Monday, September 10, 2012

Breaking Bad: Season 5 (Part I)

Creator: Vince Gilligan
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte, Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, Jesse Plemons, Laura Fraser
Air Date: 2012

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

   **Spoiler Warning: This review contains spoilers for all the seasons of 'Breaking Bad'**

 "I won."

Those were the chilling words delivered by Walter White (Bryan Cranston) at the end of Breaking Bad's fourth season finale after he successfully orchestrated the murder of drug kingpin Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). But the victory didn't come without collateral damage. After poisoning a 10-year-old boy to manipulate Jesse (Aaron Paul) back to his side, it became clear Walt was now three quarters of the way toward completing the infamous "Mr. Chips to Scarface" evolution creator Vince Gilligan has frequently referred to. It's something that's never been done in the history of the television: Take a show's protagonist and slowly morph him over the course of five years into its antagonist. How much longer can anyone root for this guy? How many people can he use, lie to or put in danger? How many bodies can pile up? And what does it say about viewers that keep looking for as many reasons as he does to justify it? That's the moral ambiguity of Breaking Bad, which could have reasonably ended its run last year with no one complaining it didn't go out with a bang. Going 16 more episodes is risky, but completely necessary when you consider what sets this series apart from any drama that's ever been on TV is that it is actually telling one continuous story with a beginning, middle and end.

Walter White at Denny's on his 52nd Birthday (Ep. 5.01,"Live Free or Die")
The decision to split this final season, airing the first 8 episodes this year and making viewers wait until summer 2013 for the last batch is has definitely caused some controversy. I'm still not sure what number to refer to this season as and no one else seems to be either. For a show known for it's pacing, it seems like a game-changer, but really it isn't. It was clear pretty early that Gilligan would be treating this like he would a regular season with the only difference being we'd have to wait an entire excruciating year to see the series conclude. It was always going to be a slow burn, with the first half set-up and the second half pay-off. Walt's rise to power followed by his fall. I was fine with the wait and even all the business-related focus (more than any other season) just as long as everything was written to accommodate the final stretch and the mid-season finale left me in a state of unbearable suspense. While the first question might still be up in the air until the show concludes, the latter isn't. This delivered. A helpless Walt scrambling and up against the ropes has consistently resulted in the show's most memorable moments. Overmatched, he's always had to rely on his ingenuity to somehow pull through and outsmart his adversaries. These 8 episodes tweak that formula, being the only season since the third to hit the re-set button. He's now in control, but that's just the calm before the storm. He'll be scrambling again soon.  

With his cancer now in remission and finaly able to provide for his family it only makes sense Walt would just cash in his chips and get out of the meth business while he still can. But of course he can't. He's Walter White and his pride won't allow it. We saw it when he quit the car wash in the first season. We saw it when he's refused to admit Jesse could be as good at something as him. And we've even seen it when he forced his son Walt Jr (RJ Mitte) to drink himself sick in Season 2. It's his pride that wouldn't allow him to take the money from his former business associates for his cancer treatment. His decision to years ago cash out of Gray Matter plays an important role this season, if not literally, then at least as an underlying motivation. In fact, that pre-series decision could be considered the very moment he "broke bad." Him giving up billions of dollars out of spite and pride has been the driving engine of the entire show. In his mind, it's the decision that caused him to become a high school chemistry teacher and part-time car wash employee who never reached his full potential. This season we finally get that confession out of him, but in typical Walt fashion, the moment of truth accidentally arrives as he's trying to manipulate someone close to him. Enough will never be enough  to erase that decision, so it makes sense that when he does finally succeed at something and reaches the top of the mountain, the power goes straight to his head.

Walt and Walt Jr.'s new set of sports cars (Ep. 5.03,"Fifty-One")
Drunk on his own hubris, Walt no longer wears the pork-pie hat and Heisenberg sunglasses as a disguise. It's his uniform. For business. He is Heisenberg. He thinks killing Gus Fring has transformed him into Gus Fring. In a chilling touch, he even starts sitting and dressing like him. He trades in his avocado green Aztek for a new Chrysler 300 more befitting of a drug lord. Forget about becoming Scarface, now he's even literally watching it with his children for inspiration. The legendary "I am the one who knocks" speech he gave wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) last season was delivered by a scared, desperate man who needed to pathetically psyche himself for his final confrontation with Gus. This season Walt really becomes "The Danger" instead of just talking about it. Or does he? Often, when you get too comfortable you get cocky and then you get sloppy. His downfall is immanent and in the most shocking TV flash-forward since Jack told Kate "we have to go back," we get a glimpse of it in the premiere's cold open as a bearded, desperate looking, pill popping Walter White (under an assumed identity) is in a Denny's on his 52nd birthday, purchasing some heavy artillery from firearms dealer Jim Beaver and presumably preparing for a huge confrontation (with Hank? the DEA? the Cartel? Jesse?). So we know he survives at least another year, with or without cancer. He's clearly without a wedding ring, which can't bode well for Skyler. It's also clear that Gilligan will have to do a lot of finagling with time to get to that point without it feeling rushed considering all four seasons of this show have only spanned a year in these characters' lives and now he has to jam another entire year into only 16 episodes. For this show that's an enternity. My guess: That was a peek at the series finale and Walt's taking his machine gun back to the Albuquerque desert, ending this show where it started. 

