Breaking Bad: "Live Free or Die" - Fatal Attraction?

The weekly dispatches from the Barker Chappell Daglas Reviewing Concern were such a success during the Mad Men season that we’ve decided to bring them back for the fifth season of Breaking Bad. Once again we’ll be alternating the full roundtable discussion among each of our blogs – Cory Barker’s TV Surveillance, Les Chappell’s A Helpless Compiler, and of course this very one you’re reading right now. Without further ado, our thoughts on the fifth season premiere, “Live Free or Die.”

Andy: Angry bald men are back on our TVs again, and isn’t it about damn time?

“Live Free or Die” is either Breaking Bad‘s final season premiere or its penultimate one (depending on how you choose to consider the break-up of the final 16 episodes), but either way it heralds a new status quo. With Gus dead and the cartel in tatters, the show establishes a new Big Bad, the last plausible threat to Heisenberg’s dominance: the law. After another desert stand-off as deliciously tense as it was gorgeously rendered in dusty ochre and golden tints, Walter/Jesse and Mike forge an uneasy détente to tie up the loose ends left in the wake of Gus’s annihilation and exposure. The bulk of “Live Free or Die” is a good old fashioned caper episode. The DEA has incriminating evidence. The Third Triumvirate has to destroy said incriminating evidence. How? Fuckin’ magnets.

This amounts to a ramshackle stretch of great criminal fun. Walter and Mike swinging their dicks at one another. The crew procuring and testing the magnet from junkyard hood Larry Hankin (aka Mr. Heckles, aka Fake Kramer). Walt and Jesse lining up the Magnetmobile, a small but worthy entry in their canon of attempting active, blue-collar crimes with Laurel-and-Hardyesque results.

Bookending these hijinks, though, were Walter’s grim returns to the homestead, where his subdued attempts at acting the family man betray every bit the monster Skyler fears. Even an embrace and an apology are now but weapons he wields in his never-ending power plays.

What did you guys think of this beginning of the end to the Walter White saga?

Les: Oh, how good it is to have The One Who Knocks back indeed. If Mad Men was a slow burn of whiskey, Breaking Bad is a jolt to the senses better than any of Mr. White’s product. At the moment it’s not burning as fiercely as it has been, which is of course by design. The way the last season ended, with the Chicken Man cooked to extra crispy, there wasn’t a high point for things to pick back up on, as there was with the fourth season premiere “Box Cutter.” Walt’s enemies are out of commission, and for the first time no one’s trying to kill him.

As such, this was a more conventional episode of Breaking Bad, if such a thing can be said to exist, with Walt and Jesse trying to improvise their way to covering up their criminal antics. I thought it was an effective reintroduction to the show’s universe, and one that used a lot of the things we love about the characters: Walt’s scientific knowledge, Jesse’s raw enthusiasm* when a plan comes together, and Mike’s weary exhaustion at being pulled into the whole thing. We also got to see some recurring players come back, which keeps the show’s universe rich – Larry Hankin as Joe the salvage yard owner**, Christopher Cousins as the perpetually unfortunate Ted Beneke, and Jim Beaver as laconic gun dealer Lawson.

*Of all the things that made me happy to have this show back, hearing Aaron Paul say “Yeah, bitch!” once again is probably the one that made me grin the widest.

**Of course, this reminds me of the loss of the RV. THAT RV WAS MY FAVORITE CHARACTER DAMN IT.

But one thing does bother me, and it relates to the inclusion of Lawson: that cold open which implies not only does Walter White have at least another year on his life, but that by his 52nd birthday he’ll be coming into New Mexico from New Hampshire, bearded, coughing and evidently in need of an M60. Certainly the show’s played with foreshadowing before (737 down over ABQ, anyone?) but this is a not inconsequential detail. It rubs me the wrong way that we’re seeing further into the future than we ever have before, and it takes away some of the anticipation the show’s usually so good at spacing out.

Cory: This premiere lacked some of the overbearing tension of “Box Cutter,” but to be fair, that means it sits alongside almost every other episode of television. What I loved so much about this episode is that Walt so much wanted to strut, gloat, celebrate, what have you in the wake of Gus’ death, but couldn’t.. He won, after all. The sequence with him at the White residence cleaning up and then trying to enjoy a drink, only to forget the deadly plant-like evidence outside, then returning to the drink later while comforting his baby, only to stand up in moderate horror was propulsive, intense and a little bit funny.

