Note: Don't read on unless you've seen the premiere episode of AMC's "Breaking Bad's" fifth and final season, entitled "Live Free or Die."
What should we make of the opening scene of the new season of "Breaking Bad'" (Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on AMC)? Will there be a structural conceit similar to the one we saw in Season 2, which opened with images of items that we learned, much later, came from a plane that crashed?
This is just a guess, but I'm thinking creator Vince Gilligan will not try to recreate exactly what he did in Season 2, given that he's said in interviews that the need to steer the story to the plane-crash ending tied the writers' hands a little bit. This is a show that likes to change course as needed: One reason Season 3 was so good was because Gilligan and company ended the Mexican brothers' run as villains much earlier than originally planned, given that it had become clear that their appearances would have more impact if they were condensed and not stretched out. I wonder if the first half of Season 5 (the eight episodes AMC is airing this year) will end with us finding out how Walt came to have the car with the New Hampshire plates and the need for serious firepower in the trunk.
In any event, in Season 5's opening scene, Walt looks very different from the man who told Skyler "I won," and who hoisted a celebratory Scotch to himself once he got home. It wasn't just that the diner Walt had a full head of hair and a different pair of glasses; he looked hunted, alone and somehow defeated. Nothing about the way the birthday boy carried himself said that his plans and strategies had turned out well. It's unlike the Walter White of the last few seasons to be humble, but he certainly didn't look as though he was on top of his game.
By contrast, the Walt we see in the rest of the episode, which presumably takes place at least a month or two before the diner scene, is in full-on "I won" mode. I loved how Michael Slovis' direction and Vince Gilligan's script subtly, but very effectively called attention to Walt's pride and arrogance when his family returned. You could see Walt bristle at his son's effusive praise of his Uncle Hank, whom Walt Jr. learned had been on the trail of Gus Fring for a long time. Of course Walt would never tell his son the truth, but his endless need for affirmation made him follow Skyler into the bedroom in an attempt to extort some praise out of her, or at least some recognition for how he'd "saved" the family.
Walt was completely unable to see how horrified his wife was by his very presence, his demands for affirmation and praise, his blindness to the emotional needs of others. While he sees himself as a savior, Skyler sees him as a calculating murderer. And Walt's fatal flaw is that his desire to see himself as the winner trumps every other consideration. But you have to give "Breaking Bad" a ton of credit for dissecting Walt's pride with such clinical precision. It's as if the entire season is a well-constructed indictment of toxic privilege.
But Walt's attitude toward Skyler when she returned to the house was nothing compared to his behavior at the end of the episode. Once he, Mike and Jesse had pulled off the Great Magnet Caper, Walt's arrogance went from alarming to terrifying.
It's worth reading both parts of Alan Sepinwall's interview with Bryan Cranston, but I especially liked the section in which he talked about the kinds of performances actors give when they don't have any dialogue. Look at Walt's stone face in Saul's office: He is so very, very far from the man who cooked meth in his underpants in Season 1. This new, triumphant version of Walt killed that man and would do it again.
The look on his face in Saul's office was that of a man who is determined to assert his Alpha Dog status in every possible situation. He physically intimidates the cowering Saul, then goes home to wrap his arms around his terrified wife, never truly understanding how much he frightens and disgusts her. Inside his fortress of narcissism, he probably thinks of himself as "the bigger man" in any number of ways. And in this instance, he's going to give a pass to Skyler's "mistakes" with Ted.
That's the scariest thing about this Walter White -- not only is he no longer capable of crises of conscience, he actually thinks he's a stronger and worthier man than he ever was. He's no longer trying to justify his actions to himself via his family, he's trying to justify his wife's actions to himself -- because how dare she do something on her own, without consulting him and bowing before his masterful intellect?
In Walt's mind, the blame for the Ted situation can't necessarily be traced back to him, and that's the central tension that drives this show: Walt wants everything to be about him, but he also wants to evade responsibility for the damage he's done. He's childlike in one way: He wants all the credit but none of the blame. He's able to dismiss or paper over every horrible thing he's ever done, but, more than ever, the world must revolve around him. Everything has to feed his ego, and all the justifications for his actions (a nest egg for his family, etc.) are just a memory at this point.
Ironically, in the minds of everyone else (aside from Jesse, who fails to heed all of Mike's wise warnings), Walt is the source of the everything that has gone wrong. The mismatch between the savior Walt thinks he is and the monster Mike and Skyler see gives you an idea of the size of the former chemistry teacher's ego.
And as I wrote in my Season 5 preview piece, Walt never sees that his pride obscures the reality around him. Sure, the Great Magnet Caper may have worked, but there's always another detail to iron out, there's always something he didn't think of. He remembered to get rid of the plant that was the source of the poison he used last season, but he didn't realize that Gus' office would yield other clues about the Chicken Man's ill-gotten gains and who helped him gain them. As he sped away with Jesse and Mike, smug within his "Because I say so" confidence, Gus was reaching out from the grave and offering the authorities a valuable clue. The central thing Walt has consistently failed to do is recognize that all his grand ideas usually get him in even deeper trouble, eventually.
Speaking of the Great Magnet Caper, I'll now share my one beef with this otherwise fine episode: How did they know not only where the evidence room was within that police building, but the actual dimensions of the evidence room? This isn't a small piece of information; the entire caper revolved around knowing the building's plans and room's size, and we never even got a throwaway line about how they got that information. We know Mike found out the laptop was in the police evidence room by pretending to be a postal inspector, but if he also happened to know the detailed layout of that building, the script should have told us that.
Everything else about the episode was the usual fantastic mix of restraint, observation, economically edited suspense and black comedy (the laconic moments at the junkyard were a nice contrast to the tightly wound scenes that filled the rest of the episode). Given how creative these writers, this crew and this cast is, I never get tired of the following dynamics: Jesse having excellent ideas and defending Mr. White, only to be barely acknowledged; Mike being awesomely efficient and thoroughly sick of everyone else's incompetence; Walt's expectation that everyone will be grateful for his brilliance, not sickened by his self-regard; and not least, Jesse's ability to be excited about Science ("Magnets! OH!").
It's wonderful to have "Breaking Bad" back, and I look forward to talking about Season 5 with you each week.
A few more observations:
- Walt coughs and takes a pill in that diner bathroom. So what are the odds of his cancer being back?
- "Breaking Bad": The most breakfast-obsessed show on TV? Discuss.
- Anyone else get any "Prometheus" flashbacks when Hank was exploring the ruins of the Superlab? "ProMETHeus," heh.
- There were a few scenes of Walt and mirrors, but he never truly sees himself as he is.
- The more I watch good TV shows, the more I appreciate the work of fine editors, including those who work on "Breaking Bad." There was especially terrific work in the "But what about magnets!" scene at Jesse's house, and the looks on Mike and Walt's faces at the end of that scene were dryly hilarious.
- I'm going to take the tricycle moment in the evidence room as a shout-out to the work of the great photographer William Eggleston.
- Another great moment: Walt walking down the hall to where Skyler is at the end of the episode. His dark, hulking presence makes him look like the dark monster he's become.
- Living with the terror in Ted Beneke's eyes is the price that Skyler pays -- and will pay for the rest of her life -- for having stayed with Walt. The scary thing is, Ted's fate is not the worst thing she can imagine; surely at this point she knows her children are in grave danger.
- I think we can agree: Worst birthday party ever?
"Breaking Bad" airs Sundays at 10 p.m. ET on AMC.