Through all this we somehow still hold out for Walt's redemption despite him seemingly being past the point of no return because Cranston still let's us see that nervous sad sack who just seems to be play acting to make himself feel in control. Gilligan knows there isn't a single viewer who can't relate to not living up to their full potential and isn't afraid of rubbing our noses in it. He also knows there are many viewers that can name the exact point Walter White officially lost them and ceased being a character that can be rooted for. And for just as many that point hasn't arrived. The fact that there are still some that can attempt to explain away Walt's actions is hilarious when you consider he's basically a domestic terrorist who at this point has murdered as many people as Dexter. The show never makes excuses for him, but you completely, against all your better judgment, understand how it's gone so far and why he can't allow himself to just "get out."

Walt, Jesse and their new apprentice Todd (Ep. 5.05,"Dead Freight")
Much of the season centers on getting the business up and running again in the wake of Gus' death and tying up all the loose ends connected with it. One of them is Madrigal Electromotive the German conglomerate that owned Gus' fast food franchise/drug ring. He may be gone, but his demise leaves a trail conspirators long enough to tie Walt and Jesse to his operation. The biggest player is high-strung Madrigal executive Lydia Rodarte-Quayle (Laura Fraser), who's nervous unpredictability in the face of the ongoing DEA investigation in Gus' murder presents a major major hurdle for Walt in re-opening shop. Even as the season closes, she's remains a character with a question mark constantly hanging over her purpose and intentions. That alone makes her a player, even as many of her worrisome tics and habits are darkly comical. The newest addition to the team is ambitious youngster Todd (Jesse Plemons), whose apparent willingness to learn leads to a more prominent role in Walt's newest "hiding in plain sight" cooking enterprise. But there's more to him than meets the eye and anyone familiar with Plemons' history as Landry on Friday Night Lights will get a kick out of the fact that Gilligan had the guts to write the one storyline for him you'd figure would be off limits.

The biggest loose end left over from Gus' reign was lying in a hospital bed in Mexico when Season 4 ended. Whatever arguments there are about the quality of this season, the one thing that everyone can agree on is that its MVP was Jonathan Banks, who as Gus' former hitman and fixer Mike Ehrmantraut, takes on an enormously increased role. Now, without a boss or a job, he's basically forced against his better judgment to join Walt's burgeoning organization for financial reasons. As the only real professional criminal of the series left, Mike sees Walt for what he is: A fraud. He knew Gus and Walt's no Gus. And he isn't afraid to tell him, accompanied by Banks' exasperated, world weary look of resignation.  Mike's the one element Heisenberg can't control because, like Jesse, he actually operates by his own moral code, at least by Breaking Bad standards. You could argue that's eventually the cause of his undoing. Usually cautious and a complete pro, the Mike who gave Walt the speech in Season 3 about no "Half -Measures" starts taking them and getting sloppy, ignoring his own advice. It's been a source of criticism this season, but the impression I got was that Mike just had enough. With Walt's brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) closing in and his love for his granddaughter trumping any desire he has to keep doing this, it makes sense that he just didn't care anymore. He wanted out. Banks makes it make sense, and it's a given he'll be submitting the episode "Say My Name" to occupy the same supporting actor Emmy slot Giancarlo Esposito vacates after this year.

