Fresh from his greatest victory – the murder of Gus Fring – we already know that time must be short for Walter White (Bryan Cranston) because this fifth season of Breaking Bad (AMC) is the last. It could never have been expected to go on forever, what with the meth business being a unreliable mistress and Walt being an atypical gangster. But nevertheless a gangster he is; and in the first episode we witness a Walt drunk on power and ready to build a blood-soaked empire with somewhat more permanence than the one he envisioned when he first began to ‘cook’ meth. At first glance, Walt may seem like an ‘every man’: a victim, a family man, a high school teacher in a poky suburban house who gets a lucky break and manages to make himself useful as a stooge to the local crime scene. But he is far from an every man. He may not have always known the next move, but he has managed to outwit practically every nemesis to cross his path with his superior intellect; a hitherto wasted intellect that has become comfortable using ever more ruthless and manipulative tactics to get his own way, no matter the cost to those he thinks he cares about.
Since its inception, Breaking Bad has been quite possibly the most exciting thing to watch on television and the first part of its last season (comprising of two lots of eight episodes) has been no less compulsive than its predecessors. From the minutiae of Walt trying to fit a listening device in DEA agent/brother-in-law Hank’s office to the grand showpiece scene of the train heist, one would have to be a catatonic not to have at least a slightly raised pulse or migrate a little closer to the edge of your seat. The aforementioned scenes go to show that the beauty of Breaking Bad is that it does the big things well, as one would expect of any US drama, but they do the little things spectacularly.
Such attention to detail is also what makes the characters so engaging – and, by God, they are all in their own way monsters, but nobody loves a boring character. Hank (Dean Norris) is a wonderful character and his macho dialogue and near pathological fear of any display of emotion make him at once utterly awful and sympathetic. We know he almost wants to be there for Walt and we know he cares deep down beneath that thick neck and braggadocio but as a typical American male all he can do is fetch a coffee or pour a whisky. Compound this with the fact that we know Walt is manipulating him on both a micro- and macrocosmic scale, and the writers have created an almost tragic figure.
It is worth noting that the legal thriller Damages is also coming to an end, but perhaps it should have finished sooner. Though its first two seasons were as good a pieces of drama as ever put to screen, the battle of wills between Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) and her protege Ellen Parsons (Rose Byrne) ran out of steam because their relationship always lacked enough necessity and love mixed in with the hate, unlike the somewhat similar relationship between Walt and Jesse (Aaron Paul), to convince us that these two people would ever want to have anything to do with each other year after year. (Ted Danson’s absence in the latter seasons could also be blamed.) Furthermore, despite the fact that lawyers do indeed exist, Breaking Bad has always seemed more grounded in realism, perhaps because it is indeed quite such an improbable scenario.
At the end of these first eight episodes we don’t of course know exactly how things will work out for Walt (surely it must end, as it began, between Walt and Jesse?), but the very first scene of this season hints that the empire building has had to be put on the back burner. Similarly, the final scenes, just as Walt thinks he is ‘out’ of the business and back into superbly rendered domestic banality, show us how Hank finally gets his Heisenberg. Suffice to say, as is almost always the way in crime dramas, a poet proves to be our anti-hero-of-antiheroes’ undoing.
(Originally written for SKRBBLR.com, September 2012.)