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Is the New Villain on ‘Breaking Bad’ Walter White Himself?

Is the New Villain on 'Breaking Bad' Walter White Himself?

“We’re done when I say we’re done.”
     –Walter White (Bryan Cranston)

It’s in the nature of many TV shows to operate with a shortage of consequences. Events that should have serious repercussions are allowed to slip by in order for a series to keep to the relative status quo of its premise — for workplace teams to stay together, for prospective lovers to linger on the verge of getting together, for secrets (about who’s a serial killer or a fake lawyer or endowed with superpowers) to be kept.

But from its outset, “Breaking Bad” has been all consequences. Nothing happens that doesn’t reverberate through the show’s claustrophobic universe and set off new and sometimes disastrous events, from Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) wine-and ego-fueled questioning of the lab notes his DEA brother-in-law Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) found at a crime scene leading to his continuing the investigation to the death of Jane Margolis (Krysten Ritter) bringing about an airplane accident that rained fiery debris over Albuquerque. Karma is the great leveler in Vince Gilligan’s astounding series, and someday it’s going to catch up with its protagonist.

And that day may be soon. Last night’s season five opener “Live Free or Die” started with a flash forward to Walt on his 52nd birthday, bearded, bedraggled and alone, with only a chatty waitress and a pile of bacon to keep him company. The episode title is a nod to the alias under which Walt is traveling, that of a man from New Hampshire in town for business — and that business involves buying a giant gun from Lawson (Jim Beaver), the matter-of-fact illegal weapons dealer from whom Walt bought his first .38 revolver at the start of season four. Whatever’s happed to Walt to find him making deals in a Denny’s bathroom, he’s had to up his firepower considerably.

So we know major trouble is on the horizon. But when we return to the series’ present, it’s right where we left things last fall, with Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) just having met his spectacular death at the hands (finger? bell?) of Tio Salamanca (Mark Margolis) after himself taking out all of the high-ranking members of the Juárez Cartel. Hank and his pals at the DEA have confirmed Gus was a drug dealer — what’s left to take care of in this episode is the shocky, dazed clean-up, from the bomb-making mess Walt discards from his kitchen to the “MythBusters”-like plan he, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) and a skeptical Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) imperfectly carry out to clear off any possible evidence against them on Gus’ laptop. (Jesse’s “Yeah, bitch! Magnets, whoa!” may be the line of the night.)

All of Walt’s foes seem to be gone, as the show revisits his triumphant declaration from last season’s finale: “I won.” But Walt’s greatest enemy has always been himself, and in the adrenaline-addled aftermath of everything that’s happened with Gus and the cartels and the superlab, the episode’s growing sense of unease comes not from Hank’s investigation (what’s in that Swiss account Gus left behind?) or poor, stupid Ted Beneke (Christopher Cousins) talking about what put him in traction or Mike avenging Gus but from the dawning prospect of Walt, unchecked.

Walt, who poisoned Brock (Ian Posada), an innocent child, in order to manipulate Jesse back to his side; Walt, who put a bomb in a nursing home. Walt, who’s proven himself capable of all sorts of terrible actions that he can self-justify as being things he had to do, for survival and for the sake of his family. That family who, as a stricken Skyler (Anna Gunn) realized as Walt embraced her at the episodes end, murmuring “I forgive you,” should be a little frightened of his dubious protection as well.

“You got all the answers,” Mike wryly observed after the magnet heist ended with Jesse and Walt abandoning their tipped-over truck and borrowed equipment at the station in order to flee. Walt doesn’t, but is so alamingly sure of himself now, despite the many times before we’ve been shown that he’s not nearly as smart with people and crime as he is with chemistry. Having started the series so beaten down he was only freed by the prospect of impending death, Walt’s now triumphant — and it’s a terrifying prospect. 

“Live Free or Die” was directed by Michael Slovis, who’s served as cinematographer on 25 episodes of the show, and was written by Gilligan. While other season openers have started off by presenting the threat hanging over Walt’s head — his cancer, then Tuco (Raymond Cruz), then the Cousins, then Gus — he’s now in as relatively secure a spot as he’s ever been since the series began, though the fact that he’s out of cash means he’s going to want to get back to cooking. At this point, with the car wash actually doing well, he’s got no more excuses for returning to the drug game other than wanting it. Who is going to lead Walt to that grim future scene in the diner? Who’s left but Jesse, or Skyler, or Mike, or Hank?

Walt’s got a lot to answer for, especially when it comes to Jesse, who he’s made into a killer, whose girlfriend he chose not to save from a death by overdose, whose friend’s son he almost murdered. It’s ironic that Gus was ultimately proving to be a better, kinder business partner and surrogate father figure for the guy than Walt was — Gus may have been using Jesse, but he also saw potential in him as well as how troubled he was by Brock’s condition. Gus was willing to let millions of dollars of half-cooked meth get ruined in order to allow Jesse time to spend at the hospital. Walt wants him around in order to not be alone in his criminal enterprise.

It’s a testament to how gradually “Breaking Bad” has allowed its main character to slide from downtrodden victim to potential archvillain that the incipient tension of this new season has everything to do with how scary Walt has become rather than how scary any antagonists are. He’s been rationalizing his actions to himself for a long time now — what’s he going to be like when he no longer feels that he needs to?

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