Skyler at the bottom of the White pool (Ep. 5.04,"Fifty-One")
Anna Gunn delivers what's easily her best work so far in the series by making Skyler sympathetic to even her harshest detractors. Held hostage in her own home by her husband, she's reaches her breaking point and proves she'll do anything to keep her kids safe from their father. After appearing to "break bad" herself last season by laundering Walt's money through the car wash, it's now dawning on her that the man she married isn't just a drug kingpin, but a murderer and emotionally abusive husband who uses fear and intimidation as a weapon. The hollow excuse that he's still doing all this "for family" is accompanied by him creepily groping her in bed, which is a clever callback to the closing minutes of the pilot episode. When she tells him her only hope for their family's escape is to wait..."For The Cancer To Come Back"'s the season's most stinging line, but also its most accurate. That's what started Walt on this destructive path, so it only makes sense to her that it should end it. And it just might. In a shocking moment during Walt's 51st birthday celebration Skyler proves there's no lengths she won't go to insure her kids are safe and in the process earns the character a respect she never previously had. As good a manipulator as her husband is, she starts to prove herself as one of his more formidable opponents. 

Both Skyler and Jesse have turned into pawns in Walt's manipulative game, but his relationship with the latter is arguably more tragic since it's built on a house of lies. All Jessie's wanted from the beginning is the approval of "Mr. White." It's the recognition he didn't get or deserve when he was in his high school chemistry class, but did deserve from his parents who failed to supply it. When he gives him a birthday gift it's a token of friendship stemming from genuine respect and admiration, but to Walt it's a trophy he uses to flaunt the dominance of Heisenberg in his wife's face. The two most important people in his life are both prisoners in the same cell so it's only fitting that this season sees Skyler and Jesse sharing the screen together for only the second time in the show's history and the first time in over four years.Think about the level of writing required to make that believably happen and then let it sink in. And sure enough the dinner scene is worth the wait as and so surreal it almost feels like we're watching a cross-over from another show. And now Skyler finally gets to see just how long her husband's been at this and lying to her. Her interaction with Jesse is far different this time around as they seem to have an unspoken bond in realizing the man they knew is gone, and replaced by a monster.

An awkward dinner at the White residence (Ep. 5.06, "Buyout")
As much as Mike wants out because he's tired and done, Jesse's just as done, but for entirely different reasons. He's matured into someone who actually has a future and doesn't need it anymore, essentially reversing roles with his mentor who's now living off it like a blood-sucking leech. What's sadly ironic is that Jesse might be Walt's only true success story, even if it's under the most unfortunate circumstances imaginable. His tutelage of him is enough to make you wonder if teaching really could have been his true calling, if only his pride and bitterness hadn't gotten in the way. The cancer diagnosis caused Walt to take risks he wouldn't have ever attempted otherwise and this season he frequently seems cool and comfortable in his own skin, finally commanding the respect he never previously received. But the price was steep. The questions remains whether Jesse will uncover all of Walt's betrayals and lies (Jane's death, Brock's poisoning), and what he'll do when he finds out. He adds even more depraved acts to the list this season, including a violent, ego-triggered decision sure to rip Jesse apart if he knew.

As the moral center of the show, the question isn't whether Jesse can forgive his mentor, but himself, as much of last season demonstrated. And as Walt proves, he isn't afraid of throwing Jessie's guilt in his face to get what he wants.  In a series where everyone reaps what they sow, Jesse's survival in the final stretch will likely depend on whether he can come to terms with everything he's done. More and more, it seems as if his murder of lab assistant Gale Boetticher at the end of Season 3 was the defining event for not just Jesse, but the series as a whole, as the finale's conclusion reminds us. Aaron Paul was on the bench more often than usual in what was clearly a Heisenberg-centric half-season with a large helping of Skyler and Mike. That should change soon but Paul was again superb in what he was given, emotionally mapping Jesse's transformation into the brains of the operation. Initially clueless in the series' early going he now frequently comes up with the best ideas in a heist-filled season of stunts that play as a cross between Mythbusters and MacGyver, complete with a tensely choreographed train robbery. Many of the season's cold opens are business-related as well, whether that be disposing of evidence or bodies or dealing with the ins and outs of re-launching the meth manufacturing enterprise. It's obvious by the finale that the days of dealing with business just might be over for good which could hopefully to more character focused flashbacks or flashforwards. Gilligan doesn't use these devices often so that when he does (like the mysterious pink teddy bear in Season 2 or the recent Denny's shocker), you know it's signaling something monumentally important. That said, I still say the ultimate cold open would be a flashback to Mr. White teaching Jesse in high school. It feels like we need to see that, and somewhere within the final 8 episodes (if not the series finale itself) would seem to be the perfect place for it.

