Vince Gilligan may be synonymous with Breaking Bad, but throughout its run, Michelle MacLaren was also at the forefront of the show. Alongside her work as executive producer, she directed a handful of the show’s best episodes (a trend she continued with The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones).
The mastery of “To’hajiilee” is in the crafting of a finale. The next episode, “Ozymandias,” would explode in a perfect concoction of all the show’s history, but it would never have been possible without the chess-like nature of MacLaren’s episode.
“To’hajiilee” has the mammoth task of tying all the disparate pieces of the five-season puzzle together for the final act of the entire show. To succeed in doing that, and to make it a flawless standalone episode, requires expert precision behind the camera.
Tight pacing is key to pack in so much in a short time frame without it feeling rushed. However, somehow MacLaren manages this, while also finding time for subtle emotional shots amongst the mayhem. These smaller moments help accentuate the explosive ones. For example, Walt (Bryan Cranston) looks at his family contemplatively, but is cut off mid-thought by a photo sent to him of his exposed money, and greed overtakes him. MacLaren changes gears. The camera zooms in on Walt’s face, blocked by blinds like bars, as he begins to panic that his drug empire is crumbling. These simple, yet effective, shots are a staple of the episode, with MacLaren knowing exactly when to use these immense close-ups on the masterful Cranston for the biggest impact.
A different show would have ended with Walt, his greed being his downfall, caught by Hank (Dean Norris) in the place where it all began. Instead the episode continues, with police officers Hank and Gomez (Steven Michael Quezada) luxuriating in booking Walt. Discreetly MacLaren changes pace again and the tension rises once more. The episode should have ended, but there’s something else at play. MacLaren twists impeccably into a standoff in the desert, and the audacity to cut to credits in the blaze of gunfire is a touch of genius. “Ozymandias” may get the plaudits, but MacLaren’s “To’hajiilee” is flawless television.
Breaking Bad is available to stream on Netflix.
Matthew Singleton is a film critic and journalist who has written for Film Inquiry and Flickering Myth.