Monday, September 19, 2016

Thoughts on Breaking Bad - Season 5 (Part 1)

Sad but true story: when I started this season, I had planned to review each episode separately (kind of like I did with The X-Files), since I had become thoroughly entrenched enough in the series to that point. But, after getting as much as the first three episode reviews polished and ready to post (I wanted to get a few done first so I knew I'd be able to commit to the format), Blogger up and ate them without warning, leaving me with nothing but the raw notes I'd typed up in Notepad. It nearly crushed my spirit. But I trudged on. And now I'll just have to do this last review like I did the past four seasons...

Spoiler Warning: This post is going to discuss - and therefore contain major spoilers from - the first half of the fifth and final season of Breaking Bad. Reader discretion is advised. :-p

"I won."

S5:E1 "Live Free or Die"

In the season five premiere, we pick up where the last season left off - with Walt gloating over his victory in the face off with drug kingpin Gustavo Fring. But not before being treated to a tantalizing flash forward in which Walt appears to be on the run, and gearing up for a violent confrontation. Also, Jesse hatches a harebrained scheme involving a gigantic "magnet bomb" that's just crazy enough to work.

Walt is definitely getting power drunk. He's threatening Saul, scaring Skyler. I feel like he's finally gone over the deep end. There's no turning back now (psychologically - seeing as Walt's been screwed since the first season). I imagine he's just on a downward spiral now, and it's only a matter of time before things get out of control - even for him. Although, the scene we saw at the beginning of the episode makes you wonder. Will Walt get out of this in the end? Go on the run? Use Saul's contact to start a new life? Where is his family? Or was that not the final end of this story? I guess time will tell.

I haven't watched some of these other "antihero" shows that are popular - like, I don't know, The Sopranos, or whatever. But while I'm definitely seeing Walt finally turning into more of a villain - the sort of guy who gets what he wants, and has no qualms about stepping on people's toes (to put it so lightly as to be offensive) to do it - what's fascinating about him is that, even if he may not be a clone of the average Joe who lives on your street, he still feels normal-ish, in terms of where he's coming from. The high school teacher with a suburban family. He didn't grow up in a gang, or a mafia family, or even amidst a drug culture, like Jesse presumably surrounded himself with. He's no "Godfather". He was just this mild-mannered 9-to-5er, like so many of the rest of us, and now he's this...force of nature. But again, that's what makes this series so original, and so intriguing.

S5:E2 "Madrigal"

This episode's opening segment is like something straight out of The X-Files - with an international business executive defibrillating himself on the toilet. It catches your attention, and keeps you guessing. Gilligan and his team definitely learned a few tricks working on The X-Files.

Clearly, Walt's not even thinking about hanging up his hat now. Not that that's really surprising - but there was a time once when he would have relished the perfect opportunity to get out. He's definitely over the deep end now, headed for disaster. Sooner or later.

With all this international intrigue, I feel like I'm watching a James Bond movie, but it's always fun to see Mike at work. He's such a down to earth guy. His police interview was very tense - he knows just how to deal with the cops. It's no wonder he sees that Walt is (to quote Jose Chung from that other series) a ticking time bomb of insanity. But I guess all of this is pushing Mike into needing money so he'll join up against his better instincts with Walt and Jesse (by this point, Walt gets what he wants - one way or another). What a sad commentary on society that people can so easily go into debt - even when they're rich - that they'll resort to such dangerous get-rich-quick schemes as manufacturing illegal drugs. It makes you wonder what the point of honest labor is, beyond some nebulous concept of "virtue". Other than peace of mind, and not always having to look over your shoulder, I guess.

I'm surprised Saul is still dealing with Walt. He's smart enough to know that Walt's bad news. But then, I guess, if Walt's got him in his clutches, there's nowhere for him to go...

There's a great scene in this episode where Hank's superior is discussing Fring's two-faced deception - how he would schmooze with the DEA, and all the while he had this secret double life. You can almost see it through Hank's eyes, the wheels turning in his head. Is he starting to suspect Walt now?

Have to say, I love that Jesse referred to the RV as the "crystal ship". Awesome.

