BREAKING BAD: Sunday 9PM on AMC
This is actually the back half of Breaking Bad‘s last season (AMC separated the 16 episodes into two parts for scheduling and budgetary reasons–namely, that actors, writers and other Guild members are entitled to automatic bumps in pay if and when a “new season” begins). That may help to explain how the show was able to launch into its final episodes with the gangbusters start provided by tonight’s thrilling hour–although, unlike many other classics of this new golden age of TV, Breaking Bad has always been impeccably, satisfyingly plotted.
The episode, written by Co-Executive Producer Peter Gould and directed by star Bryan Cranston (who’s directed several other episodes, and who’s skillful enough to supplement his acting career with these gigs to the extent he wants to), gave notice that series creator Vince Gilligan and his writers plan to keep us on our toes every step of the remaining way, as it confounded just about every expectation about how these last hours were going to play out, blowing away viewers with the speed of its reveals. Chief among these was the final act confrontation between Walter White (Cranston) and his DEA brother-in-law Hank Schrader (Dean Norris). The first part of the season had concluded with Hank discovering, through a combination of intestinal distress and Walt’s arrogance, that meek science teacher, cancer survivor Walt might all along have been the dreaded meth cooker Heisenberg. The playbook after that would have called for an extended cat-and-mouse game between Walt and Hank, one that would go on for weeks. But not on Breaking Bad: once Walt discovered that his tell-tale copy of “Leaves of Grass” had vanished after Hank’s visit to the toilet and that there was a GPS tracker on his car, he brandished the device at Hank. (The long, lovely pause as both men waited for Hank’s garage door to creak its way down so they could really talk was one of the high points of a great hour.) And Hank didn’t plead ignorance–he socked Walt and swore to put him away. All cards are suddenly on the table, with 7 hours still to come.
Even before that point, the episode was running on all cylinders. The pre-credits flash-forward that took us back to the time of the Season 5 premiere’s opening, giving us in 4 tight minutes Walt adding his long-stored ricin to the artillery in his trunk, the revelation that his secret identity was public and his proud suburban house was practically in a post-apocalyptic state, and the perfectly-timed gag of his neighbor’s reaction to his casual “Hello, Carol”–all of it was a spine-tingling way to kick off the final run. We had the confirmation, after hints in the previous flash-forward, that Walt’s cancer was back, and the hints from always-annoying Lydia (Laura Fraser, now a regular) that her unidentified new partners aren’t happy about the quality of their non-Walt product. And, as always, there was the relationship between Walt and his surrogate son Jesse (Aaron Paul), now all but completely subsumed by justified paranoia and barely-implicit threat (the way Cranston delivered the line “I need you to believe me, Jesse” was an acting lesson in itself). The hour also had its share of Breaking Bad‘s angled humor, from Hank sliding the glass door open after his discovery about Walt just at the moment Marie (Betsy Brandt) was merrily telling Walt “You’re the devil!” , to Jesse’s visit to the law offices of Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) after lighting up in the waiting room to speed up the process, to the unproduced Star Trek episode imagined by Jesse’s cohort Badger (Matt Jones).
There are seven more hours left, of course, and nothing is as dangerous or difficult for a TV show as an eagerly-awaited final episode, as fans of Lost will never forget. Everything we’ve seen so far, though, suggests that Breaking Bad knows precisely what it’s doing, ratcheting its tension and pitch-black humor to a point of no return and going dramatically all-in right from the start.
PS–Since these last Breaking Bads are certain to generate big ratings, AMC is maximizing its profit by accompanying this final stanza (and providing a hammock for its new Low Winter Sun) with a weekly half-hour called Talking Bad, which is closely–too closely–patterned after its post-Walking Dead talk show, to the extent of also being hosted by Chris Hardwick. Breaking and Walking are very different kinds of shows, and although the idea of a post-episode visit with series personnel (Gilligan himself was on this week’s) to digest recent events and get some behind-the-scenes insight is a very good one–if network schedules allowed, ABC could very profitably do the same for Scandal–Hardwick’s brand of insistent exuberance is a little much in this context. The episode was nearly redeemed, though, by guest Julie Bowen, who seemed an odd choice at first but turned out to more than justify her description of herself as a geeked-out Breaking Bad fan–and who asked Gilligan better and more pointed questions than any of Hardwick’s. Too bad she’s got a day job…