(There be spoilers ahead.)
There are no passive Breaking Bad fans. What we call “love” for television’s greatest show, a psychiatrist may deem “obsession.” There is a good chance that if you are reading this, you have watched all four seasons to this point, maybe across its four-year tenure or perhaps in a month-long “binge” or “marathon” — the choice of words indicative of your self-image. I fall into the binge/marathon group (I prefer the latter term), as I only got hooked this summer and watched all of Season Four in two days, finishing just hours before Sunday’s premiere (for which my friends and I dressed up as characters from the show). The implications of this grotesque absorption are worth exploring (for a later time), but I can testify that hitting “Next episode” on Netflix and Blu-ray felt more like a necessity than an obligation.
What about Breaking Bad transcends television? The appeal does not rely on the memorization and recitation of some alternate mythos, as in Game of Thrones. Instead, the universe Breaking Bad occupies is about our own, presumably without Malcolm in the Middle. The series hooks us with characters we love because we see ourselves in them and with characters we hate because … we see ourselves in them.
The model of this is Walter White (Bryan Cranston), who has increasingly lost touch with the humanity he once tried to save. As his plot to kill nemesis Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) proved, Walt has abandoned good intentions in order to win. We may not, and really should not, root for him, but we definitely feel him — his pain, his anger, his madness. Beside Walt is Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), a man, no longer a kid, finding organized crime more loathsome than the ghetto life he lived before.
Thankfully, Season Five’s premiere lets us take a breath and remember that all this nihilism and brutality is just a subtext to a show that serves, above all, as entertainment. The morose tones so flagrant at the end of Season Four will certainly return and intensify as the final season progresses, but the beginning of the end takes care to not overdose on tragedy, or on any one mood at all. That is why Breaking Bad has a ravenous fanbase: It is more than a drama, thriller, black comedy or chemistry tutorial. It is all of those at once, with gut punches equally emotive, witty and badass (“Stay out of my territory,” “I am the one who knocks!”).
The source of fun in this episode is, to quote Jesse, “Magnets, bitch!” Walt and Jesse join Gus’ fixer Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) in a shaky alliance — Mike nearly shoots Walt dead on first sight — to destroy video evidence of them working in the “superlab” they set aflame in last season’s finale. Problem is, the police already retrieved Gus’ laptop with all the footage. So, in a heist more Raising Arizona than Ocean’s Eleven, they strap a huge magnet inside of a truck and point it at the police station’s evidence room from a street outside. After wonderful special effects send computers and tricycles flying through the room, Walt underestimates the magnet’s power as their truck tips over against the station wall. They escape in a getaway car on time, but “How do we know it worked?” Mike asks. “Because I say so,” Walt replies.
By this point, Walt has crossed into the dark side, making it especially chilling to watch him harken back to Esposito’s Gus when staring at his goofy lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) with a sculpted, loveless mug. He belittles Saul — “You’re a two-bit, bus-bench lawyer” — and growls, “We’re over when I say we’re over,” at his face in a devastating close-up. Walt has taken Gus’ place in the drug trade and as the source of evil. Walt’s DEA agent brother-in-law Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) is the primary antagonist to Walt’s protagonist due to his repeated attempts to take down “Heisenberg,” Walt’s criminal alias. But Hank continues to exemplify goodness, as flawed as he is, and only pushes forward in the face of death threats, assassination attempts and paralysis. A pivotal confrontation between the two is due in the near future, and the audience’s sympathy will knot over the consequences.
The rest of the episode’s events range from teasing to bizarre. In what appears to be a year in the future (actually 2010 on the show’s timeline), the premiere opens with a glimpse of a hairy, grizzled Walt wearing thick-rimmed glasses ringing in his 52nd birthday by assembling bacon into a “52” — a nod to the series pilot — by himself at a Denny’s restaurant. He has adopted an alter ego, “Mr. Lambert,” and buys a machine gun from the dealer who sold him his illegal pistol last season. Later openings will likely revisit this vague set-up, adding more pieces to the puzzle until the main story merges like the second season’s “pink teddy bear” scenes. It is a tantalizing non sequitur, though on the other hand the episode provides an unexpected answer to the fate of Ted Beneke (Christopher Cousins). Many fans inferred that when he fled from Saul’s goons and tripped on his carpet, he snapped his neck and was done for. They were right. But, even worse, he lives on as a hollow shell of the sleazeball he once was. When director Michael Slovis cuts to a shot of a bald, almost alien-looking Ted, immobile on a hospital bed and fastened into a halo brace, the painful urge to laugh bullies any shred of remorse we might have humored.
In moments like these, the obvious resurfaces: Breaking Bad is one sick show. Last season opened with one of television’s most gruesome deaths (“Box Cutter”), but Season Five begins by reintroducing us to our favorite characters and all their psychoses, deformities and illicit talents. What a relief that Gilligan and the rest of the writers wield this depravity as a means for humor and enjoyable action. They certainly get serious as well, although even the most traumatic of verbal takedowns betrays a grain of irony. Walt returns home to his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), who panics about the recent events their family has been through and Walt’s role in every one of them. As if he did not hear a word she said, Walt mentions Ted’s injury, hugs her and whispers, “I forgive you.” She slept with Ted and stole over half a million dollars to hide Ted’s tax evasion, but Skyler does not pass through Walt’s mind for a second as he silently accepts her repentance. The family that he swore to protect since day one does not cross his mind at all. Walt justifies every terrible thing he has done by simply ignoring it. The scene was so frightening my friends and I could not help but laugh in our faithfully accurate costumes. Any witness would probably run scared. We have a great season ahead.