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?