Monday, July 16, 2012

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

Once again, a new season of Breaking Bad begins at a point in the future, to which the rest of the season will work its way toward. This flashforward makes itself evident through Walt’s hairstyling: he sports a full head of hair, shaggy beard, and hipster-chic, thick-rimmed glasses. It’s a nice reveal, as the episode takes its time in showing us the new-look Walt, first spending considerable time showing him playing with his bacon (making what appeared to me to resemble the mushroom cloud of a nuclear explosion).

Once again, we also have an episode that derives much of its story from the consequences of previous episodes. Much like in seasons past, where we could spend an entire episode watching Walt and Jesse clean up corpses (as in season 1), this episode spends much of its length with the characters cleaning up after the machinations of the season 4 finale. It starts with Walt cleaning up his home, getting rid of the evidence of his bomb-making. Sporadically, he keeps remembering more and more things he needs to do to remove evidence of his actions, including getting rid of the plant he used to poison Brock, and finally, after his family returns home, remembering what will preoccupy him and most of the other characters for the rest of the episode: Gus had video evidence of him and Jesse cooking meth.

The episode then proceeds to do what no other show on television does better (or at least, no other show that I watch): it puts its characters in what appears to be an impossible situation, and then forces them to figure a way out of it while (more or less) preserving the status quo. Walt and Mike get into a shouting match over the possibility of destroying the laptop, and for once, Jesse comes up with a practical idea that the three spend the rest of the episode executing: erasing the laptop with a magnet.*

* This scene also contained my favorite shot of the episode, of Walt and Mike arguing with one another about the (im)possibility of destroying Gus’s laptop from within the police evidence vault. Walt and Mike are standing on the left and right sides of the screen, and framed between them is Jesse, out of focus in the background, as he comes up with his magnet idea (which he has to repeat four times before they listen to him). Both Walt and Mike have been father-figures for Jesse in the past, and this shot’s composition emphasizes a sort of bizarro My Two Dads dynamic to their relationships.

As usual, the show does a great job of showing the characters executing their plans – the junkyard stuff was great, partly because it is cool to see a giant magnet destroy a laptop, and partly because it shows these characters’ well-defined personalities bouncing off one another. However, plans on this show usually involve deceiving others, and complex manipulations of who knows what (viewers included). The plan in this particular episode involves a heist, which to the best of my memory is something new to this show. It works smashingly (pun intended), as we see the gist of it in the test run at the junkyard, but with a few key particulars left out, which we learn of as the plan unfolds.

And once again, Walt’s pride and his tendency to overcompensate ends up getting the best of him. He has never been able to leave well enough alone, and in cranking the magnet to the max, he tips the truck against the wall, increasing the risk of him and Jesse getting caught (and in turn providing us with some nice suspense). Mike raises some very reasonable concerns in the car as they flee from the police station: What about prints on the truck? What if it’s traced back to the junkyard, along with the magnet and batteries? Walt reassures Mike that’ll never happen, and when Mike asks how they even know if the magnet gambit worked to erase the laptop, Walt replies, “Because I say so.”

Mike has no response, and Walt basks in his own pride and overconfidence, dispositions he’s displayed frequently in the past. Walt might be right in this case, but with no one left to challenge his authority, I can’t help but suspect that these qualities (plus possibly his paranoia) will lead to problems for him in the future. The show itself indicates as much, both in the opening scene, and through Walt’s zealousness with the magnet inadvertently revealing to the police Gus’s Cayman bank account, which Gus kept hidden behind a picture frame in his office. Good job, Walt! True, Walt couldn’t have known that the bank account information was in the vault, nor that his actions would reveal it, but once again, Walt becomes his own worst enemy.

