Director: Michelle MacLaren
Writer: Thomas Schnauz
As per usual on Breaking Bad, there's an overpowering sense of dread throughout "One Minute," but, for a change, the dark cloud isn't hovering above Walter White and/or Jesse Pinkman—it's positioned right above Hank Schrader.
"One Minute" holds up as Dean Norris' finest hour as an actor. Considering his now-infamous toilet bowl revelation at the end of "Gliding Over All," Hank's about to take center-stage for the remainder of the show's duration. Still, "One Minute" is a towering achievement from one of television's most underrated performers, a guy who's been unfairly ignored by Emmy nominators. Granted, he's been covered by the shadows of Best Supporting Actor nominees Aaron Paul and Giancarlo Esposito. Take a look at "One Minute," though, and you'll see the power of Mr. Dean Norris.
After a brilliant cold, pre-title-card open (which we'll get to in more detail shortly), the episode begins with Hank, pulling up to Jesse's house, ready to unleash the fury. And, boy, does he. The Tyson-like punch that he serves to Jesse sends the young meth cook flying back into his living room, where Hank—seeing red over a crank call that made him think his wife, Marie, had been hospitalized after a terrible car accident—pummels Pinkman's face into the floor. That momentary lapse of reason, fueled by blind rage, is quickly usurped by a heavy depression, which settles in once Hank realizes that whooping Jesse's ass is about to cost him his job as a DEA agent.
And that's where Norris truly shines in "One Minute," nailing Hank's internalized sadness and believably crumbling into a scared, remorseful shell of a man in Marie's arms. Hank's world is falling apart. Breaking Bad's resident jokester, so confident and hard-nosed in previous episodes, turns into a petrified man who's helplessly watching his life deteriorate. "I'm supposed to be better than that," he says to Marie. "What I did to Pinkman…That's not who I'm supposed to be. That's not me." The pain is visible in Norris' eyes, his performance made all the more devastating by actress Betsy Brandt's wordless reactions—there's nothing Marie can do other than hold him, but she knows that's not enough. Hank's "been unraveling" ever since "that Salamanca thing" (meaning, when he shot and killed Tuco). And in her own ways, Marie's been doing the same.
On any other show, watching a character like Hank go through such a harsh self-evaluation would be somber and heart-wrenching. On Breaking Bad, it's both of those things, but it's also funereal. Whether he realizes it or not, Hank's life isn't just on the verge of a premature ending figuratively—there are, literally, two agents of death on his trail. During that aforementioned cold open, the Salamanca twins, Leonel and Marco, were seen placing a photo of Hank next to their candle-ridden shrine. Heisenberg's no longer their primary target. Hank's now got the bulls-eye on his bald head.
Other characters are featured in "One Minute," of course. There's the battered Jesse, stricken to a hospital bed and delivering a ferocious and, finally, defiant tirade against Walt, first telling him that he's ready to "own" Walt's brother-in-law, Hank, and then switching his anger toward Mr. White himself: "If the cops catch me, I give them what they want the most: you." Even colder, "You're my free pass…bitch." In the same scene, there's the always funny Saul, telling Walt that, thanks to Jesse's current beaten-down state, "You're now officially the cute one in the group. Ringo, meet Paul. Paul, meet Ringo." As for "the cute one," Walt reaches his breaking point with current cook-partner Gale, who screws up a batch by setting it at the wrong temperature (which, yes, is saboteur Walt's doing), and coaxes the livid Jesse into becoming his 50/50 partner under Gus Fring with an alluring sum of $1.5 million. That's a lot of scratch, bitch.
Those moments and character developments are all well-done, and also crucial for where Breaking Bad's narrative heads following "One Minute," but let's keep it real here: The episode belongs to Hank and the Salamanca twins. The opening sequence shows Leonel and Marco as kids, fighting over an action figure—the toy is Leonel's, and the youngster isn't happy with the fact that Marco just ripped its head off. They're playing close to Grandpa Hector, or "Tio," who's discussing some (illegal) business concurring "The Chicken Man," a.k.a. one Gustavo Fring.
What follows is episode writer Thomas Schanuz's shrewd method of explaining the twins' adulthood motivations without overtly spelling out anything. After Leonel cries to his grandfather, hoping the elder will chastise Marco for decapitating his figurine, Tio dunks Marco's head into a bucket full of icy water and cold beer. Marco's struggling to breathe. "How much does he have left?" Tio asks Leonel. "One minute?" Leonel slugs his grandfather, saving Marco and prompting Tio to give his grandchildren three words that will make them want to terminate their cousin Tuco's killer, Hank, by any means necessary: "Family is all." It's one of the biggest thematic statements on the show, making plain what's at the heart of Breaking Bad.
The means the twins use in their attempt to finish Hank are what ultimately made "One Minute" one of Breaking Bad's most exciting episodes. The final eight minutes contain one of TV's all-time greatest sequences of sustained tension, brutal violence, and masterful direction (courtesy of Michelle MacLaren, a veteran small-screen director of considerable talents and singular distinction). It's a dizzying explosion of cinema that puts MacLaren on par with filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino and Michael Mann. For the characters involved, it's a waking nightmare. And, ironically enough, it all begins with such optimism.
Unbeknownst to Hank, Walt has convinced Jesse to drop the pending lawsuit against him, sparing Hank of any certain professional termination. Stepping into the precinct's elevator, having just been told this amazing news, Hank's relieved. His shell-shocked smile is the first time in "One Minute" that he's not looking down the barrel of the proverbial gun. Leaving a supermarket, flowers in hand, he tells Marie: "I think we may be OK." Who can blame him for thinking so? Moments beforehand, his DEA superior Merkert said to him, "Maybe you have a guardian angel."
Nope. A different sort of angel will be visiting with Hank. Presented in real-time, starting at 3:07 p.m., the episode's grand finale pits Hank against the Salamanca twins, whose arrival in the supermarket's parking lot is signaled by a cryptic, distorted call to Hank's cellular, warning him, "Two men are coming to kill you. They are approaching your car. You have one minute." At 3:08, the carnage begins.
Let's not completely spoil Breaking Bad's apex of gruesome action here, though. For those who've yet to see it, it's a visceral knockout worth experiencing as blindly as possible; for those who've already witnessed its excellence, it warrants another viewing—or three. Bullets are fired, brains are blown out, innocent bystanders get killed, and there's an ax, just for good measure. The words "No…muy fácil" (translation, "No…too easy") become a chilling preamble for gory homicide. And it's all sonically punctuated by the spellbinding, haunting sound of a car alarm.
That hypnotic horn continues blaring as the corpses lie stiffly, as Hank writhes in near-death agony, and as the viewer's heart fights to start beating again. Then, the almighty credit of "Executive Producer: Vince Gilligan" flashes on the screen. It's always a surprise that the credits don't continue: "Powerhouse Actor: Dean Norris," "Badass Director: Michelle MacLaren," and "Dark Teleplay Master: Thomas Schnauz." It's always a surprise when your heart begins to beat again. —Matt Barone