As with the premiere of the first half of Breaking Bad’s final season, the second round of eight episodes opens with a slightly less cryptic yet equally captivating flash-forward. A disheveled and clearly ill Walter White (Bryan Cranston), his cancer, we later learn, having nearly fully returned, tries to reclaim the small tube of ricin, its contents previously embedded in a cigarette intended to kill Gus Fring, from inside the covering of an electrical outlet. On paper, the scene sounds rather uneventful, but it’s actually quite the opposite. The White household is now a shell of its former self, a broken down, gutted monument of disgrace enclosed by a chain-link fence, its walls laced with graffiti (one marking reads, in big yellowish letters, “HEISENBERG”), its empty backyard pool carved up by a group of skateboarders likely unaware of the horrors that once took place there. It’s a startling sight, as Walt’s goal from the beginning was to protect his family, and now their shelter is a shattered, hollowed-out framework of a defunct ideal.
Directed by Bryan Cranston and written by Peter Gould, the episode, titled “Blood Money,” is lean and highly stylized, wasting no time picking up where the jolting mid-season cliffhanger, “Gliding Over All,” left off. Hank (Dean Norris) emerges from the Whites’ bathroom, Walt’s copy of Leaves of Grass in hand, still trying to process what he’s stumbled upon. The episode is lush with carefully extended shots and slow pans toward and away from characters in deep contemplation, such as Hank, whose simultaneous disgust, relief, and stupefaction is conveyed by Norris with an impressively undramatic delicacy. In a remarkable sequence shortly after his discovery that Walt is the notorious Heisenberg he’s been chasing, he has a panic attack on his drive home, his vision blurs, and the frantic shrieks of Marie (Betsy Brandt) become muffled wisps of sound before everything comes to a crashing halt. While it progresses leisurely at certain points, the episode effectively puts into motion what may be an all-out showdown between Hank and Walt, two men who never stop short of achieving their goals, and it concludes with an intense confrontation between them that the series has been building toward since its premiere episode.
Meanwhile, Jesse’s (Aaron Paul) falling deeper and deeper into a state of depression and numbness spawned by overwhelming guilt in response to the murder of a certain tarantula-collecting youngster. Even a hilarious Star Trek fan-fiction monologue by Badger (Matt Jones), consisting of a pie-eating contest aboard the Starship Enterprise that goes horribly wrong, can’t release Jesse from his tomb of dread. The titular blood money is his parting cut of the blue meth funds, and he makes numerous efforts to get rid of it in a way he hopes will pacify his pain, but Walt’s shameless lies continuously diminish Jesse’s attempts at mental well being, so much so that he completely abandons caution, hands several thousand dollars to a homeless man, and tosses the remainder randomly along the street. Jesse’s been through the wringer more than any other Breaking Bad character, seen everyone he’s come to truly care for either die or be forced to leave him, and now appears to be the key to bringing Walt down. In the end, Jesse’s absolute salvation may indeed hinge on his finally turning on the man he once thought of as a mentor.
The episode surprises with its revelation of the state of Walt’s relationship with his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn). Only a month or so after their massive fallout, they seem to be on markedly better terms, and when methylamine queen Lydia (Laura Fraser) materializes at the carwash complaining that the meth’s purity has dipped to 68% and hoping to reel Walt back in to cook, Skyler promptly demands that the jittery woman never return to their now-legit business establishment. It’s obvious that Walter and Skyler don’t share an ounce of adoration for one another, and that their union by this point is strictly business, but the thought that Skyler might be the one to put an end to Walt’s treacheries seems less of a possibility now. There’s still the looming wildcard of Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte) and what role he’ll play in this tale’s conclusion, but faithful viewers know Breaking Bad has always been adept at handling its big reveals, or lack thereof.
Cranston has helmed other episodes of Breaking Bad, but “Blood Money” may be his most impeccably honed: His resourceful cinematic touches, such as showing the poolside skaters through the viewfinder of one of their handheld cameras and a close-up of Jesse underneath a glass table that’s littered with crumbs and traversed by a crawling insect, illustrate a keen eye for small but significant details. During the profound episode-ending encounter between Walt and Hank, there’s the recurring hum of an adolescent racing a remote-controlled roadster in the background. The buzzing has a similar effect as the periodically popping firecrackers in Boogie Nights’s bungled drug-deal spectacle. The RC car is also evocative of one of Breaking Bad’s constant themes: the importance of being in control. As Walt and Hank presumably prepare to go toe to toe, the real question isn’t who possesses the stronger will, but who can more efficiently manipulate the other into doing what they want. We may think we know the answer, but this being Breaking Bad, we probably don’t have a clue.