In the course of one year—in the Breaking Bad-a-verse, but four years our time—Walter White has transformed from a meek and subservient high school chemistry teacher and part-time car wash employee into a ruthless, manipulative and undisputed kingpin in the Southwest meth trade. All the promos announce, “All Hail The King,” and show a madman monarch with a scowl, a beach chair throne surrounded by containers of blue crystal and mountains of moolah. It’s horrifying to me how fascinated I am. Like I did with Tony Soprano, I find myself rooting for a sociopath to take his cold-blooded industry to the next level. But what puts Breaking Bad, in my opinion, in another league in terms of storytelling ambition is that Walter White has grown evil over time whereas Tony was a murderous Mafioso from day one.
To track the regression of Walter’s soul, you need only look at the scars of trauma seared into Jesse Pinkman, former student turned lab assistant. While remnants of the punk who strayed from his privileged roots remain, Jesse is only a shell of his former self. He’s a bonafide victim of an abusive relationship. His attachment to his captor is so fortified that he stood in the way of the impenetrable Gus Fring for him. He has stuck his neck out for Mr.White so many times, when we know that there’s no Walt left to speak of. Only Heisenberg.
The “Sopranos” comparisons continue with our now traditional teaser cold open. In the past we’ve had jarring kickstarts to the season that involve pink teddy bears floating in a pool, the “Cousins” crawling to a Heisenberg shrine, and a Gale flashback that reveals how he became entrenched in Gus’ empire and sealed his fate. While some have been maligned for their absurdity and forced foreboding, these teasers have always accomplished, for me, the establishment of the season’s tone and direction. Season two’s teddy bear might be the most manipulative: a striking image with no meaning out of context. We knew that this was where the story would end up, but what the heck does a burnt, pink teddy bear have to do with Jesse and Walt? The payoff doesn’t come until the season’s final scenes when we realize what that bear falling into the pool symbolizes—a devastating plane crash that morally implicates Walt.
This teaser, like those of seasons three and four, is more rooted in our characters’ fates. Season three’s meant they were being chased, season four’s meant that their actions while self-perserving led to the death of a (relative) innocent—he was in the meth business, after all. Our season five journey begins with the revelation that in a year’s time, Walt will be desperate again. While much of the premiere does an excellent job of presenting us with a proud, confident and menacing Walt beginning his reign as the now unrivaled master of New Mexican meth, creator Vince Gilligan throws us a curveball in the first five minutes that solidifies the message: his time on top will be short-lived.
Let’s break it down. Walt has a full head of hair, or perhaps a wig, and is sporting hipster-ish glasses. He’s seated at the counter of a Denny’s in what appears to be Albuquerque still. He breaks the bacon from his grand slam in half and forms the number 52. His waitress notices and asks what’s that about? He replies that it’s birthday. Consulting the timelines, I’m made aware that in the pilot it is Walt’s 50th birthday (where he was served veggie bacon, ha!). This means, if 52 represents his age, the events presented in this opening are about a year away from the present time of the show. As I mentioned, this scene smelled of the iconic, if not controversial, “Sopranos” ending where Tony may or may not have met his end in a diner chowing down on onion rings to “Don’t Stop Believing.”
Thankfully, this open doesn’t cut to black. After he’s shown the waitress his ID so he can cash in on a free meal, she remarks that he’s a long way from home. Apparently, this license says he’s from New Hampshire—hence the state motto as the episode title. He keeps his story straight, rattling off the estimated time it would take to drive from NH to NM. He excuses himself to follow a Members Only jacket-less man into the bathroom. There, a seedy transaction is made. Walt slides an envelope of money to the stranger and he slides back a set of keys. The man says, “I got your word this won’t end up crossing the border?” Walt assures him it will never leave town. The man mentions including an instruction manual, and wishes him good luck.
The implication is made that Walt is sick again. He coughs into the mirror and swallows a pill. As he walks out of the diner, almost forgetting to pay he leaves a Benjamin Franklin under his plate (What a baller. Dropping a hundo at Denny’s? That’s the life). His waitress wishes a “Happy BIrthday” to “Mr. Lambert.” In the parking lot he takes a duffle out of a Volvo trunk, then hits the button on his newly acquired keys. He follows the beep and opens the trunk on his new vehicle. Inside, there’s a machine gun and rounds. Oh hot damn. How far has Walt fallen that he needs a new look, identity and military grade weapon to solve his problems? Is he on the run? Is he out for last revenge in his dwindling days? The answers aren’t given, obviously, but the questions are intriguing as hell. Before we’ve had a chance to settle in with our new friend Riding High Walter White, we see the weary face of a man whose fallen a long way down. Eventually his outer appearance will reflect that of his soul: weathered and on the brink of death. The scene’s other significance? Breaking Bad is BACK, more badass and bizarre than ever.