From there, as you guys said, this turned into a more recognizable episode of the show. I will say that with Gus gone, there’s a lot more air in the room. The aforementioned dick-swinging between Walt and Mike is compelling as can be and I think we’ve all been waiting for Hank and the feds to really get their shit together with this admittedly sprawling case, but those two elements can’t-and likely won’t-replace Gus. I’m okay with that because I trust Gilligan and the other writers, yet it was certainly different to watch an episode like this that was almost, dare I say, fun? The stakes are still high and Walt is clearly a monster but I can’t help but keep coming back to a word like fun when describing an episode that sees Jesse yell “Magnets!”

I’m glad you brought up that teaser Les because I couldn’t wait to talk about it. The sequence wasn’t as weirdly compelling as the season two opener or just flat-out creepy as the third season one but wow, was I quite surprised to see Walter White look like that. While you could read it as taking some suspense out of what happens, I choose not to for a few reasons. First, no matter our pretension, we know Walter White is living until the last episode of this show. Seeing him roughly a year from now in story-time only gives us a ballpark of when Breaking Bad‘s story will likely wrap up (and I have to imagine Walt coming back to town looking for that kind of firepower can only mean terrible things). Second, at least for me, it just builds anticipation for that end-game. I don’t want or need the show to turn into Damages and/or Lost (though I couldn’t help but think of both here) but my mind has been racing about what kind of insane things could happen between now and then, and who Walt might need that gun for: The police? Mike? An unknown force? Jesse? Daglas, what’d you think about the flashforward?

Andy: I won’t begin to speculate on why or how Future Walter finds himself procuring bacon and guns and New Hampshire license plates. Right now I’m most curious about whether that timeline will play out across the other cold opens this season, the way season two’s slowly built a parallel story that converged with its finale, or whether this week’s glimpse was a lone tease.

In either case, it fit snugly with the rest of an episode that was more about re-establishing tone than anything else. There was no cliffhanger to pay off, no time jump to catch up with, no fundamental realignment to get us up to speed on. It was light on plot, but long on mood – both the madcap (“MAGNETS!”) and the malevolent (“We’re done when I say we’re done.”). Taking the time to simply remind us of the rhythms is, in some ways, as brazen a move for a season premiere as the starter’s pistol of “Box Cutter” or The Cousins in season three. But of course,Breaking Bad‘s earned those cojones.

Les: Without any question it’s earned those cojones, which is why although I’m still not thrilled by their decision to give so much away in the premiere, I’ll accept that they’ve got something in mind. If this turns into a recurring theme for the cold opens then I’ll probably turn on it retroactively, but they’ve earned the benefit of the doubt for this installment. Plus, between the use of Denny’s and the sad little Grand Slam breakfast (a mirror image of the heart-healthy meal Skylar made him in the pilot) there were enough Breaking Bad recurring flourishes that it still felt very much like the same show.

As I’m writing this, something’s occurred to me that I didn’t even consider when I first watched the episode. Vince Gilligan’s said for years that he sees the Breaking Bad story as how Mr. Chips becomes Scarface, and now future Walter White’s in possession of Tony Montana’s little friend. We’ve already had Steven Bauer showing up in a cameo last season, how many more direct Scarface parallels will we see in the rise and fall of the Heisenberg empire?

Going to what you said Andy about the show reestablishing its tone, while there weren’t any major bloody surprises on the level of other episodes it still had one of its trademark “Oh shit” moments in the discussion between Saul and Skylar in the car wash. “Ted is dead?” “No, Ted’s awake.” I didn’t expect the show to revisit this act of God in this manner, as I assumed Ted’s dead, baby, Ted’s dead, and that’s would turn into an ugly truth that would spring out and send more boulders rolling down the hill. But no, Ted’s still alive, and while Skylar’s struck dumb by what happened he’s crossed over into petrified, promising for his family’s sake he’ll keep his mouth shut. We’ve seen Skyler go through her share of ethical crises in this show, but (going back again to Scarface) she’s learned something Walt figured out a long time ago: you get the money, but then you get the power. She’s horrified by that implication, but she became comfortable with the money before too long – how long before she takes similar pleasure in being able to intimidate her way past obstacles? Terrific work from Anna Gunn, who historically gets very good mileage out of the season premieres that usually see her trying to locate or confront her husband.

And given this is our first discussion about the show, I’d like to gauge both of your reactions on a divisive matter in the Breaking Bad fan community. A lot of people see Skyler as a shrewish buzzkill to Walt’s actions, while others (myself included) have grown more invested in her own tentative steps to break bad. What’s your take on Mrs. White, Cory?

