Breaking Bad review- 5×01: ‘Live Free or Die’

Courtesy of AMC

The first part of Breaking Bad’s final season kicked off last night with an opening sequence that gives us a peek into Walter’s (Bryan Cranston) impending future. Not only can we expect him to grow a full head of hair and lumberjack beard (complemented by a new pair of specs) but we can also anticipate a far more despondent, broken Walter.

Let’s take a closer look after the jump.

After an absolutely explosive season finale, this episode very clearly sets up Walter’s rise to power and his inevitable descent. One thing that characterizes Breaking Bad is how brilliantly it can convey very obvious outcomes without overtly stating them. We know Walter is going to fall epically hard, but it’s through his ever-increasing hubris that we anticipate his downfall. This puts us in a perpetual state of unease and tension as he incrementally approaches his fate.

Consider how gradual Walt’s dark side evolution was. It wasn’t necessarily shocking when we learned last season that he poisoned that innocent boy with the lily of the valley – it was quite clear that Walt would have gone to any lengths to save himself. What was surprising, for myself anyway, was his calm and calculating demeanor and most importantly, how he showed no remorse. A far cry from S1’s Walter. Furthermore, Walt’s actions weren’t jarring or out of place, as his journey “breaking bad” had been perfectly orchestrated throughout seasons prior. I’m always shocked at Breaking Bad’s ability to affect me as a viewer as I find myself in conflict. How is it that I can simultaneously root for Walt, yet equally want to see him fail miserably? That my friends, is the beauty of the show.

We open with a flash-forward of Walt in a New Mexico Denny’s having a pathetic breakfast on his 52nd birthday. He’s here on “business” collecting a duffle bag full of something, and more importantly, a trunk full of ammo and an accompanying machine gun (and of course, a manual printed off the Internet). It’s clear that Walt lacks the confident swagger that he displays at episode’s end. With trepidation he grabs the duffle bag as we linger on the New Hampshire plates with at the titular tag line: “Live Free or Die”. Looks like the foreshadowing is out in spades. (Side Note:  Is it just me, or are we seeing way too much use of the flash-forward in quality TV of late?) No matter, the flash-forward achieves its goal: we’ll continually have this moment in our heads as events throughout the season unfold.

After the credits we jump right back to the aftermath of Gus’ (Giancarlo Esposito) death. Walter hurriedly cleans up his kitchen where we see the remnants of his lily of the valley experiment, ready to toast his victory with some scotch. But he pauses and scrambles outside to get rid of the potted plant. The sequence very tactfully encapsulates the problem with Walter White. Although successful in his hair-brained schemes, there’s always something he misses. In this case he catches it, but throughout the episode we see the continual f*ckups that Walt is perpetually trying to correct. But more on that later…

As Skyler (Anna Gunn) and Junior (RJ Mitte) come back to the house, we’re treated to another aspect that I love about the show: economy. As Junior waxes on and on about Frig’s death, Walt says very little, yet his body language reveals much to the contrary. It’s as if he’s accepting an Academy Award. In the subsequent bedroom scene, very few words are exchanged but we’re left in no doubt about Skyler’s fear of the man Walt’s become, nor do we question Walt’s arrogance. The dark bedroom and the plays with shadow and light subtly punctuate these messages.

Again the camera lingers just enough as Walt sits down on the bed, alone with baby Holly, taking a swig of scotch. The symbolism is quite telling as we drink in Walt’s duality, his image is reflected in the closet mirrors. He stands up proclaiming, “Oh, shit,” realizing another loose end which he’s neglected to tie. In moments like these, it’s understandable why Breaking Bad is regarded as one of the best shows on television. It’s clear that the characters are thinking and we’re invited to be right there with them, savouring the moments (No wonder I’m still rooting for Walt – I’ve invested hours with him.) It’s all about economy as no time is wasted, no extraneous dialogue present.

