“Live Free or Die” (05.01, 2012)
Written by Vince Gilligan (Previous Episodes: “Pilot,” “Cat’s in the Bag,” “…And the Bag’s in the River,” “Cancer Man,” “Peekaboo,” “ABQ,” “No Más,” “Full Measure,” “Box Cutter,” and “Face Off”)
Directed by Michael Slovis (Previous Episodes: “Kafkaesque” and “Cornered”)
Breaking Bad opens its final season with one of its favorite conceits: an odd scene in the future the explanation for which will be slowly unveiled in the future. The show used the same technique in its pilot, opening with floating pair of pants, a rushing Winnebago, and a hurried “confession” into a camcorder by a pantsless man who then stands in the street and points a gun toward oncoming sirens. It returned to the same idea in season two with the pink teddy bear floating in the pool in season two. And of course there was the strange image of a line of people crawling through the Mexican desert in season three. This time, it’s essentially a hint about the future. Walt is celebrating his 52nd birthday at a Denny’s, having grown back his hair and facial hair and sporting a fake ID. Walt sits at the counter nervously and claims to be from New Hampshire, then receives delivery of a large machine gun from his old arms dealer, Jim Beaver. It’s a mysterious sequence, but it’s one about which we can make some educated guesses this time.
When Walt goes into the bathroom to confirm the delivery of the gun, he coughs and takes some pills, leading to the question of whether his cancer has returned. His hair makes it clear that if his cancer has returned, he has not gone through another round of chemotherapy, but it wouldn’t be the first time that Walter White has refused treatment for his cancer. The nervousness, the fact that his family is nowhere to be found at his birthday breakfast, and fake ID suggest that he has been running—perhaps he’s used the “disappearer” Saul talked about last season. Then, there’s the gun. Walt doesn’t even just need a gun, he needs a GUN. There isn’t much to tell us what’s scaring Walt, but something sure is. Another fact that deserves mention is that the guy in Denny’s is Walter White, not Heisenberg, which may be a suggestion that Heisenberg is already dead. Even when he looks at the gun, Bryan Cranston’s reaction is one of resignation and a bit of fear, not excitement.
Then, we get into the fallout from the death of Gus Fring. The discovery of Gus Fring’s meth operation leaves Walt and Jesse jobless but also with one major loose end: Mike, still recuperating in Mexico. However, the show resolves this situation rather easily. Walt, Jesse, and Mike must band together to keep themselves from getting caught, now that Fring’s equipment throughout his empire is being checked out by the APD and DEA. It’s a nice way for the writers to get Mike off of killing Walt and force the three into working together. It leads to a typically slapstick-but-still-working caper for Jesse and Walt, cleaning away what they believe is the only trace of them in Gus Fring’s effects.
However, the most important development is the changes wrought on the characters. Once he finally embraced his bad guy nature near the end of last season, Walter White became Heisenberg full-time. Where previously, it appeared that Walt had played Heisenberg to survive the drug world, it now appears that Heisenberg is the real man and there is simply no trace of Walter White left. Heisenberg, the hardened criminal, is also now incredibly self-assured, to the point of ridiculousness, even telling Saul, “We’re done when I say we’re done” and Mike that he can believe that the evidence destruction has worked “because I say so.” Jesse has meanwhile fallen back in line underneath Heisenberg, with Walt’s manipulations again working the way they once did and the confidence and self-possession that Gus and Mike had given him out the window.
Meanwhile, back at home, Skyler has become terrified of Heisenberg. She has probably figured out that he was the source of the bomb that killed three people at the end of season four, and realizes how evil and callous the man who was once Walter White has become. It also hurts her that she has put Ted Benneke in the hospital, where he is alive and awake but apparently may never walk again. Heisenberg’s manipulations don’t work on her like they do on Jesse, but she is too afraid to fight them. Walter White got into this business for his family, but Heisenberg has now alienated it.
Heisenberg feels invincible, but there are definite cracks in his world, and we already know that it’s going to blow open in the next year. His voracious appetite for control is being fed, but he’s lost everything else he was after. We can even see him sewing the seeds of his own destruction, moving back in to Skyler’s home and unpacking the copy of Leaves of Grass we saw him reading back when he was working with Gale in the superlab. The show rather hamfistedly draws attention to the book, making it clear that it will be a major part of the future. I can only assume that it is somehow going to be the clue that tells Hank who he is, though how exactly that will happen I do not know.
Michael Slovis, normally the show’s cinematographer, steps up to the director’s chair for the third time, and again it seems that while he is capable of directing quite well, the show is just better served with him as a cinematographer. As great as everything about this show is, the first thing that got my attention was its look—the care given to the use of color and shot composition was on par with a film, something that no other television show has ever attempted, let alone succeeded in doing. Much of that look is provided by Slovis on the camera, and his absence there is felt more than his presence in the director’s chair.
Still, it’s a strong opening to the season, if a bit predictable and wearing its structure on its sleeves a bit more than Breaking Bad typically does. The opening scene is a brilliant opening, dropping plenty of hints about what’s going on in the future, but leaving so much unexplained that we have to look forward to its revelation.