'Breaking Bad' Season 5 Premiere: 'Live Free or Die'
A desert glow burns through the horizon as two cars race towards each other, pedal to the metal, cantankerous music blaring. Just before collision, they swerve and miss each other. From one steps Mike the Cleaner, recently rehabilitated after a near-fatal wound near the end of last season. From the other, Jesse Pinkman and Walter White, partners in crime. Walt's responsible for the death of Mike's boss, Gus Fring, the meth lord mastermind who half-perished in a bomb explosion moments ago (if we follow "Breaking Bad's" time frame, which picks up seconds after season four ended). Before Mike can shoot down the man who wronged him, who has potentially ruined him for good, who tore down an empire with a few meticulously calculated turns of a screw, Jesse intervenes. "If you kill him, you're gonna have to kill me." And here we are, at last: the full immersion of Walt and Jesse, tethered beyond a feasible division. Mike sighs. Lowers his gun. A trio is formed.
The premiere of the fifth (and final) season of AMC's "Breaking Bad" is a jolt from the beginning. The cold open shows a seemingly cancer-free Walt making business deals in a Denny's bathroom. In Walt's world, a business deal means a gun/drug trade-off. After the title card blares, the episode goes back to the dangling threads of last season, meaning the opening serves as a tantalizing tease of what's to come. And somehow, the prospect of a healthy Walt is scarier than that of a dying one. This is the man who, after all, put the life of a young child in jeopardy last season just to earn back the trust of Jesse and catapult him back to the top after the murder of Gus Fring. This is the man who has manipulated and lied to his entire family, including wife Skyler, who has proven herself a guilty asset in his backwards mission. Their story of survival is an eerily similar note on two completely different instruments: While Walt will kill and mangle for the sake of his family's perseverance (if that's even what it's about anymore), Skyler will look away so long as his money filters in for the betterment of their children. Last season, her involvement almost ruined everything when she gave Walt's meth money to her embezzling former boss, Ted (who promptly wasted it on a new sports car instead of paying off his taxes). After attempting to scare Ted into using the gifted money for the better, Skyler nearly had him killed. Instead, he's handicapped and almost entirely incapacitated. He swears he won't turn her in so long as she lets the situation go. And now, she has a taste of what it's like to be her husband: at the mercy of your own guilt, driven and made by it.
And then there's Jesse, who's finally getting the hang of this whole "thwarting and ruining" thing. He comes up with the brilliant (and hilarious) idea of using a giant magnet to erase the evidence on a confiscated laptop of Gus's that contained security footage of Jesse and Walt cooking meth. "YEAH BITCH, MAGNETS!" he screams when a test run of their plan works. It's pure Jesse – a little bit of endearing silliness that masks the weight of the situation. If Walt sees their work with a penetrating eye, Jesse sees it as linearly as possible. To him, the success of their magnet trick is score one for the team. But Walt knows it's the first step towards the rebuilding of an empire. An empire that now begrudgingly calls Mike an ally. Though reticent to join in on the action, his newfound bond with Jesse has turned him to the dark side. "Mike, this is a three-man job," says Jesse. "The only way I know it won't work for sure is if we don't have you."
As always, the power of "Breaking Bad" lies in the construction. The episode on paper is exciting enough: the formation of a new trio, Skyler's casual acceptance of her role in Ted's debilitation, the successful outcome of a seemingly dimwit mission. But it soars in the editing, the growling music that simulates every heartbeat, the flush of color in a vast expanse, the continuously striking point-of-view shots (Tarantino would be proud of all the car trunk framings). What are surely clever camera tricks to make up for a small budget pay off for the better. The show feels like a viral trip, a bit of continuity that's held up from day one. The car in the desert was one visually delightful offering in a grab-bag of small screen splendor.
As this season pumps into gear, in what most cast members are calling the darkest entry yet, I'm torn on how I feel about what's sure to come. I'm a new addition to the "Breaking Bad" campaign – I caught up after a Netflix marathon during the off-season – and I'm already sad to say goodbye. The show will wrap up the second half of its final season next year, a move that's both smart and grueling. There's no way a half-season will feel as satisfying as one complete delivering, but I'm happy to drag out the process. The simple truth is that "Breaking Bad" is the best thing on TV, maybe the best thing that's ever been on TV, and no matter what the outcome, this ride sure has been worth it. Yes, I want Skyler to be hoisted on the shoulders of the DEA after successfully one-upping her bastard husband, for Jesse and Mike to ride off into the sunset with a pot of gold, for Walt Jr. and Holly to get memory transplants and grow up in another country, and for Walt to die as bloodily and gruesomely as possible. I doubt this final season will tie things up so nicely (and so outright fantastically - but I'm in the business of wishful thinking). Regardless, if the premiere taught me anything, it's to trust in the power of Vince Gilligan and co. Because even if they make a major misstep, there's no doubt I'll be echoing what Walt says to Skyler at the end of the premiere, haunting tone and all: "I forgive you."