"Breaking Bad" is back to start the first half of its fifth and final season. I reviewed the early episodes back on Tuesday (and then posted an interview with Aaron Paul and a two-part interview with Bryan Cranston) and I have specific, spoiler-filled thoughts on the season premiere coming up just as soon as I foresee an outcome that involves Miller Time...

"We're done when I say we're done." -Walt

"Breaking Bad" has made an art of the unsettling season-opening scene — Walt taping his confession in the pilot, the charred teddy bear floating in the pool in season 2, the Cousins crawling to the shrine in season 3, Gale seemingly alive and well in season 4 — so it's not a surprise that we should open season 5 in such disorienting territory.

We're at another Denny's in Albuquerque, sure, but a lot of time has passed(*), Walt looks very different, is using a fake name and claiming to be from New Hampshire.

(*) The series began with Walt's 50th birthday (where he was served veggie bacon, not the real stuff that he orders at Denny's). A little under a year had passed between the pilot and the end of the fourth season, and Walt makes a 52 out of bacon before telling the waitress it's his birthday. So his need for a machine gun presumably comes more than a year after the other events in this episode. 

He looks much more tired than he has for quite some time, is taking medicine again (has the cancer returned?), and is feeling paranoid enough that even as he talks to the waitress, his attention is largely on who's coming through that door — making Jim Beaver's entrance feel very much like the arrival of Members Only Guy in the final scene of "The Sopranos." And he needs his gun-dealing pal there because things in his life have become so dire that he needs a machine gun to solve whatever the current problem is.

"Breaking Bad," ladies and gentlemen!

No messing around here! We will now spend these next eight episodes (and possibly well into the final batch airing next summer) wondering exactly how Walt is going to get from here to there, making us unable to entirely enjoy even the triumphs, because we know this low, frightening point is on the horizon.

But then "Live Free Or Die" does a very interesting thing following that prologue: rather than trying to build on the insanity of Walt and Tio Salamanca blowing Gus's face off, it's a relatively normal (emphasis on "relatively") installment of the series. It has the same kind of structure we saw so often in the first few seasons: Walt and Jesse are presented with a seemingly impossible problem, and they have to find a way to solve it.

So even though Gus has been killed and Jesse has been brought back into the fold, there's still the matter of the security camera footage to deal with. I'm not entirely sure why Gus would have kept recordings of what went on in the superlab in a computer (even a heavily-encrypted one) he kept in his legitimate place of business, but it's been established that he did this, which creates another trap for Walt to escape, this time with some reluctant help from Mike, the return of the scrapyard manager who disposed of the RV back in season 3's "Sunset," and one of Jesse's occasional moments of intuitive genius. (I loved how his "Yeah, bitch! Magnets!" so evoked his similar cries of "Yeah, science!" from season 1, and also how Walt is so used to assuming all of Jesse's suggestions are dumb that he tuned him out at first, even though I imagine many of us were also thinking about magnets even before he suggested it.) It's a vintage "Breaking Bad" caper, executed splendidly by a creative team that has spent years perfecting the art.

And that return to a more traditional episode structure works perfectly on a few levels. First, trying to return at the frenzied level of "End Times" and "Face Off" would have been a terrible idea. Few shows becomes more tiring more quickly than ones that try to do nothing but top their own outrageousness.

And second, we needed to see such a familiar kind of story, because the man at the center of it has become so different from the one who was always scrambling with Jesse to clean up the latest mess. This is Walter White in the flush of victory. He has outsmarted, out-fought and at times simply out-willed all who threatened him. This is a Walter White who has come — with plenty of justification — to believe his own press. Gone is the school teacher who can never quite believe that he's doing these things, and who maybe dreams of a way out. In his place is someone who is enjoying every bit of this, up to and including the iron grip he has on everyone in his inner circle.

It doesn't matter that Skyler admits to being terrified of him, that Saul clearly is as well, that Mike is only working with them out of a shared circumstance, and that Walt and Jesse's rekindled partnership is born out of both a huge lie and the near-murder of a little boy. If anything, there are times (particularly in Saul's office) where that seems to be part of the enjoyment for Walt. He needs people to be afraid of, and dependent on, the great and terrible Heisenberg.

And because Walt is now just so damn cocky — he sounds like a Bond villain when he tells Mike "Because I said so?" in the getaway car — everything is as disconcerting as it is entertaining. Walt has always had a monstrous ego, but it's been contained in the past by circumstance. At the moment, that doesn't seem to be the case. Gus is dead, and the DEA is on the trail of his whole operation. There's no competition left, as far as Walt can see. They say that when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for he had no more worlds to conquer. When Walter White sees the same, he revels in it.

But we know that Walt isn't going to stay unchallenged for long. This show doesn't work that way, and that prologue shows us a Walt who's no longer king of the mountain, but needing to do something crazy simply to survive. And in the shorter term, we know that the magnet caper inadvertently tipped the cops to some Cayman bank accounts Gus had hidden behind his photo of himself and Max, and this will no doubt lead to unexpected complications for all involved.

It's a relief to have this great, great show back on the air, but it's nerve-wracking, too. Because even when things are going well for Walt, they're going very, very badly, you know?

Some other thoughts:

* Anna Gunn is outstanding throughout this one, as Skyler is more afraid of her husband than ever (and also more tied to him). The look on her face as Walt whispers "I forgive you" made me shudder. And she's even better in that chilling scene in Ted Beneke's hospital room, where Ted has lost everything and yet is still so terrified of what Skyler's associates can do to him that he pledges his silence to her. Skyler is horrified by what's happened to Ted, and filled with self-loathing for her role in making it happen, but she has to play this part, dammit, and she does it, even as she hates herself all the more for doing it.

* Loved the look of the scene where Hank explores the charred wreckage of the superlab. The protective suit, the use of lights, and the various camera angles chosen by director Michael Slovis evoked the early scenes from "Alien" where they find the spaceship. 

* Jonathan Banks always brings the right note of paternal disappointment in Mike's dealing with Jesse, here as he realizes Jesse has somehow been sucked back into Walt's web. The way he says, "Ah, Jesse" is filled with as much affection as it is frustration.

* The scene at Saul's office also belatedly explains what Vince Gilligan told me at the end of last season about Huell lifting the ricin cigarette when he frisked Jesse, but doesn't get into how Walt got the poison to Brock. I wonder if that's something the show will ever bother to explain, or if it's a rare instance of them not showing us all the steps of something.

* Speaking of "Sopranos" echoes in the opening scene, New Hampshire is also where Vito ran away for a while, remember?

What did everybody else think?

Alan Sepinwall may be reached at sepinwall@hitfix.com