"Breaking Bad" is back for its final eight episodes, and I have a review of tonight's premiere coming up just as soon as Scotty beams the pies into space...
"It was you! All along, it was YOU!" -Hank
Vince Gilligan likes to talk about "showmanship" as one of the watchwords of the "Breaking Bad" writing staff. They're telling a complicated character arc — several of them, in fact — and they always want to stay true to what Walter White, Jesse Pinkman and everyone else is going through at this moment in the narrative. But they also want to dazzle the viewer with surprising plot twists, unexpected bursts of humor, gorgeous cinematography, cool action and more. We love "Breaking Bad" because Walter White is an amazing character played by a brilliant actor, but we also love it because, for all the darkness of Walt's Mr. Chips-to-Scarface descent, the show is an absurd amount of fun to watch so much of the time.
Though contractually part of the same fifth season we watched last summer — after the flashforward in the teaser, we pick up only seconds after Hank's literal "Oh, shit!" moment — "Blood Money" is structured like a season premiere in the same way "Gliding Over All" was structured as a season finale, and it's a piece of showmanship on par with "Box Cutter," "No Mas," or even the series pilot.
With only eight episodes to go before Walt's story is over, there's no time for screwing around, and Peter Gould's script does an impressive job of flipping over cards I wouldn't have expected the show to play for another few weeks at least. The flashforward to Walt in his Mr. Lambert guise tells us far more than the similar sequence in last summer's premiere did about what's to come. We know that Walt's criminal identity has become incredibly public, to the point where his neighbor Carol is terrified of him, while a graffiti artist has sprayed "HEISENBERG" in giant yellow letters in the abandoned White living room, and we know that the entire house has been emptied out, presumably by law enforcement, to look for any evidence of Walt's criminal activities. (They even took the kitchen island!) We know that Walt won't be using the ricin capsule between the present story and this future moment, though we don't know if he goes to retrieve it to use it along with his new machine gun, or simply to make sure a future homeowner doesn't come across it.
In the scenes set in the present, we get confirmation that Walt's cancer has come back (we saw him coughing and taking pills in the Denny's bathroom in "Live Free or Die"), in a devastatingly casual fashion, as we're so busy focusing on the content of his phone conversation with Saul that it takes a moment to recognize that he's in a chemo suite. And though Hank wants to move slowly and deliberately towards a confrontation with Walt about his secret identity, Walt forces his hand (specifically, his right fist) and they discuss it long before I think any of us was expecting it.
And yet the more I've thought about it, the more I realize Gilligan, Gould and company didn't have much of a choice here. Knowing what we know about Walt's future, there remains a lot of ground to cover in between the stare-down in Hank's garage and Mr. Lambert getting a free breakfast at Denny's, and we have maybe six episodes to get from here to there, depending on how much time Gilligan intends to spend on Walt's plans for his new machine gun. Even if you treat these 16 episodes as a single season, there's a lot of story to deal with, and the time to deal with it is dwindling, rapidly. So all the revelations of "Blood Money" are bold, but also necessary.
Yet what makes the episode — directed, like the season 2 and 3 premieres, by Bryan Cranston himself(*) — so impressive is that it never feels like it's racing to catch up. An awful lot of things happen, but they happen at the same measured pace that makes "Breaking Bad" great.
(*) Cranston has proved himself a strong director in the show's rotation, but he draws premiere assignments because the show can't afford to have him miss an episode, or have a drastically reduced on-camera presence, while he's scouting and doing other pre-production work for the next one.
Take the teaser. It runs four minutes, and the only words spoken (other than some background chatter by the skaters) are "Hello, Carol." It takes the time to let you soak in the realization of where we are and exactly what's happened to the place, and it forces Walt to slowly confront the consequences of his actions in the place he was allegedly doing all of this to protect. And the fact that he lingers to offer a wry greeting to Carol, rather than sprinting for the car the moment she sees him, says volumes about how little Walt cares about people knowing he's back in Albuquerque. Whatever his plans are, they are not long-term ones.
Or take Walt's visit to Jesse's house to talk him out of the plan to give the blood money to Drew Sharp's family. It's a long conversation that calls back to their previous argument on the subject from last summer's "Say My Name" (when Walt refused to give Jesse his cut of the train job money), and again illustrates the twisted paternal relationship they've developed (note Walt again calling Jesse "son"), but mainly it's a chance to watch Walter White lie through his teeth to Jesse Pinkman, while a terrified, disgusted Jesse has to sit there and pretend to believe him. Another magnificent Cranston/Paul duet, and I doubt it'll be the last before we're done.
Jesse's arc in this episode feels a bit like what he went through in season 4 after killing Gale, condensed into an hour, but it didn't feel rushed. We know what Jesse has been through, and why he might be more desperate to find an outlet for his feelings of helplessness and remorse than he did back then, and also just how much he's come to hate and fear his former partner. It's not hard at all to understand what he's going through, and how those bags of cash have begun to feel like an anchor pulling him into the abyss.
