It’s finally here–the premiere of the final (half) season of Breaking Bad. If you weren’t watching said episode last night, you probably had to bury your head in the metaphorical sand away from technology. Because it was all over every social media platform I visit.
And it wasn’t just my perception of things. Breaking Bad had an audience of 5.9 million viewers last night, which shattered its previous record of 2.98 million from last year.
So how did the AMC phenomenon perform for its newly acquired audience? In a word, spectacularly.
After a year of speculation, we return to the flashforward, in which Walter White, or Heisenburg (as it is written on the walls of his rotting house in spray paint), returns to his former home for the Ricin capsule. “Hello, Carol,” he says to a terrified ex-neighbor, who drops her bag of groceries.
And bam, we’re back to the moment we left off on. Hank on the can, linking Gale and his brother-in-law through Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. This season comes down to three men: Hank, Walt, and Jesse. Though other characters were important and rewarding in their own right, the five seasons of Breaking Bad have primarily been about the arcs of these three men.
Hank (Dean Norris) is the least changed. In season one, he started off as an overly-macho, crass cartoon of a cop. His screen time has been about filling out the character with complexities and depth. Through hardship and trauma, Hank has become our hero– our good guy. He has always been on the side of justice, yet he has been continually punished for Walt’s choices. The montage of him piecing together the puzzle of the entire series makes us relive it, too, and with Hank, we realize just how much Walt is to blame for his suffering. The very panic attack Hank has upon realizing Walt is Heisenburg can be traced back to Hank killing Tuco when he went looking for Walt all the way back in season one. That’s how intertwined we are at this point.
On the other side of things, we have Walter (Bryan Cranston), our anti-hero. I know the point of this show was “to go from Mr. Chips to Scarface,” but after recently rewatching season one, I’m still amazed at how far Breaking Bad has taken our poor, little chemistry teacher. Three scenes in this episode stand out for Walter:
- Walt and Skyler at the car wash. Both of them are dressed in tones of cream and beige. Walter is even dressed vaguely like Gus used to. He speaks in a calm, controlled manner. He tells his employees good morning and happy birthday in Spanish. He tells Lydia that there’s nothing he can do for her. But most importantly, he pitches the idea of another car wash to Skyler. Jesse once told him a meth empire wasn’t exactly something to be proud of, so maybe a car wash empire will do the trick?
- Walt and Jesse in his house. Walt wants to talk Jesse out of giving all of his money away, especially to Mike’s granddaughter. Jesse implies that Walt must have killed Mike and they won’t be hearing from him again, and the manner in which Walt assures Jesse that he did not kill Mike–the sincerity with which he completes this lie–is so astonishing that my soul started to wither like Jesse’s has.
- Walt and Hank in the garage. Of course, this was the showdown we had all been waiting for. I really thought it would come later in the season, but there we were, at the end of episode one, Hank punching Walt in the face and telling him he knew everything. And Walt denying it all for a pathetic moment before drawing the line in the sand: “Tread lightly.”
Walt will let nothing stand in his way. He has no moral compass, no sense of right and wrong, no breaking point. He has no concern for Mike’s granddaughter, for his brother-in-law, or for the clearly disastrous mental and emotional state of his surrogate son, Jesse. If there was a chance that you developed some sympathy for Walt during your year off from Breaking Bad (or maybe while he was playing with his adorable toddler), this episode did everything it could to stamp that out of you.
And lastly, we have Jesse (Aaron Paul). Jesse, the Peggy Olson of this show. Jesse, the loser addict turned moral center. He’s the one you want to turn out OK. He’s the one you root for. He’s the one most destroyed and shredded by Walt’s choices even though he wasn’t in a good place to start. The acts that Jesse has completed and participated in because of Walt’s prideful quest for an empire have plunged him into a perpetual state of darkness. Walt is all beige and cordiality and Jesse is all dark clothes and gaunt eyes. Aaron Paul is a master. At the end of these final eight episodes, I will miss nothing more than watching him play a haunted Jesse.
When I first saw the final scene between Hank and Walt in the garage, I felt a twinge of disappointment. I thought the tension of Hank knowing about Walt without Walt knowing his brother-in-law was closing in on him would build for a while longer. I thought Hank would have more control, and that dramatic irony would take up a couple episodes. But upon further reflection, I like it better this way. Breaking Bad, above all else, has always been unpredictable. I like that even the basic question of when Walt would find out Hank knew was beyond my ability to predict.