The first episode of Breaking Bad's final season (well, final half-season) premieres tonight at 9 p.m. on AMC. There has been a parade of fantastic articles enthusiastically praising the show while hyping up the final eight episodes over the last week. Yet after re-watching the harrowing eight episodes of season 5.1 over the last 48 hours, it struck me that the show still begs for more analysis, more predictions, more words. Consider it a moment of reflection before we all take one last trip to the ABQ.
NOTE: There will be spoilers for seasons 1-5.1, but I have refrained from watching the premiere of season 5.2—so no spoilers for tonight's premiere.
This Is A Horror Show Now: I would not recommend anyone take after me and binge watch season 5.1 all at once. Of course the show has been tense from its very first scene (the one in which Walter White stood in his tighty-whities and prepared for a shoot-off with police). Tension is in its DNA, and it has no equivalent on a scene-to-scene level (except perhaps The Shield). But just as the main character has changed, so too has the mood of the show, and there was a decisive moment when it happened.
After being constantly outmaneuvered by Gus Fring and thus rendered impotent for most of season 4, Walt went full-Heisenberg at the very end of the episode "Crawl Space"—as he maniacally cracked up, something between a primal scream and a stream of chuckles, the camera creeped upwards while slowly focusing in on his dusty, worn face. There was no turning back at this point; if Walt had to poison a child to get what he needed, he would. And there was no turning back for the show's tone as well.
And that's how we got the brutal season 5.1. Next to maybe Hannibal, I have never watched a season of a show so drenched in, so indistinguishable from the vileness of its protagonist. Episode "51" (the one where Skyler slowly shrinks from Walt's birthday party into their backyard pool in a desperate cry for help) alone is one of the most traumatizing pieces of fictional television I've ever seen. This is no mark on the quality of the show—if anything, it has become even more beautifully filmed, subtly acted, ingenuously plotted. Season 5 may turn out to truly have no fat on it whatsoever. It is also painful, sometimes too painful, to watch all at once, but I can't wait to see what happens every step of the way forward.
Creator Vince Gilligan sold the show by saying he was going to take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface—it's a solid premise, but that was just a sketch of an idea compared to the full, horrible bloom that we have witnessed over the last five years. And what season 5.1 has proven is that this is a horror show now, one that deals as much in psychological horror as outlandish deaths—that includes the depths of Skyler's depression, Jesse's agonizing morality, Mike's constant frustrations and compromises, and most importantly, the casual and calculated ways Walt justifies murdering colleagues, strangers, and anyone else who gets in the way of his stubborn pursuit of money and a kind of immortality.
And no amount of Saul banter, no crazy magnet shenanigans, no brief appearances from Skinny Pete and Badger, and no gorgeous time-lapses of meth cooking set to bouncy pop songs can bring any levity, let alone stop the darkness, anymore.
As the seasons progressed, Walt's meth career took off, and his cancer went into remission, it has become increasingly clear that the cancer was a kind of MacGuffin (certainly not just a MacGuffin), a plot device that set Walt off on the journey to become the man (Heisenberg) he is now. Walt's cancer may ultimately be his final undoing (it's certainly the ending that Skyler is pining for), but it's also become the central metaphor for his external impact on the world around him.
Every Supervillain Has A Weakness: And Walt's cancer isn't really what's causing him to waste away—it's his pride and arrogance. His pride is what stopped him from accepting monetary help from his former partner at Gray Matters in season 1, which could have prevented all this from ever happening. His pride is what led him to kill Mike in "Say My Name," even as he realizes moments later that even he couldn't justify it. And his arrogance is what led him to keep poor Gale's present of Leaves Of Grass—which is of course what led Hank to his toilet-bound epiphany at the end of "Gliding Over All."
Walt's other weakness which was fully exposed in season 5.1: his selfish ruthlessness. That quality is what led him to dispense with Mike, imprison Skyler, and constantly manipulate Jesse. His lack of loyalty to the few people who still cared about him is what led him to join forces with a new cast of shady characters who have little reason to show loyalty to him, and will undoubtedly be involved in his final demise: the fidgety Lydia, the unhinged Todd, Todd's neo-Nazi cousin and friends, and the new cartel led by Declan. Walt may have declared himself out of the meth business at the end of "Gliding All Over"—but do you think he really discussed that with all his new partners first?
We Know Where We're Headed: The first scene of season 5.1 showed us a defeated Walt, hacking in a Denny's bathroom, using an assumed name and license (his wife's maiden name, no less), purchasing an M60 machine gun. There's a lot of ground to cover before we reach Walt's 52nd birthday, but the ball will be rolling down the mountain very, very quickly now.
All The Pieces Matter: That phrase, borrowed from The Wire, applies just as much to the meticulous plotting of Breaking Bad. There is no such thing as a dangling plot line on this show (to put it another way: there are no Russians in the NJ woods on this show). So don't think for a second that we won't be revisiting some—probably all—the ones left, like poor bed-bound Ted Beneke, or the storage unit full of cash, or the car wash, or (especially) Chekhov's Ricin Cigarette (last seen hidden in an electrical socket in Walt's house), which has been bouncing around since the start of season 2, and has yet to be used on anyone (despite some very close calls).
Does Walter White Live In A Moral Universe?: Gilligan has long discussed his own fascination with morality and how it relates to Walter White's story: "Maybe on some level what I'm intending is to explore a world where actions do have consequences," he told Maureen Ryan last summer. So far, there seems to be some karmic balance in Walt's universe: once he ascended to the top of his industry by the last episode of season 5.1, he discovered he was wholly miserable, realizing (a little too late) how hollow his obsession with building a meth empire (and most importantly, being recognized for it) had been. Walt has a lot of blood on his hands though, a lot of decisions of dubious morality to answer for—and if that flash forward showed us anything, it's that he has a lot further down to sink before he'll truly feel the weight of all his choices.