The meat of the premiere begins with the replaying of the “I won” scene. Skylar’s just found out that Gus has been blown to bits, and her voice trembles as she asks, “Was this you?” All he assures is that they are safe, and what happened is he won. Now I’m sure most of you did as I did when that scene first aired, a fist pump, a high five (perhaps to no one) or some form of elation. But how horrifying is that? In response to his wife asking if he’s responsible for murder he acts as if he’s come out as a victor in a game of sport. My team won, theirs lost. He didn’t win his league’s championship, he brutally murdered three men (well he convinced Tio Salamanca to commit suicide, essentially) in a freaking nursing home. Abominable doesn’t even begin to describe…and we haven’t even gotten to the Lily of the Valley yet. Skylar has accepted a great deal of Walt’s illicit behavior, and she seems to be willing to keep quiet about even this horrific act, but she certainly won’t be cozying up to him, as we saw later on.
At home, Walt quickly throws all of his bomb-making materials into a trash bag and stows them in his trunk—a staple of “Bad” is inventive camerawork and here we see the trunk’s view as he drops stuff in. He changes his clothes, and as he’s about to down some celebratory whiskey he remembers that insidious Lily of the Valley plant that almost killed a little boy. Another mark of great “Breaking Bad,” the music. The score that syncs up with his frantic cover-up is superb. Then he settles down a bit and Walter Jr walks through the door. He’s absolutely amped about Gus’ death. He thinks it’s the coolest story since…I don’t know the invention of breakfast? What? That kid loves his breakfast. Anyway, Walt looks visibly upset as his son paints Uncle Hank as the hero that has been “toying with the guy this whole time.” No matter how Walt has devolved, he did start out his road to hell paving it with good intentions—the protection and welfare of his family.
Skylar looks shaken and frightened as she puts Holly in her basinet. Walt, who has always had a bond with the baby, kisses her forehead and acts the adoring father. Skylar isn’t buying. Walt asks if she’s going to show any relief or appreciation that he’s still alive. She insists she is relieved, but also scared of him. After she exits, he stands up. “Oh shit.” We find out in a bit that he has just remembered Gus’ cameras, and all that footage of him cooking.
The set looking like one of the caverns from “Prometheus,” Hanks explores the blown up superlab in awe. He remarks that it looks just as Gale’s drawings in his journal. The guards Walt dispatched of are unidentifiable. Steve Gomez adds that “the teeth do a popcorn thing.” Sick. Hank can only shake his head in admiration of what he believes is Gus’ handiwork. “You magnificent bastard.” God, I can’t wait till Hank finds out. His face when he realizes that Walt, the guy who he views as a pushover, is a criminal mastermind (or at least incredibly adept at escape scenarios) will be priceless.
Mike the Cleaner is seen fairly feeding chickens as he recovers in Mexico when the doctor receives a phone call that Gus is dead. He drives like a bat outta hell and almost hits Walt and Jesse head on. He rushes out of the car with his gun pointed squarely at Walt. Mike delivers some of the best lines this episode, including, “Im done listening to this asshole talk.” Jesse gets in the middle again, advocating for Mr. White. Does he really believe in and care for Mr. White any more? Or is he so dependent on him for survival and paternal validation that he sees no other way. And let’s not forget, the only reason he didn’t shoot Walt is because he flat out lied about Gus and the poisoning of Brock. Walt seems to only care for Jesse when he serves a purpose. He needed help in taking down Gus, so he orchestrated a scenario where he could earn Jesse’s loyalty again. Cold hearted, genius prick.
Walt mentions the security tapes and Mike says they’re in Gus’ laptop at Los Pollos Hermanos. He gestures and delivers another gem. “Keys, scumbag. It’s the universal symbol for keys.” They race to the office, but APD gets to it first and bags it up. They’re screwed. At Jesse’s house, Mike calls under an alias—Dave Clark, postal service official. Do I smell spinoff? He starts to leave with a “You know how they say it’s been a pleasure? It hasn’t.” Walt insists they haven’t lost yet. It’s like he’s got diabolical criminal activity high. He can’t stop. Mike, untrusting of Walt, would prefer to just run, but Jesse asks him to give Mr. White a chance. His continuous referring to him as Mr. White really confirms my child abuse theory. Walt’s first thought is another bomb since it would be too difficult to take the evidence out. Mike mocks, “Nursing home full of old folks whet your appetite, now you wanna kill a bunch of cops?” They argue back and forth about logistics as Jesse shouts, “What about a magnet?” over and over till someone acknowledges. Both seem intrigued.
This brings us back to Old Joe’s junkyard, the site of one of Walt’s most impressive Houdini moments where he’s trapped in an RV with Hank outside. Old Joe is going to let them borrow his giant magnet that he uses for hauling scrap metal. Walt abuses his friendship with Jesse further by asking him to spot his half. Yes, Skylar spent a good portion of his assets on paying the IRS for Ted, but he is scum. Mike again advises Jesse to get the hell out of town. It’s not condescension either. He has affection in his voice. He sees the torment, and he sees the manipulation. He’s also a professional, he knows Walt’s hanging on by a thread. They test the magnet on a junk laptop and Jesse exclaims the most hilarious line since “Yeah science!”—”Yeah bitch, magnets!!!” Jesse’s the bomb.
