With the greatest villain of all time finally defeated, Jesse, Mike, and the rest of the White’s all come to the same realization: in a post-Fring world, the man who killed him has become the true terror.
S5E1 Live Free or Die
The Season Five opener flash forwards, depressingly, to a Denny’s.
Walter, slightly disheveled, stares meekly into a plate of eggs, hash browns, and bacon. Methodically, sadly, he arranges the bacon into the number 52, which represents his age. This simple gesture transforms his modest American breakfast into a kind of gastronomical mirror. Walt, looking down at his food, sees the day of his 50th birthday, a day two years prior that began at 5:02 am, the numbers 5 and 2 refracting endlessly, perhaps even mockingly, throughout his middle age. On the day of his 50th birthday, his wife Skyler, in a precious, whimsical gesture, arranged Walter’s veggie bacon into the number 50. Two years later, she is nowhere to be found.
This humble American opening is simultaneously forward and backward looking. Quite obviously, the past two years have not been good ones for Walter if they have brought him to this moment, an isolated breakfast in one the most egregiously unhealthy dining establishments in the United States. As the scene comes to a close, and Walter places his duffel bag in a car trunk that also contains some kind of an assault rifle, the suggestion is that Mr. White’s future will not be much better than his past.
While Walter prepares to eat, his waitress asks why he arranged his bacon as he did. When he tells her it is his birthday, she happily informs him that Denny’s customers eat for free on their birthdays. It is in this tiny snippet of dialogue that the dual reference point of the episode’s title becomes clear. Walter, for reasons that should be illuminated in Breaking Bad‘s final episodes, has been living pseudonymously as someone with the last name “Lambert” who is a resident of New Hampshire, the state that carries the motto “Live Free or Die.” Though Walter has the momentary opportunity to live free at Denny’s, he chooses not to do so, preferring instead to pay $100 for his meal. Since he chooses not to live free, is the only other possibility that he will die? That is the question.
The first scene of Season Four’s “Open House” finds Walter alone in the super meth lab that Gus has built beneath his enormous laundry facility. Since Walter and Gus, at the time, were locked in a battle for control over the lab space, Gus installed a surveillance camera to monitor Walter and Jesse’s work. Upon discovering this camera, Walter becomes enraged, and he politely extends his middle finger to it. Later, he tells Jesse that the camera is a “violation of the workspace.”
Within the context of the first four seasons, that moment retains strong ties to the academic culture that undergirds Breaking Bad. Once again, Walter is a highly trained researcher. The lab—the “work space”—is for him a space that should be free from all contaminants, including administrative oversight. Walter, in other words, is a defender of academic freedom—the kind of freedom he presumably had in that other lab where he once worked: the research facility where he created Gray Matter. That lab is depicted briefly in the beginning of the episode “... And the Bag’s in the River.” Encased in glass, that lab is transparent, open, free. Walter’s new lab is a dungeon, one that keeps him indentured to Gus’ menacing control. “I see you,” his panoptic camera lens is perpetually saying.
When Walter does finally kill Gus, he briefly thinks that he has achieved the freedom—personal and professional—for which he has longed. However, just as a sense of relief sets in, Walt remembers that omnipresent camera and realizes that the video footage of his time in the meth lab must surely have been archived somewhere. This is the conflict that sets the present day action of “Live Free or Die” in motion. Walter, Jesse, and Mike have to scheme to determine how they can destroy the video evidence stored on Gus’ now-confiscated laptop. Hence, magnets:
What makes that scene so memorable is, of course, Jesse’s inimitable, nonsensical refrain: “Yeah, bitch!” Yet, what is of greater significance is the fact that this magnet thing is Jesse’s idea. Walter, the brilliant scientist, can only dream up a vague “device” as a possible solution to the problem at hand. Jesse, in contrast, cuts straight to the point. In fact, his solution is so perfect that it neither requires words to describe it nor to respond to it:
The student has become the teacher, yo.
This modest inversion of Jesse and Walter’s authority is further enhanced after the two destroy Gus’ laptop. Since neither they, nor Mike, could see into the evidence room to ensure that their caper was successful, the three are left wondering what exactly happened inside the police station. When Mike pushes Walter for reassurance that the burglary worked, derisively calling the scientist “Answer Man” in the process, Walter can only respond to Mike by telling him that their plan worked “because I say so.” It is an answer of arrogance, not of science, and it gives Jesse visible pause. No matter how many times Jesse has told Mike, in this one episode, that Walter is good at what he does—that he is really, really smart—the apprentice knows that without hard evidence, both him and Mike do have to take Mr. White’s word on faith alone. Faith has little place in the realm of fact. If nothing else, Jesse has learned that much.
