Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Breaking Bad: “Live Free Or Die”

Illustration for article titled Breaking Bad: “Live Free Or Die”

If Breaking Bad were a Torchwood or Doctor Who-style series of miniseries, the subtitle for season four would be “Powerlessness.” For endless agonizing weeks, we watched Walter White lashing out impotently at his jailers, rattling the bars of his cage. And then in the last two episodes, he finally managed to turn the tables, luring his master Gustavo Fring to his doom and freeing himself from involuntary servitude. “I won,” he stated simply to Skyler when it was all over.

That’s how season five—preliminary subtitle: “Power”—begins. That damnable I. All along Walt has believed that it was up to him—to provide for his family, to save his partner, to engineer a coup, to eliminate every conceivable threat. And now his success explodes into megalomania. It’s not good to be the king, he’s about to discover. As the satellite TV commercials might put it: Don’t end up in a Denny’s trading cash for the keys to a car with a semiautomatic in the trunk.

On the evidence of “Live Free Or Die,” with its now-traditional bizarre flash-forward cold open, it’s going to be just as mesmerizingly terrifying to plummet down from the heights of power with Walt as it was last season to sink into the depths of powerlessness. Returning to the house after blowing Gus, Tyrus, and Tio to smithereens, Walter quickly cleans up the bomb-making equipment and stashes it in the back of the Aztec. Ah, finally time for a celebratory drink. Wait—the lily of the valley plant! OK, now that’s in the Aztec too. Then a few minutes later, about to enjoy that drink in the company of adorable little Holly (“Hi sweet pea, daddy missed you so much!”), he’s stopped short again. Shit—the security cameras in the superlab. Being the king means keeping track of innumerable details, keeping control of a bewildering array of moving parts.

But Walt believes himself up to the task. He and Jesse speed to Mexico and nearly run into Mike the Cleaner on his way back to the States after getting the news about Fring. And that sets up a dynamic that puts Jesse right back in the middle. Mike knows Walt is foolish to think he can somehow fix a situation so monumentally out of control. All his repeated assertions that the jig is up aren’t directed so much at Walt, drunk with the immensity of what he’s just accomplished, but at Jesse who has an inkling that there might be limits to realistic criminal ambition. On the other hand, Mike may have a blind spot for what the grand mania of a Walter White can accomplish, seeing as his chief motivators are professionalism, self-preservation. and loyalty (where compatible with motivations 1 and 2). It shows in the hilarious conversation about how to destroy the laptop inside the evidence room where Mike is so busy shooting down Walt’s crazy chemistry ideas and Walt’s so busy coming up with crazy chemistry ideas that they can’t hear Jesse in the background interjecting, “What about, like, a magnet?”

Is his blind spot really the equal of Walt’s unwarranted hubris, though? Which one is based on years of practical experience, and which one is based on a few freaky triumphs? After abandoning the half-overturned truck by the APD’s wall, Walt dismisses Mike’s concern over the trail they left behind. “Untraceable salvage, all of it,” he asserts. “I’m supposed to take that on faith? Why? How do we know?” Mike demands. And in a thesis statement for season five, the ultimate conversation-stopper and the natural sequel to last season’s “I am the one who knocks” manifesto, Walt smirks: “Because I said so.” Jesse gets it even without Mike’s significant look. The question is at what point he will abandon what’s bound to be a sinking ship, and whether it will be too late.

In other character news, Skyler is terrified. I have to say that I like this more in concept than execution. It’s exactly the right move for this season to have Skyler realize that her husband is a ruthless killer, that self-defense can’t stretch to encompass the havoc he’s wreaked, and that people who get in his way end up at best like Ted in the hospital, battered and immobilized, begging to be spared and insisting that they aren’t a threat by simply existing. But Anna Gunn doesn’t pull it off very well; her style and tools are better suited for the frustration, anger, cluelessness, and scheming that has defined her until now. Think of how much more chilling that final shot of Walter embracing her would be if she could actually play “scared out of her wits” with more than a slightly blank expression. “He’s not gonna talk,” she shoots back to Walt when he mentions Ted. Then he whispers in her ear, magnanimous in a malevolent, Mafioso-like mode: “I forgive you.” It’s the exact inverse of the scene that closes “I.F.T.”; there must have been at least a moment where Gilligan wanted to title this episode “I.F.Y.”