Courtesy of AMC

All this leads up to “Magnet: Impossible” yet another completely crazy scheme that is rendered totally believable. The “Oh, shit” Walt was referring to was Gus laptop and how it contains surveillance footage of Walt and Jesse (Aaron Paul) cooking and Mike (Jonathan Banks) and Gus’ other henchmen doing a plethora of deplorable and illegal things. Unfortunately (or fortunately?) Hank (Dean Norris) and his police team are already in possession of the laptop, bagged and tagged as it sits in the evidence vault.

Enter Jesse, Walt and Mike who band together, tasked to destroy the contents implicating them. It’s great to see Walt and Jesse working together again as I’ve missed seeing them persistently try and dig themselves out of hole after hole. Throwing Mike into the mix works even better as he counterbalances Walt’s growing superiority complex. And to top it all off, we get the addition of some science (!!) by way of the mega-magnet.  Oh, this caper just keeps giving and giving.

The three go to the junkyard and convince Old Joe (wonderful character actor, Larry Hankin) to loan them his super magnet so they can wipe the laptop clean without physically entering the evidence vault. The entire scene setting up the mission is just delightful, adding some much needed humour in an otherwise extremely tense episode.

And the mission works (somewhat), as the laptop (and the rest of the evidence stored in the vault) are successfully destroyed. But true to Breaking Bad form, another problem reveals itself in the “success”. Although Walt smugly pats himself on the back with his “Because I said so” attitude in the getaway car, we find out later that the scheme also broke a picture frame of Gus in the evidence vault revealing a hidden document that would have otherwise gone unnoticed. Again, Walt’s attempt to fix something invariably has created another problem for him.

Other observations:

  • Surprisingly, Ted (Christopher Cousins) survived his brilliantly shocking accident from last season. Skyler’s visit to him was quite effective, as again, the camera lingers on her reaction before we witness Ted’s state. He promises her that he won’t breathe a word of her involvement in his accident (he appears to know this without having her reveal it). She very naively believes it, which had me promptly rolling my eyes. The guy just woke up from a coma and is likely to spend the rest of his days as quadriplegic. I bet in a couple years time, when the resentment and revenge have adequately stewed, he’ll be changing his tune. (Side Note: I fully realize I’m actually petitioning for the killing of Ted so that Walter won’t be discovered. Oh Breaking Bad, what are you turning me into?)
  • I loved the way Walt’s hubris grows exponentially throughout the episode, particularly when he denies driving away from the evidence vault after 60 seconds, as initially planned. He can’t resist turning that dial up all the way, forcing them to leave behind the entire mega-magnet van. Not to worry – “There are no prints, and nothing’s traceable,“ Walt coos. Leaving the van behind is just a middle finger to the incompetent police department.  It reminded me of  Walt’s dinner with Hank last season in which he actively fed Hank clues, baiting Hank to catch him. Does Walter want to get caught? Or does he merely want to make it more difficult for him to get away with it all, thereby making his victory that much sweeter when he is successful?
  • I have to mention Michael Slovis’ superb direction in the two final scenes. The delicious use of camera angles in Saul’s (Bob Odenkirk) office evoked such an effective display of power dynamics, it was dizzying. This is followed by an equally potent scene as Walt, very purposefully, is shrouded in shadow as he enters the bedroom to whisper coldly to Skyler, “I forgive you.” All hail the king, indeed.

A pretty stellar season premiere if you ask me. What did you think viewers? Care to weigh in any theories on how Walt will fall off his throne? I have major doubts that Mike is going to keep on playing nice in the sandbox, any ideas on what he’ll do to avenge Gus? Do you think Junior will ever catch on to what’s going on around him? Sound off in the comments section below.

Breaking Bad airs Sundays at 10pm EST on AMC.

About tvangie

Angie is a TV addict currently pursuing a PhD in media studies. A freelance researcher and writer on the side – she really misses talking about her favourite shows because none of her friends watch them. Help her out.

3 thoughts on “Breaking Bad review- 5×01: ‘Live Free or Die’

  1. I’m gonna rewatch the scene with Walter & Saul to pay more attention to the camera angles. I did notice how the camera was staring up at Walter at one point, a very interesting choice.

  2. The Denny’s was in New Mexico not New Hamoshire – that’s why she asked about his NH license and he told her it was a 30 hour drive.