"Breaking Bad" -- "Live Free or Die": We're Just Livin' This Way 'Cause We've Known No Other

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"Breaking Bad" — "Live Free or Die": We're Just Livin' This Way 'Cause We've Known No Other

By Daniel Carlson | TV Reviews | July 16, 2012 | Comments ()


I've been thinking a lot about what I want to do in this space every week. "Breaking Bad" is in its fifth season now, and the themes are firmly established: the corruption of virtue through power; the glacial ease with which good turns to evil; the way morality, when anchored only to your current situation, becomes easy to compromise; the fact that villains become so by willing to go just a little farther than the good guys. These ideas aren't new to the show, and they're certainly not hidden in "Live Free or Die," the fifth-season premiere. Creator Vince Gilligan knows what he wants to do, and he's committed to doing it in a masterful way.

So what do we do then? We can't talk about the season as a whole yet, because we've got seven more episodes to go. (Well, technically 15, but AMC is breaking the season in two, airing the first eight episodes this summer while holding the last batch until 2013. They're understandably reluctant to let the series go, since in its absence people will have to content themselves with badly written series about zombies and reruns of Speed.) I wrote last year about the dangers of judging an individual episode too harshly without knowing the whole picture, and I still think it's better to err on the side of "wait and see" when something happens that might seem out of place or out of character. Similarly, it's one thing to revel in the thematically resonant moments that Gilligan and co. are so skilled at rendering, but it would be unfair to act as if those specific themes were new or surprising. The joy here is more in their specific execution than general unveiling.

I think the best thing to do, then, is to talk about the way those ideas pop up, and about what it might mean when we see them done in certain ways. Gilligan has made it clear that he's interested in the long game, here, and he's always trying to contrast immediate actions with their larger consequences. I'm way less interested in rendering some kind of judgement against 45-minute increments of an unfinished story than I am in trying to figure out the long game. I love this show, and I love the way it does what it does. I couldn't imagine a more fun show to talk about.

Case in point: The episode's cold open starts with a radical jump into the future, with Walt celebrating his 52nd birthday in a Denny's. He's got a beard, a full head of hair, and he's using a fake identity that reps him as a New Hampshire resident. This is the biggest jump forward we've seen to date. The second season used cold opens to hint at the airplane crash that ended the season, but those moments were only a few weeks out from the main narrative. (Vulture put together a good timeline last year of the chronology of the show's first three seasons.) Time usually passes pretty slowly on "Breaking Bad." The series started with Walt turning 50, and in the main timeline, he hasn't even hit 51 yet. Blasting so far ahead let Gilligan (credited as the episode's writer) do a number of fantastic things. We get a major narrative hook -- What the hell happened to Walt, and why is he buying assault weapons? -- while also knowing that the series is going to take far grander twists and turns than we could predict. No one knew a year ago that Walt would be capable of masterminding a plan to poison a child, align with an enemy, and assassinate his employer. There's no telling what he's going to do that will take him so far from home. But that's a long way off. Whatever else happens, however often we check back in on future Walt, we know that he's in for something huge.

Perhaps the biggest surprise for me was the fact that Ted is not, in fact, dead. He hasn't been seen since last season's "Crawl Space," and I'd incorrectly assumed that his slip and fall had killed him. I should've known that nothing's ever that simple in the world of Heisenberg. It would have almost been too clean for him to die like that, in a freak accident that could be attributed only to his own panic and clumsiness. More, it would have given Skylar an out, a way for her to tell herself that yes, she put the hurt on Ted, but she didn't end his life. Instead, she has to live with the physical evidence of what she did. Anna Gunn absolutely killed it in the scene where Skylar visits Ted in the hospital, and director Michael Slovis made a fantastic choice to avoid cutting away and simply let us watch her work through the grief, shock, regret, and horror at seeing what's become of Ted. When I learned that he'd lived, I found myself wishing he'd died, then horrified at the ghoulishness of wishing a character had just snapped his neck so I could forget about him. I felt a little chastised watching him plead with Skylar, promising he wouldn't say anything about what had happened. The fractured way he begged for his children to be spared was damning. The real kicker, though, was the way Skylar hardened and knew it was what she'd needed, or wanted, all along. When he tells her he'll keep quiet, and she responds with only "Good," I shuddered.

The most fascinating part of the episode was Walter's dawning realization that, for now, there's no one above him. He's always had someone to answer to, some dealer or distributor to please, from Tuco Salamanca to Gustavo Fring. But now that he's "won," as he said to Skylar, he's got a lot more control over his life. He went after the laptop in police evidence not just to save his ass, but because he wasn't going to let a little old vault stop him from getting his way. He's never been as confident as when, after Jesse and Mike ask him how he can be so sure their giant magnet worked, he replied calmly, "Because I say so." He might not be on top for long -- he's a year and change away from hitting the road with a fake name -- but for now, he's on top. The real question is: What's next?

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. You can also find him on Twitter.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not

  • Popcorn Lewis

    My initial reaction to that flash-forward scene was, "Damn, Walt looks kinda hot." Yes I know Cranston is handsome, but it was shocking and pleasant to see Walt look like that. And glad to have Mike back.

  • MrsJones

    not sure you can trust that the flash forward takes place on Walt's 52nd birthday. It seemed more like a ploy to get the waitress to remember the guy on the fake ID.

  • Yeah, because he still paid despite it being a free meal. Sort of like, it's not my real birthday so I'll pay. Also, why would you have your real birthday on your fake ID?