Mike Ehrmantraut's final moments (Ep. 5.07,"Say My Name")
Director of photography Michael Slovis outdoes himself again this year, continuing to bring a visual richness to the show that's not only unmatched in the medium of television, but could topple most of what's on the big screen. Looper director Rian Johnson (previously responsible for Season 3's classic stand alone "Fly") returns to helm "Fifty-One," another gem that joins "Dead Freight" "Say My Name" and the mid-season finale, "Gliding Over All," as four of the most visually arresting hours of episodic drama you can see. In a show known for its expert use of musical montages, this season contains its best, including a use of a classic song in the finale that so perfectly fits the show you'd think Gilligan was sitting on it for the past four years waiting for just the right time to unveil it. He picked right. It's lonely at the top and now that Walt's there the interesting possibility is introduced that it wasn't what he thought it would be. How much money does he need? Will it ever be enough? Being the boss is a grind that comes with its own set of responsibilities and as the mid-season closes it's clear the show is gearing up for its inevitable showdown: Walt vs. Hank.

Of all the show's brilliant coups, it's most brilliant has been realistically keeping Walt's brother-in-law off his trail for this long. Hank's extremely intelligent, yet we believe he wouldn't suspect him for a second. Why would he? To him, Walt's still that nerdy, cancer-stricken science teacher from a year ago emasculated in his own marriage. He's also covered his tracks really well and is just too damn smart. So smart that the only reasonable way Hank could have suspected a thing was by accident. That's why the final heart-pounding seconds of this year's finale makes so much sense. Walt became too comfortable and with that we briefly see the return of the bumbling fool from Season 1 who made a pros and cons list debating whether to kill Krazy-8. Mike Ehrmantraut's murder is the most senseless yet because it's the sloppy work of a petulant baby throwing a tantrum, but it also gives us our first hint that his Heisenberg persona may dying also.Walt's had enough, but it's too late. In the show's sole moment of normalcy and peace since the pilot, he's found out.Like Paul, the great Dean Norris has been sidelined during much of Walt's empire building, but expect him to step up in a big way very soon. Second that for Bob Odenkirk as sleazy lawyer Saul Goodman, who will likely become more important as Hank continues to put the rest of the pieces together quickly and close in on Walt. There's also Hank's entire DEA career to think about, especially considering it was Walt's drug money that paid all his medical bills. Heisenberg has been his Moby Dick so it'll be interesting to see how he acts on the devastating revelation that the personal and professional upheaval he's experienced over the past year have been intrinsically linked, with its catalyst right under his nose the entire time.

Hank's shocking discovery (Ep. 5.08,"Gliding Over All")
No dramatic series has remained this strong so late in the game, and given how sensational last season was, this stretch of episodes presented the biggest writing challenge yet. Everyone was waiting to see how Gilligan could possibly follow Gus' death and fill the void Esposito was leaving. The answer ended up being having Walt replace him, if only in his own mind.  Leading the charge is Cranston's titanic turn, which is pitiful and frightening at the same time. It's astonishing to think back on his work early in the series' run compared to now and consider the dramatic "Cransformation" he pulls off. You couldn't imagine other actor being able to doing it. And yet, because of him, as dark as this season is, it's also by far its funniest. There's a certain comic thrill that comes from watching this character so completely own for the first time and if you thought his "Danger" speech from last season was quotable, than this season features more T-shirt ready catchphrases ("Because I Said So," "Nothing Stops This Train," "Say My Name," "Goddamn right," ) than you'd even know what to do with.

It's unusual even trying assess these most recent episodes yet because it does feel like half a season that will better come in to view when it's all over. But it's clear there's absolutely no drop-off in the quality of writing, acting or directing, and that's coming from someone who had to make the shift from binge viewing on Netflix to watching on a weekly basis. Absolutely nothing was lost in that transition. 8 down. 8 more to go. Thankfully, fans don't decide how TV shows end. They just complain about it. I hesitate even using something like Lost, or any other drama, as a comparison point since Breaking Bad plays in its own league and has never suffered what anyone could call a creative lull. A graph charting its quality would be a straight line running across the page. One story told perfectly. There's more at stake in how this wraps than any other show in recent memory. Fair or not, the right to be called the television's greatest achievement doesn't rest on what occurred in the preceding 54 episodes or even the next eight. It'll rest on whatever happens last. And for once, it seems as if we've found a series capable of handling that pressure. 

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Breaking Bad DVD is an amzing show,adventure,crime,black comedy... Bryan Cranston won three consecutive emmy awards for his role as Walt. Aaron Paul (Jesse) has also won an emmy for his performance...You'd better start to watch it from begining and you will find out how Walt got started how he met jesse how they got involved with gus.