What a haunting ending, with Walt and Skyler in bed. And what a change from season 1. Walt has his family, but he's basically destroyed it, along with his own soul. Skyler is terrified. She looks like she wants to be anywhere else but in that bed, but she's got none of the spunk from before. She has no leg left to stand on, after what happened to Ted. She's like a wounded animal. And Walt - he's like some shadowy beast, sniffing and pawing over his prey. It's not even sexual, but purely a dominance thing. (I almost wouldn't be surprised if he started urinating on her to mark his territory). He's got no humanity left at all, it seems. The transformation we've seen in this series is so fascinating, and it's really feeling like it's going too far. Like the end is growing near. How have we gone this many years as a society and never crafted any media that ever depicted the birth of a sociopath so convincingly before?

(On that note, it's interesting to go back and think about Walt's little "outbursts" in the first season. At first it was cathartic - striking back at the assholes you encounter in day to day life. Then it started getting a little extreme. And now, looking back, you can see it for what it really was - sociopathic tendencies. By the end, Walt doesn't like a guy - he just kills him).

S5:E3 "Hazard Pay"

Mike's in the hot seat, trying to keep the ship afloat. Walt moves back into his house, to Skyler's chagrin (he's got the balls back in this relationship, although now it's a dysfunctional one). And the new team hunts for a new lab.

I gotta say, the exterminator setup is an ingenious idea. If it weren't so damn illegal, it might even work. But I'm thinking right now that there are way too many moving parts (literally!). Something's bound to fall through. And right now, what they need is an airtight case. In other words, it looks like they're building up a new operation, but I can't help feeling like it's just a setup for disaster. (Of course, knowing that the series is coming to an end probably contributes to that, as well),

Skinny Pete is surprisingly good at piano!

Regarding Jesse's relationship with Andrea, why would Walt pump Jesse's head full of those ideas about trust and honesty and whatnot? Does he not realize that Jesse has a conscience? Does he want Jesse to blab about his business to his girlfriend? Maybe he thinks it will cause Andrea to want to leave him. Why does Walt not want Jesse to be happy? Is he really that petty? Or is it just simply that he's completely uncomfortable being reminded of what he did to Brock (that scene on the couch - so much unspoken subtext...), that he wants to sabotage Jesse's relationship (and what a suave way to do it - this guy's a master sociopath), to get them as far away from him as possible, no matter the emotional cost to Jesse? You know what, knowing Walter White, that sounds the most likely.

"Listen, Walter. Just because you shot Jesse James, don't make you Jesse James."

Walt discusses his re-interpretation of Gus' killing Victor in the lab (with the box cutter) with Jesse, subtly hinting that he might do something to Mike for "taking liberties" with their money. Jesse's been like a blind puppy dog for most of this series, loyally following Walt around. Is he finally getting a sense of the man's true nature? I'm kinda feeling like Walt's gonna be the one to screw himself over in the end. No weak link - it's like Scarface, the movie he was watching with Walter, Jr. ("Everyone dies in this movie, don't they" - is that foreshadowing?). Drunk on power, completely detached from reality, believing in his own legend, not even conscious enough to realize when the game's up...

S5:E4 "Fifty-One"

"What are you waiting for?"
"For the cancer to come back."

You and me both, Sky. (Skyler's really starting to lose it, walking into the pool fully dressed. Can't blame her though - she's living with a madman).

Walt's getting too fancy with these cars. What happened to being discreet? The way he put that hat on in front of Walt, Jr. - I almost get the feeling that he's been in this long enough, and he's becoming more confident now about what he's doing - that he's getting tired of hiding. He wants the world (or at least his family and friends) to know who he is. But the tricky thing about "coming out" is that it can have real, serious consequences. Especially when you're coming out as something extremely illegal. Still, I can't deny that there's an appeal there in coming clean - not in the sense of giving it up and admitting your fault, but saying, as the Marquis de Sade once did, "either kill me or take me as I am, for I shall never change."

Leave it to Hank to notice those mismatched shoes. A genius investigator, I say.

