|Walt (Bryan Cranston) in Breaking Bad Ursula Coyote/AMC|
Few shows get the luxury of truly going out on top. Even the most classic shows get cancelled too soon (Arrested Development, Firefly, Twin Peaks) or they chug along way past their prime (The Office, Roseanne, The Simpsons). With the help of Netflix and the binge-watching phenomenon, Breaking Bad has become one of those few shows ending at the right time while also having its biggest audience ever. With the record-breaking 5.9 million viewers who watched the premiere of season 5B, Breaking Bad has broken through the culture in a major way. Vince Gilligan and company likely felt a lot of pressure to really deliver for the show’s last eight episodes, but you wouldn’t know it, given the quality of the premiere. Titled “Blood Money”, the premiere episode of season 5B features many of those explosive moments that have turned the show into a mainstream hit while also featuring the understated character moments that made it more than just a modern-day pulp classic.
Using the same framing device as the season 5A premiere, the show gives us a glimpse into the future, with Walter White (Bryan Cranston) donning a full head of hair, a mustache and a beard. Walt drives back to his house, which has now become a dilapidated building with empty rooms and crumbling walls. Local kids have even adapted the White’s old pool into a skating rink. Most intriguingly about the neglected house, however, is the “HEISENBERG” graffiti sprayed on the wall, which Walt examines with equal parts pride and astonishment. As proven by the sudden fear of Walt’s poor old neighbor Carol featured at the end of the cold open, Walt has officially become a name. It’s a fascinating set-up to the season, seeing how dramatically things will have changed for Walt and his community by the time the series ends.
The episode then picks up where “Gliding Over All” left off a little under a year ago: with Hank (Dean Norris) on the toilet discovering the truth about Walt. What impressed me most about this episode is how quickly the show reached a direct Hank vs. Walt standoff. Many shows of this nature would try to stretch out the Hank vs. Walt storyline through the whole season, culminating in a direct standoff in the final few episodes. What’s impressive about the final scene in “Blood Money” is how much that type of scene was built up as the ultimate conflict throughout the series, and yet we are only one episode into the final run. When Hank closes his garage door and addresses Walt head-on, there is such a rush of anxiety and lack of certainty regarding what either man would do to each other. At first I thought Walt was going to impulsively kill Hank, considering his propensity for killing anyone that stands in his way. In his fury I thought Hank might do something dangerous to Walt, considering all the tools at his disposal. Though Hank brutally punches Walt, it is Walt’s quiet, ominous threat “maybe your best course would be to tread lightly” that feels like the most violent act in that garage. Cranston and Norris show off some of their best acting in this scene as two stubborn men not knowing where to go from Hank’s newfound knowledge.
Though the series is bookended with two very memorable scenes, it is the middle of the episode that reflects Breaking Bad at its best. Walt and Skyler (Anna Gunn) are seemingly getting along and thinking about expanding their carwash business. Skyler has a brilliant mama bear moment when confronting Lydia (Laura Fraser), telling her to stay far away from Walt and their place of business. It is an interesting moment to see Skyler defending Walt after spending much of season 5A floating between apathy and blind hatred of him. At this point, Skyler just wants to move on from the past tumultuous year and she sees any outside person trying to bring Walt back into the drug business as a direct threat to her family. Meanwhile, Jesse (Aaron Paul) has returned to his depressed, drug-induced stupor in the wake of Drew Sharp’s death, the young teen Todd (Jesse Plemons) killed after he witnessed Todd, Jesse and Walt’s train heist. He also feels guilty about his entire involvement with Walt and their meth business and wishes to give his share of the $5 million away. Even as Walt tries to convince Jesse near the middle of the episode that Mike (Jonathan Banks) is gone but not dead, it seems clear that Jesse can no longer trust him. Though he nods his head to everything Walt says, he visibly shows his doubts while reflecting how truly depressed he has become. Throwing stacks upon stacks of money throughout a local poor neighborhood, Jesse has such a numb look on his face that manages to grow cathartic with each toss. It’s heartbreaking stuff, but at some point Jesse is going to have to pick himself back up and truly face Walt. I have a feeling that moment will come late in this final batch of episodes, but when it does come, it will truly feel epic.
As Breaking Bad winds down to its natural ending, the series writers truly have a lot of expectations to not only meet, but exceed. The premiere episode does not feature a series of death-defying moments but it has such confidence to be able to tackle Hank vs. Walt in the first episode while also developing each of its main characters in smaller scenes. I have no doubts that the show will deliver one of the most dynamic endings in television history and I can’t wait to see how it all plays out in the next seven weeks.
MVP: Dean Norris