Breaking Bad’s fifth season begins like many of the ones before it, with an unexplained opening scene. In this instance we find Walter White playing with his food at a Denny’s, head and face both unfamiliarly hairy, and half-pretending to be interested in a conversation with a waitress while keeping his thoughts and eyes glued to what comes through the front door. A shady business transaction and a generous tip later and it’s clear that things in Walt’s life have turned for the worse. He’s using a fake identity, he is presumably taking medication for cancer again, and he needs a massive machine gun to confront whatever new problem lies ahead.
I’ve joked many times to friends that for Walt to complete his transformation into Scarface’s Tony Montana, as Vince Gilligan claims is the goal of his show, he was going to need a gun similar to that used in the movie’s most iconic scene. You can imagine my excitement then when it become increasingly clear last night that Walt is going to get his “say hello to my little friend” moment, and very soon.
For all the jokes and lines about turning Mr. Chips into Scarface, Breaking Bad has really been about one of the greatest character studies in the history of television. We watch the show because we want to see just how far Walter White is willing to go to preserve the illusion he has constructed in his mind. Walt justifies his deeds by saying he would do anything for his family. In his case it includes cooking drugs, making money off the drug trade, being indirectly responsible for an airline crash, letting the girlfriend of his best friend/partner die, poisoning an innocent child, and multiple instances of brutal murder. And it seems we have more to go.
Despite many opportunities to “get out” and preserve the safety of his family, Walt’s ego just won’t let him walk away. It’s now clear that there is simply no going back. The repercussions of Walt’s actions have spread too far and not even his brilliance can get him out of this great mess. It fits in perfectly with the show’s motif of science. Every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Everything must be explained.
Shortly after the opening scene we find Walt in the moments after his successful bomb plot on Gus. He frantically cleans up the mess at home (including the lily of the valley he used in the poisoning). He attempts to savor the moment with a glass of liquor but is quickly interrupted by the return of his family and eventually the realization that Gus had a camera on him the entire time he cooked meth.
The epiphany causes Walt, Jesse, and the recently healed Mike to embark on one of the more enjoyable plots of the entire series. It turns out Walt’s DEA agent brother-in-law Hank beat them to the laptop that stored all of the video from the cooks and the computer has since been locked up in storage at a local Albuquerque police evidence bank. They hatch a crazy plan to use a powerful magnet to destroy the computer’s memory rather than heed Mike’s advice to skip town, like yesterday. Amazingly the plan seemingly works but not before inviting a whole host of new problems including a ditched truck possibly filled with forensic evidence and causing the police to find access to Gus’ offshore bank accounts. Action. Reaction.
Meanwhile Skyler is left doing her best Walt impression during a hospital visit to former boss, lover Ted Beneke. Despite obviously being emotionally affected by indirectly causing Ted to break his neck, Skyler puts up a front and acts tough when he pleas with her to leave his family alone. It’s a haunting reminder of just how far the impact of Walt’s decision-making has gone.
My lasting memory of this episode though will be three specific scenes that show just how far Walt’s ego has come since the days of the meek chemistry teacher/carwash attendant in season one. First was his scene with sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman in which Walt simply refuses to let Saul end their relationship. Saul is so terrified he can’t even muster a response. Second is the way in which Mike, who once kicked Walt’s ass by the way, is softened throughout the course of the episode into buying what Walt is selling. We see him go from nearly murdering Walt in the desert to accepting his “because I said so” retort that he left no evidence at the scene of the magnet truck. Roles officially reversed. And finally is the haunting image of Walt in the final scene “forgiving” Skyler. The size of the balls that it took to say that in that moment, after everything that’s happened, is something only Tony Montana could relate to. It’s also a reminder of how things must end.
One could easily argue that Walt has already broken bad numerous times over. While this is true, let this serve as a simple reminder that we still have 17 episodes to go before this series concludes. It’s hard to imagine that Walt could conceivably do anything worse but there is no doubt that’s where we are headed. Who else is he willing to leave in his path of destruction? Will he sacrifice his own family to get what he wants? Anything is possible at this point.
My own heart tells me that the great tragedy of this show will be if Walt causes Jesse to die. It’s so clear that despite all of the bad that Jesse has done, he desperately wants a shot at redemption. Whether through rehab or his new girlfriend, there is a voice inside Jesse Pinkman that wants to get out of the drug game and be a good person. Walt always pulls him back in though. Something tells me that Jesse will come ever so close to coming up for air before it all goes horrifically wrong though, with Walter White being the one that weighs him back down.
It’s good to have Breaking Bad back in our lives.
Really anxious to find out just how bad Walter White really is.