In four years “Breaking Bad” has become one of the most acclaimed series not just on television today, but of all time. Throughout its forty-six episodes we’ve seen Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a mild-mannered chemistry teacher turned crystal meth dealer, begin his transformation “from Mr. Chips into Scarface” as creator Vince Gilligan has been quoted as saying. While the show and its star are roundly celebrated today, back in 2008 when the series began, the actor was originally much more of a question mark. Execs had been skeptical of casting “Malcolm In The Middle” Dad Cranston in the lead and with probably good reason: whoever his audience had been up until that point were likely not the target for this darkly funny series. The initial poster for the first season featured the actor standing in the desert in his underwear holding a gun, which was a striking image for sure but not likely to send throngs of viewers setting their DVRs for a season pass. Cranston undergoes such an incredible transformation as this character, most viewers would now have a hard time seeing him as anything other than Walter White, a role in which he's now won three Emmys, one for each season that he's been eligible. He's supported by one of the strongest ensembles on television, including Aaron Paul (who also took home an Emmy for his role), Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, R.J. Mitte, Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks and (until recently) Giancarlo Esposito. (R.I.P. Gus Fring.)
After several years of stellar reviews and the many options for viewers to catch up — reruns, DVDs and streaming on Netflix and elsewhere — there are a lot more people watching the show now than when it premiered. But despite the flood of latecomers, you’d be hard pressed to find any fans who are going to wait a single day past this Sunday to find out what happens next. Once you’re hooked on “Breaking Bad,” you’re going week to week, proving that the streaming/DVD model can actually help ratings for a series still on the air. (The show’s ratings have climbed exponentially since the first season with last season being the highest rated to date.) This writer initially came across the show during its first season but wasn't initially won over and moved on. After a year or two of deafening praise I decided to re-evaluate the show during its third season. Rewatching the early episodes brought on the same criticisms I had the first time around but I pushed on past these initial doubts and an episode or two into the show’s second season, something clicked. The writers' strike, which had cut the first season short, turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the show, a chance for the writers to evaluate what had worked and hadn’t in the initial episodes and make adjustments accordingly.
Suddenly the writing was better, the actors had fully settled into their roles and the stakes had been raised significantly. In an instant, it became clear that everyone else had been right: this was one of the best shows on TV. From that point on, the series' highs came fast and frequently (spoilers for the uninitiated): Walt letting Jane die, Hank’s heart-stopping parking lot showdown with the Mexican cousins, Walt’s “RUN” to Jesse after mowing down drug dealers, Jesse killing Gale, Gus’ warning with the box-cutter, Walt’s mental collapse in the crawlspace, Gus' unforgettable demise and the final bomb dropped last season: the revelation that Walt, not Gus, poisoned Brock as a strategic maneuver to get Jesse back on his side. So much has happened over the course of the series that we have to remind ourselves it’s only been about a year in the lives of the characters. But skeletons are piling up in Walt’s closet and it’s only a matter of time before Jesse uncovers them. Jesse may be looking for a father figure in Walt or at least to earn his approval, but sooner or later he’s going to learn about the things Walt has kept from him — most notably Jane and Brock — and there will be a reckoning.
Promos have been light on what’s actually next for the show but Gilligan told the packed audience at Comic-Con yesterday, "This season is about winning; and what it means to stay on top." As for the moral decay of Walter White, the creator warned, "He does something this season that, as the first viewer of the show, I myself would probably say, 'I lose all sympathy.' " But the most important question for fans may not be what will happen next but — with only sixteen episodes to go — can Gilligan and co. possibly keep up the quality? If the first two episodes of Season 5 are any indication, the answer is yes. Since it’s hard to discuss any of the events in the premiere without feeling like we’re delving into spoilers, we recommend you not reading on until you’ve seen the first episode. What we will say is there is an image in the opening teaser of the first episode that is so simple and yet likely to intrigue and delight viewers like nothing else since the teddy bear in Season 2. So, if you’re ready to dive into some major spoilers for the Season 5 premiere, read on.
Like previous seasons, the premiere picks up just moments after the finale but not before giving us one of the most intriguing teases in the show’s history. Walter White — hair grown in, chic black framed glasses, full beard and crinkled jacket — is seated at a diner alone. After four seasons of shaved heads, weak moustaches and strong goatees, seeing Walt look kinda cool is somehow about as shocking an image as any the show has conjured to date. Today is Walt’s 52nd birthday and he’s celebrating it alone, which means that this scene takes place exactly two years after the pilot of the show (that featured Walt’s surprise 50th birthday party) and about one year after he’s killed Gus. In a nice nod to the pilot, Walt breaks his bacon to spell out his age but unlike his meek former self, he's not eating veggie bacon anymore.
Walt has a fake ID that has him hailing from New Hampshire and tells the waitress he’s about 30 hours away from there, and he’s there on business. Albuquerque, where the show is set, is about 37 hours from New Hampshire so let’s assume (since the waitress asked if he was heading towards California) that he’s in one of the states just East of New Mexico which could put him somewhere in Texas, Oklahoma, Kansas or Nebraska. But since we’re not sure if he’s ever actually been to New Hampshire, he might’ve just guessed “30 hours” incorrectly.
