Breaking Bad season 5 episode 1 review: Live Free Or Die

Review Paul Martinovic 17 Jul 2012 - 07:28

Breaking Bad finally returns. Paul finds out if Live Free Or Die can keep the standard up...

This review contains spoilers.

5.1 Live Free Or Die

“I won.”

Two words that finished up the last chapter of Breaking Bad, and two words that echo throughout the opening installment of Live Free Or Die, in what is for all intents and purposes – at least in his mind – Walt’s victory lap.

He is firmly ensconced at the top of the methamphetamine empire of Albuquerque, New Mexico, a position he established by covering a nursing home with half of the face and body of Gus Fring, his greatest opponent. That's something he achieved while managing to keep Jesse, his somewhat unlikely but nevertheless greatest ally, completely onside, despite employing an outrageously complex gambit to surreptitiously poison his girlfriend’s son in the process.

Many would argue that ironically this was the moment that Walt  ‘lost’, giving up his last morsel of moral fibre in order to preserve his own sorry skin. But then again moment when you personally lose sympathy with Walt is pretty subjective, as there have been so many potential tipping points by now.

Some people gave up on Walt when he killed the guy with the bike lock. For others, maybe it was when he let Jane die, or had Gale killed. Maybe even poisoning a kid wasn’t enough for you to stop seeing his behaviour as ultimately justified. You weirdo.

So putting aside whatever the toll on Walt’s soul may have been – and really, as if he or us really care about that at this stage – in a more literal, immediate sense he hasn’t been this trouble-free for a long time.

He’s earned that celebratory Scotch alright, but no sooner has he taken his first slug than he realises that there is, as always, a loose end to clear up – Gus’s laptop, which apparently houses CCTV footage of Walt, Jesse, Mike, and the whole gang up to all sorts of illegal meth-related chicanery.

By this point, though, Walt’s become so inured to being in impossible situations that he treats this potentially fatal revelation with the mild annoyance you or I would afford a minor traffic jam. Even Jesse seems little more than slightly peeved at this point, and Walt genuinely seemed more perturbed by the fly in Fly than by the sudden seizure of evidence that could destroy him and his family forever.

The difference being, of course, that back then Walt was being helplessly subjugated and belittled by Gus, kept bottled up in a lab like a drone by a man he saw as his intellectual equal. Now though, he’s the undisputed boss-man, and it’s safe to say that after flawlessly executing a masterplan to outsmart pretty much everyone in his life – Gus, Mike, Jesse, Hank, the DEA – he ‘s confident enough in his own brain to bet the farm on extricating himself from pretty much any situation.

The laptop is sealed inside a heavily guarded police headquarters you say? Chump change. Walt cleans this up easily in around 20 minutes of screen time – with more than a little help from stealth MVP Jesse, of course, whose impressive demonstration of practical ingenuity (“Yo what about magnets?”) shows that the unusual, extra-curricular science lessons Mr White has been giving him this past year must have subconsciously been paying off at least a little bit.

Even Mike eventually seems grudgingly respectful of Walt’s casually brilliant problem-solving, although he is clearly not happy at the arrival of his new boss. When they run into each other in the desert (nearly literally) he’s ready to cap him and head for the hills, but almost instantly he’s forced to ally with Walt and Jesse again when hearing about the laptop, because otherwise it’s their asses. Turns out being a high-level drug enforcer is just like any other job – you’re constantly forced to work with people you don’t like. Idiots, even.

Walt’s obviously not an idiot, but he’s definitely a kind of rubber to Mike’s glue. Mike is a career criminal, a professional with a no-nonsense approach, a strict set of principles and impressive moral fortitude (in the field of drug violence, at least). These are traits he recognized in Gus, and even recognizes in Jesse, but Walt is clearly an entirely different prospect – wholly unpredictable, due to his emotion-led approach to his criminal undertakings, with apparently very few moral boundaries. It’s what makes him such a brilliant escapologist, but it’s also a nightmare to deal with, and Mike realises how dangerous Walt is just to be in vicinity of, let alone work for.

