16
Jul
2012
Breaking Bad: Season 5, Episode 1
Live Free or Die
Jordan
Last season of Breaking Bad ended with a moment that it felt the entire series had been building toward: Walter White, standing atop a parking garage, metaphorically surveying the carnage he has created, including a hospitalized little boy he poisoned and three dead meth kingpins, and saying with a sick, and sickening, satisfaction: "I won." At that moment, we were, without a doubt, viewing a man who was closer to Scarface than Mr. Chips, closer to Heisenberg than Walter White. If this show followed the devolution of Walt, that moment was one from which he could not easily return.

Of course, he isn't looking to. For Walter White, his moral devolution has given him a new lease on life; it has allowed him to feel truly, authentically alive in a way his previous years on the straight and narrow never could. But before Walt can truly celebrate his victory over Gus (there never is much time for celebration on this show before the next bomb drops), standing in his kitchen, having removed all evidence of bomb making and, in a last-minute moment of wisdom, the Lily of the Valley he used to poison Brock, he realizes there is another piece of the puzzle. Before he can take even one sip of his victory drink, he recalls the cameras Gus used to exert a sense of omnipresent power over the lab throughout season four, and he knows that somewhere out there is enough evidence to bring Heisenberg down.

In a scene so frenetic it took me a moment to catch up, Walt and Jesse speed down Mexico way to track down Mike and determine the location of all that incriminating footage, only to nearly run into him in aan insane game of chicken. Jesse is immediately thrown in the middle as Mike prepares to put Walt down and Walt refuses to give even an inch. I find it slightly hard to believe that Mike wouldn't kill Walter on sight, knowing, as he does, that Gus is dead and that Walt and Jesse are the only links tying him to the operation (except that pesky footage), but Jesse manages to hold him back long enough for Walter to get his claws in Mike. They need each other, after all, to make sure the police don't get their hands on that video footage.

What follows is a bit hard to swallow, not for all the pulp glory that is the magnet job (which should be an episode of Mythbusters any time now, but was awesome whether or not it was at all realistic), but simply for how easily the police found a lap top full of incriminating video footage. This is a moment that may be paved over in a few weeks time, should we discover that the laptop never contained the footage or that it had been moved elsewhere by Gus, but for the moment, it seems like a chink in the otherwise flawless armor of Gustavo Fring. A man who is a master of hiding in plain sight, a man who is so dangerous even the cartel is afraid to kill him, a man so brilliant as to play the DEA against his competition to corner the market for meth in the southwest"¦left a computer with enough evidence to bring down his criminal empire sitting on his desk in Los Pollos Hermanos? I can believe mistakes might be made along the way, but for a man with the cool, collected professionalism of Gus to make a mistake that titanic seems a little bit ridiculous to me. Again, this may be paved over in time, but for the moment it was a bump in a solid episode.

That bit of plot movement out of the way, the question stands: how to destroy the evidence that is contained in a well-guarded, impenetrable evidence locker? Well, return to the junkyard, and one of Breaking Bad's great recurring characters, its shoddily put together, amoral manager, to grab a giant magnet (courtesy of a plan Jesse comes up with while Walt is busy dreaming up super science and Mike is busy shooting down each of his ideas), put said magnet in a truck attached to a ton of car batteries, and turn it on with enough power to overturn the van, in hopes of frying the laptop from outside the walls. This is an incredibly risky, shoddily put together plan (how will they know it worked? Can they ever be sure they left no evidence behind?), but that's how Walter White has flourished as a criminal, and that sort of fly-by-night operation seems like exactly what we can expect from Heisenberg as the meth kingpin of the Southwest. We see Walt's megalomania tonight in a wonderful sequel line to last season's, "I won," when Mike, incredulous that Walt and Jesse left all of the evidence behind, asks Walt how he can possibly know that everything he left at the scene is untraceable and Walt, with a smirk, says, "Because I said so." The look Mike shoots Jesse tells us everything: Walt's bravado will be his downfall, and Mike doesn't want himself, or his erstwhile protégé to go down with the ship. In season three's "Half Measures," Mike, who was still fond of Walter back then, advised him to kill Jesse to keep things from getting out of hand with Gus. When Walt ignored that advice, he burned his bridge with Mike, and now it seems much more likely that Mike would be advising Jesse to move Walt out of the way. This trio has a lot of dramatic promise, and I hope Mike plays a major role in the rest of this season, as a tentative ally to Walt and an equally dangerous potential enemy.

