Spoilers for the Breaking Bad premiere after the jump:
And here we go. How will the saga of Walter White end?
"Blood Money" opens by immediately addressing that question, via another intense flash-forward. Ever since last season's premiere, I've gone back and forth as to whether or not I liked the show using this device (so effective in season two) in this fashion. On the one hand, it was definitely tantalizing, and it was great to know that Vince Gilligan and company—known for writing much of the show by the seat of their pants—had at least some semblance of where the story of these last sixteen episodes was going. (It's one of the main reasons—along with the fact that they've never faltered with any of their stories before—why I have almost zero concern about Breaking Bad failing to stick the landing. We're heading for one tremendous conclusion. I can feel it in my bones.) On the other, giving us even a small, vague glimpse of where the character of Walter White will end up seemed like it might rob the show of some tension as it arrived at that point.
Well, there's no more wavering on my part. This cold open is tremendous, precisely because of how much and how little it reveals. The White house has been abandoned and blocked off by a chain-link fence, while the pool (a sight of so many powerful moments over the course of the series) has been turned into a makeshift skate park for the local teenagers. In the interior, "Heisenberg" has been spray painted onto one of the walls. The outlet behind which Walt had hidden the ricin is intact, however, and he has returned to collect it. And last but not least, his neighbor is terrified (or at least shocked) to see him. That's a boatload of information, some of it fairly revealing. Walt's cover has certainly been blown, and he's wanted by police. Things are about to go south soon for Mr. White, and revealing all that ahead of time is a bit risky, even if the "how" of the matter remains very much up in the air.
But the scene plays coy with other things we care about: most notably the fate of Skyler and the kids. No, it doesn't really change much on an intellectual level: I've been worried about the fate of these characters ever since that initial flash-forward. But the dark emptiness of the house sends chills down the spine that lend even more credence to my fears that something terrible is going to happen to at least one member of Walt's family. We may now know that Hesienberg's identity will eventually be revealed to the world, but somehow that puts me even more on edge, not less. Well done, Breaking Bad. Well done. (Plus, the scene has some unsurprisingly gorgeous and chilling visuals, most notably that image of the kids skating, and the way it cuts to a more distant shot revealing that they're doing so in the Whites' pool. Haunting stuff.)
As great as the opening is, the rest of "Blood Money" is perhaps even greater, stunningly allowing its cat-and-mouse narrative between Walt and Hank to play out over the course of a single episode, rather than the two or three I expected. This is an astonishing hour for Dean Norris, as Hank walks out of the bathroom in a daze and cuts his and Marie's visit short, then proceeds to crash his car after suffering a panic attack (which the episode brilliantly conveys by way of blurry shots from his perspective, both before and after the crash). After surviving the initial shock, he's back to work, sifting through all the previous evidence (in one of the show's trademark montages) and seeming both dumbfounded at how he's been able to miss all this and horrified by just what a monster his brother-in-law is. As montages go, it's not quite "Crystal Blue Persuasion", but it gets the job done.
But it's what happens after that elevates "Blood Money" to the level of not just quite possibly the show's finest season premiere, but one of its best hours period. Walt's cancer is back: a fact the episode reveals almost casually, in one brief image of him receiving chemo while on the phone with Saul. And later, in the midst of throwing up, he happens to glance at the reading material by the toilet. Sure this is an awfully convenient coincidence (though nowhere near as egregious as the convoluted chain of events leading up to Mike's death in "Say My Name", which is the only time I've really noticed any major holes in Breaking Bad's tight plotting), but it only seems dramatically appropriate that, after being found out by accident, he now figures out Hank's discovery through similarly unintentional means.
It's here that "Blood Money" deploys its biggest masterstroke. Following this initial twist to the narrative, I for one was expecting a bit of tiptoeing (even with the knowledge that there are only seven more episodes to go) around any sort of major payoff, with both parties feigning ignorance of the other's activities while plotting their next moves. And that would likely have been plenty riveting. But this is Breaking Bad we're talking about. Just as importantly, this is Walter White—self-described "bullshitter"—we're talking about. From his point of view, there's not really any benefit to pretending he doesn't know. Hank has what evidence he has, which is not much. And maybe, just maybe, Walt is thinking he can either allay his suspicions or convince him to back off. Hank too realizes the jig is up when Walt presents him with the GPS tracker. As usual with this show, what makes "holy crap" moments like the confrontation that closes this episode work is that they're generally arrived at through judicious plotting and characterization. There's no reason for either of these characters—being who they are and knowing what they know—to hide their knowledge, so they don't. The scene in the garage is basically inevitable.
