A scruffy, stolid, bespectacled guy gabs absently with a chatty Denny’s waitress. He makes the number 52 with the bacon on his plate. It is his birthday, he says, which she says rates him a free meal. He meets a guy in the bathroom, exchanges money for a car-key, leaves a hundred for his free birthday breakfast and exits to appraise the trunk full of the heavy machine gun and cache of ammunition he just purchased.
Thus begins the long-anticipated Season 5 of AMC’s Breaking Bad, creator Vince Gilligan telling us again subtly what he has been telling us for four years: there is so much more than meets the eye. Like David Lynch without the post-mod weirdness, Gilligan delights and excels at the art of juxtaposition, typically of the bright, bland, hot-enough-for-ya workaday America with the darker, bleaker goings-on on under the surface. Gilligan conceived Breaking Bad on this, an average suburban schmoe and hapless cancer victim (Bryan Cranston) who morphs into a high-stakes player in the Albuquerque methamphetamine market. And as the flash-forward cold-opening ominously portends, Walter White’s long, frenetic, scary arc is getting scarier, mostly because Walter White is no longer anything close to what he seems.
Gilligan’s tale from go has been a sterling example of creator-driven television’s promise — the leisure and freedom to dig deeply into characters and let their pretensions, pathoses and grinding flaws map the story. The more we knew about those, the more the friction between them — say, between Walt and Gus (Giancarlo Esposito), regional chicken chain owner who also happened to be an icy drug kingpin — genuinely played up and down our spines. It meant we at least understood when Walt, out of his infuriating pride, made bad decisions for what he told himself were good reasons. An anti-Machiavelli, Gilligan revels in unraveling how bad decisions beget bad outcomes, leading to more bad decisions and increasingly horrible outcomes. This, Gilligan seems to say, is never just this.
After Season 4’s exhausting rollercoaster finale, where Gus met his gasp-inducing end and thusly liberated Walt and Jesse put an exclamation point on it by turning their high-tech meth kitchen into a napalm geyser, we all breathed easier. Not so fast, Vince Gilligan says, did you think that was just that? Horrible decisions were made, a lot of them, in sequence. Walt and Jesse have blown up a chunk of a multimillion dollar enterprise likely involving many more people, most them now unhappy. Walt’s increasingly complicit wife Skyler has, unbeknownst to Walt, undertaken some chicanery of her own. She has skimmed $600,000 of Walt’s ill-gotten gains to convince her former boss, Ted, to pay his back taxes and forego Fed scrutiny on their finances.
Ted awakens from a life-threatening head injury that resulted from a play by Skyler and sleazy lawyer Saul (Bob Odenkirk) to induce his tax-payment by way of hired goons. Skyler, who started off the episode starkly enough by telling Walt she now fears him, visits Ted in the hospital to find him — abruptly — far more afraid of her, basically pleading with her for his life.
Meanwhile Mike, Gus’s no-BS fixer, returns from nursing his gunshot wound — hopefully meaning far more screen time for the character, as the awesome Jonathan Banks rarely fails to make television better — pissed about his dead boss and ready to end Walt once and for all. Except, um, there’s this thing. The lab they blew up, Walt’s DEA brother-in-law discovers, had security cameras that fed Gus’s laptop, which is now in the ABQPD evidence locker, pregnant with images of all of them doing bad things. Grudging allies again, they hatch another science-tastic caper involving a super-magnet they need to get close enough to the evidence room to blank Gus’s PC.
Okay, so we can relax enough in Episode 1 for Gilligan to revisit the show’s drier comedic aspects. The old junkyard man helping them concoct the magnet does a rundown of all the things they need to have off their persons to avoid super-magnetic complications, including credit cards.
“You want that plastic working come Miller Time,” he says.
“Y’know,” says Mike, steel-wool in pants, “I can foresee a lot of possible outcomes to this thing and not a single one of them involves Miller Time.”
Naturally this proves prophetic. With the super-magnet packed in a junkyard truck, Walt — with metaphorical implications — becomes a bit too ambitious with the power at his disposal and cranks it. The magnet becomes so powerful it tips the truck over. They escape before the cops get there — smash-cut to Mike’s car as they speed away — and begin to celebrate their success … until Mike rains on the parade. They’ve left the entire apparatus at the cop shop, their escapade to erase evidence just yielding a giant module of still more evidence, and they’re not even sure the computer has been erased.
“It worked,” Walt says.
“How do we know?” Mike demands.
“Because I say so,” Walt says, as Cranston’s stony glare reminds us that pride goeth before the fall.
Walt visits Saul and sits, still glaring, as the lawyer explains his complicity in Skyler’s $600,000 payout to Ted. Saul, having had enough of these troublesome clients, attempts to end the business, at which point Walt walks around the desk, get in his face and says, “We’re done when I say we’re done.”
He returns to his home, where he embraces a both feared and fearful Skyler. When this once painfully awkward high school teacher murmurs into her ear, “I forgive you,” we know she should be very damn afraid, for 12 more episodes that cannot possibly end well.
Gilligan is painting a cataclysmic car-wreck, one that will involve a heavy machine gun, and I cannot look away.
New episodes of Breaking Bad air Sundays at 10/9CT on AMC.
Photo and video: AMC
Photo credit: Ursula Coyote