Tuesday, 17 July 2012

Review: BREAKING BAD, 5.1 – "Live Free or Die"

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

"We're done when I say we're done." – Walter White

The first half of Breaking Bad's concluding season begins, and there are big changes in the wake of Gus Fring's shocking death and the dismantling of the Mexican cartel. A power vacuum's opened up in Albuquerque, and the victorious Walter White (Bryan Cranston) probably has ambitions to fill the void. Where once he was a desperate chemistry teacher using his underestimated talents to make and sell drugs to provide for his family after his probable death from cancer, Walt's tumour's in remission, he has no enemies left to fight, and a confidence has suddenly enveloped him. He's now taking firm steps towards becoming the Scarface-style villain creator Vince Gilligan always said Breaking Bad would chronicle the rise of. But before that happens, there are loose ends to tie up from season 4...

In many ways "Live Free or Die" was a bread-and-butter episode of Breaking Bad, given the zippy flavour of a season 1-era caper. One thing I enjoyed about early episodes of the show was seeing Walt's ingenuity play a key role in getting himself and compadre Jesse (Aaron Paul) out of tight spots, and this episode was steeped in that tradition. The thrust of the narrative was just to ensure Walt, Jesse, and Mike (Jonathan Banks) can't possible come under suspicion by the city cops, who've unwittingly got evidence that implicates them as henchmen of the city's drug ring: Gus Fring's personal laptop that stored all the camera footage of them working in and around his underground Superlab. Walt's plan? Simple: use a local scrapyard's lifting crane magnet to erase the laptop's data, by loading it into the back of a truck and turning it on outside the police evidence room.

Sprinkled around this escapade's core, there were plenty of moments to savour and chew on. The biggest change for this season, as I said, is Walt's self-assurance in the wake of defeating the seemingly indomitable Gus Fring. His unlikely success may not have earned him the grudging respect of Gus's fixer/assassin Mike, but it's certainly changing how wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and lawyer Saul (Bob Odenkirk) behave around him. Skyler is genuinely scared of her husband now, knowing he was responsible for the shocking explosion and murder that's dominating local news, while Saul's superciliousness was crushed during a meeting where Walt got up in his face.

There's no doubt about it, Walt is relishing the chance to flex his psychological muscles now, but the tragedy is he's growing oblivious to how much distance he's creating between himself and the loving family he just wanted to provide for originally. In the final scene, when Walt embraced Skyler in their bedroom, he has the audacity to forgive her, when it should clearly be the other way around.

Speaking of Skyler, she may not be everyone's favourite character (mainly because she's often a damp cloth on the vicarious thrill of watching Walt darken), but this episode gave Gunn some great moments. In particular, the scene where Skyler learned ex-lover Ted (Christopher Cousins) was injured trying to evade the goons she sent to scare him into writing her a cheque, was absolutely brilliant. There was some debate last year about whether or not Ted had died or just been hurt after slipping in his haste to escape Saul's hired muscle, and I'm glad the writers chose the latter...

Seeing a hospitalised Ted, bald and upright in bed wearing a halo brace, eyes full of tears, was both shocking and unexpectedly heartbreaking. The deeper wrench was realising Ted now fears Skyler (in much the same way Skyler fears what her husband's capable of), believing she may hurt his family if he dares breathe a word about anything. That was bad enough, but to then watch Skyler go along with Ted's delusion, just to ensure his silence, made it even sadder. It was a moment where Skyler adopted a ruthless alter-ego to protect her family, which is close to what Walt's been doing for months. It'll be interesting to see if this is a role Skyler continues to play this season, too. Will she perhaps end the series just as corrupt as her husband, rather than as someone swept along by circumstance?

"Live Free or Die" was a good start to the season, although perhaps the weakest premiere the show's done. (The bar's set so high with Breaking Bad, see.) This hour existed to introduce Walt's new mindset, as we begin our final journey with him now his ego has room to grow. Unlike in previous years, Walt doesn't have a reason to be looking over his shoulder in fear (just yet), but it's tragic that the people who surround him are beginning to see him as a monster, and his own selfish behaviour's starting to infect loved ones.

The focus this year will almost certainly come to be Hank (Dean Norris) discovering his brother-in-law's the notorious "Heisenberg", but it's hard to see how this will occur—particularly now the hard-drive of Gus's laptop has already been wiped. The only remaining clue for the cops is an address to a Swiss bank in the Cayman Islands that Gus kept hidden behind a photo frame—which, ironically, only came to light because of Walt's plan to nullify the laptop. I just wonder if season 5's going to focus entirely on Walt building a drug business of his own, or if some rivals will arrive on the scene aiming to takeover where Gus left off. Or did Gus report to superiors we never knew about?

Whatever happens, this promises to be another incredible season of a show that rarely puts a foot wrong. I'm so glad Breaking Bad is back on our screens, because its mere presence makes television drama better.


  • The opening scene was a flash-forward to Walt's 52nd birthday, with him taking ownership of an M60 machine gun from a man called Lawson he meets in a diner for an exchange of money. Walt's hair has grown back, he's going by the alias of Mr Lambert, and appears to be even more jaded than usual. The show began on Walt's 50th birthday, and I was under the impression that season 5's premiere is taking place about a year after the pilot, at best. So is this flash-forward happening a further year after the events of "Live Free or Die". Are we to assume Walt's cancer went into full remission because of his head of hair? Or is that a wig? Will the series finale take us up to the scene in the diner? Why does Walt need a machine gun? Is he on the run from someone? Hank? Mike? Will we get further glimpses of this future in the episodes to come, similar to how season 2's format worked?
written by Vince Gilligan / directed by Michael Slovis / 15 July 2012 / AMC