It is often the case that television viewers have to look beyond the major networks to find the best entertainment experience, and the return of AMC’s Breaking Bad; a show which started to mixed reviews five years ago after failing to be picked up by FX, is an exceptional example of how both writers and actors can improve over time. When I started watching the show as a college freshman in 2008, it was pretty good. And that’s how most people who saw season 1 described it: pretty good. Not outstanding, riveting or groundbreaking, but simply pretty good.
The key change is that over time, Breaking Bad has defied convention. For most shows, a new season means writing for the sake of money, stretching subplots and including tedious (often irrelevant) twists in the hope of keeping the streak going as long as possible. Vince Gilligan and the rest of the Breaking Bad crew instead decided to approach the show ethically, cranking out some damn good television that, if anything, has taken itself to a new level every single season it has been on the air. They have been rewarded, it seems, by a dedicated following and a very successful program that will end as it began; ethically. Like 24 and so many other major network shows, they could probably stretch the storyline over another 3-4 seasons, but the quality would inevitably diminish, and previously unplanned deaths would happen as actors would demand pay raises in the wake of the show’s popularity. The only bad news about this show’s going out in style is that after all it is going out this fall. One episode down, and eight to go in the last cook for America’s favorite meth dealers.
This week’s return of season 5 (or season 6, no one is really sure which) is called Blood Money, and had a lot to live up to after a cliffhanger ending stretching over the course of a full calendar year. With Walter White having officially left the meth dealing business, viewers might have wondered what, if anything the show had left to cover in the last eight full episodes. There were a few unburied conflicts between Jessie and Walt, but those seemed trivial and unlikely to resurface at any point in the near future. But at the very end, Walt’s brother in law and DEA agent Hank Schrader stumbles upon the missing piece of the puzzle, that might put him on Walt’s scent and one step closer to catching the infamous cook known as “Heisenberg.”
Fans were not disappointed to see that Walter White has lost none of his manipulative tendencies, Jessie is still struggling with the moral implications of their actions, and Badger is still a hapless moron. We are treated to a fast-forward, one year in the future to a broken and heavily armed Walter White, driving a car past what used to be his home (Now a total wreck) to collect a sample of a poison he had left there months before, the same make-you-guess foreshadowing that BB has made a staple of its episodes since season two.
What stood out from this episode was just how good at playing with people Walter has become. In several scenes, he is almost indistinguishable from former employer Gus Fring, carrying the same businesslike attitude, stern confidence and utter control of all situations. He is able to convince his typically resistant wife to consider expanding their business venture, calmly dismisses the veiled threats of Lydia, his former business partner whose business is now being run into the ground in Walt’s absence, and talk down Jessie, who is getting precipitously close to having been lied to one too many times. Ultimately, when the chips are laid down on the table between Walt and Hank, Heisenberg’s quick wit may have saved him a run in with police. Walt has become a master of getting himself out of pinches, but collateral damage is inevitable, and if the shots one year ahead of time are any indication, there will likely be some more unfortunate bystanders who suffer from his ego and selfishness before the show is complete.
It seems like it’s been a long time since Walter’s bold proclamation of “I won.” at the conclusion of season four. It’s been even longer since his actions led to the collision of two full sized planes directly above his Albuquerque home. But if one thing is for certain, it’s that this is no longer about Walter White providing for his family. That shtick has come and gone. This is about a man, his ego, and his empire, and how much he will sacrifice to keep it from all crumbling to the ground.