Rejoice, for Breaking Bad is back! When we last left our intrepid group of misfit heroes, Uncle Hank had excused himself to use the White family bathroom and accidentally discovered Walt’s inscribed copy of Leaves of Grass, the only piece of incriminating evidence that Walt had the poor judgment to leave around the house. It was a Kobayashi moment cut directly from The Usual Suspects, and it was the perfect cliffhanger for the finale of Breaking Bad’s fifth season. Or the first half of the fifth season. I’m not completely sure how these episodes will need to be indexed in the Library of Congress. But five seasons or six, it’s been away too long.
I’ve enjoyed the fifth season so far; I’ll take any excuse to watch more of the best show on television, especially when it features Bryan Cranston playing every part of his range for and against type in alternating fashion. But I have a hard to time determining what this final season could possibly add to the show as it stood at the end of the fourth season. The situation was pretty dire for Walter White back then; he was still working for Gus Fring, just days away from being executed and replaced. It seemed like he had even lost even poor gullible Jesse’s trust; when his girlfriend’s son was unexpectedly sent to the hospital, he suspected Walter first and foremost.In the chaotic series of events that followed, Walter managed to convince Jesse that hurting a small child was a line he would not cross, and they took out Gus Fring in a series of spellbinding and creative episodes. The question of who poisoned the boy hung in the back of our minds the entire time, until the final shot confirmed that it was Walter all along. It was masterful because we were duped right along with Jesse. We remembered Walter, even if distantly, as an affectionate father, a supportive teacher and most importantly, the guy who ran down those child-murdering drug dealers down in the family car.
And now? There is no bridge too far for Walter White. He’s told us himself that he’s in the empire business; no matter the substance, it’s just a matter of time before it falls. Most of the fifth season so far has been spent reviving the show’s themes.We’ve got another dead innocent, another heist, another young man set up for the student-teacher relationship that that we always wanted for Jesse Pinkman. Walter White has flipped between family and the drug business one time too many. The cast of characters is growing smaller and Gus Fring is not walking through that door. It’s still a lot of fun to watch Bryan Cranston use his good teacher voice to manipulate Jesse for his own ends, but the ambiguity is gone. This is the smallest and most predictable of complaints regarding serialized television: things have gone on a little too long. This isn’t even a flaw specific to television, but the serialization in general. If Charles Dickens was alive today, he’d probably be demanding more informative preview scenes from Mad Men in place of criticizing Elizabeth Gaskell’s cliffhangers.
But I’ll take what I can get and I’ll enjoy it. It’s still a pleasure to watch, even if it feels like I’ve seen it before. Hank emerges from the bathroom, Leaves of Grass in hand, looking eight to ten months older, and cycles through the Heisenberg obsession habits in short order: panic attack, data review, GPS tracker. Walt breaks out the good teacher voice. Jesse Pinkman is still hanging out with Badger and Skinny Pete, just short of redemption and with little motivation and even fewer viable options. It seems to be a classic Breaking Bad slow burner, with Walt just one step away from disaster, but the Walter-Hank confrontation comes early, in Hank’s garage, with the garage door opener. Walter plays friendly, then passive-aggressive, pleads, threatens, and when nothing else seems to work, he makes Hank the first family member to know that his cancer has returned. This may have been one of the lowest blows we’ve seen from Walter White in the last five season, and it pushes the show into interesting new territory. There will be no chase this time around. After five seasons, we’re still wondering if there’s something Walter White won’t do. Successive seasons require escalating shocks, and I’m worried that the worst has been saved for this season. I don’t know how that will play out, but I think it involves something that walks with crutches and gives attitude to his mother. I hope I’m wrong.