Cory: Keeping Ted alive was unexpected but only slightly. Gilligan and his staff never let Walt or Jesse out of their dire straits of the week, so it’s “nice” to see that Skyler is getting the same treatment. Breaking Bad is defined by its dedicated focus to consequences and it’s really only fair that Skyler has to deal with the mess that she caused last season. Her visit to Ted at the hospital was stirring, as she clearly wanted to sympathize with Ted but her drastic actions last season had a substantial impact on more than just her former lover’s physical state.

What I enjoy so much about Skyler’s story is that it’s basically a less dramatic (but only barely so) version of Walt’s initial descent into corruption in the first season. She wants to make these big decisions and “fix” these problems but once the consequences of those choices come to the surface, her stomach gets queasy–as it probably should. Though, whereas Walt tackled is first deadly action hands-on with the killing of Krazy 8, Skyler tried to use a middleman, failed, and now is forced to look at the results of her machinations. Walt was eventually able to swallow that nasty taste in his mouth and do what he deemed necessary. It will be very interesting to see how Skyler does or does not act moving forward. I can’t imagine she’ll try to have Ted taken out again, particularly because her guilt is running wild right now. Yet, if this is a show about nearly everyone breaking bad as it were, I have to guess Skyler’s going to get into more trouble quite quickly.

To your question Les: I can’t say I “like” Skyler but I appreciate her and certainly sympathize with her at times. Although the writers didn’t do her any favors last season by having her get all wrapped up in this Ted business (and thus taking more money away from Walt), Skyler is an important part of the show. Really, her unlikable actions in recent seasons are almost entirely as a result of Walt’s terrible influence and impact, which only further emphasizes how miserable of a person he has become. I don’t mean to take away Skyler’s agency because she’s certainly made these choices on her own accord. However, she has been backed into a wall time after time, so her actions are more understandable than not. Andy, how do you feel about Lady White?

Andy: Like you’ve mentioned, I’ve always viewed Skyler’s later-season arc as being about following – sometimes by choice, sometimes by circumstance – in Walter’s footsteps a few paces behind. She adopted the learning curve of a white collar criminal in fits and starts. Sometimes she was sincerely trying to minimize the damage Walter’s actions did or could cause, and sometimes she was exhibiting that wonderfully Whitean capacity for rationalization. But I have liked and sympathized her throughout, because I usually have felt like she’s making the least bad choices possible in cases where her options have been boiled down to “shit,” “fucking shit,” and “HOLY FUCKING SHIT.”
I think Skyler’s going to play a large role in the endgame, as the only person who occupies the bridge between Walt’s civilian and criminal identities. When (if?) the showdown between Walt and Hank hits, it’ll be fascinating to see what role Skyler plays, to see where her loyalties wind up and how much of her morality remains. Not to mention how Walt will view her at that point – as an partner, a pawn, or an obstacle.

Les: Given Walt’s current state of “I won,” I’m guessing we’re not going to see him think of her as anything but inferior. We’ve always known Walt was a control freak and an egomaniac, but for the last four seasons we’ve seen those traits rendered mostly harmless, either because Walt thought he wanted out of the business or because Gus had him so effectively marginalized. Now, he’s on top, and to his scientist mind he’s finally got some evidence to prove he’s the One Who Knocks. The Ted issue is a massive irritation to him, but it’s also something he can now claim as the upper hand in his marriage. Saying “I forgive you” is, to him, the final word in the discussion, and he could care less if Skyler thinks there’s more to say.

I think as we go along this season, that hubris is what’s going to drive the action (backed up by the ever-important little details, like Gus’s offshore account numbers now exposed behind the picture of him and Max). Everyone knows that Walt’s dangerous – even Jesse seemed unsettled by the “Because I said so” attitude – and now any safety valves that his early morality set are long since blown off. Walt’s tasted power, and he’s going to want to use it, be it in establishing his own operation or trying to get control of the Fring resources. And given how beaten down he looked in the cold open – a flash-forward of at least a year based on a rough estimate of the show’s chronology – there’s a long way to fall between now and then. Which, of course, means that we could be heading into the best season yet.

Cory: I think we all knew that seeing Walt drunk on power would be terrifying and yet, I was still taken aback a little at how chilling some of his confrontations (like those with Skyler and Saul) would be. He’s going to be so drunk on power this season and like you said Les, that’s why the flashforward is so intriguing. Walt is no longer sympathetic, he’s no longer a good man doing bad things to help his family like he was in the first few seasons. He isn’t even deluded into thinking he’s an evil man like he was for much of last season. No, now he is the villain. And I can’t wait to watch him try to hold on to that throne (to make an allusion to the poster art) for the next 15 episodes.

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