Despite AMC’s rivalry with Dish Network, Breaking Bad netted a record number of viewers for its hotly-anticipated season five premiere. This final season of the hit drama will contain two eight episode sections, and there’s a great deal to pack into these 16 episodes if the creators intend to wrap up the story. It’s unlikely creator Vince Gilligan will leave everything neatly packaged in a bow, though, because so much of Breaking Bad is about subtlety and ambiguity.
Walter White (Bryan Cranston) has followed a dark and meandering path over the course of the series. Initially he was an purer version of the antihero, a man driven to go against the law by his circumstances. In an era with a toppling economy and a flailing health care system, it was easy to like Walt, and to see how he might be pushed into making the choices he did. He might have been cooking meth, but it was for a cause. You could understand how he might find himself backed into that corner, and in a sense, you rooted for him, even as he was contributing to a critical emerging public health crisis. After all, it was only a little bit of meth.
Over the course of ensuing seasons, Walt has become much darker, and much more wrapped in the very culture he disavowed at the start. The season five premiere showed us a chillier, harsher, crueller Walt, one who feels omnipotent and unstoppable, and isn’t afraid to say so. This Walt has no time for nonsense, and he doesn’t care who knows it. He’s also developed a keen interest in power plays, and in making sure he calls the shots and controls the game.
“Because I say so” is his response when challenged, and he’s happy to leave it at that. Walt has been fundamentally changed by his involvement in the meth industry and there’s no going back now, no matter what he seems to think. He argues that he’s “won” against Gus, but the story is much larger than Gus, and sometimes wins come with great losses. Walt just engineered a man’s death, and he’s already plotting and scheming for the next big thing. This a far cry from the Walt we saw at the beginning of the series, and raises the question of whether the character will ultimately fall on the side of dark or light in the series finale.
Things aren’t looking good; the opening scene showed an older and grizzlier Walt on the run, picking up an untraceable gun and a substantial amount of ammunition. He looks time-worn and desperate, barely responding to the perky, chattering waitress who attempts to make a connection with him. He’s also alone, without a partner to be seen; this is Walt hung out to dry and Walt on a quest, making fleeting contacts with the connections who can get him what he needs, but constantly on the move. This is a possibly irredeemably dark Walt, a man who crossed over and couldn’t pull himself back.
And then we jumped back to the present, where the characters were reeling in the aftermath of the events of the season four finale, and Walt had a serious problem on his hands: A laptop, in exactly the wrong place. The main storyline of the episode took us through some comic relief as Walt, Mike, and Jesse devised a plan involving a very large electromagnet and a moving van to wipe the hard drive, though of course, along the way, their actions inadvertently exposed a new piece of evidence that might have gone undiscovered.
The fatal flaw in their plot echoed the larger fatal flaws of all the characters’ plans throughout the series. Whenever one sets off to do something, a domino effect occurs, creating an unpredictable chain reaction that requires a new plan for cleanup. The obvious correlary with the hazards of meth production is hard to escape, but I can forgive the creators the heavy-handed metaphor because it works so perfectly in the context of the series. Everything people try to do ends up twisting back on them and causing more problems than it solves, forcing characters to continuously be in reactive mode. As Walt’s plans have become increasingly byzantine, he’s brought down more harm on his family and those around him, and the stakes have elevated considerably at every turn.
Walt may be trying to go on the offense, but going on the offense also involves becoming a truly changed man. When he’s reacting, it’s self-defense, even when he goes to extreme measures. His increasingly morally questionable acts over the fourth season created a much more ambiguous world, one where Walt was willing to hit other characters where it hurt before they could hurt him. In his quest to protect himself and his family, though, he may have become the enemy.
Walt has transformed into a character whom other characters fear, and with good reason. The scene in Saul’s office with a dangerously quiet and calm Walt coolly watching Saul attempt to explain himself was chilling enough, and was even more frightening when Walt casually stalked Saul around his desk, saying “we’re done when I say we’re done.” Walt’s warning was not for Saul alone; it extends to all the people in his life, and the series as a whole.
It’s safe to assume that the fifth season of Breaking Bad will be a white-knuckle ride, as we see whether Walt has maintained enough of his humanity to pull himself back from the brink. I don’t think he’s hit the bottom of his character arc yet, and whether he can come back up again remains to be seen.