Monday, July 16, 2012

"Breaking Bad" - "Live Free or Die"

Spoilers for the Breaking Bad premiere after the jump:

So, Breaking Bad as a caper story? Yeah, that'll work, at least for one week. Then again, it's possible to view this series as one which revolves around an incredibly dark series of convoluted yet believable capers ("desperate struggles for survival" might be a better term), the most recent of which was the murder of Gus Fring. But "Live Free or Die" has more in common with movies like The Sting than with this show's usual type of caper, which tends to involve violence and/or death. This week, nobody got hurt, aside from a few dozen cases of evidence, and the caper involved magnets rather than guns or explosive devices. But the episode certainly didn't lack intensity thanks to one Walter White, who has already begun to flex his newfound power.

But first, about those magnets. Much of this premiere was devoted to tying up one of the major loose ends from season four, which is the footage of Walt, Jesse, and Mike that is on Gus's laptop. The episode wastes very little time bringing Mike (who's been absent since nearly getting killed in "Salud") back and having him confront the other two. This scene plays out after one of Breaking Bad's signature visual set pieces, in which their respective cars almost crash into each other against a gorgeous sun-baked landscape. Jesse's able to talk Mike out of killing Walt for now, considering the fact that there are more pressing matters: namely, the footage and the laptop which Mike tells them it's contained on. That laptop is now in a seemingly impenetrable evidence room.

As we know from many a heist movie, of course, nothing is impenetrable. After talking about and discarding several options (Mike's ready to simply run), it's Jesse who suggests the idea of using a magnet to erase the files, all without ever setting foot inside the police station. One of Breaking Bad's other signature elements—its dark comedy—is on full display as this seemingly insane scheme unfolds. Jonathan Banks has been playing Mike as such a dangerous and menacing character (and make no mistake, he still is) that it came as a shock to see him deliver some truly funny lines and reactions throughout the episode. But nothing beat Jesse's excitement about magnets after the initial test in the junkyard was a success.

In the interest of conciseness (okay, it's more due to the fact that I have a very limited amount of writing time this week), let's just say that everything goes smoothly for the most part. There are loose ends—including the truck Jesse and Walt had to abandon as well as hidden information about a bank account that was unintentionally uncovered when all the boxes of evidence went flying—that will probably come into play a few episodes down the road, but the laptop is no more. It's the second straight episode where Walter White has emerged victorious after coming up with a scheme to save himself. Some might take that as a sign: your luck is going to run out at some point.

But Walt doesn't see it that way. He's loving his new feeling of being the one in control. This feeling is something Skyler had to grapple with as well when she went to see Ted (who I'm pretty sure all of us thought was dead after the way he fell in "Crawl Space") in the hospital, but with far different results. When Ted sees her, he promises not to say anything, just as long as she doesn't hurt his family. For an incredibly brief moment, she doesn't know what to say, having not even contemplated such a thing. But then she realizes that she needs to maintain the power she has in order to keep him quiet. And so she does.

But unlike Walt, she's horrified at what she's doing, and at how far out of control this situation has already gotten. This difference between them is likely only going to grow more pronounced, particularly as the final scene makes it clear that Walt views Skyler as someone beneath him: someone he has the power to say "I forgive you" to in spite of the fact that she has absolutely nothing to apologize to him for. The look on Skyler's face during that scene is haunting. She's starting to realize that not only is Walt not a good guy (that's been quite clear for a while), but that he's become a truly terrifying and dangerous person: power-crazy, twisted, and evil. It's a chilling scene, and one that will no doubt inform future episodes, as well as both characters' overall journeys over this final stretch of episodes. Which has just gotten off to a great start.

Other Thoughts

- That pre-credits scene was amazing, although it makes absolutely no sense yet (aside from the pill bottle Walt was carrying, which suggests that his cancer may have returned). Still, a lot of interesting details—including an apparent trip to the East Coast, a new identity, and that gun—that I'll be curious to see the reason(s) for.

- Not much from Hank this week (outside of his search of the destroyed meth lab), but I'm sure that will change soon, as the endgame of this show almost has to involve him figuring out who Heisenberg is. Doesn't it? Then again, this is a show that constantly subverts expectations, so maybe not.

- Not sure if I'm going to be able to write about this show on a consistent basis this year. We'll see. If not, I'll probably still be back a couple of times over the course of this far too brief eight episode run, and certainly after the finale. 

Grade: A

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