“Live Free or Die,” the first episode of Breaking Bad’s fifth season, kicks off with a brief flash-forward (shades of the plane crash episodes near the end of season two), then picks up mere minutes after the explosive death of Gus Fring at the end of season four, with Walt telling Skyler “I won.”
The rest of the episode is oddly similar to the opening of season four, which found Walt and Jesse in the clutches of Gus Fring following Jesse’s murder of Walt’s lab partner Gail; that installment and much of what followed simultaneously moved the show’s master narrative forward while casting a cold, accountant’s eye backward, tying up loose ends and clarifying points that might have been confusing to viewers of season three. Much of “Live Free or Die” — written by series creator Vince Gilligan, directed by Michael Slovis — has that sort of energy, the nervy, paranoid focus that drove Norman Bates as he mopped Marion Crane’s blood off the floor after that fateful shower in Psycho.
Gruesomely violent as it often is, this series resembles the Saturday morning theatrical serials of the forties and fifties, to such an extent that it might as well have an announcer bringing us up to speed at the beginning of each week: “When we last left our brilliant but power-mad chemistry teacher turned drug kingpin …” The show rarely permits itself the luxury of an ellipsis. The last episode of season two contained one of the only such time gaps, and probably the biggest: the six-week interval between the overdose death of Jesse’s girlfriend Jane (enabled via Walt’s cold-blooded non-interference) and Jane’s air-traffic controller dad returning to work around the same time that Walt got out of cancer surgery and causing a midair collision that loomed over the start of season three. Time jumps like that one, or the flash-forwards, are rare. For the most part, Vince Gilligan’s crime drama stays in the moment, insisting that you remain focused and keep up with the show’s ruthless or panicked characters.
Walt cleans up after himself, then realizes, in a pause before taking a celebratory drink, that he forgot about the Lily of the Valley plant that he used to poison Jesse’s new girlfriend’s young son (an act designed to turn Jesse against Gus and make him Walt’s ally again). He puts the plant in the trunk of his car along with the other paraphernalia he used to make the explosive device that killed Gus, then realizes later that he’s forgotten about something else: the surveillance cameras that Gus used to monitor his and Jesse’s every move when they were cooking meth down in the now-destroyed Super Lab. The A-plot in this episode is about Walt, Mike, and Jesse devising a powerful electromagnet to destroy Gus’s laptop, which has been confiscated by forensics experts and placed in a heavily guarded police evidence room. The gambit succeeds in a comic sequence that mixes heist thriller imagery with touches of science fiction, tipping over the van containing the electromagnet in a slapstick image worthy of Wile E. Coyote (a successful Wile E. Coyote; credit where it’s due). But in the process, Walt’s magnet creates another problem: the destruction of the evidence room shatters a framed photograph, dislodging a picture to reveal hidden information on the secret Cayman Islands bank account that Gus was presumably using.
I checked my own recap of the season finale for Salon (my gig prior to Vulture) and had a laugh at this passage: “As is often the case — on the show and in life — an act of violence created or intensified as many problems as it solved.” Same as it ever was! That sentence referred to Walt’s explosive murder of Gus, but it applies to the police evidence room gambit in “Live Free or Die” as well. To quote Walt in season two’s “Mandala,” “It’s always been two steps forward and one step back.” The same thing goes for Walt’s financial status: Skyler’s executive decision to pay off Ted’s IRS debt to prevent inquiries that could lead back to the Whites effectively wiped out much of the loot that Walt’s job with Gus had generated: $622,000, according to the scene between him and Saul. Now he’s back to where he was in season two. He’s a genius capable of producing extraordinarily high-quality crystal meth, but he needs a distribution network for it, and the last one now lies in ruins thanks to Walt’s facility with explosives. (And what about Gus’s much-alluded-to German backers? Stay tuned.)
More loose ends: Skyler’s boss Ted didn’t die when he slammed into that counter during that scary encounter with Saul’s muscle-men near the end of season four; he just ended up in a hospital in a neck brace, with a shaved head that makes him look like RoboCop minus the helmet: a classic horror film image, grotesque and pitiful. “I tripped and fell. That is all they know,” he tells the horrified Skyler, weakly adding, “I will never breathe a word of this.” “Good,” she replies, but given her increasing ruthlessness and complicity over the last two seasons, I half-expected the scene to end with her pulling tubes from Ted’s arms or trying to smother him with a pillow. If she weren’t so rattled by what happened to Gus (and her sudden realization of the depth of Walt’s monstrousness) she might have done that, or at least thought about it. But she’s got something else on her mind: her evil husband.
Skyler’s haunted face is the image I’ll take away when I think about this episode. Now that the full extent of Walt’s ruthlessness has been revealed, she’s looking more like what she actually is: not a full partner in a criminal enterprise, but a prisoner in an abusive marriage. She’s the spouse of a brilliant psychopath, a man who keeps insisting that all his violence and terror is on behalf of her and their children, but who’s clearly on a power trip and that often verges on delusions of godhood — and not without reason. When all the evidence flew through the air and slammed into the concrete wall, I thought of Magneto in the X-Men films, and of the awesome and terrifying telepathic powers displayed in films like Scanners and The Fury. The hints of omnipotence (in Walt’s mind, anyway) were driven home in that exchange between Mike and Walt after the evidence locker sequence. Mike wanted assurance that the plan actually worked. “Am I supposed to take that on faith?” Mike asked. “How do I know?” “Because I said so,” Walt replied, which is exactly what a parent tells children when asserting authority. Daddy said everything will be fine. Now shut up and go to sleep.
Walt’s final “I forgive you” to Skyler might be the most frightening sentence he’s ever uttered in her presence — much scarier to me than “I am the one who knocks!” because where that rant seemed motivated by insecurity and beta-male-posing-as-alpha-male bluster, his sign-off at the end of “Live Free or Die” indicated serene confidence in his own capacity for lethal violence. None of the references to Walt’s recent, creepy improvisations made any impression on him whatsoever: they were just facts that had to be accounted for. In the scene between Walt and Saul, Walt sarcastically repeated, “Let’s involve Walt in this discussion” and stared blankly at the ricin-spike cigarette that Saul brandished to drive home the extraordinary nature of his legal representation. Impassive as a reptile.
Margin notes: Jonathan Banks is turning into the show’s MVP, or at least its most reliable source of gruff humor. I’ve been walking around giggling ever since his response to the junkyard boss’s warning to remove credit cards from their pockets lest the magnets erase them and get in the way of “Miller Time.” “You know, I can envision a lot of possible outcomes to this thing,” he deadpans, “and not a one of them involves ‘Miller Time.’” Jesse didn’t get much meaty material in this episode except for suggesting the magnet scheme and making a few nonplussed wisecracks and shouting “Yeahhhhh, bitch!” during the drive away from the police station, but his turn in the spotlight will come; it always does.
About that opening flash-forward: Walt was fifty when Breaking Bad started, and Gilligan has indicated that the elapsed time since then adds up to somewhere around one year. That close-up of Walt arranging torn pieces of bacon into “52” might be a reference to Walt’s actual birthday at that point in the show’s narrative, or it might refer to something else entirely — a plot element we haven’t encountered yet. Is the birth date on the ID the same as his real birth date, or is that as fake as the card itself? We can’t know that for sure, either, just as we can’t know what he’s doing buying high-powered weaponry from the gun dealer Lawson (my buddy Jim Beaver, note-perfect as always). All will be revealed, I’m sure. It’s Breaking Bad.