Editor’s note: We will have a review/recap of the midseason premiere of “Breaking Bad,” with spoilers, after it airs on August 11th. Other than a few broad details about the episode, the article below is free of spoilers for the upcoming half-season.
Because the lifespan of a television series can be so uncertain, small screen endings tend to be tricky, elusive things. As reassuring as it can be to hear that a creator has a plan for one in mind, they also have to be held to the horizon, hopefully hinted at while kept in the distance, ready to be sprinted toward when the time is deemed right. Some cut-short series never get closure, with fans holding out hope for a movie, while others, even when they’re able to come to a planned conclusion (like “The Wire”), aren’t able to go out in a way that matches earlier high points.
But watching “Blood Money,” the first of the final eight episodes that will close out “Breaking Bad” beginning on August 11st, there’s an persistent sense that this series — this one is going to stick its landing. Directed by star Bryan Cranston and written by Peter Gould, the much anticipated return is a thrillingly taut installment that picks up right where the last season left off, with Hank (Dean Norris) in the bathroom looking at the damning dedication on his brother-in-law’s copy of “Leaves of Grass,” Walt’s arrogance and his misdeeds finally poised to catch up with him… somehow. While the episode doesn’t mince around with who understands what, it also leaves open plenty of paths toward the destruction that has to be on its way. Walt may have finally gotten his need to be a kingpin out of his system, but he isn’t going to go easily into the sunset, sitting on a giant pile of cash Skyler (Anna Gunn) is slowly laundering by way of the car wash and mending the cracks in his home life.
We know this because of the flash-forward that opened last year’s fifth season premiere, “Live Free or Die,” which offered us a glimpse of Walt’s next birthday, which our protagonist spent alone in a Denny’s, using an alias and making illicit deals for automatic weapons in the men’s room. The contents of that year look to be even worse than that sequence suggested, as “Blood Money” makes clear when it revisits Future Walt and his future problems and illuminates more about what his reality has become in a breathtaking reveal. Retired or not, bad things are coming for Heisenberg — and that much would be clear even if we hadn’t been afforded a look at our protagonist’s big, grim 52nd.
We’d know this anyway, because “Breaking Bad” is ruled by karma — not so much in the comforting corrective sense, of the universe righting the wrongs individuals can’t, but in a darker fashion, a feeling that one’s misdeeds ripple out in ways one can’t understand, only to boomerang back. That the final season has set Walt’s present and his bleaker future into a collision course is only keeping in character for the series, which started off this way — Walt in his underwear and a gas mask, driving through the middle of nowhere toward apparent disaster in the pilot, before it looped back to show how he ended up there — and which structured its second season around enigmatic imagery of an explosion that would end up being Walt’s fault in ways he’d never imagine.
The plane crash that rained debris over the city of Albuquerque; the cousins, summoned like some bad dream out of the desert; Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) and his long awaited revenge on Don Eladio (Steven Bauer) — Walt’s conception of his place in the larger scheme of things and the consequences of his actions, not to mention his desire to understand, have always been far more narrow than what we’ve been allowed as viewers.
And that’s without getting into the most obvious and ignored aspect of the half-bumbling, half-smart venture into criminality we’ve witnessed over these four and a half seasons, which are the effects of the drug Walt and Jesse have been manufacturing on the many people who are using it, something the show only seriously delved into in season two’s “Peekaboo,” with the junkie couple and their kid. At this point, we’re waiting less for Walt to be punished than for his luck to finally run out, for his stumbling through a world he’s never fully understood to lead him to trip and fall into something dire.
We don’t necessarily demand that our antiheroes ultimately get punished for their trespasses, but we tend to expect it and the sense of closure it provides — this journey was fun and all, but here, at last, is an affirmation of morality. It’s one of the reasons why, despite any definitive proof one way or another, so many people insist that “The Sopranos” ended with Tony’s death in that cut to black rather than his eating of more onion rings and continuing to live his fading mobster life off camera. And Walt has become, in that transformation from “Mr. Chips to Scarface,” a more difficult figure to contend with, one whose journey has been riveting even as he’s become the show’s genuine villain, petty, scary, amoral and capable of sacrificing innocents to get his way. Walt doesn’t deserve to end up in a happy place, though “Breaking Bad” is too clever to just have him go down easily for everything he’s done. It’s a testament to the quality of the series and the consistency of its vision that in its end game, it feels like it knows exactly where it’s headed, and that it’s going to be a great ride.