Skylar gets a visit at the car wash by Saul Goodman, who warns that the police may call. She starts to panic, but Saul assures her it’s only a possibility. He asks her to be like Sgt. Schultz from Hogan’s Heroes, “I know nothing, I see nothing.” The reason for a expected police visit? Ted has woken up. She visits Ted and he looks like shit. Looking like a dying Darth Vader in a neck brace, he stares miserably at her. As brutal as it looks, he recognizes it was an accident and anxiously insists he won’t speak to anyone as to protect his family. Now, Skylar can see she isn’t only married to a monster, she’s becoming one herself.
The good ole heist begins with expert Mike spraying silly string on the security camera and rewiring the gate. They pull up beside the evidence room wall and Walt turns on the magnet. Props to the effects department for the ensuing scene. The computer goes out and items like a bicycle slowly inch forward, then stuff begins to lurch and is violently thrown toward the wall. It’s audible, and Jesse says let’s book it. Walt, however, continues to amp it up. I’m unsure if he was just too confident and wanted to make a show of it, or if he was being careful to make sure the laptop was destroyed. Either way, the force tips over the truck and the cops come darting out. But it’s too late. Walt and Jesse have bolted in Mike’s car and are long gone. Man, was it fun to watch those three coordinate a caper. It was like a fanboy’s dream come true. Of course, the trio won’t last, but a kid can dream.
Mike is still uncertain. He asks about prints or paperwork in the car, but Walt isn’t concerned. Mike worries that they have no proof the laptop was destroyed. “I’m supposed to take it on faith? How do we know?” Jesse’s aghast and Mike glares at the brashness of his response—”Because I said so.” Although Mike may be underestimating Walt’s affinity for chemistry as a criminal asset, he’s right that Walt is toxic. Jesse will only suffer by being around him.
Sorting through all the jumbled evidence, we get confirmation the laptop is destroyed. We’re also clued in to a photo in lockup that has information about Gus’ banking account in the Cayman Islands. I’m not sure how this could lead back to Walt, but you know it will. The heavyweight champs always have the most vehement challengers.
At Saul’s office, Saul discusses Skylar’s misuse of his money, basically saying “I told you so.” He suggests he tried to persuade Skylar to involve him. Walt is still incensed he couldn’t have involved him. “So you took it upon yourself to give away 622,000 dollars of my money to a man who had been sleeping with my wife?” Saul responds by saying he tries to act ethically. Walt is flabbergasted. “Did you just use the word ‘ethically’ in a sentence?…You’re a two-bit bus bench lawyer.” Credit to the man, Saul fires back by showing the ricin cigarette, asserting that he goes the extra mile for him. This also confirms the theory that Hule did take the cigarette when Jesse was patted down, just as Jesse as originally thought. Then Saul grows a misplaced backbone and shouts, “We’re done.” Following that is the now infamous threat from the commercials…”We’re done, when I say we’re done.” I shivered. He’s always had the scowl, and the bald head was very prison yard intimidating, but he has the power to back it up now.
He carries that threatening presence home. He sneaks up on Skylar and says he heard what happened to Ted. She blurts out that he wont say a word, clearly spooked his wrath. He creepily embraces her, his hands slithering on her back as she is visibly disgusted by his touch. Walt revels in this fear, whispering in her ear, “I forgive you.” Chilly.
I have read mixed feelings about how Anna Gunn is portraying the now petrified Skylar, but I bought it. She has never been a showy character, so the understated terror fits. The ripples from Walt’s wickedness have always had reach, but now it feels less circumstantial. While it was self-defense in most situations that led to his monstrous behavior, we see now that evil is moreso the product of those atrocities. He’s not a supervillain, he’s humanized for sure. There are elements of that gentler man from the pilot, but the seeds of cruelty were there.
He’s too proud, too focused on commanding respect and the influence he’s acquired has corrupted any scruples that had held him back before. Now the restraints are off. Nobody is gunning for him, Hank isn’t hot on his trail (yet) and everyone he cares about has submitted to his will. His stronghold is a house of cards, or more vividly a line of dominoes that follow him. Eventually they will topple and he will be crushed beneath them, but for now he’s living free. He’s the Frankenstein of the American Dream, unchecked prosperity. Our little science experiment gone horribly wrong. Maybe that’s why I’m so entranced by his imminent demise—I’m watching the birth of evil, when it could easily be brewing within me.
So good to see you again, best show on TV—my other summer show, Louie, is my #2. With the “Dark Knight Rises” opening on Friday, this is one of the greatest and geekiest weeks of my life. Sorry Nietzsche, but God lives!