As it turns out, Walter did, in fact, miscalculate the success of Jesse’s plan. Having increased the intensity of their magnet beyond the point of necessity, Walter unknowingly causes the destruction of a picture frame containing an image of Gus and Don Eladio, and behind which is hidden the routing numbers for Gus’ offshore bank accounts. In an effort to destroy an electronic data trail, Walter unknowingly creates a physical paper trail, one which, in a single year, will lead to that Denny’s parking lot. There, Walt will purchase a device that he has no idea how to use without the aid of a printed instruction manual. Apparently, Mr. White has become a student once again. We can only hope that he will do his homework. His future, it seems, depends on that. Joseph Fisher
Adolescence is such a strong theme—on so many levels—throughout the duration of Breaking Bad. On one hand, there is the stubborn, fundamental desire from Walt (and the various players that surround him) to be celebrated for something, anything. He missed out on the Gray Matter train that would have quenched such an accomplished thirst, so now, as we learn in Season Five, he wants to do whatever he can to be somebody. At its core, the wars that paint a lot of the drama within the series are rooted in establishing exactly who is the boss of whom, an age-old debate that causes quibbles between second-graders and senior citizens alike.
What overshadows that pragmatic interpretation of immaturity, however, is the very literal presence of youth that happens to affect multiple occurrences throughout the narrative. What’s Walt going to do when confronted with the decision to further his business or be present for his daughter’s birth? In a house occupied by two meth-head parents, how does Jesse respond when he is approached by a toddler he knows has no shot at a fruitful life because of his family circumstances? Exactly how old was the murderer of Pinkman’s deceased friend, Combo? What stops Jesse from selling drugs to Andrea? And, of course, to whom will that $2 million be given after Mike is either dead, gone or both?
Enter Season Five’s “Madrigal”, the second episode of the first half of the series’ final run. Mike, the stone-faced killer/cleaner/enforcer/all-around tough dude, has a hit put on him by Lydia, the corporate attorney for Madrigal Electromotive GmbH, a company with which the now-departed Gus Fring used to to business. She’s convinced his guys will flip on him, her and everyone else under the sun, so she hires a guy named Chris to do the work Mike won’t (causing a flippant Ehrmantraut to somewhat hilariously tell her “This isn’t the movies ... we don’t kill 11 people as a provelactic measure”).
As always, Mike is ahead of the curve, though, and kills her guy before heading to her house to squash the problem once and for all. And what is it that causes him to grant her a few more moments of life? We might never know for sure, but smart money says that her spiel about how she doesn’t want her daughter to think she went missing had some sort of impact on what The Cleaner’s next move may be. She lives to see another day. He decides once and for all to get back into business with Walt and Jesse. And (surprise!) nobody’s lives would ever be the same.
All because of the thought that an adolescent might find her mother’s face blasted to smithereens on top of her bed was too much to bear. Jeez, you might as well have had a six-year-old cook the meth. By now, it’s hard to tell which age bracket has more power in the Breaking Bad universe.
But back to that whole “nobody’s lives would ever be the same” stuff. The foreshadowing was thick when Mike initially turned down the proposition of going into business with the Blue Men Group. “You are time bomb, tick, tick, ticking,” the former Philadelphia cop (who knew!) told Walt in his kitchen. “And I have no intention on being around for the boom.” The line was great, but the delivery was better. Now, if only he could have stayed true to that mantra ... maybe he would have been around to make sure his granddaughter got home safely from the playground that afternoon in episode seven.
The anticipatory actions double, though, when Hank shares a goodbye conversation with George, his now-former boss. In somewhat of a haunting exchange between the two and ol’ Gomey, Mr. Merkert launches into a reflective mini-speech on the history he had with Gus. “I had him out to my house on the Fourth of July,” he tells Schrader and Gomez. “And he’s somebody else, completely. Right in front of me—right in front of my nose.” Be it creator Vince Gilligan’s touch or not, the timing of Hank’s eyes looking up to see his former boss’s face before the cut to black is simply impeccable. Say what you want about the fun-loving limp-legged mineral collector, but he sure does have his share of intuition.
His proposed future target, Walt, meanwhile, is only gaining in momentum and confidence. “If Gus can manage it, so can we,” he tells Jesse and Saul when the three sit down to figure out how to move forward. His voice is missing the unassuming, goofy charm that made the former chemistry teacher so endearing in earlier seasons, though, and his assertion comes across as more bratty than authoritative (Side: Someone who isn’t missing that humility? Jesse, as his crying fit earlier in the episode leads to one of the most affecting “Mr. White”‘s he’s ever uttered. One more time, for good measure: Aaron Paul’s Jesse Pinkman is the single greatest supporting role that has ever been broadcast on television).
All told, it’s gotten to the point where Walt’s obsession with himself has become quite creepy. “You know it gets easier,” he tells a superbly acted Skyler, whose face tells a million and one stories in this instance, when he comes to bed. “What you’re feeling right now, it’ll pass.
“We do what we do for good reasons,” Walter continues, constantly kissing her shoulder, arm and neck, presumably causing the presence of goosebumps in the same places on viewers’ bodies. “There’s no better reason than family.”
Whatever you say, dude. Just wait until Hank has to use your bathroom in a few weeks. Maybe then we’ll see exactly what the word family means. Colin McGuire