TV Review: BREAKING BAD 5.01 - "Live Free or Die"

Jason Gorber, Featured Critic
Once upon a time, people would gather to watch Television shows on a given time, because, well, that's the only time the show was on. Then came VCRs, and PVRs, and downloading, and other kind of stuff that resulted in people rarely watching en masse.

Then came the strangest beast of all, the Television recap, the day-after look at a given show so that we all have a place to come, discuss and/or bitch about a given show.

I'm terrible about synopses at the best of times, I'm a lazy enough writer that I think you should just watch the damn thing and see for yourself what happened, and just turn to me for something to agree or disagree with regarding its qualities or its failures. Still, part of the game with these recaps is that I tell you what happened.

Here's what happened: Vince Gilligan and co. officially made our protagonist into our central villain.

Of course, we need some back story here. Starting from the relatively weak first season, a clever premise with a clumsy execution, Breaking Bad has followed fellow AMC show Mad Men in developing year-after-year into something extremely enjoyable. The show might not raise to the level of a Boardwalk Empire or Treme, but it's done surprisingly well in stringing out a fairly preposterous narrative, such that we're seeing the fruit in this finale season of a number of seeds planted over the previous run.

We're introduced to an atypically hirsute Walter White, playing with his food at a local Dennys. Spelling out "52" in bacon (the best kind of writing utensil", he mentions casually to the waitress that it's his birthday. She says he can get a free lunch, which he casually dismisses. She smiles back and tells Walter "Free's good, even if I was, like rich... Free is always good"

If only she knew.

Walter takes out his license, which she comments is from New Hampshire. They discuss the long drive down South, some local attractions, and other mindless conversation. In the background walks by another bearded gentlemen - it's the gun dealer that we've seen in previous episodes, played by Jim Beaver, an actor who was so endearing in Milch's Deadwood.

Leaving a $100 tip for untouched food, Walter walks out to pick up the merchandise. He pops the trunk and finds a giant assault machine gun and copious rounds of ammunition, a suprise, no doubt, to those who forgot what the hell Jim Beaver's character does for a living.

Shit's going down, and soon.

Cut to credits.

The story then picks up right where last season left off - the family's under protective care at Marie and Hank's place.

Skyler's on the phone, asking Walter what the hell happened - news of the explosion that ended the life of Gus is all over the news.

Walter assures her: "It's over. We're safe."

Skyler asks, sounding scared, "Was this you? What happened?"

Coldly, Walter responds "I won", and abruptly hangs up.

It's clear that the show will suffer somewhat without a character quite as fun as Gus. Giancarlo Esposito did wonders for the show - I've loved the guy dating back to his introduction to the cast of Homicide: Life on the Streets. Still, it's clear by the end of the fourth season they'd gone just about as far with him as they could, and gave him one of the more memorable deaths in TV history.

When buying the gun Walter looks into the mirror and coughs. It's not quite ye olde coughing-up-blood-on-napkin trope that inevitably leads to on screen death (a trick already mined a few times on the show), but it does remind that once upon a time Walter was in this game just to provide for his family. Now he's the guy that poisons children and blows up guys with suicide wheelchairs.

I doubt he's coming back from this unscathed.

Two other major elements are also addressed in this opening episode. It's great to see Mike back on screen - the wide shot with the two cars playing a weird form of chicken is one of the finest they've done on the show. Jesse has been overstaying his welcome for a couple seasons so far, but Walter using his affection for a kid against the guy is reason enough to keep him around.

Skyler's messed up dealings with her ex also come to the fore - seems that slipping on a carpet and braining yourself on a kitchen island aren't sufficient to cause actual death. Skyler visits Ted in hospital, and finds him in one of those crazy I-broke-my-skull contraptions. The actor can't quite his head still enough for the gag to be believable, but it's at least a stark reminder to Skyler that she's in this pretty deep as well. Ted promises not to say a thing, but it's hard to believe that this will be allowed to stand - keeping him dead, after all, would have been far easier to do narratively.

Mike's return is tied to Walter's "oh shit!" moment, remembering the camera in the lab and its possible use in the investigation. They're not quick enough to recover the computer itself (a rejuvenated Hank's already taken it into evidence), and must come up with a plan to get the beast back.

Mike seems to treat evidence control at the station like it's some Fort Knox, but the scene in the apartment does allow for the amusing contribution of Jessie yelling "Magnets!" to get the point across. My first thought was that Walter was going to build an EMP, but a car-battery powered giant-ass wrecking yard magnet parked car-bomb like beside the police station isn't a bad compromise.

The scene of the lights bending towards the wall did remind (for me positively) of the last Indiana Jones outing. At the moment, the only Aliens showing up are likely to be the severely pissed off cartels that no doubt have regrouped and are out for Walter and his chemistry.

In the getaway car, Mike is kvetching about having to leave the truck behind. Walter lists off a litany of reasons that this won't happen, that things are well under control. Mike asks, "am I supposed to take that on faith? Why?"

Looking into the rear-view from the back seat, Walter responds, matter-of-factly, "because I say so." It's a great line reading, chilling because of the context, but in this scene not going for the obvious, growly-voiced menace. This is a new Walter, and he's getting stuff done.

This is further emphases in the scene with Saul. The lawyer backpedals over not telling Walter about the Skyler and Ted money shenanigans, and exclaims, "I'm done!".

Walter gets up, throws the chair aside, and stares Saul in the face, growling "We're done, when I say we're done" like some sort of Abed-doing-Batman moment. It's effective, sure, but I think it's a bit heavy handed, especially after the superior scene in the back seat with Mike.

Coming home, Walter approaches Skyler, saying that he's heard what happened to Ted. Gently caressing her arm, he gives her a hug, and says "I forgive you."

The look on her face is most certainly not one of relief.

We're setting up a number of confrontations, except now the stakes are raised. I making an educated assumption this will be a season where we see a number of our key characters not make it out alive, and finally confrontations between Jesse and Walter, if they're to creep up again (and how can they not!) will prove to be lethal. It's hard to see how this many loose ends will be tied, but with the need for Walter to start afresh and generate a new nest egg there's many possibilities for things to go very, very wrong.

Luckily, the show can dispose of the more silly detours - I don't, for example, we'll be hearing about OCD online purchases of "rocks", planes falling from the sky, or Marie getting busted for shop lifting. The show's long tried to balance between a raw gangsterism and the banal workings of a family, and it will no doubt continue to find that balance. What will hopefully be more satisfying, however, is that now each and every moment counts, there's no room for padding here as we plunge towards the series conclusion.

Breaking Bad is on its fifth and final season consisting of 16 episodes that will be split into two parts. The first part premiered July 15, 2012 and the second half will launch sometime in 2013
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