To say Breaking Bad is a phenomenal piece of brilliant story telling is really doing it justice. Vince Gilligan’s AMC show is one of those shining examples of how far television has come as a medium, showcasing just how far long form storytelling can go on the idiot box. This week marked the premiere episode of the show’s fifth (and final) season entitled ”Live Free or Die,” which I’ll analyze here. As to be expected, SPOILERS BELOW FOR ALL OF BREAKING BAD.
The show starts with the usual sort of odd cold opening that Gilligan loves to place red herrings in. This one shows a ravaged looking Walter White (Bryan Cranston) sitting at a Denny’s. This is fairly reminiscent of the device used in season 2 that teased the eventual plane crash, though the hints here are less vague, with clear indications that Walt has 1) aged (he claims that its his 52nd birthday, when he is 51 in the present) and 2) been ravaged by some traumatic event (either lung cancer or something potentially worse). The idea of this storyline continuing is intriguing, especially when a backdoor transaction with Lawson (the man who sold him a handgun with a filed off serial number in Season 4) in the bathroom leads to Walt getting a M60.
After this, the episode picks up directly from the masterpiece that was last season’s finale “Face Off,” with Walt hiding any evidence of either of the crimes he committed and Skylar (Anna Gunn) being stone shocked by the heinous crimes Walt admitted to. The mutual moment between Skylar and Walt really shows just how far both characters have come in a terrifying yet believable way. Walt is still trying to hold onto his family, the reason why he started cooking meth in the first place. Meanwhile, Skylar has had a large scale evolution in her relationship with Walt; from genuinely loving him for the first two seasons to loathing him in the third season after finding him out to begrudgingly tolerating him in season four. Now, after finding out what horrific deeds Walt is capable of, she’s come to fear him for the monster he’s become. That dichotomy is further presented with the chilling final scene of the episode, where Walt willingly looks past the affair Skylar had with Ted in order to preserve something that crumbled long ago because it’s the only thing he has left to hold onto. This could present an omen of things to come for the season, as the crumbling of the family could destroy whatever shred of humanity Walt still has.
Despite getting rid of all the prior evidence he could get his hands on, Walt immediately remembers a few loose ends he forgot about, most notably the security cameras Gus has in the now destroyed meth lab. After Walt and Jessie (Aaron Paul) encounter Gus’s former fixer/enforcer Mike (Jonathan Banks), they realize that all the footage fed into a laptop in Gus’ Pollos Hermanos office. However, before they can get there, Hank (Dean Norris) is already locking up the laptop to be dragged into evidence. The three-way relationship between Walt, Jessie, and Mike is an engaging one. Mike can see through Walt’s deception, which adds to Mike’s very street-wise persona and sets up a conflict between him and Jessie over Walt’s loyalties. The fact that Jessie is still so trusting of Walt because of his misguided beliefs about Walt saving Brock’s life displays a tragic irony about his character that will hopefully come to ahead at some point during this season when Walt’s actions are revealed.
The laptop’s whereabouts lead to a brilliant plan of action from the trio; borrowing a giant electromagnet from a local garbage dump in order to wipe the lap top clean of all its data. The centerpiece sequence of Walt & Jessie breaking into the police compound and using the giant electromagnet is entertaining as all hell to watch and shows just how creative Breaking Bad is as a TV show. It does have the potential to seem like the show is blowing its wad too early on, but the spectacle here works quite well. It fascinates me that the show can follow big crazy moments like this with something as intimate and genuinely creepy as the scene between Walt and Saul (Bob Odenkirk), which not only showcases the extreme talents of both actors, but also how someone who just seemed like a one-note joke like Saul ended up having so much dimension in terms of character. The line of the episode (“We’re done when I say we’re done.”) explores how much the brash confidence of someone like Saul can so easily just melt away in an instant when confronted with a real danger like Walt. The same could be said for the scene between Ted (Christopher Cousins) and Skylar, where Ted has gone from this virile greying gentleman to a desperate pleading vegetable. All of this only increases the stakes for the rest of the season, where you’re left pondering what Walt could potentially do to the rest of the characters.
Overall, the big opening to Season 5 is a damn strong one. It shows off the how many of the relationships Walt has have changed permanently since the end of season 4 and gives us some fine spectacle at the same time. I do hope other characters like Hank and Mike are given more detail as the season roles on, but as a starting point, “Live Free or Die” is a damn compelling one. Let’s hope next week’s episode “Madrigal” lives up to this.