We're officially halfway there. Last night's episode, "Gliding Over All," marked the end of the first half of the final season of AMC's Breaking Bad, which means the agonizing wait until those bittersweet final episodes starts right now. So was the mid-season finale a success? We say, hell yes.
Walter, The Meth Monster
Walter White (Bryan Cranston) sure has turned a major corner this season. Numerous bodies have dropped in his wake since the pilot, and as that number grew, inversely his remorse for collateral pain and damage shrank. Last week, when Walt committed a murder that he couldn't rationalize as an utmost necessity, it seemed like the weight of his actions was finally weighing on him. But, nope, last night we saw that killing Mike (Jonathan Banks) only emboldened Walt's moral rot. He isn't above leaving even potential loose ends anymore. On a scale of 1-10, his moral compass now sits at about a five.
With Mike out of the way, Jesse (Aaron Paul) out of their operation, and just the sycophantic Todd (Jesse Plemons) at his side, Walt has no conscience to keep his darkest impulses in check. He's been wary of Mike's "guys" since first learning of them, and with the legacy fund tapped the first order of business is linking with Lydia (Laura Fraser), who has been positively itching to see Mike's guys dead since we first met her. (In a display of just how cold and calculated Walt has become, he reveals that Lydia wasn't being paranoid during their tense sit-down: He had the ricin substance on deck for her coffee before she proved her worth.)
With the help of Todd's Aryan-connected uncle, Heisenberg pulls off the most audaciously successful simultaneous murder plot seen since The Godfather. And whereas a 50-year-old Walt might have been given pause by Hank (Dean Norris) indirectly calling him a monster, this new 51-year-old bastard glibly snaps back, basking in a victory that he's certain Hank will never even discover. More on that later.
And The Cook Goes On...
With Declan's distribution network, Lydia's Russian connects, and absolutely no obstacles, Walt finally amasses the meth empire he so desperately wants. But while the cash stacks up faster than even he calculated, the day-to-day ends up far emptier than he could have ever imagined. For all the billions with a capital B that Gray Matter brings in, we're pretty sure Elliott and Gretchen didn't have to compromise their children (surrogate-son Jesse included) and marriage to get it.
So when Skyler (Anna Gunn) shows Walt the mountain of cash he's raked in, followed by a desperate plea for him to quit, Walter acquiesces. Dude talked a big talk, and even walked it as well, but when things get to a point where both the audience and Jesse aren't sure if Walter stopped by the latter's house to pay him or kill him, the question becomes, how much is enough? And what to make of his radiology visit, where he reflected on the towel dispenser he once punched in a fit of rage? Is the cancer back?
Of course, all is well, but this won't end well. We've seen a future where Walter is alone, sick, and ready to go out in a blaze of bullets. The idyllic family reunion in the White backyard won't last for long. (Were we alone in thinking someone was going to burst back there guns blazing?) And the harbinger of these incoming dark days? DEA ASAC Hank Schrader has finally figured out that there's more to his nebbish brother-in-law than meets the eye, thanks to Walt's copy of Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass, complete with good old Gale Boetticher's own personal note. Is it summer 2013 yet?
This has been a very entertaining ride to the finish line for this excellent series. With that said, similar to how the fantastic The Dark Knight Rises didn't quite match the transcendence of The Dark Knight, this half of season 5 didn't meet the standards of the greater television significance of the previous two seasons.
One minor complaint is that this once measured, very specifically paced show has since abandoned that storytelling approach in favor of a much quicker rate of plot development, which gives way to some other problems. Contrivances and stretching of believability abound, from the rapid fall of the late, great Mike to Hank's omniscient super-cop hunches. The storytelling, too, has gotten a little heavy-handed in a quick attempt to display that Walter is evil now. He's whistling the day after Dirt Bike Boy was murdered, verbally stunting all over Mike and other various intimidating criminals, and his interactions with Skyler in the first two episodes made our skin crawl.
These points are just nitpicks on a series that otherwise continues to deliver. The cinematography continues to reign as the best on television, with sequences like last night's three-month cook montage or Skyler's late-night pool session standing out, and character pieces like "Fifty-One" resonate as much as earlier episodes. Ultimate judgment must be reserved until we've seen the whole thing, but for now:
Mid-season grade: B+
Things To Consider
- Walter Jr. Breakfast Report: Flynn (RJ Mitte) has swapped his brunch fixation out for some brother-sister bonding. How cute.
- "Lydia, learn to take yes for an answer." What a great addition to the cast Lydia has been. Hopefully we'll see some more of her before the end.
- So the lynch-pin of a major, long-brewing moment on this series was facilitated by a basic human need for toilet reading material. That's kind of awesome.
- The three-month cooking montage was quite possibly the best, most technically awe-inspiring montage on this show yet. Frequent episode director Michelle MacLaren is a beast (she did the incredible shootout in "One Minute"). The song used was the aptly titled "Crystal Blue Persuasion" by Tommy James & The Shondells.
- Nitpick: In "Madrigal" Lydia hired one of Mike's "guys" to turn on him, and before Mike killed him he had already gotten to Chow. So, with two down plus the lawyer, wouldn't that bring the count to eight instead of ten?
- This half season hasn't been too economical with character use. This might be the least we've ever seen of Skyler, Saul (Bob Odenkirk), and even Jesse to date.
- Other callbacks to episodes past along with the towel dispenser included the hotel painting seen before by Walt, his fixation with a fly during a moment of introspection, and he and Jesse reminiscing about the Crystal Ship.
- By and large, this episode could have functioned as a series finale instead of a mid-season one. Would you have been satisfied?
- Future Theory: Is Walter planning to blast away at Lydia's Russians and/or Declan, who, presumably, will be angered by Walt's decision to end the money machine?