This review contains spoilers.
5.1 Live Free Or Die
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!
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