Breaking Bad: Season 5, Episode 1: “Live Free or Die”


It feels like a detrimental waste to not review “Breaking Bad” Season 5 as it airs despite this being a film blog. To put it simply, I spend more time thinking about, analyzing, gushing and mulling over this show than pretty much any film that gets released. But, this is not the place for the superfluous film vs. TV debate. I am merely stating a fact based on my personal experience.

Along with “Mad Men”, “Breaking Bad” is upping the ante and pulling the medium to new heights. Anyone who watches the show understands why, and I do not need to go into those reasons here. If I started, I may never stop.

“Live Free or Die” is about settling loose ends from last year’s “Face Off” while simultaneously setting up the newly developed facets of important dynamics that the season will explore. While part of me wants to get right into the meat of the season, which will surely be the remaining seven of the penultimate chapter, everything happening here is necessary place-setting.

But let’s talk about that cold open. Bryan Cranston had been teasing this thing for a while, and boy does it hold up to the promises of mouth-drooling intrigue. Let’s go over what we can glean from this. Walt is turning 52; a fact displayed as he crunches up his bacon and forms the number on his plate, just as Skyler did for him when he turned 50. It has been a year since Walt was diagnosed, meaning that the time that has passed between where we are now and the flash-forward equals that of the entire series thus far.

He has taken on a new identity, one he wears with passive assurance (he robotically recites how long it takes to drive to his location from New Hampshire). I assume he took Saul up on last year’s offer? He is not wearing a wedding ring. The arms dealer played by the wonderful Jim Beaver made a brief reappearance, exchanging money for the keys to a car containing an M60 in the trunk.

Let us briefly touch on the way Bryan Cranston plays this scene. To state the obvious, it looks like Walt has been through some shit. He is alone. He looks resigned to his fate. Whatever has happened, one gets the sense his only reason for being alive is to finish the ambiguous task ahead. As he coughs and pops pills, he is presumably sick again and unlikely to want to survive. This is a new side of Walter White, a polar opposite of where we see him at the beginning of the season, victorious and newly restored to a self-justified egotism. He gives a waitress a hundred dollar tip in an act of (assumedly) meaningless guilt-absolving desperation. And finally, based on what we know about Walter White and the ever-enclosing endgame, whatever has happened to him by the time this flash-forward takes place, was certainly his doing. The cold open had a sense of tragedy about it, a reminder that for all the sick POV shots and Heisenbergian moments, “Breaking Bad” will loom large as the tragedy of one man’s insecurities, ego and masculine pride. It is about the lengths one will go to feel the sustained adrenaline of power and control.

Who knows when we will find out how all of this came about? Vince Gilligan and his writing staff tend not to plan super-far in advance, so I can only guess that we will understand the cold open by the end of these first eight episodes. Based on the left-field explanations of the Season 2 teddy-bear cold opens, nobody can begin to guess specifics to the events leading up to Walter White’s adventures with an M60.

A mini-caper with magnets, the premiere follows Walt, Jesse and Mike as they team up to cover their tracks regarding the surveillance footage on Gus Fring’s laptop. They need to somehow destroy the footage, now filed and locked away in evidence. The plot specifics are pretty standard stuff, but it is really satisfying to see all of this play out, especially because of the way it sets up important dynamics going forward.

The Three Amigos, Walt, Jesse and Mike, are now a dysfunctional trio filled with mini-dynamics that make up the larger whole. Walt and Jesse’s relationship is in a better place than it has been for a long time. Thanks to Walt’s careful manipulation of Jesse (the most recent being the poisoning of Brock), they are back on the same side. It may be founded on deception, but for now, the two are on shaky, but healthy, footing. Not only is it shaky because of the source of its foundation, but Walt’s inflated ascendance will quickly begin to distance our antihero from everyone else around him.

Mike’s involvement is filled with trepidation. He knows Walt is a ticking time bomb. He does not want to be around when everything blows up in his face. His associations with Gus have allowed him to witness Walt’s decision-making, situation-handling and his erratically successful schemes. He sees through Walt; sees what he is and what motivates him. Yet Walt managed to take down collected mastermind Gus Fring. Between his unemployment and being in too deep to simply walk away however badly he wants to, for now he is hesitantly hitching his britches to Walt. Mike has no tolerance for Walt, and vice versa, but for now they need each other.