But right now, Walt is “winning”, and Skylar is slowly – finally – coming to terms with the horror of what that concept actually looks like. It looks like Gus Fring’s half-immolated head. It looks like Ted Benake, paralysed, possibly brain-damaged and certainly terrified in a hospital. But most of all, it looks like her husband, bespectacled, be-plastered and be-goateed, wandering into the marital bedroom post-heist brimming with self-satisfied magnanimousness, before embracing her in a deathly Michael Corleone hug, and whispering “I forgive you.”

Breaking Bad is amazing at turning the pithiest lines of dialogue – “I won”, “Which phone?”, “I fucked Ted” - into visceral punches to the throat that areas exhilarating as any of the gruesome violence that has also become the show’s trademark. “I forgive you”, tells us so much about where Walt’s currently at, demonstrating his hubris, his self-denial, his unshakeable self-belief that he’s acting in his family’s interest, and perhaps even his willingness now to threaten and intimidate those around him. This is what Walt looks like when he’s winning, and it isn’t pretty.

But will he be winning for much longer? By far the most intriguing aspect of this episode was its mind-bending cold open – Walt, with hair, chowing down a sad-looking Denny’s breakfast in New Hampshire on what appears to be his 52nd birthday (he arranges the slices of bacon on his plate into a 52, mirroring Skylar’s arrangement of the bacon into a 50 on his corresponding birthday in the pilot), before meeting with his trusted arms dealer to pick up what looks like an insanely powerful mounted machine gun.

What’s more, Walt doesn’t look like he’s winning here, which infuses all that follows with a heavy sense of dramatic irony. He looks tired, beaten down. It’s hinted that his cancer has returned with the on-screen cough of death. There’s even a flash of the old, long-buried, mild-mannered chemistry teacher Mr White, when he ruefully notes that New Hampshire has ‘a pretty good science museum’.

And picking up a weapon as ludicrous as the one he has in the back of his truck doesn’t seem like a one-step-ahead-of-everyone move that the Walt in the bulk of this episode would make. It seems like the final act of a desperate man.

We’ve already mentioned The Godfather, but does a desperate drug dealer with an enormous machine gun remind you of any other famous Al Pacino characters? Of course, it’s too early to speculate on exactly how the show will end, but perhaps the sneak peek at the gun is a hint that Vince Gilligan was being rather more literal about his aim for Walt to transform from Mr Chips into Scarface than we all may have originally thought.

At the end of this episode, though, Walt’s earned his mini-Michael Corleone status, and is milking it for all its worth. Effectively, he’s telling Skylar “Don’t ask me about my business”. He’s telling Saul ‘Don’t ever take sides against the family again”. This epic, sprawling gangster fantasy he has been cultivating for months has reached its peak - he’s finally taken care of the family business, and reached the top of the empire. Walt’s winning. He’s actually winning!

Now what?

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Disqus - noscript

Haven't read this review yet as it starts with spoiler warnings, cannot wait to watch this episode tonight though! Been far to long since we last saw Walt and Jesse!

Interesting that there's no mention of the potential ramifications of the magnet incident (and the photo). Other than the opening scene, that bit was the most interesting part of the episode.

Other than that, brilliant stuff. A wonderful return to the best show on television.

well written and great observations, as said by other comments, but a review without stated opinions isn't much of a review.. I want to see well argumented opinions why something is bad/good rather than just an eloquent retelling of events.

Great review and great observations, Paul. As usual. Meanwhile, I don't agree that Walt was in a New Hampshire Denny's in the opening scene. When speaking to the hostess, he said he was a 30 hour drive away from New Hampshire, and that his direction could have been California, though he indicated that he was now at his destination. For business matters.

I am sure that Walt is inside his old native Albuquerque Denny's in the brilliant opening scene of this episode. If you look at the surroundings (gas station) and interiors, and compare to the scene in S04E01 where Walt and Jesse is at Denny's (in their top notch Kenny Rogers shirts), it's the same. Also, Albuquerque is appr. 2200 miles from New Hampshire, making it fairly reachable in 30 hours.

It's going to be extremely thrilling to see how Mr. White becomes "Mr. Lambert", how he ends up in New Hampshire and why he's returning to ABQ with such a massive weapon in the trunk. Once more a fantastic "plot placement" and writing from Gilligan & Co.!

