Breaking Bad Review: "Live Free Or Die" (Episode 5.01)
Season five opens up with a flash forward to Walter White, a year ahead of the current time. When the show first started, Walt was 50 years old. He was a tired and weathered man beaten down by life, stark contrast to the Walt we know now, who has become Heisenberg—a murdering drug lord who cooks the best meth in the entire country. The flash forward shows us where the show is going, and it doesn’t look pretty. Walt is now again looking weathered and tired. He’s sporting a full beard that is gnarled, and his hair has grown back. He’s celebrating his 52nd birthday all alone at a Denny’s diner. He even breaks up his bacon to make the shape of a 52, similar to what Skyler did for him every birthday. How bad has his life become, that he’s spending his birthday by himself and that he looks so beaten down? His cough is even back again, and he has to pop a pill to suppress it. And then there is the M-60. Walt is not only celebrating his birthday by himself, he’s making a deal with the gun dealer from season four. There is talk about something big going down, and it not crossing the border. Walt walks to a car with his newly purchased M-60. This is the price that has to be paid to stay on top.
Breaking Bad has always centered around the premise that good people can be corrupted. More specifically, it’s about the circumstances that could make someone become bad. This in many ways is why Breaking Bad hits deeper than any other show, because we’ve seen Walt make this transformation from one side to the other. It’s not that Breaking Bad is the first show or movie to ever show the temptations or situations that could lead anyone to walk down the wrong path. But it’s certainly the most ambitious in chronicling the path of a good person falling from grace when presented with the right circumstances.
And this is also why I think it will be hard for some fans to swallow. Throughout much of the show’s run, Walter White has always had some sort of justification for his actions. No matter how immoral those actions were, there were still justifiable. But here in season five, we see a different Walt. It’s a continuation of the Walt that laughed maniacally in “Crawl Space” and “End Times." It’s the Walt we see at the end of this week’s episode, “Live Free or Die,” who “forgives” a terrified Skyler for using his money to solve her Ted problem. The scene is framed in a way to make your skin crawl, as Walt slowly walks towards her and cradles her in his arms, whispering into her ear. And this is the Walt we can expect moving forward: a remorseless Walt who will do anything to maintain the life he has now, an egomaniac Walt who feels he deserves respect and power for all that he has done. Whereas Walt originally was cooking to make money for his family before checking out, he’s now in the game for himself. He’s in it, because for once in his life, he’s the best at something, or rather, getting the recognition that he’s always craved. And this is far from typical for a protagonist. Some fans last season didn’t want to believe Walt was even capable of poisoning a child, because it’s just not something a protagonist would do. But this is where the show is going, and it was always the goal of Vince Gilligan to take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface. And what happens when Walt starts making decisions that are no longer justifiable? This is a show that has asked us time and time again to examine and re-examine morality.
“Live Free Or Die” ties up all of the loose ends from the end of the magnificent season four. It’s a good mix and pace of action and humor, while also setting up Walt’s inevitable grasp at the fallen crown. With Gus out of the action, someone has to. As Walt points out to Skyler, their business is big enough to be a part of NASDAQ , and the demand for their product has never been higher. The episode displays one of Breaking Bad’s greatest tricks: writing these characters into corners that seem inescapable. Here it’s in the form of having to retrieve Gus’ laptop from the police evidence room. The laptop has footage of everything that went on in the lab. The situation presents us with the new dynamic of the season between Walt, Jesse and Mike.
Mike is back from Mexico, and Jonathan Banks is easily a stand-out from the premiere. His lack of patience for Walt and his humor add a lot to the show and bring some underlying tension as well. Last season we saw Jesse and Mike bond as a part of Gus’ power play on Walt. But we can see there is a sense of loyalty Jesse has to both of these men. Their solution for getting the computer back? They won’t. Instead they use a giant magnet to fry the computer’s hard drive. The entire set-up reminded me of season one’s hilarious scene when Walt and Jesse break into a factory to get chemical barrels to replace their lacking ingredient—Sudafed. The wannabe criminals fumble their way through the heist, looking ridiculous with their ski masks. Now they sit next to a police evidence room with their van sucked into the wall. But whereas before they seemed like they had no idea what they were doing, there is a kind of brilliance and admiration for the cleverness they display now when having to get themselves out of trouble.
Walt is now meaner than ever. His stare-down with Saul was not only meant to strike fear into him for going behind his back with his money; it was also to make it clear that no one walks out on him. Walt’s confidence is similarly displayed when Mike asks Walt how he knows the magnet worked on the laptop and Walt responds: “Because I said so.” But this is where Walt needs to be if he plans to fill the shoes of Gustavo Fring. Prior to this, Walt was a mastermind cook who knew how to always escape the next danger headed his way. But now he’s going to be controlling an entire empire, and he’s making it clear that no one else can do it but him. Skyler also added to this new dynamic, as you could feel her trembling and shrinking anytime she was in the same room as him. Prior to this she just assumed he was cooking in some professional lab; she never knew he was capable of murder. But there is also an interesting scene where Skyler visits Ted in the hospital, and he is terrified of her. She quickly assumes the role of being a threat and coldly replies “good” when he says he won’t utter a word. Seeing as Skyler has already gotten herself involved in Walt’s business with money laundering, it will be an interesting dynamic to see the writers explore.
Another interesting question this season is what will become of Gus’ entire organization. We know Walt aims to fill this spot, but there is still the aftermath of everything that happens to Gus’ business following his death. When Mike yells “do you even know what you have done?!” there is a real sense that there is something bigger at play here, something that not even Walt or Jesse had ever contemplated. But for Walt, it was a move that had to be made to survive. The season premiere teases us with the police discovering Gus’ hidden account number. While Gustavo Fring is no longer a physical threat to Walt, it’s hard to imagine that his entire empire and business won’t come back to bite Walt in some form or another. And of course, the DEA will be moving their investigation into every aspect of it, so these threads will no doubt build towards something bigger as the season goes on.
Season five has a clear end game. Walt will eventually get to the point that he was at in this season’s ambiguous opener. It’s not going to be an easy ride to watch. Then again, Breaking Bad was never meant to be easy. It’s a show that is supposed to challenge you. It’s a show that makes you uncomfortable, because the guy you once rooted for has changed. But when his actions no longer become justifiable, we realize the monster that he’s capable of becoming. It’s fitting that the show has in a lot of ways come full circle. In the first season, Hank was everything Walt had come to resent in the world: a man that was looked at by others with respect, who underestimated Walt and wrote him off as a square teacher. Now Walt has become Hank’s nemesis—a cunning and elusive prey that will kill to stay out of his reach. “Live Free or Die” is Breaking Bad hitting all the show’s notes in strides. It’s suspenseful and humorous, but there is a lingering sense of doom hanging over it. After last season’s war, the dust has settled, and Walt and his product are all that remain. As we head into the final 16 episodes of the series, we will get to see what it takes to stay on top and what kind of sacrifices Walt will make for this new life he’s created for himself.