Watching the fifth season of Breaking Bad, it’s jarring to consider that there was once a time, not so long ago, when we might have liked Walter White (Bryan Cranston). A financially strapped high school chemistry teacher with a manipulative, subtly emasculating wife, Skylar (Anna Gunn), and a disabled teenage son, Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte), Walter was once a recognizable member of the beleaguered American proletariat, and the key to the show’s brilliant misdirection is actually relatively simple: Initially, we assumed that Walter’s bitterness was an understandably despairing reaction to his news that he had potentially terminal cancer. Then we got to know him.
Walter is really an unmistakably all-too-human monster, a man of insatiable ego who sees all of life’s interactions as part of a giant pissing contest; he bears a greater resemblance to the white-collar sharks who sank the country’s economy than the members of the working class left picking up the pieces. The joke, and it’s a good one, is that Walter’s temperament, which got him ousted from a legitimate company that could have made him a billionaire, renders him the ideal criminal, but he’s too hard-headed to operate in that world either. A famous line in the fifth season underlines Walter’s problem: “Jesse, you asked me whether I was in the meth business or the money business. Neither. I’m in the empire business.”
The show’s emotional focal point has beautifully shifted over the years: We were once imprisoned in Walter’s mind, stuck seeing the other characters as he regarded them. Walter’s brother-in-law, Hank (Dean Norris), isn’t the buffoon we initially took him for, but a sharp, idealistic investigator prone to surprising, poignant acts of kindness. Jesse (Aaron Paul) is less a lame-brained stoner cliché than a struggling person trapped in the thicket of Walter’s passive-aggressive manipulations. Even many of the kingpins that Walter has battled over the years scan as sympathetic compared to him, as they at least honor a certain democracy of the criminal underworld. Walter, though, is a tyrant too self-entitled to properly pay the dues necessary of obtaining the kingdom he so intensely requires as personal gratification, which is to say that Breaking Bad is the great contemporary American gangster story.
We are now, of course, approaching the end of the series, and the fifth season is unsurprisingly marked by a deathly portent. The characters no longer really interact with the outside world, as they’ve been swallowed up by their obsessions, seemingly condemned to a night world on the fringes symbolically embodied by cinematography that abounds in hues of dark sewer green. We’re no longer invited to enjoy the ever-inventive outlaw capers, as they’ve now been marked by too much spilled blood. The eight episodes that comprise the first half of the fifth season are a collective slow-burn, a series of moral chamber plays. Walter sets about rebuilding his empire (again), but no sane audience member can believe his increasingly delusional claims any longer: Walter will never be out of the business, and the “difficult part” will never be over.
This season is logically concerned with the fallout from Walter’s elaborate murder of drug kingpin Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) the year before, and in true Breaking Bad tradition, seemingly no minute detail of consequence is elided. Gus’s security man, Mike (a commanding, haunting Jonathan Banks), reluctantly teams up with Walt and Jesse to eliminate the evidence of their mutual connection to their former employer, and they eventually resurrect the meth lab in a fashion so ingenious it wouldn’t be fair to spoil. Mike knows that Walt is bad news, a sociopath clothed in pretenses of pragmatism, but like all of Walt’s victims, he makes the fatal mistake of assuming he can jump off the runaway train at just the right time.
The fifth season deviates from the series formula of introducing a major antagonist who embodies Walter’s unresolved hostility toward his old life; instead, series creator Vince Gilligan and his writers elect to hint at a variety of potential agents of his downfall. Walter aligns with a major cartel in Phoenix, a development that invites the adage of “the more things change the more they stay the same,” as well as Lydia Rodarte-Quayle (a terrific, twitchy Laura Fraser), a former associate of Gus’s who entices Walter with promises of a global drug empire. Most wrenchingly there’s Hank, who finally pieces together the identity of the mysterious master criminal “Heisenberg” in the season’s final gasp of a cliffhanger. Even if Gilligan and his collaborators jump the shark with this summer’s conclusion, which seems unlikely, Breaking Bad will be remembered as a profoundly moral work, a major deconstruction of every limitation of the American dream—particularly, and most tragically, its warped exclusion of empathy.
This transfer emphasizes the show’s strikingly succinct image compositions. Colors are crisp and bold, particularly in the scenes that show a yellow jump-suited Walter enshrouded in green shadows and wafts of cooking chemicals. The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track assertively conveys the shock of the numerous instances of violence with appropriately bombastic contrasts between the quieter moments and the explosions, stabbings, and shootings. Smaller details in mixing, such as the minute sound differences that distinguish various vehicles from one another, are also superb.
The hours of extras feature quite a bit of the kind of mutually admiring cast and crew fluff that’s typical of EPK fare, but they also collectively honor certain elements of Breaking Bad that might be a tad unheralded. The writers, firstly, are celebrated in several featurettes that document the assemblage of a typical episode, which is rigorously broken down beat by beat on a large cork pad. These featurettes, easily the most interesting in the set, could have been longer and more detailed. Each episode also includes an audio commentary with several of the relevant parties that serve as fun illustrations of the exacting attention to detail and nuance that characterizes the production of the show. There’s also a lot of goofy goodies, such as a bowling match with the crew, gag reels, and a welcome tribute to longtime character actor Jonathan Banks. A short new scene, "Chicks ’n’ Guns," elaborates on Jesse’s growing mistrust of Walter while a gorgeous stripper treats us to AMC-unfriendly nudity in the backdrop. It’s a tensely executed scene, but inessential to the overall arc of the season.
Walter White may soon be dead, but his legacy will live forever courtesy of this sterling Blu-ray transfer. Or at least until a new form of home-media preservation sprouts up, which could admittedly be any minute.