The rest of the episode is exposition, maybe a bit clumsier than Breaking Bad is capable of in its best moments, but in terms of building excitement and/or dread for the rest of this half-season, it certainly does the job. Hank, poking around the remains of the superlab supported by his cane, spots the melted security cameras and will soon be on a quest for the footage. The laptop that Mike says holds the footage, the focus of Walt’s magnetic rampage, gets thoroughly busted in the evidence room raid, but while cataloguing the damage the police come across the routing number of a Cayman Islands bank account hidden in Gus’s photo of himself with Maximiliano (see last season’s “Hermanos”). Saul tells Walt about the $622,000 Skyler gave to Ted to rescue him from his audit and gives back the ricin cigarette he took from Jesse as part of the endangering-Brock ploy (“You never told me the kid would end up in the hospital,” he protests), and Walt menaces him to prevent him from bolting (“We’re done when I say we’re done”).

That reminds us of where we are. But where are we going? Somewhere in the indeterminate future, Walter White has a full head of hair (or a wig?) and a beard. He’s got a New Hampshire driver’s license in the name of Lambert. He may not have come from New Hampshire, but he’s solid enough in his backstory that he doesn’t hesitate when asked the driving time—30 hours. (It’s about 2200 miles from NH to ABQ, so that’s pretty close if you stipulate 70 mph highway driving.) He idly arranges his bacon in a mirror-image S pattern [update: sharp-eyed commenters with long memories point out that this is a 52, indicating that it has been two years since Walt's 50th birthday in the pilot]. He’s still sick (coughs in the bathroom, takes some pills). He has contacts and money. And he’s got something to do here that requires firepower.

An ousted monarch attempting a comeback? Or a last desperate shot at revenge? Either way, we know one thing: The reign of King Walt will be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.

Stray observations:

  • “Free is always good,” opines the Denny’s waitress. New Hampshire’s motto is “Live Free Or Die.” Looks like the nature of freedom will be a key area of debate this season.
  • Walt still retains enough of his high school chemistry teacher identity to note, in response to the waitress’s mention of Manchester, “Great science museum there.”
  • I cringed in sympathy when Walt Jr. was going on and on about the Fring murder and how Hank took him to Los Pollos Hermanos “like totally toying with the guy.” The last vestige of his original motivation to be a hero to his family rests in Walt Jr. and Holly, and Walt Jr. can’t stop talking about what a hero his uncle Hank is.
  • How awesome is Mike trying to find out about Gus’s laptop by calling the APD and posing as a postal service official investigating meter fraud? “I’m here to tell you that the USPS takes that very seriously … Inspector Dave Clark, like the Dave Clark Five? Before your time … Feel free to call me at this number,” followed by snapping the phone in two.
  • Walt, in chemist mode, smugly tells Old Joe at the junkyard that the magnet won’t affect his wedding ring or glasses because, respectively, “Gold; these are non-ferr.”
  • Before getting to the laptop, the police examine a roofing hammer associated with the Gutierrez case. Callback, or call-forward? Seems unlikely to be random, especially since we get a close-up of it.
  • Saul’s Zingers! “I want you thinking one thought: Hogan’s Heroes.” “I try my best, you know, ethically, with my duties …”
  • Old Joe in philosophical mode (and super-timely with the current events!): “We’re living in a time of string theories and God particles. Feasible, doable, why not?”
  • Jesse doesn’t sound like he can keep up the absolute belief in Walt much longer when he pleads with Mike: “He’s good with this stuff. Just give him a chance.”
  • Yeah, bitch! Magnets!