Review: ‘Breaking Bad’ Is Back With Potent Season 5 Opener ‘Live Free Or Die’

Review: 'Breaking Bad' Is Back With Potent Season 5 Opener 'Live Free Or Die'

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-]

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Comments

Kat

Let me start by saying that I know I'm going to be in the minority, but I was disappointed with the season 5 premiere of Breaking Bad. From the Breaking Bad pilot episode, I was hooked and couldn't get enough of Walter White and Jesse Pinkman. The character development on this show is second to none. The plot, like a rollercoaster ride, had viewers on the edge of their seats anticipating the excitement of what was to come next. There was not one moment of the four unbelievably creative seasons that I would have changed. The final episode of season 4, in my opinion, should have been the end of Breaking Bad. It was the most outstanding ending to a tv season ever. When it was announced that Breaking Bad would release season 5, I couldn't imagine why. There was no need. It was over. Walter White, a conservative, nerdy science teacher in Albuquerque, achieves the impossible and becomes Heisenburg: king pin of the drug world. Incredible. It's over. Done!
Surprisingly, Breaking Bad was not finished with Walter White. And so, after months of anticipation, I watched the season 5 premiere of Breaking Bad. I was disappointed. Everything from the missing artistic creativity of the prelude of the show, to the silly idea of the magnetic truck destrying evidence, took away from the finale of season 4. Jesse Pinkman's character – who had developed from a nervous, young, idiotic druggie into a sophisticated hitman with 'edge', was not evident in this premiere. Mike's meticulous and obsessive destruction of evidence, was not evident in this premiere. Walter White's super intelligent, 'out of the box' thinking, was not evident in this premiere.
This is an example of a series 'pushing it too far'. As much as I wanted more of Breaking Bad, I really wish it would have ended after season 4.

steve

5 of the BEST Breaking Bad moments. http://flapship.com/five-awesome-breaking-bad-moments-because-season-5-starts-tonight/

ITALICS

wow. italics only.

Mr.W.W.

the first time i ever appreciated the 2 page split for the articles :)

Dotty

Great premiere, setting up the pieces and context for the new season. One thought: In regard to that cold open, there's a few things I just can't shake. With Gilligan asserting that Walt commits some act that renders him entirely unsympathetic this season, I can't help but think he's going to murder Skylar. No, no, hear me out. In Season One, the Pilot, our first scene is Skylar handing Walt a breakfast plate with the bacon cut up to resemble '50', his fiftieth birthday. Is it far-fetched to assume that now, two years later, heavily bearded and shoulder deep in murky water that he's recreating that same moment? Usually when 'breaking bad' Walt bears some sign of vibrancy or livelihood but here, even without Jesse, he just seemed drained of all life and, dare I say it, twinged with regret and melancholy. I don't know, perhaps I'm reaching but I do have a gut feeling that he's going to have her killed.

Other than that though, a tense but brilliant opening. The dynamic between Walt, Jesse and Mike should give us some wonderful comic relief as well as a suspense-packed season that descends into even darker depths than the show has treaded before. Here's to!

ADAM

THISS HOW WAS BETTER IN SEASON 1. WHEN HAL GETS BALD IT SUX. I LIKED WHEN HE MADE BOMBS. IT GOT TOO SLOW AND BORING. GUS WAS GAY. JESSE NEEDS TO HAVE SEX AGAIN. WHY DON'T THEY BLOW UP BUILDINGS ANYMORE? WHY ISN'T THERE MORE SCIENCE SHIT? THE MAGNET STUNT WAS LAME. ALSO, I LOVE HOW MIKE WENT FROM "RAH YOU KLD M Y BOSS! DIE!" TO "OKAY, I GUESS I LOVE YOU GUYS NOW!" IN 30 SECONDS. SO LAME.

OHnd

what the fuk happened this is a malcolm in the beginning spinof wher hsl hAL from 2001 is aeth meth man speed walk?

jimmah!

i tink this episoder was good. i mean like, bryan cranstun is a good actor n all butt he shud really gro some hair. cancur is no ixcuse 2 have a head that looks horreble. his role on that other showw where he playered the part of a horreblee fathur was ok but dis is a really failingg comedy sho! i meann if dey want moar den like 10 viewers maybie they shud get some writurs andnot a bunchh of guyys with bryen cranstun's "haircutt". i didnt laughh at all exceptt when bryann cranstun's wife was kneeling ovur her baby and it looked like she wuz eating it. that reminds me,,,,, this show shud hav more zombies WAIT imagine iff dat guy who got blown up comee back as a Zombieee and eats eveeryone and den they rename the show "i am bryan cranston"! hahahahaha thank you for reading this episodee gets a 2.3/11

Thomas

I THINK BRIAN CRANSTON SHOULD ASSUME A MORE INTERESTING ROLE, SUCH AS SOMEBODY WORKING AT A FAST FOOD RESTERAUNT. HIS CURRENT POSITION IS BORING UNLESS HE BLOWS MOREPEOPLES FACES OFF AMIRITE? THE SEASON WAS BORING SO FAR BECAUSE THE MAGNET WASNT AS STRONG AS I THINK IT HAVE SHOULD BEEN I MEAN THEY SHOULD HAVE FLIPPED THE WHOLE BUILDING OVER INSTEAD OF A TRUCK JEESH. ALSO WHOEVER PLAYS BRYAN CRANSTONS BOYFRIEND STUDENT PERSON SHOULD BECOME BATMAN!!!!! THAT IS MY COMMENT ON THIS SEASON SO FAR ThANKS

John

Not only did I enjoy this episode, I actually think this was superior to many previous episodes.
I do appreciate, as described, how they continue immediately from the last episode, definitely.
Going in the direction they are, and what they've said in the past, and the way the show has been
growing, this season may or may not have to conclude the season.
Extra examination seemed to show similar camera work to that of previous episodes, and it's
really entertaining to see the different angles used among the show. Enjoyed the ep! -John

Sean

Season one had some rough spots here and there, but overall it was great. It was the build for a great show… Until season three. It was still a good season, but everything then changed. Plus I found there was way too much Gus emphasis in the show during his run.
As for the mention about the boxcutter episode… Ugh. Mention anything else in that ep that wasn't that one memorable moment. Of anything, this episode was great and didn't revolve around a predictable scene.

j baum

yeah. season 1 definitely had its problems that were hard to push past, and i am glad they…wait a minute. wtf did you just say?! oh i see, you didn't like the show until it was hip to like this show, and that's your way of backpeddling. well, then by all means, yes the writers strike saved this doomed show…

poseur.

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