This is the way the show ends: not with a bang but at a Denny’s.
Four years ago, the world was introduced to Walter White. Our first glimpse showed the high school chemistry teacher, a quiet, smart and understanding man, sitting peacefully in the kitchen with his family. His wife Skyler soon serves breakfast, a plate loaded with eggs, hash browns and pieces of veggie bacon. Skyler has arranged the bacon on Walt’s plate to make the number 50. Today is Walt’s birthday. Walt is 50.
He’s lived an unexceptional life up until this point. At times, he seems happy, but we sense he is incomplete. A visible dissatisfaction with life shrouds the poorly paid teacher as he goes through the morning pleasantries, looking around his wood-paneled house and stomaching the “cholesterol-conscious” bacon.
Last Sunday, exactly two years later in the show, we again find Walt eating breakfast. He sits beleaguered at an Albuquerque Denny’s in front of a similar plate of eggs and bacon. This time, he sits alone as he assembles the strips of greasy bacon into the number 52. Only two years have passed since we met Walter White, but oh, how much has changed.
After being diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, Walt cautiously began cooking meth to provide for his family. He’s killed, lied, cheated and, through it all, become the most respected meth cook in the Southwestern United States.
When viewers left Walt at the end of season four, his affairs seemed in order for the first time since his 50th birthday. Walt and his business partner Jesse had just knocked off their diabolical boss, Gus; they had no major heat from the police or DEA; they stood ready to make millions dominating the West Coast meth market.
Episode one of season five, titled “Live Free or Die,” revealed right off the bat that Walt’s life is far from worry free as three major problems emerge. The DEA discover Gus’s burned-out meth facility and seize the kingpin’s laptop, which is filled with incriminating footage. Skyler’s boss Ted Burnenkeremains a liability, paralyzed after what was assumed to be a fatal accident. And most perilous of all is Walt’s dangerously shifting ego. Of course, his cancer looms over all of this.
Of the three, the most immediate issue is the laptop. With cameras in all of Gus’s facilities, it would be easy for authorities to identify Walt, Jesse and Mike (Gus’s right-hand man). The three agree to destroy the laptop, but they face the issue that it’s already been tagged as evidence and sits behind two feet of reinforced concrete.
Here’s why I really enjoy this show. Comparatively, this episode didn’t have much action. A lot of it involved housekeeping from season four, and not a single shot was fired. Still, creator Vince Gilligan managed to engineer an exciting plot that grips you for an hour without relying on constant violence.
While Mike and Walt argue over explosives, Jesse pipes up about magnets. Magnets? Sure, remember in elementary school how you weren’t allowed to bring the science magnets near the computers? Think of that concept on a much larger, much more complex scale. What follows is a ploy in which the three use a magnetic junkyard lift to destroy the laptop without ever setting foot inside the station.
As Jesse puts it, “Yeah, bitch! Magnets!”
While the laptop was the most pressing problem, Walt’s evolving persona will surely be the focus of the season. He has developed a God complex, evidenced in his calculated, self-assured responses to everyone around him. When his lawyer Saul tells Walt he’s finished, Walt corners the man in his office: “We’re done when I say we’re done.” His demeanor is now a calm, dastardly aura eerily similar to that of the boss he just killed.
Walt has become the villain.
On this point, Gilligan remarked, “How much darker can Walt get? Is his journey complete as of this point? His journey on this arc from good guy to bad?”
No one except the writers can be sure, but the flash-forward that began the episode gives us some interesting clues. Walt dons uncharacteristic fatigues and seems unkempt with a beard and long hair. He carries a fake New Hampshire ID and doesn’t wear his wedding ring. If it is indeed his 52nd birthday, about a year has passed since he used the magnet on the evidence room.
What could have happened in a year? Where is Jesse? Where is Skyler? Why is Walt purchasing an M60 machine gun that he assures the dealer “won’t leave town”? He stifles a haggard cough while eating and tosses back a couple pills in the bathroom; is his cancer in remission?
Gilligan has stated, “I’ve got to believe the wheel turns for everybody who does truly horrible deeds. … The things that Walt does he probably does need to atone for, and perhaps he will.”
Will he atone for his sins? I have to think so. I have to think that cosmic justice will soon catch up to this man who has done so much evil. But whether from cancer or a gunshot, Walt’s likely demise is up in the air. What is clear is that 16 episodes from now, “Breaking Bad” will conclude, and, one way or another, the story of Walter White will be complete.