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Breaking Bad: Season Five

A scene from the season-five premiere of Breaking Bad. [Photo: Ursula Coyote]

Breaking Bad: Season Five 4 out of 4

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Befitting its focus on science, formula, and experimentation, Breaking Bad has profiled the moral decline of Walter White (Bryan Cranston) with methodical precision, depicting a character who's rapidly rotting on the inside. Starting off as the victim of some unlucky career failures and a damning cancer diagnosis, the brilliant chemist got into meth production ostensibly to provide for his family, a justification that's been gradually disproven as the series has progressed. Instead, the Walt who struts his way through the season-five premiere of the AMC drama is one who's concerned entirely with himself; he's also well on his way to becoming the show's primary villain, a sick man who'll do anything to flaunt his superiority over others.

Walt is suffused with even more arrogance than usual in the season opener, which follows the frenzied denouement of last year's finale by pulling back the reins, accounting for one of that episode's smaller threads: the police seizure of Gustavo Fring's laptop, which is loaded with pesky, incriminating security footage and now resides in an apparently impenetrable evidence room. Figuring out how to retrieve the laptop leads the series back to one of its strong suits: the detail-oriented illustration of a plot unfolding, accounting for all the mistakes, false-starts, and arguments such a mission involves. And the second episode returns to a plot point that already seemed resolved, with Walt engaging in another domestic science-fair project/devious plot to quell Jesse's fears over the vanished ricin cigarette.

Returning to these basic element seems like a natural direction for a show that's always been obsessively concerned with process, devoting two of its first three episodes to the disposal of a corpse, but which had grown more aggressive and action-oriented. But it's the meticulousness exhibited here—the refusal to engage in any elision of seemingly minor details—that has kept its at-times gonzo narrative grounded in some semblance of reality. This will prove essential as the series examines another pulpy element of the drug trade, tracing further up the chain to explore the goings-on at Madrigal, the shadowy German conglomerate that acted as Gus's backer. There's also the development of an interesting side plot—the digging into the dead man's finances and his family life—after Walt and Jesse's computer plot inadvertently uncovers a new piece of evidence.

Last season's climax found Walt scaling new heights of evil: plotting the poisoning and near-murder of a child, using an elderly neighbor to flush hired killers out of his house, setting off a bomb in a nursing home, and eventually gunning down two henchmen without a second thought. These were bold moves for a man who's spent so much time hiding behind victimhood. But although Walt has finally begun owning his criminal status, this doesn't mean that the character, who's always been presented as half mad scientist, half bumbling loser, will step easily into Gus's position atop the Albuquerque meth chain. He's left with a ruined infrastructure, no connections, and no means of production, which are secondary problems compared to the wrath of recuperating lieutenant Mike (Jonathan Banks), who tears ass back across the border upon hearing of his boss's murder.

Meanwhile, Jesse (Aaron Paul) is also on the rise. His growing sense of self-awareness has made him the show's chief conscience, but it's also resulted in the shearing off of his clownish persona, exposing a keen mind inside. His solution to the computer problem here is a callback to the season-two episode "Four Days Out," with the roles of the two main characters reversed. He now exhibits a subtle upper hand, keeping Mike's anger in check, deferring to his older partner while keeping him afloat financially. These changes point out how much the core dynamic of Breaking Bad has transformed, even within the context of the same systematic approach.

Its such punctiliousness that makes the first episode's cold open feel so disorienting, even considering the series's propensity for these kind of jarring introductions. In what's inevitably revealed as the prologue to an extended flashback, the show begins by skipping forward at least a few months, to Walt's 52nd birthday, exactly two years after the story first began. He eats a hasty breakfast at a diner on an unidentified stretch of road, full-haired but even more haggard than usual, with a new pair of glasses and an assumed name. This initially seems like an epilogue, a final look at a man who's started over or turned government witness, until the return of Jim Beaver's lyrical arms dealer, who trades a set of car keys in exchange for a hefty envelope from Walt. In the car's trunk sits a massive machine gun, an object that teases at the bigger showdown looming ahead.

Breaking Bad has experimented with this kind of time-jump before, but this one is concrete, unlike the hazily imagined guessing game played out during the second season. Two eight-episode mini-seasons remain, and it's unclear whether the introduction here is the prelude to Walt's last stand or something we'll be seeing in a few episodes time. The former seems likely, as the big gun suggests the endpoint of creator Vince Gilligan's oft-mentioned "Mr. Chips to Scarface" arc, while also recalling the one Tony Soprano cradled in the penultimate chapter of HBO's The Sopranos, which pursued a similar sense of finality in its divided final season. The weapon's phallic symbolism finds parallels in the premiere episode's main narrative, which finds Walt, whose final words last season were "I won," feeling more than a tad tumescent, convinced enough of his newfound status to treat everyone around him as an underling.

Such behavior serves as a reminder that, while Walt remains menaced by an array of hazards, the greatest threat to this reputed family man comes from his inner Heisenberg. Season five begins at the cusp of a power vacuum, with the lurking terrors of cancer, buried secrets, and existing rivalries jostling around its central characters. But Breaking Bad continues at the same disciplined, regimented pace, fussing over small details and picking at new threads, even with the end looming.

Cast: Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, RJ Mitte, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, Jonathan Banks Airtime: AMC, Sundays at 10 p.m.

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