’m pretty sure I’m alone in, but I’m going to discuss anyway because well, it’s my post. And I want to know what others think.
My weird theory is that Gale is onto Gus. Oh his sweet face when he hears about Walt’s cancer. BTW, how perfect was this set up by having Gus ask about Walt’s health in the desert scene? Anyway, Gus, like any good liar, uses a lot of truth to sell this lie that Walt may not be able to keep cooking because he’s dying of cancer. But Gale also does these little things that make me think he might know Gus plans to kill Walt. Even after Gus explains about Walt’s (false) medical condition, Gale still asks the question, “What worst case scenario?”
Then, it just doesn’t make sense why Gus would silently push for just one more cook. Gale is reading that push on Gus’s face, and changes his answer accordingly. Gale just saw Walt, who was in fact perfectly healthy. I just think Gale would find it a little suspicious that Walt, who seems fine, would be sick enough to only be able to perform one more cook. When you have cancer, no matter how deep you are in denial, you just don’t go from Walt’s current vitality to too sick to cook in one day. And Gus says he doesn’t know how much time Walt has, so why’s he pushing so hard for Gale to be able to take over after just one more cook. It doesn’t fully add up. Gale’s got to know something is up. And I think he knows the truth of who Gus is, in terms of his brutality.
So I always wondered, if Gale did indeed figure out, or suspect, that Gus was going to kill Walt, did he try to warn him that day in the lab? Gale practically worships Walt, so I could see that. And the fact that Gale stops talking as Victor approaches them at the vat makes it seem like he’s doing something he wasn’t supposed to, and he’s supposed to get all the cook details in this one day, so it’s like he must be going beyond what he should ask. So maybe, just maybe, he was trying to signal subtly to Walt.
Whether Gale intends it or not, Walt does figure out that Gus plans to kill him and replace him with Gale, which leads to the amazing laser tag scene that I have watched over and over and over. I love it. Jesse’s “I can’t do it, Mr. White,” is heartbreaking. He starts to say that he’s not a killer, but can’t even finish the sentence. Jesse tries to convince Walt to go to the DEA, spill everything about Gus’s empire, says he’ll just keep moving, he’ll be fine. It’s not a horrible idea. The DEA would love Walt. But Walter White has his pride. “Never the DEA,” he says. And he asks for Jesse’s help, to get him Gale’s address. He reminds Jesse that he just saved his life, and asks for reciprocity.
Recounting the highlights of this scene just doesn’t even do it justice. I’m trying to figure out exactly what about this scene makes it so heart-stopping and gripping, because I really have played it over and over. It is the lighting and the color, and these two men, who have been at odds so many times, trying to sort out murder and what they will or will not do for the other, and it is Walt facing his mortality in a way he hasn’t before. Walt is a hunted man here. And Jesse, he wants the best for Mr. White but he just can’t kill Gale for him. This so beautifully sets up the end. Even later, Jesse tries to talk Walt into going to the police instead.
There’s also a callback here. Walt says, “But when it comes down to you and me versus him, I’m sorry, I’m truly sorry, but it’s gonna be him.” Back in the Tuco days, when they were discussing guns and ricin beans, Jesse was trying to convince Walt that they needed a plan of attack and he says, “It is him or us, you understand? Him or us!”
When Walt leaves the house to go kill Gale and Victor drives up, I don’t think anyone, including Walt, believes that there’s really a chemical leak in the lab. Walt said previously “no spillage” and it’s realistic to think he maintains the superlab in a way that this scenario is unlikely. But it’s when he sees Mike, who keeps up the chemical ruse, that Walt knows for sure that they are going to take him into the lab and kill him.
Walt is very un-Heisenberg at first. He begs for his life, offers to cook for free. When he says he’ll give them Jesse, oh man, I remember the first time I watched this episode I was just screaming No! You can’t give up Jesse! When it cuts to Jesse, there’s so much red, his shirt and the red glow, and the thing he’s sitting on (a sleeping bag maybe?) is also red as he’s getting high waiting with his cell phone. It seems he’s uncomfortable just waiting for the news that Walt killed Gale. I love that there’s enough time for Jesse to say, “No way man,” when Walt first asks him to go do it. But when Walt says, “They have me at the laundry and they’re going to kill me,” Jesse jumps up and grabs his gun.
Jesse’s not a murderer but this is no longer a theoterical thing Gus might do if Gale takes over, this is happening right now, and this is his father figure, and this man just saved his life. Of course, he does it. It’s almost like Jesse just finally realized, after this whole season of accepting he’s the bad guy that he really isn’t, only to have to be the bad guy to save Walt’s life. In this way, Jesse is sacrificing a huge part of his soul, especially considering that Gale himself is not a direct threat, is so sweet and innocent, for Walt’s sake.
And it’s this scene where Jesse shoots Gale in the face that is the crowning moment of the episode. This is when the dark brilliance of this show struck me so hard. There are so many shooting scenes in movies and TV shows, but nothing like this. When Gale opens the door, Jesse doesn’t shoot right away. No, Breaking Bad does what it does best, draws out the moment. Letting the moment linger takes away any possibility of making this any easier on Jesse in any way. Poor Gale pleads for his life, then, and there’s extra lingering on this, he scrunches his eyes close, crying without tears. Does he recognize Jesse, I wonder? They have met before, when Gale was getting fired and Jesse was coming in to fit Walt’s “classical” style.
But it’s Jesse’s crying that’s so compelling. Here is this scene, Jesse with a gun, and you’re more drawn to his face, his bloodshot eyes, his tears than the gun. Who does that? Only Breaking Bad. I can’t say it enough. This scene just cripples me with awe at the writing, the acting, the story.
Season Three is a slow descent from the lighter feel of Season Two into a much darker place. And really, where is there to go from here but to wallow in that darkness?
- Breaking Bad Episode 312 “Half Measures”
- Breaking Bad Episode 311 “Abiquiu”
- Breaking Bad Episode 310 “Fly”
- Breaking Bad Episode 309 “Kafkaesque”
- Breaking Bad Episode 308 “I See You”
- Breaking Bad Episode 307 “One Minute”
- Breaking Bad Episode 306 “Sunset”
- Breaking Bad Episode 305 “Mas”
- Breaking Bad Episode 304 “Green Light”
- Breaking Bad Episode 303 “I.F.T.”
- Breaking Bad Episode 302 “Caballo Sin Nombre”
- Breaking Bad Episode 301 “No Mas”
- Breaking Bad Season 2 Episode Posts
- Breaking Bad Season 1 Episode Posts
- “Full Measure” Insider Podcast
- Weak Interactions – The Science of Breaking Bad: Full Measure
- Tim Goodman – Bastard Machine Deconstruction: Full Measure
- Top 10 Episodes: Breaking Bad
- Rolling Stone – Bad Man Rising: Walter White’s Lowest Lows