  • Alex0001

    I didn't think he paid, I thought it was a tip.

  • googergieger

    So how long before Mike tells Jesse something was up with Jane's death? I think I'd prefer for Mike to just fall in line and work for Walt.

  • I'm not sure that Mike knows that Jane died under suspicious circumstances. Mike only got the call to clean up the scene so that Jesse could call the authorities. He didn't know that Walt watched her choke on her own vomit.

  • googergieger

    He doesn't know that Walt was involved but he does know something was up. Before he went in the apartment he saw someone was in there before. He just didn't mention it to anyone because he didn't think it was worth mentioning or we weren't shown that he mentioned it to anyone. However we were shown he definitely noticed someone was in that apartment that wasn't Jesse or Jane.

  • Obst N. Gemuse

    That address in the shattered picture frame -- a Cayman bank account, yes?

  • Definitely. It say's "Cayman - Account#"

  • Clitty Magoo

    I've been thinking it may have something to do with the German congmolmerate corp. that Gus used to build his meth empire.

    But I don't know.

  • Artemis

    Exciting to see the return of The Cough in the flash forward that opened the episode -- obviously Gilligan et al haven't forgotten about the plot point that got the ball rolling way back in the beginning.

  • Green Lantern

    Was so glad too have a new "Bad" on last night, but felt the episode was mostly setup than anything else. Still, the "arrogant Heisenberg" who isn't wrong because he "says so", and magnanimously forgives his wife after all this time, can't portend anything but bad news for Walt in the long term.

  • geofftherobot

    did anybody think that it was just too easy to get into the police compound

  • sean

    Actually I think it might be even easier than that in most towns. Just drive up.

  • John G.

    It is just Albuquerque, not like a real town with real police and real security.

  • Ted Zancha

    I loved this episode. It was suprisingly funny. Jesse's constant "Magnet" comment and subsequent miming had me cracking up.

  • southworth

    Man, I knew the opening scene was a flash forward, but I didn't realize how far forward! Hot damn.

  • Can anyone explain what Saul was handing back to Walt? I need to watch it again, but I just haven't had the time. It was something to do with the kid being poisoned, right?

  • branded_redux

    It was the poison that Walt made from the Lily of the Valley, yes.

  • John G.

    It was the ricin poison made from the beans that Walt gave Jesse to kill Gus, that disappeared the day that the kid got sick that made Jesse think that Walt had poisoned the kid, which Walt turned around to make him think that Gus did, but really the ricin wasn't ever used, it was the Lily of the Valley that was used, but the cigarette still had to be stolen to get Jesse to think that. Saul was holding on to the cigarette.

  • branded_redux

    Yes, I know what the ricin is, where it came from, how it wasn't used, what Jesse thought, and that Huell stole it. Saul mentioning the poisoning of the kid made me think that it wasn't the ricin for a moment.

  • Yeah, that's what I was thinking too. Thanks for explaining everyone!

  • Weck

    Yeah, the ricin vial from Jesse's lucky cigarette.

  • branded_redux

    Or that! I may have interpreted it incorrectly. Poison, regardless.

  • JoannaRobinson

    Yeah, it was the Ricin cigarette they lifted from Jesse. Which was exactly what Jesse wildly accused Walt of doing.

  • TheAggroCraig

    My favorite scene was Walt and Saul. I loved how Saul completely crumpled when Walt pressed him. He didn't even want to look in Walt's eyes.

    Forgot to post this earlier, but can we make Walter White a Batman villain now? He has a compelling origin, he's an egomaniac, a dastardly genius, AND he has a nickname. Who do I talk to about making this into a comic book? Batman shaking down a terrified Badger. Working with Hank and never laughing at his lame jokes. Tell me you wouldn't read it.

  • Popcorn Lewis

    I'd love that.

  • branded_redux

    In addition to the "Because I say so," Walter's "I forgive you" to Skyler and his backing down of Saul when the latter tries to end their dealings demonstrates that slide. We're seeing very little (if any) of the meeker old Walt and almost all of the one who knocks.

    Side note: I loved the re-appearance of Jim Beaver's gun dealer character after previously selling Walter the revolver in the "Thirty-Eight Snub" episode.

  • specialj67

    Totally. I think that was one of the creepiest, if not the creepiest, scene in the series to date. I've never been so completely unsettled and skeaved out by Walt than I was while watching that.

  • Weck

    So many chills after the "I forgive you." Also, Skyler flat-out tells Walt she's scared to death of him and all he can do is raise a glass of Scotch to his reflection in the mirror? Heisenberg is stone cold now.

  • aroorda

    One thing I couldn't stop thinking was what a different show this would have been if Gilligan had originally killed off Jesse in the first season as planned.

  • piedlourde

    The horror! The horror!

  • One of the best things about Breaking Bad is its sense of humor. As dark as things got with Ted, the little bits between Mike and the boys, Walt taking things just a little too far to be sure...I'm quite certain the neighbors heard me laughing over the truck tip. Brilliant.

  • Stacey

    I never laughed so hard during an episode of Breaking Bad as I did last night. "It's the universal symbol for keys." Brilliant.

  • schrome

    "I see a lot of possible outcomes here and none of them involve Miller Time." Mike is just too funny. The junkyard owner was awesome as well, he just assumed Jesse had his prick pierced.

  • Popcorn Lewis

    Mr. Heckles!

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