Meanwhile, Skyler is scared out of her mind at the realization that her husband blew up a drug lord and seems to be, if anything, proud of that accomplishment. She walks through this episode as if in shock, discovering to her horror that Ted, who has survived, is battered beyond belief, and realizing more and more just who she has thrown her lot in with. Last season, Skyler gave in and decided to help Walt launder his money, but when she made that agreement, she thought she was agreeing to help her mild mannered, desperate husband get out of a job as a low-level meth cook and into one as a successful carwash owner. Now it is dawning on her that she has thrown in her lot with a ruthless, dangerous man, and she doesn't like what she sees. When Walt enters the room at the end of the episode, Skyler doesn't look happy to see him (not that she's been that for quite some time). She doesn't even look relieved when she says, of Ted, "he's not going to talk." And when Walt hugs her, a hug she does not return, and whispers, "I forgive you," it isn't her mild mannered husband being magnanimous in Skyler's mind; it is the killer she works for letting her off of a potentially deadly hook.

A lot of the rest of the episode is given over to some table setting, which is necessary if not ideal. This show has to get all of its chess pieces in a row before it can knock over the table, of course, and "Live Free or Die" does some heavy lifting there. Hank will be on the trail of that footage (and the scene with him in the burnt out lab, the camera's flash sounding repeatedly in the background, is a highlight of the episode), the cops now have a bank account Gus used in the Cayman Islands, which can only lead to more bad news for Walt (and, hopefully, some flashbacks that hearken the return of Giancarlo Esposito, who was incredible last season and will be missed), and Saul tries to get out from under Walt, only to realize just how deep in he is (another great, chilling Walt moment: "We're done when I say we're done").

Let's talk, for a moment, about the episode's title. Those of you who know me know that I am obsessive about episode titles, and Breaking Bad has rewarded me for this in the past (close viewers may have noticed that the episodes of season two that flashed forward to that apocalyptic Teddy Bear were titled, in airing order, "747," "Down," "Over," "ABQ"). The obvious reason tonight's episode is titled "Live Free or Die" is that chilling cold open, a flash forward that shows us Walt, hair grown out, celebrating his 52nd birthday under the name Lambert, using a New Hampshire driver's license (and car), and trading it out with a shady associate for a different vehicle, which contains some heavy fire-power. That flash forward occurs two years after the pilot (in which Walt celebrated his 50th birthday) and an indeterminate period from where we currently sit. All we know is it's a long way down from here.

But I think the episode's title stands for something more. The phrase "Live Free or Die" connotes a sense of resoluteness"”there are things one just won't give up. Yet, in the context of Walter White, and in the context of that moment, I wonder if it doesn't also indicate a binary choice, a decision he made when he discovered he was terminally ill. Initially, he chose to die, refusing treatment and consigning himself to a few months of pain and the sweet release of nothingness. But then, he made a different choice, a choice with repercussions that have made up the whole of this series. He chose, for the first time in his life, to truly live free: free of the law, free of morality, free of the constraints he had put on himself and those he'd had thrust upon him. Walter White is a vain, selfish, arrogant man, a man who has let the goodness rot out of him in a desperate quest to feel alive. But he's also something of an existential hero, even while being without a doubt a villain any true proponents of the philosophy would denounce. He has chosen to live authentically, to make his own meaning and to live by his own code. That code has sown disaster for him and for all of those around him; it is a selfish one whose true intentions are rotten to the core. Walter White has chosen self-preservation over the well being of people he cares about. He has chosen to create a drug that does irreparable harm to its users and to society. He has chosen to kill, to betray, and to manipulate. But he has chosen in a way he never had when the series opened. There is no doubt, at this moment, that Walter White has chosen to live free. Now all that's left is to watch him, and those around him, live with the consequences of that choice.

Grade: B+

Notes:

-"I am relieved Walt. And scared." "Scared of what?" "You."

-"Wendell doesn't eat, nobody eats."

-"You know how they say, "˜it's been a pleasure'? It hasn't."

-"You're living in the time of string theories and God particles. Of course it's feasible." That line was prescient"¦

-"Yeah, bitch! Magnets!" I have decided I will say this whenever I experience any sort of triumph from now on. Feel free to join me.
Tags: Breaking Bad
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