‘Breaking Bad’ Season Five Premiere: “Live Free Or Die”

(Catch up on Season Four here.)

After a rollicking Season Four in which Breaking Bad became, quite deservedly, one of the buzziest shows on TV, the Season Five premiere had a lot to live up to. While a few threads were left unresolved in “Face Off,” in many ways, things were tied off much more neatly than we’re used to from this show. All the most menacing villains were offed in one fell swoop, meaning that vice grip of tension Vince Gilligan held us in over the last season or so was finally relaxed. Now, we can breathe.

Season Five opens, as many episodes have, with a disorienting flash forward. Walt is chowing down in a New Mexico Denny’s on his supposed 52nd birthday — on a business trip from New Hampshire? (State motto: “Live free or die,” which also an episode title with similarly ironic connotations on The Sopranos, when gay mobster Vito Spatafore went on the run to that very idyllic New England state.) Walt’s got a full head of hair and a full arsenal of weapons and fake IDs in the trunk of his new car. Clearly, we have missed something.

Of course, it’s always possible that Breaking Bad has jumped into the future, leaving us to puzzle out the pieces as we go along. But soon we return to the immediate aftermath of the hospital explosion, as Skyler finally gets her confirmation that Walt is indeed the self-proclaimed “danger.” “I won,” he repeats from the season finale. Back then, it sounded triumphant. Now it’s just ominous.

So how does Walt the “winner” celebrate? With a quiet drink at home, after he’s ridden his place of any stray evidence — including those incriminating lilies. But then Walt remembers Gus’ penchant for voyeurism, knowing his laptop will have plenty of footage of his star cooks at work. After everything that went down last season, Walt sure as hell isn’t going to prison now, even if snatching evidence from police storage seems like a fool’s errand. And so he embarks, yet again, on what could very easily turn out to be a suicide mission.

How, exactly? I can sum it up in three words: “Yeah, bitch! Magnets!”

Before we get to that, though, there’s some resolution on a few other matters. Mike is, as expected, alive and well — at least until he learns of Gus Fring’s execution. He hightails it north, potentially planning to kill the killer — prompting us to wonder why exactly Mike is so loyal to Gus. Before, we could believe Mike worked for Gus primarily because it’s impossible to ever stop working for Gus and remain alive, but here his outrage feels personal. Or is he just upset that he will now be lacking a paycheck? Did Mike not live in constant fear like all of Gus’ other employees did?

Less predictably, we also learn that Ted survived his tumble at home, inadvertently caused by Skyler. But not without some consequences. When Skyler visits Ted in the hospital, he’s unrecognizable — he looks like he’s spent the last six months in bed, rather than a matter of days. But even more than the physical, it’s his attitude that’s changed so drastically — he cowers before Skyler, practically begging her not to harm him or his family. He swears he’s going to keep his mouth shut, and instead of offering any kind of reassurance, Skyler knows she has to remain firm and keep him living in fear. Her answer? “Good.” (But credit Anna Gunn’s always-awesome performance for allowing us to read just how disgusted she is at being seen as Mrs. Danger.)

It’s an especially effective reversal because of what we’ve already seen between the Whites — she tells Walt she’s afraid. “Of what?” he asks. “You,” she replies. Much like after being informed that Walt is “the one who knocks,” Skyler is reconsidered what she knows about the man she married, and how willing she is to accept his hidden dark side. In a way, I get the sense that Skyler is acting scared because she feels like she should be scared; Walt’s actions shouldn’t come as a real surprise to her after everything else she’s seen and heard. Like Carmela Soprano, she’s trying to play the ignorant wife and be very selective in what she knows and when she knows it. But when she sees what she’s done to Ted and chooses to play merciless Godmother instead of show remorse, both we and Skyler become aware that she’s crossed the same line Walt did not too far back. Now Skyler, too, is someone you can feel uneasy about knocking on your door.

“Live Free Or Die” is all about cleaning up the mess left in the wake of Season Four, and as usual in Breaking Bad, it doesn’t skim over the details. The show could’ve moved on but instead we see that even though the Big Bad has been defeated, there are still loose ends to tie before the threat is really gone. (If ever.) What we get is a pretty awesome sequence of Walt, Jesse, and Mike doing some nifty problem-solving, though this time, the weird science comes courtesy of Jesse, not Mr. White. Magnets! I won’t weigh in on how plausible a solution this is in real-world terms, but as far as Breaking Bad logic goes, it’s pretty solid. With Walt and Jesse teaming up again like this, it feels like Breaking Bad is headed back to its roots. There’s no lingering animosity from their fallout last season. So all’s well that ends well, right?

Of course not. Now everything from Season Four has really been tied up — Mike, Ted, and the evidence left behind. Plus, we get confirmation that it was Saul who stole Jesse’s ricin cigarette, therefore complicit in Walt’s child-poisoning scheme. It remains unclear where Season Five is headed — except, at some point, to New Hampshire — or what the major conflict will be now that Gus and the cartel are out of the picture. (Mike seems to have an inkling that bad things are on the horizon as a result.) But even without drug kingpins and the police to cause external conflicts, these people have more than enough problems as their own worst enemies.

Without Gus around to put him in his place, Walter “I won” White’s out-of-control pride rages wild as he tells Mike the plan worked “because I said so” and refuses Saul’s “request” to terminate their relationship, hissing “It’s over when I say it’s over.” (When even “Better Call Saul” has a moral dilemma in representing you, it may be time to take a long, hard look in the mirror.) Walt may have “won,” but that doesn’t bode well for an egomaniac like Walter White. No wonder Skyler’s so afraid — he’s terrifying just to look at in certain scenes, and when he hugs his wife close to tell her he forgives her for giving the majority of their savings to Ted (and, presumably, for fucking him), we’re not sure if he’s going to embrace her or strange her.

For now, Walt and his cohorts can live free. But it’s only a matter of time before that other option comes into play…

Grade: B+

P.S. A quick glimpse at Twitter has confirmed that “Yeah, bitch! Magnets!” has already become a thing. Guess Breaking Bad buzz is alive and well…

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