Last season, Jesse was given another figure to look up to and seek approval from in the form of Mike. The two have become an alternative version of what Jesse seeks from Walt. Mike’s fondness for Jesse plays into his helping them at a crucial time. He has already taken to warning Jesse to get out while he still can. Jesse is pulling hard for this awkward trio to work; he very clearly wants Mike around.

As for the three when they are together, “Live Free or Die” is setting up the Walt/Jesse/Mike team which will be a central part of this season. As they embark on getting themselves back in the game now that Gus is no longer an adversary, the writer’s will play up the tension, the widening cracks and the humor inherent between the three and their encounters with one another.

A moment must be taken to point out that “Breaking Bad” is unmistakably the most cinematic looking show on television. It goes for the shots that are typically inadvisable. In TV, creativity as a director tends to be stomped out as far as visuals go. There is nowhere near the time, money, equipment or interest in achieving anything that goes outside the immediate logistics of the storytelling at hand. Technically, this show has developed its own visual and aural language, immediately recognizable at every turn from the cinematography and the music to the use of on-location shooting in Albuquerque, fleshing out a city as character. This week’s wonders include this shot of Walt and Mike speeding towards each other:

GORGEOUS.

Two more topics on the agenda; ahh Ted Beneke. I didn’t think it was possible to feel bad for someone as haplessly doofy as Ted, but boy was I wrong. Skyler visiting Ted was sort of heartbreaking as Skyler sees physical proof of the damage this kind of life causes. Ted’s brokenly sputtered dialogue served as a revelation for her; Ted is afraid of her. Anna Gunn played this beautifully, an almost double-take, the way we feel her realization that she is his source of fear. Surely a new experience for Skyler and in that moment she sees herself through his eyes. Perfect execution, and the end where she also has the realization that in some sick fashion this reaction is what she wanted, what she needed from him is…..damn it’s good stuff.  She gets it together for a resounding and cold “Good”.

Walter White’s newly inflated state of mind begins to take shape in some tellingly small ways. His posture has become Gus-ified. Silence as intimidation. Overconfidence. Power plays abound. This season is going to be all about Walt meeting up with the power he so desperately craves. Vince Gilligan and the cast and crew have been very upfront as to the themes and concerns of these final 16 episodes. Walt is essentially morally bankrupt at this point, using transparent guises as his motivating factors. The episode lays out three moments/phrases of Walt as a newly risen force to be reckoned with as touchstones for his mindset are laid out.

“Because I say so”: Right off the bat, we have a reaction shot from Jesse that shows a sown seed of discomfort with where Walt is headed. Of course Mike looks in his rearview mirror with another “this one’s trouble” look, but more importantly we have Jesse recognizing that Walt is transforming into an intimidating evil. Cranston’s delivery could have been a repeat of his next moment of authority, but smartly a different route was taken. It is flippant, matter-of-fact, self-satisfied and deceptively throwaway to the character.

“We’re done when I say we’re done”: If Saul Goodman no longer wants to associate with you, there’s a problem. This is a moment of pure menace from him, testing out his power (this is a word that will likely appear a dozen times in each post so get used to it) on his lawyer. Saul is now unwillingly working for his client.

“I forgive you”: I laughed out loud when Walter White spewed this deluded statement of Godfather-esque proportions. Really, what other reaction is there to have at this point? What a prick. In a moment of false niceties, Walt calmly and unmistakably makes his place in the marriage known. Walt is now calling the shots, and if Skyler did not know that before, she certainly knows it now.

Aaron Paul has stated that this season feels “eerie”, likening it to the instant classic that is “Crawl Space”, aka the episode, or final scene, where Breaking Bad gets creepy and unnerving like a horror film. These moments present a detachment between us and Walt that not only has immediacy to how unsettling it is, but the idea that this is only going to expand as we progress looms large over these phrases. They sound like typical lines, simple statements out of context. But “Breaking Bad” is all about presentation, taking a familiar arc and making it prescient. Taking a protagonist and making him an antagonist. Taking a gimmicky series pitch and making it a staggering progression of the normalcy from good to evil. It took five seasons for us to earn these specific statements from Walter White, and they impeccably set the stage for the final chapter ahead.

 

 

2 comments

  1. What I’m wondering is if we’ll learn about why Walt is at that diner in the end of the 8 episodes, or the end of 16 since it was originally supposed to be one season.

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