Season 5 of Breaking Bad begins inside a Denny’s. With a shot from above, a plate of eggs, hash browns, and bacon cover a “Rethink Refreshment” placemat. Walter grabs the bacon and tears the flesh into pieces, rearranging the bits to spell “52.” It is, as he tells the waitress, his fifty-second birthday today. The reveal, as the camera moves to frame Walter White—the de facto hero of the series—is that he now has a full head of hair, a beard, and thick-framed glasses. Still in Albuquerque, Walter is living under the alias “Mr. Lambert” from New Hampshire, and an unknowable amount of time has passed*. He ends up purchasing an enormous gun in that Denny’s bathroom, promising to the salesman, “It’s never leaving town.”
The cold-opening flash forward has become a trademark of Breaking Bad, previewing what is to come and providing the title of this season opener, “Live Free or Die.” Outside of the Season 5’s own intriguing story lines, this preview of where Walter will be will provide a frame for the rest of the season—hopefully just this summer’s 8 episode block—to occur. And it’s entirely obscure what state Walter is in—is he in his cowering Season 4 position, perhaps taking up Saul’s offer of a new identity**? Or still on the powerful throne upon which he sits after Gus Fring’s death? What about the pills he takes before leaving?
That moment, his peak of pride, excitement, vitality in the phone call to Skylar from Season 4 is replayed for the audience after the cold open. And immediately, after opening up a whole new group of questions, showrunner Vince Gilligan has his characters set out to tie up all the loose ends of the thrilling last season. The episode actually begins mere moments after the last, with the family in shock with the news of Gus Fring’s death and Hanks new hero-status. Walter, meanwhile eliminates the evidence of his role—Lily of the Valley, anyone?. The episode then turns to addressing three essential, lingering questions.
What happened with Ted?
Well, in the words of Saul Goodman, “He just woke up.” We last saw Ted attempting to evade Saul’s henchman only to succumb to a citrusy wipeout. His lifeless body was our last image, and Skylar takes the role of the audience when she assumes Ted is dead. He is not. Instead, we’re soon treated to Ted in a hospital bed, braced and bald. When Ted promises to not talk to the police, Skylar has among her most Walter-esque, villain moments of the series, uttering in response—to this bed ridden, traumatized ex-lover—a simple, scary, “Good.”
What happened with Mike?
Mike reaction to Gus’s death was expected to be one of the bigger plot elements of Season 5. He was, after all, still in Mexico recovering from a bullet wound when Walter kills Gus. His reaction, though, is not the epic scorched Earth that some may have anticipated. It almost starts that way, but upon speaking with Walt, they team up to cover their tracks with the APD. With this he proves himself more mercenary than Fring loyalist, helping Jesse and Walt while repeating his determination to get out of town with an ominous, “It’s just a matter of time.”
What happened with the footage?
The essential conflict of the episode is Walt/Mike/Jesse vs. the APD’s evidence room. Why the evidence room? It holds Gus’s computer, the one used to monitor Walt’s hours of cooking and the same one that saved this footage. Their solution is to break into the APD compound and strategically place a high powered magnet close to the evidence room, thereby wiping the hard drive clean. Besides being successful, this effort netted the series the quote “Magnets, bitch!”
Their cooperation in many ways parallels the efforts of Mike to incorporate last season’s despondent Jesse. And though it’s clear Walter is calling the shots, at one point growling “Because I said so,” the three shows flashes of partnership. In a plan that is essentially masterminded by Jesse, run by Walt, and saved by Mike, the group appeared as a formidable trio.
Two relationships that don’t seem to blossom in this episode are between Walt & Saul and Walt & Skylar. Since the beginning of Walter’s work with Saul, which began with Walt & Jesse kidnapping Saul, driving him to the desert, and threatening to kill him, Walt has been in control. But that wasn’t all that clear, with Saul’s fast-talking, wit, and experience putting them on what seemed to be an equal level. With Season 5, that’s changed. When Saul want’s out, Walt responds, “We’re done when I say we’re done.”
Skylar recognizes the changes in Walt, and still rather terrified since last season’s “I’m the one who knocks” moment, she cowers in the presence of Walt. The episode ends with a frightening hug, a strange embrace between Walter and his wife. While he does quite a bit of growling this episode, Walt goes soft, telling Skylar he forgives her. It’s a moment that parallels Skylar’s admission that she had sex with Ted, but this time her terror is palpable. In fact, she outright tells him that she’s afraid of him.
Just after that confession to fright, Walter moves to talk to his infant daughter Holly. This long take sets up the thematic scenario that has underpinned the entire series: standing in his bedroom over his daughter’s crib, a double of Walter stands opposite in the mirror. It’s a slightly more ominous figure—its body seemingly more hunched. It is the duplicity of Walter White, family man and meth kingpin, the character rolled in to one shot, just back from murdering his rival and now talking to his infant daughter. Breaking Bad is back. And it is sure to be as conflicting as ever.
*Walter turned 50 in the pilot.
**This is a compelling theory. New Hampshire’s motto is “Live Free or Die.” If Walter has returned from freedom through his identity protection person, with his new firepower, he has chosen to die.
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