And the Hank/Walt confrontation at the end was a marvel of tension, with each man sniffing around the other, trying to figure out what he knows before reaching a stalemate. And just when we've accepted that there will be no confrontation today, Walt just can't stop himself from pulling the tracking device out of his pocket and metaphorically throwing the gauntlet down for Hank. Walt doesn't have a lot of time yet, either — though his prognosis of dying in six months is proven wrong by the Mr. Lambert scenes, which take place about nine months from this episode — but impulse control has always been a problem for him, particularly where his sense of justice, and/or sense of self, are at stake. He didn't have to fight the bullies who were mocking Walter Jr. at the mall, didn't have to blow up the bluetooth jerk's car, didn't have to confront the would-be meth cookers at the hardware store, nor convince Hank that Gale couldn't be Heisenberg, but he did all of those things. As much as Walt may be enjoying his retirement, and what may be his last days on earth with Skyler and the kids, he cannot resist demonstrating to Hank that he has outsmarted him, and he cannot resist demanding to learn what his brother-in-law knows. He is The One Who Knocks, but he is also The One Who Gloats. And poor Hank Schrader (played wonderfully as usual by Dean Norris) is just trying to keep up with a world that doesn't make sense to him anymore.(**)
(**) Loved the sound design on the sequence where a stunned Hank emerges from the bathroom and steps back out onto the patio. The sliding glass door sounds like an airlock opening, because Hank is now stepping out into the void, with no clear sense of up or down.
The episode ends on a stalemate, with Walt threatening Hank (who has, of course, put almost all of the puzzle pieces together upon recognizing Walt's role in things) and neither man sure what to do next. So many things could happen between now and Walt's trip to retrieve the ricin capsule, but they're going to have to happen quickly. And based on "Blood Money," I suspect they're going to happen in the most intense fashion imaginable.
Some other thoughts:
* The episode is dedicated to Kevin Cordasco, a 16-year-old from Calabasas who died earlier this year from neuroblastoma. He was a big fan of the show who got to meet the cast before he passed away.
* As usual, the darkness is leavened with bursts of humor, like Huell's reaction to Jesse blazing up in the lobby, or Aaron Paul's perfect expression of disbelief after Saul asks Jesse if he's been in touch with Mike.
* I was going to ask for a ruling on whose "Star Trek" script sounded better: Paul Kinsey's racism allegory ("The Negron Complex") on "Mad Men" or Badger's transporter-aided pie-eating contest here. But the answer is so obviously Badger that the real question is whether Gould made Chekov the doomed hero of Badger's story as an homage to all the fan talk over the years of (a different) Chekhov's Ricin Capsule. Or is it just funnier to imagine Walter Koenig screaming (in much the way he did when the slug was inserted into his ear in "Wrath of Khan") as his guts are beamed out of his body than if it was George Takei or one of the leads?
* "Hello, Carol" got a roar from the crowd at Comic-Con when that teaser was screened, as you might expect. Carol, by the way, should not be confused with Becky, Walt's neighbor from the other side of the house, whom he sent in to flush out Gus's goons (or die trying) early in "Face Off."
* Something occurred to me about the flash-forward: have we ever seen anyone swim in that pool? I suppose technically Walt swam to interrupt Skyler's half-considered suicide attempt back in "Fifty-One," but for the most part the pool's been used as a receptacle for matches, vomit and plane crash debris, then as a place for Skyler to perhaps escape from Walt, and now in the future as an illegal skate park. Walt has spent much of his criminal career using objects for other than their intended purpose, so it only seems fair that his pool has been treated the same way.
* The song playing as Hank goes through the Heisenberg files is "Wordmule," by Jim White. You can also hear Squeeze's "If I Didn't Love You" playing in the background of the party as Hank emerges from the bathroom, flush with discovery.
* Note that both Laura Fraser (Lydia) and Jesse Plemons (Todd) are now cast regulars for this final batch of eight, even though Plemons doesn't appear here. Are we to assume that it's Todd who's the operation's main chemist with Walt gone? Or is an actual chemist producing results that impure? (And, as usual, we should probably eschew questions of whether tweakers actually care how pure their product is.)
* Skyler's verbal smackdown of Lydia was fun in the way that watching anyone yell at Lydia tends to be fun. That scene also had Skyler about as well-dressed as I can remember her being on the show. This current phase of life — independently wealthy, with Walt allegedly retired from the drug game — clearly agrees with her, even if this isn't at all how she wanted to get to it.
* Walter White, like Gus Fring, likes to have a towel to kneel on when he has to vomit into a toilet.
* Do we know if Jesse had a paper route as a kid? He's sure got the technique for it, even if his projectile of choice is a brick of cash.
* If AMC isn't selling t-shirts, mugs and framed photos with the awesome Schraderbrau logo by tomorrow, then I don't understand anything about the internet or brand expansion.
That's it for the premiere. I have no idea how many additional episodes I'll be seeing in advance before the screener tap gets turned off (and I can understand the desire to do that here far more than on certain other cable dramas), but I'll be here every week until the end, either writing in advance, or staying up late on Sunday night when I'm watching live with the rest of you. (The one thing I'm looking forward to when the tap gets shut off is watching episodes for the first time in HD; from time to time, I'll rewatch an episode after it's aired, but I mostly see these things on DVDs or on a video streaming site.)
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com