This tendency can only become larger now that there is no real check on his authority (outside of the police), which he throws around throughout the episode: he convinces Jesse and Mike to assist him in his plans to destroy the video evidence, cows Saul into submission, and then “forgives” Skyler for giving Ted all their money to pay off the IRS. On the surface, Walt seems to intend his forgiveness of Skyler to seem comforting, but Skyler didn’t need to be forgiven for her actions here: what she did was necessary. Thus Walt is really saying something else to her: Don’t do anything with my money again without my knowing. It’s easy to see why Skyler finds this terrifying. To Skyler, Walt is now not just as a drug dealer, but a murderous gangster, someone who has made good on his claim to be “The One Who Knocks.” Walt isn’t forgiving her, but warning her. I’d be scared too.

Other thoughts:

- It’s a nice touch that Walt’s realization about his need to find and dispose of the video is triggered by his toasting his reflection in the mirror.

- Walt and Jesse’s seeking out Mike to help retrieve the video footage is a wonderfully tense scene. Jonathan Banks is fantastic here, cycling from anger over Walt’s murder of Gus, to resignation over his realization that he can’t kill Walt, to disappointment in Jesse’s defense of Walt, and to exasperation over Walt’s failure to understand his gesture for the car keys. “Keys, scumbag. It’s the universal symbol for keys.”

- In his conversation with Lucy the Denny’s waitress at the start of the episode, Bryan Cranston has a wonderfully genuine delivery of the line, “Great science museum.” For a second, Walt the teacher/chemist emerges from his dour Heisenberg persona. It’s just a glimmer though; he subsequently leaves his seat and goes to meet his gun dealer in the bathroom.

- Breaking Bad is one of the most visually creative shows on television, thus it comes as no surprise that this episode has some nice stylistic touches. In addition to the shot of Walt and Mike arguing as Jesse is framed between them, the episode also has multiple shots taken from inside the trunks or cabs of cars: the car containing the machine gun Walt purchases in the first scene of the episode; Walt’s Aztec, which contains the evidence of Walt’s bombing of Gus and his poisoning of Brock, as well as a shot from the back of the trailer containing the giant magnet. Also good was the extreme long shot of Mike and Walt/Jesse driving toward one another, on what appears to be a crash course, only to pass each other harmlessly.

- Poor, idiotic Ted Beneke. I can’t help but think this is some retroactive continuity from Vince Gilligan: he looked goddamned dead when he tripped and slid head first into the counter last season. Instead, he’s only suffered a severe injury. Given his past behavior, I foresee him becoming another loose end for Skyler/Walt to have to deal with later.

- Classic Jesse enthusiasm, after observing the magnet destroy the test laptop: “Yeah bitch! Magnets! Oh!”

- So, Saul’s muscle Huel really did lift the poison cigarette off Jesse when he frisked him! Guess that answers that question. At least Saul himself points out the implausibility of Huel being able to lift it successfully, what with his “fingers like hotdogs.”

UPDATE: According to Sepinwall, the shape Walt makes with his bacon is actually "52," which is how old he is (it's his birthday in that scene).

Also, I realized belatedly that of course this show has done heists in the past, notably the heist of some barrels full of chemicals Walt needed to make meth, and which ended up turning the meth blue.


  1. -Maybe you can help me better understand: Why wouldn't Mike just kill Walt and Jesse when they meet in the desert? (Definitely loved the resolution of that moment, even if I don't get all the motivations.)

    -The reveal of the the poison cigarette was indeed great.

    -Walt is 52... so that makes the opening how many years into the future?

  2. - Well, Mike does in fact want to kill Walt, as is plainly evident in the scene. He does not, however, want to kill Jesse, as he likes Jesse and had a pseudo-paternal or at least mentor-like relationship with him last season. We can hear his disappointment in his voice when he lowers his gun. In fact, Mike and Jesse's relationship was alive and well the last time the two saw one another (when Mike was shot and Gus had poisoned himself), thus Jesse's renewed allegiance to Walt might be somewhat surprising to him.

    - According to Sepinwall, about a year's worth of time has passed since the start of the series to when Walt blows up Gus, which means that the flashforward is a year into the future, which is a pretty big jump for this show. It seems to me like more time has passed than simply one year, but I haven't been paying close attention, and this feeling is likely a result of how long the show has been on the air (including the hiatus it took between seasons three and four).