About this idea re: putting the kids in "a new environment". It's amazing how well written this show is, that it speaks so well to humanity. I think it's safe to assume that Skyler doesn't want Walt influencing the kids, because he's obviously become a bad influence. At the same time, I can sympathize with Walt, because I know what it feels like for somebody to not want you influencing their kids, while at the same time you think you'd be a better influence than the alternative. I can just see that if I were in Walt's position, and it were my kids, how this could turn into a majorly serious argument. Even monsters have a sense of pride and dignity.

Walt and Skyler are becoming enemies. They've been at odds for a large part of this series, but there was always the assumption of a bond between them, however fraught. But now she's like a trapped animal, trying to escape the lion's den. Walt is being surprisingly civil to her for now, but what will it take before he snaps and attacks her, too? Is the reason he's alone in the season opening flash-forward because he has no family left? Whether it's because he's driven them away - or worse? I kinda feel like if Walt, Jr. ever loses his illusion of respect for his father, that might just be the last straw that strips the last ounce of humanity from Walt. How can you justify your madness in terms of protecting your family when there's no family left to protect?

S5:E5 "Dead Freight"

"I'm not your wife; I'm your hostage."

Walt bugs Hank's computer, right there in the offices of the DEA. God, he's got guts.

"Everyone sounds like Meryl Streep with a gun to their head." Mike with his one liners.

Lol, Lydia suggests train robbery - literally! Mike and Walt are bickering about the train heist, and Jesse is sitting there coming up with ideas - he's really coming into his own. I'll bet this'll be even better than the magnet idea! (It's like a train heist version of Indiana Jones!).

"There are two kinds of heists. Those where the guys get away with it. And those that leave witnesses." Oh god, what horrible foreshadowing... Talk about a hollow victory - what a way to turn success into utter devastation. When shit like this happens, it really makes you wonder what's the point. Is it really worth it? How one chooses to proceed after a tragedy like this is what separates the men from the monsters.

S5:E6 "Buyout"

Wow, I almost thought Skyler was going to blab to Marie there. That would have been the end of it. It's not smart, but when you're desperate, sometimes you become self-destructive, or else you begin to prioritize your emotional wellbeing over the longterm consequences of living a terrible lie. Psychologically, I wanted Skyler to come clean. I know how good that can feel.

Getting back to the fallout from the train heist - I wonder if this is going to be the straw... wait, that's a bad analogy. I wonder if this is going to finally be what breaks Jesse's resolve and blind loyalty to Walt. The murder of that innocent boy to protect their secret enterprise - it's not pleasant at all, but it's such a fascinating conundrum to consider. As the conscience in this story, Jesse has become a more and more interesting character, especially since the Gale incident, and the subsequent reaction to his rehab therapy group. I once had a dream where I killed someone, and got away with it. But the worst part of it - the part that haunted me long after I woke up - was the hollow feeling that comes from knowing that I'd been responsible for something so horrible, so unconscionable. I mean, like, I can sympathize to a point. Even having been involved in something like this, moving forward like Walt wants to do doesn't necessarily mean condoning the collateral damage. A person like Jesse can believe in his heart that what he's doing is wrong, yet still go on, because that's just your basic survival instinct. And I guess we consider (and probably rightfully so) a person to be truly capable of rehabilitation if they seek restitution for their wrongs, which could only occur if Jesse confessed, forgoing his own survival instinct to right the wrong he is at least partly responsible for committing. But I guess that can be a process, too. And it's incredible, but I've never before seen any kind of fictional media - book, movie, or otherwise - that has explored these themes in such a visceral, believable fashion. I don't know, maybe it's me - maybe you have to have certain life experiences to respond to certain things like this in a certain way, and it's only now that I've become receptive to that. But regardless, this series has done an amazing job of it.

There's a perfectly creepy scene in this episode - Jesse is agonizing over the kid's death, and Walt is trying to cheer him up, by giving him the rest of the day off. And Jesse's on his way out the door, and Walt's in the lab whistling while he works - like he's actually in a good mood after all this has happened! It's horrifying in such a subtle way.

And again, I say that Aaron Paul is a great actor in this series. Maybe he wears his emotions on his sleeve a little bit, but when he said "I'm out", I could see the heartbreak on his face (not wanting to disappoint Walt - or was that fear?).