And yet it's still shocking to watch Hank punch Walt and declare, "All along, it was you!", before verbally tearing into his brother-in-law and telling him (in a moment that echoes Skyler's sentiments in last season's "Fifty-One") that he hopes the cancer causes him to "rot". Ah, but the power dynamics—always such an interesting and important part of this show, from the frequent battles of wills between Skyler and Walt to Fring's struggles with the cartel—are not quite that simple. Walter may be initially cowed, but he has several cards left to play, and when Hank briefly gives ground by offering to discuss things as long as the kids are left at his and Marie's house, he outright refuses. Though he may be out of the business, it's unmistakably the Walt of season five speaking when he tells Hank to "tread lightly". But with everything Walt has done—and Hank reminds us of a number of the highlights (or lowlights, to be more accurate) during this scene—you know this isn't the end of the matter. How (or whether) all this connects to that flash-forward is anyone's guess at this point, but what a way to close this opening hour.
While the Hank/Walt standoff is the core of "Blood Money's" brilliance, it's also extraordinary as yet another devastating installment in the long, tragic story of Jesse Pinkman. His struggle to live with what he's done isn't really new terrain for the series at this point, but it retains its power thanks in large part to Aaron Paul's haunted face and soulful, guilt-ridden eyes, both of which have rarely been as heartbreaking as they are here. His attempts to atone by giving away his money (first to Mike's granddaughter and the parents of Drew Sharp, then simply to random strangers in need) are just utterly wrenching, precisely because of how futile they are. Getting rid of the money—even doing good with the money—isn't going to erase Jesse's tormented memories or ease his guilt. I'm not certain anything can at this point.
One thing that does seem certain is that all trust between Jesse and Walt is gone. Witness their conversation, which eventually moves to the topic of Mike. Jesse has correctly deduced that Walt probably killed him, a moment that one might expect would create tension. But Jesse is so dead inside that he can only respond to Walt's lies by stating that he believes him in flat, boilerplate fashion that tells us he doesn't think a word Walt is saying is true, but is too tired to do battle with his former partner once again. I have long believed (and still do) that the truth about what Walt did to Brock will come out during this last eight-episode run. At this point, it's probably going to take a revelation of that magnitude to break Jesse out of yet another downward spiral, even if it leads him into a confrontation whose physical and/or emotional effects are likely to destroy him once and for all.
What a start to the final stretch. Astonishing on pretty much every level, from the absolutely beautiful deep-space compositions to the go for broke storytelling. And the performances—Norris especially—have never been better. Breaking Bad is back, and if this premiere is any indication, it's going to go out at the top of its game. Not that I expected anything less.
- Welcome back, Breaking Bad fans. I didn't do much writing about the show last year, but I don't intend for that to be the case this season, as this is the last time we'll be seeing this extraordinary show (upon rewatch, I've become more and more convinced it's the best TV drama ever made, assuming it does in fact stick the landing in these last eight installments) on our television screens. But we'll have to see how things go.
- Loved Hank's look at that drawing of Heisenberg. You can see him silently kicking himself for not figuring it out sooner. (I feel like I should stress once again that Dean Norris was just on fire in this hour.)
- Walt's conversation with Lydia bears a striking resemblance to several Walt/Gus conversations from earlier seasons, with Lydia in the role of Walt and Walt as Gus. That relationship didn't end well for Gus, and Lydia certainly seems every bit as desperate as Walt did on many occasions in season four. Hmm.
- Another small Walt moment that speaks volumes: his discussion about possibly buying a second car wash. Even though he's out of the drug business, his mind can't stop plotting and scheming.
- Badger's Star Trek script idea is both utterly terrible and completely awesome, and had me laughing throughout.
- The episode's other big laugh: Carol dropping her groceries at the sight of future Walt. I've always loved just how funny Breaking Bad can be, even in such an otherwise intense scene.