Walt’s subtle paranoia as he looks over his shoulder recalls “The Sopranos” finale, where every entering patron has the potential to be something more sinister, but here it appears he is meeting someone. In the bathroom he meets a mystery man — who fans might remember as the same man who sold Walt a gun last season — for some heavy artillery in the trunk of a car in the parking lot. The episode’s title “Live Free Or Die” is the New Hampshire state motto featured on the license plate for his Volvo. Ironic, since it’s known for being the “safest” automobile.
While some shows use skipping forward in time to their advantage — “Mad Men” for example spaces each episode about a month apart on average — “Breaking Bad” has never been one to skip ahead too far in the story (with the exception of the pink teddy bear mystery in Season 2) so this flash-forward becomes especially noteworthy. It means that there is an entire year left to be covered before we catch up to how Walt ended up here and establishes that he will, in fact, survive another year without cancer or a cartel catching up to him. But at what cost?
We then jump back to the final moments of the Season 4 finale, with Walt telling Skyler over the phone that he “won” his war against Gus. Things are not great between Walt and Skyler. She had known that Walt was a drug dealer but probably not been aware that he was also a murderer, and she's not sure how to deal with it other than to swallow her fear temporarily for the sake of her family. But just because Gus is dead doesn’t put Walt in the clear and the rest of the episode is mainly concerned with tying up loose ends from last season.
One of the first things Walt does is to return home to get rid of the bomb materials he had used to kill Gus and the Lily Of The Valley plant that he used to poison Brock. But that’s not all: Gus also had security cameras posted all over the meth lab which posted their footage to a computer that’s now been confiscated by the DEA, where Hank is back on duty. Revitalized after pinning Gus for a drug kingpin when no one would believe him, it seems he’s closer than ever to Walt’s illicit activities.
Another impending question mark to be resolved is Mike, Gus' loyal and deadly No. 2, who was in a Mexican hospital when he learned of his boss' murder. But that conflict is resolved quickly (if temporarily) when the trio decide they have to work together to destroy the camera footage which could implicate them all if discovered first by the DEA. While Mike and Walt are arguing over how exactly they might break into the police station's evidence lockup, Jesse suggests the more obvious solution: use a magnet. But it’s going to have to be one hell of a powerful magnet to make sure the job gets done. What follows is a thrilling "Mission: Impossible"-style caper for the dysfunctional trio.
Elsewhere, Skyler meets with Saul to learn that her former boss Ted has just woken up from a coma which he had been put into accidentally, by requesting to have some of Saul's associates pay him a visit. Though she did so as a matter of survival — to convince him to pay off his companies' tax debt with the money she had given him to avoid an investigation into her own finances — she can't help but feel incredibly guilty when she visits him in the hospital. But Skyler isn't the only one who is scared of someone in the White household and Ted assures her that he hasn't said anything to anyone and pleads just to be left alone.
After Walt, Jesse and Mike pull off their impossible heist — using supermagnets to wipe the hard drives clean from their truck in the parking lot — Jesse celebrates with his typical enthusiasm ("Yeah, BITCH!") while Walt is much more composed. Having thought out all the angles beforehand, he doesn't even flinch when they have to leave behind the truck. Mike has always been a great supporting character (in a show filled with them) and seeing him wedged in-between Walt and Jesse creates another interesting dynamic. But there was one hiccup that wasn’t accounted for because while the police are going through the destroyed evidence, they come across a shattered picture frame of Gus with a Swiss Bank account number behind it. Whose account this is, we’re not sure of yet.
Shortly afterwards, Walt finds out that he's broke. Since Saul was authorized by Skyler to give away his $600,000 to Ted, Walt now must start over. The chance to get away clean isn’t going to stop him or his ego from taking another stab at the meth business, no doubt this time with him positioned at the top of the chain. “All hail the king.” In the final moments, Walt returns home calmly and confronts his wife with an embrace. Skyler tenses up and he unleashes a calm but twistedly ironic closing line, "I forgive you."
Without anything quite as memorable as the box cutter incident from last season’s premiere, this episode does a lot of heavy lifting to tie up the myriad loose ends from last season in an exciting and dramatic fashion before setting up the next phase of the story. Having seen episode two, we can promise there is much more along these lines to come next week. Looking at the looming endgame of the show, it doesn’t look like there’s any way that things can end nicely for Mr. White. From here we would guess that the series end might be Walt paying for his sins while perhaps Jesse (if he makes it out alive) receives a chance at redemption. But along the way, there will be real loss and it doesn’t seem like any of the characters are safe, Walt and Jesse included.
Gilligan told the audience at Comic-Con that he’s not even sure what would constitute a happy ending at this point. "Somebody said to me once, 'Is it possible for 'Breaking Bad' to have a happy ending?' And I said, 'Have you been watching?' Perhaps the happy ending would be for him to die. He's become so toxic and cancerous, maybe that's the way it's supposed to go." With only fifteen episodes to go before the saga closes, we’ll all have answers sooner than we hope. But for now, the journey is as intoxicating as it's ever been. [A-]