"Billions - with a 'b'." Good to hear about Gray Matter again. "I'm in the empire business." What a megalomaniac! That explains why Walt is so insistent on keeping the business, though - it's all he has left, now that his family has been shattered, and his kids taken away from him. Also, most awkward dinner ever - with Jesse just sitting there, caught in the middle of this power play between husband and wife...

This is kind of a technical aside, but this show is really well lit - with dark shadows in just the right places. And of course, the brilliant, bright, desert scenes. Light and shade, baby.

"Everybody wins." (Yeah, we'll see about that).

S5:E7 "Say My Name"

There's so much to analyze and discuss about this series, but what's being presented to you is often so haunting, and emotionally affecting, that you're frequently left speechless, with no words to describe what's going on in front of you. In this episode, Walt makes a new distribution deal with his competitor, now that Mike is retiring (that meeting - pure ego). I'll be sad to see Mike go...

Jesse also leaves the cook, despite Walt's sincere protests. (Does he care more about him as a friend, or a manipulable worker? Doesn't take him long to start molding Todd in his image, although I want to say that Jesse is special - you can't just replace him with any lowlife slacker).

Sigh. I knew Walt was gonna shoot Mike - I mean, it was obvious. What's surprising is that Mike didn't see it coming. He knew Walter was a ticking time bomb. He shoulda seen it coming...

S5:E8 "Gliding Over All"

Walt makes a distribution deal with Lydia, and choreographs the killing of nine potential snitches in prison (with help from Todd's uncle Jack).

This is just another one of those great, understated moments in this series - when Hank comes home agonizing over how stressful it is to "chase monsters", unknowingly griping to the very monster he's chasing, while that monster just sits there, completely unaffected emotionally. This is villainy - not dark capes and evil, exaggerated laughs.

Yep, I'm never going to be able to listen to Crystal Blue Persuasion the same way again...

All this work Walt has to go to in order to put together his new business - it really makes you appreciate the whole enclosed system Gus had had set up, before Walt had to come along and raze it to the ground.

"How big does this pile have to be?"

Walt visits Jesse at home. It's sweet to hear them reminiscing about their old RV. I'm feeling kind of nostalgic too, knowing that this series is heading towards its end. Of course, you can't turn back the clock. Reminds me of the sappy mood in Vince Gilligan's penultimate episode of the X-Files, Sunshine Days - although less cheesy and saccharine here, thankfully. I'm a little bit relieved, though. I was beginning to think that Walt would end up finding some reason to kill Jesse (as I'm sure that's what Jesse was starting to suspect). I'm glad he's not so far gone that he can't remember how much he's actually enjoyed Jesse's "friendship". If you can call it that, given how he's treated him all this time. But not everybody is good at showing their feelings.

I swear, my heart dropped into my stomach when the camera showed the bag just on the periphery of the frame, after Walt told Jesse he'd left him something. For a second I thought it would be Mike's dead body, as one last "fuck you" to Jesse for quitting the business. I know, that wouldn't make any kind of sense (gotta keep those loose ends tied up), but sadly, it's not so far outside the realm of lunacy that I couldn't be absolutely certain that Walt wouldn't do it. I mean, think of all the things he's done to Jesse. Gale, Brock...

Come on, Walt can't possibly be "out". Is he going to start lying to Skyler again now? What about his deal with Declan? With Lydia? Is this for real?

And, the backyard BBQ is back to the way it was before. Such a difference from that time a few episodes back, when Skyler walked into the pool. There was so much dysfunction going on then, it was like night and day from the old family get-togethers from earlier seasons (although, there were times - like with Walter, Jr. and the beer). But now it's like old times again. What's the catch, I'm wondering? You can't get out that cleanly... If nothing else, the psychology can't just snap back to a period of innocence. They've done too much, seen too much, to ever truly be the same again.

And, there it is. What a way for Hank to finally figure it out. Sitting on the crapper (that's so Breaking Bad). What a great scene, though. It's like, "oh, okay, we're going to watch Hank take a crap now. I'm not sure what the point of this is, but it's not like it's the first time on this seri--- oh, oh shit, the Walt Whitman book!" The shit is about to hit the fan, folks. We're in the home stretch now! And just when Walt thought he was out...

A literal "oh, shit!" moment.

To be concluded!

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