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End of Season Report: Breaking Bad, Season 5 – Part 1

7 Aug

Hey! Bitch! Magnets!

Breaking Bad’s fourth season was a season long one-on-one battle between Walt and Gus, focusing on how Walt deals with utter desperation and ultimately prevails.  The first half of the fifth season is about what happens when Walt wins, and there’s no single enemy to pit himself against.

The season begins with a flash forward to Walt’s 52nd birthday, where he’s eating at a diner under a different name. He purchases a serious weapon from the weapons dealer (played by Jim Beaver) from whom he purchased his gun way back in the second episode of the fourth season.  I don’t often like flash forwards, because I think they usually give away more than they add, and I don’t particularly like this one, but I don’t hate it as much I do some others because it doesn’t either give away far too much or seem like a tease.  Too many flash forwards are gimmicks to make you think one thing is happening, only to show you that you were misled, and this at least doesn’t seem like it exists simply to generate cheap suspense.

Breaking Bad has done a good job of introducing and building a couple of new characters each season, and If season 4 was about expanding the character of Gus, season 5 expands the character of Mike.  Mike despises Walt, seeing all too clearly the traits that are likely to bring about Walt’s downfall; the ego, the arrogance, and the need to be noticed.  Jesse is blinded by his viewing of Walt as a father figure, but Mike isn’t.  Mike wants to kill Walt, threatening to do so in the first episode of the fifth season, and would certainly not want to work with Walt ever again, but the writers know a winning character when they see one, so they not unwisely figure out a way to keep Mike in the show.  The writers find two reasons for Walt to stick around. First, because it’s also in Mike’s interest to figure out a way to destroy Gus’s hard drive, and second, because, in a slight Deus a Mike-ina, he realizes he needs to money to keep Gus’s employees from talking as they’re slowly rounded up and arrested, as the money originally set aside for them is taken by the DEA.  Breaking Bad has excelled throughout its runs in finding ways for certain plot points to happen without making them feel forced, and although we knew nothing about the payoffs Mike was making before this season, the reasoning fits in with all the background information we know.

Mike’s level head continues to provide a contrast to Walt’s fiery ego throughout the season as Mike is reluctantly forced to work with Walt. Naturally, this leads to conflict between Mike and Walt; Walt, as greedy as ever, doesn’t anticipate the extent of the payments coming out of their operation to compensate Mike’s guys and isn’t happy about it.  Walt, the smartest guy in the room, just can’t get it through his thick head how this helps all of them, and as socially stupid as ever, can’t seem to understand the benefit of having a harmonious working relationship at the cost of even a single dollar that’s his.

This is the most caper-happy season, with capers like the magnet ploy of the first episode (obligatory shout out to possibly the best line in Breaking Bad’s history – “Yeah! Bitch! Magnets!”) along with the train robbery, the idea of cooking in the fumigated houses, and to some extent, Walt’s final episode plan to knock off every one of Mike’s guys in prison at the same time.  The train robbery is clearly the capery-ist of these, and while the episode is shot beautifully as always, it seemed a little out of place in Breaking Bad.  They accomplish some incredible feats, and the magnet play fits in line with those, but the train robbery seems one level too far.

Lydia is the new character of the season the way Gus was in the third season and Mike is in the fourth season, though she’s not nearly as interesting as either of those two characters yet, at least.  I wonder if the writers will invest Lydia with more development in the second half of the season, or not want to waste that limited time on her, and merely keep her presence to a minimum.  She seems to serve merely as someone to move the plot along, as she has the list of names of Mike’s guys, she helps Walt and company obtain methylamine, and she spots the barrel that leads the crew to find out the cops are onto them.

My biggest single problem with this season is that Skyler changes her behavior on a dime with no real precedent.  She’s now suicidal and terrified of Walt, and while some of this behavior is justified; I feel like it comes out of nowhere. This is the woman who was okay with lying to the IRS, threatening Ted, and had made her peace, even if unhappily, to launder Walt’s drug money.   It’s not as if it in inherently bothers me even that someone would react that way as much as it does not seem true to character from the Skyler we’ve seen in previous seasons. Utter resignation was never an emotion I got from Skyler, and I couldn’t understand what changed between the end of the fourth season and the beginning of the fifth season that caused her to shift that dramatically.

Train robbery episode Dead Freight presents one of the few instances in which I think Breaking Bad takes a cop out that feels a little bit cheap.  When the little kid sees Walt and Jesse during the train robbery, Todd shoots him before any other member of the crew can issue any instruction.  I think it would have been more difficult and more interesting if Jesse, Mike, and Walt had to figure it out or if one of them had decided to act, but we don’t really know Todd, so his decision has less impact emotionally than Walt, Mike, or Jesse shooting the boy.

With the DEA getting closer, Mike decides things are too hot to continue and Jesse agrees.  Both of them want out, especially when Mike finds someone who will buy the methylamine off them for 5 million each.  Walt, though, wants to continue.  Walt has nothing else in his life at this point.  His wife hates him, as Jesse sees when he stays over Walt’s house for the most awkward dinner of all time, and Skyler does her best to keep his children away from him. Making meth is something he does better than anyone else and he’s finally in the catbird seat after doing it for other scary people.  If he gives this up, he has nothing.  There’s no assurances he’ll ever get his family back at this point.

More notes on the first half of season five coming up on part 2!