Walt made a conscious decision to get into 'The Game', any talk of morality pretty much ended there for me. Meth ruins lives, end of. To be involved in its production is to be involved in the ruining of said lives. In this case the ends do not justify the means, its just shades man. However, that said its making for some incredible TV.
Excellent review of an excellent return, really have they actually put a foot wrong for the entire run?.
One question Mr Martinovic, are you based in the USA?

Three very interesting and maybe not so far reaching points I found in the scene at Dennys. Firstly Walts ode to a science Museum. Secondly was the Benjamin Franklin he tipped. Another small gesture to science but lastly and most importantly is Jochen Heisenberg, son of Werner and Walts notorius idol and alter ego namesake was or still is in fact Proffessor of Physics at New Hampshire University. Something maybe in it or just another wonderful concidence. This show is the bomb.

I have to beleive that Walt, being a chemistry teacher, knew the exact amount of Lilly of the valley that would poison Jessie's girlfriends son without killing him & I'm sure this will come out in a future episode otherwise Walt & Jessie's relationship will be severed forever should Jessie ever find out (or perhaps he won't?).

small note, the 'insanely powerful mounted machine gun' is an M240B (I use this bad boy almost every day over here in Afghanistan). Good review, and an excellent way to start off the season

isn't "Lambert" Skyler and Marie's birth name?

they were def talking about the aquarium and science museum in boston

Great episode! and great review. I can't wait for the others. The way they destroyed the Gus' laptop was so clever! In addition, It was a funny situation with the truck and the magnet!

The writing here is fantastic. An excellent read.

Walt's mentioned his justification before. Methamphetamine will always be distributed, so why not improve the situation by producing better quality meth? Maybe it encourages more people to take it, but whatever. His ambitions in this respect outweigh any drug morale. However, that's slightly different from poisoning a kid to save your ass, or letting someone's girlfriend die for personal gains.

That Denny's is on Central Avenue in Albuquerque across from UNM.

The Denny's isn't in New Hampshire. It's in Albuquerque, hence the conversation Walt has with the waitress where she remarks that he is a long way from New Hampshire, and she guesses he's on his way to California. He corrects her: "No, here."

Amazing review.

That was Gale

actually... its an M60. but close enough. same rounds, same damage. its just more likely that Walt will be hefting that around then a 240b since the m60 was designed to be wielded by one man effectively. nobody just fires a 240 from the hip, or the shoulder standing for that matter. trust me, i was a 240b gunner in Iraq, that mother e'fer is way to heavy for one man to use without at least a bipod ... the only time we fired it standing was with the bastards butt stock planted in our hip and only in quick bursts. any more an you tended to lose all accuracy, and that was only ever on the range. you can tell its an m60 by the shape of the but stock, the length relative to the stock, and the heat shield, plus other details.

and since its also out of major service, its more believable that Walt got a hold of an m60 rather then a 240b. there are a few civilian single shot versions around that can be easily converted. the props manager for the show must have a good eye for detail, cause most people would have just thrown in any old machine gun and called it good. all the more reason i love this show.

I thought it was too short to be an M60, i've never seen one but I know they're longer than the 240. It is a heavy little bastard, we've got it mounted on our MAT-Vs for crew serve weapons, i'm alternating b/w gunner and driver.

I think everyone has missed what is happening in this scene. Some of what is happening is obvious, Walt is purchasing a high powered machine gun. So something big is about to go down. What is also happening in this scene is that Walt is attempting to throw something off his trail. Maybe the DEA, or police, but something is closing in on him and he wants to give it a ghost to chase. That ghost is Mr. Lambert, who is from New Hampshire, and who also looks nothing like Walt or Heizenberg( remember the DEA has a sketch of Heizenberg). Walt has eaten in Denny's before, so it is not a big stretch to think that he knows their policy on people's birthday. Walt has to find a way to show the waitress his ID which he does by placing his bacon on his plate in a number. He then has to get the waitress to remember him which he does by leaving her a $100 dollar tip. As he is leaving the restaurant the waitress says happy birthday Mr. Lambert. Walt has succeeded.

I think the moment I gave up on Walt was

when he threatened Saul, despite everything Saul had done for him up to that point

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