Thursday, September 6, 2012

Television Review: "Breaking Bad" Season 5

The opening teaser of every season of Breaking Bad has often been indicative of the season to follow. The first season kickoff of Walter on the side of the road, gun in hand and trousers inexplicably gone, simple as it may be, still establishes the show's comedic hard-glass tone. Season 2's disturbing image of a half scorched teddy bear, while simultaneously teasing a Season 4 finale death, also displays how mangled something seemingly harmless can become (Jesse. Walt. Take your pick.). Season 3 is about Walter White, the legend Heisenberg, and the interests in such legend. Season 4 took us into the past, displaying a character (or perhaps all three characters) who witlessly is/are signing his/their own death warrant(s).

Season 5, touted as the final season in two parts but is narratively complete as two separate seasons, begins with a wild leap into the future. Walter is alive, hair atop his head, on the lam with a fake name, turning 52, and picking up a cache of assault rifles as his birthday gift. It's a riddle that isn't answered overtly by episode's end, nor in the seven subsequent episodes, though its implicitly significant throughout the season. It's a place-marker of where Walter White is irretrievably headed, and by the close of the premiere titled Live Free or Die, we think we know the answer. Season 5 is about Heisenberg's rise to power and inadvertent reign of terror.

Series creator Vince Gilligan's intention for the series has been to turn Mr. Chips into Scarface, and the eight episodes this year have solidified that transformation to extraordinary effect. It's all the more impressive when considering how calibrated across the first forty-six episodes his gradual change has been. It's never been a matter of him simply snapping into evil from innocence. They've been working a long time to get to this point, and we get to see the fruits of their labor in perhaps the most entertaining iteration of Walter White we've seen. Walter has achieved things he would have never dreamed of in his first 50 years of existence, and the fatal move on his part is realizing that.

Walter has bought into his own legend, feeling invincible, not content with hanging up his lab coat, and with loose ends to tie up. Breaking Bad has often been about chasing its own tail, with good reason too. The writers are on a basis primarily of throwing shit at the fan, and then relishing in how it balloons into a nuclear cloud from there. Mike Ehrmantraut, meth distributor extraordinaire Gus Fring's number two man from last season, is shoehorned grudgingly into Walt's new operation, along with the ever-struggling and traumatized Jesse Pinkman, whose relationship with Walt is put to greater tension than it has before. And bare in mind, Jesse pointed a gun at Walt's head at the end of last season.

The triumvirate of Walt, Mike, and Jesse was certainly a concept the writers were giddy about portraying. Mike and Walt had such a skin-current relationship in Season 4, when Mike was meant to intimidate Walt, and in return Walt could only respond with contempt. That continues now, but Walt knows that Mike is in no position of power over him, which allows these two very similar individuals to iron out their insecurities with one another in an equally confrontational manner. Walt is now as menacing a vehicle as Mike, and perhaps more so. When Mike queries about how they know for sure if a certain plan of their worked, Walt says very simply, coldly, and actually rather comically, "Because I say so."

Walt is the king. Mike is the rook, which is quite fitting to the droll, gruff, Carlin-esq performance of Jonathan Banks, busting through anything directly in its way. Jesse can only be the knight, if only because he is the most noble of the three individuals. It's something he shares with Mike, as Mike's motivations throughout this season are entirely selfless. Walt wants more and everything, where as Jesse really just wants Mike and Walt. Having the three of them working together is a dream come true for him, and he's looking to do right by both of these men. He loves them, and while his relationship with Mike is one of mutual respect, it's severely abused by Walt. Walt is the master manipulator, as made clear by the end of last season, and that friction isn't clear to Jesse until later on in the season.

Returning to the realm of chess metaphors, Skyler most certainly is not the queen of this scenario. She's more than a pawn, and that leaves the bishop. It's an appropriate designation for her role this season, which offers Anna Gunn probably her most quietly devastating arc of the entire series. She is dealing with the weight of what she has cooperated in letting into her home, and it has completely gotten out of her hands. The facade of their marriage is crumbling, and her actions this season break the rules she and Walt agreed upon to keep their secret. It's not her own escape she's concerned about, but it's to maneuver the people she cares about out of this situation.

Everything is running on such an intense current, mostly on account of Walt. There's no third-party villain this year, which would only lay on another honestly unnecessary string to proceedings. Walt is the danger, and you get the impression that he could just snap somebody's neck at any given moment. It's a tension that would feel cheated if it didn't get reciprocated by the end of the season, which it most certainly does. The fun of the season is not knowing when, how, or who it will happen to. I had my bets placed at the start of the season, and they proved wildly off target. The writers take as many twists and turns as possible to stay three steps ahead of where we can conceive it going.

There are a handful of trepidatious new factors brought into the fold this season, like Laura Fraser's tight-faced and panic-ridden powder keg of a female accomplice, Lydia Rodarte-Quayle. That's a two pronged last name; not a middle and last both stated. That's the sort of high maintenance line-reading she would hand out on a momentary basis. Not a driving force so much as a fun cameo, much like Bob Odenkirk's underused lawyer Saul Goodman. Saul is a sidelined presence in most episodes this season, but is given room to sneak in noble facets to his character. A scene with Walt in the first episode back hints at a challenging relationship between these two that is never really taken advantage of. It's one of the few noticeable flaws of the season. Not quite a flaw, but not quite a standout, is Jesse Plemons as the latest member of Walt's crew, Todd. He plays up the primary question of "What if Jesse entered into this world just now?" Again, it's something not too deeply plumbed by the writers, or at least not yet.

Breaking Bad has always had a look unlike anything on television which pushes considerations beyond simple procedural levels. Whereas other seasons had the ability to bide their time and add up the tension bit by bit, this season is very much operating on a limit. They know the end is near, and the writers are focused on making it as full-throttle a ride as possible. Nearly every episode has a significant set-piece moving things forward. A black-ops mission, a contract killer, a traveling meth lab, and even a train heist, all add momentum to the heyday of this story. That is before everything starts going to pot.

The latter end of the season takes some serious risks in terms of character development, and there were moments in which I questioned the writers' capacity to pull them off. There's only so much you can take of a really good thing, and the Walter we see this season is that rollercoaster factor. Bryan Cranston relishes in the joy of Walt's adopted evil, barely batting a eye as the character takes turns down a crazed and obsessive path. The writers give him plenty moments to deliciously "be the man", but at some point all that destruction has to catch up with him. The final episode of this season answers that in a remarkably reserved and powerfully silent development of character arcs that could occupy an entire half of a season.

In pushing things beyond the conceivable threshold we expected the story to cap off at, Vince Gilligan and company continue to surpass dramatic expectations, even as they've increased tenfold with each season. By the time they're done, Breaking Bad will be as significant a cinematic milestone as the likes of The Godfather and Goodfellas. Perhaps even more so, as they'll have 62 hours of unforgettable plot, character, and tonal development to offer people on renewed occasions. The fear and fateful test of any television series is that it won't hold up upon revisiting. It will take some grotesque disaster for Vince Gilligan to derail such a compelling story of moral corruption. I almost expect Gilligan to do so, just for the hell of it.

Bottom Line: Power and greed reach their maniacal and intoxicating heights as Breaking Bad builds towards a simultaneously solemn and tooth-shattering finale.

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