Film & TV

Review – Breaking Bad Season Five: Part One

The King is dead. Long live the King. There’s certainly been a regal theme to AMC’s magnum opus Breaking Bad of late; the promotional artwork was adorned with the slogan “All Hail The King”. Moreover, part one of Season 5 finds Walter adopting the role of leader over his own drug production outfit, although the terms king and godfather come to mind when describing bespectacled meth cook. Series creator, Vince Gilligan said that with Walt he wanted to turn “Mr. Chips into Scarface”, a transformation which has been witnessed across the programme. However, Tony Montana goes on something of a transformation of his own; from small time drug dealer to drug baron, so Season 5 finds the audience asking where in Tony Montana’s story is Walt up to? (NB. Spoilers lie within)

For those who don’t know by now, Breaking Bad is a show about Walter White, a chemistry teacher in Albuquerque, New Mexico who learns on his fiftieth birthday that he has inoperable lung cancer. This sets in motion Walt’s plan to provide for his pregnant wife, Skyler and cerebral palsy-stricken son, Walter Jr. by producing a very pure form of meth-amphetamine (or crystal meth) in order to make a large amount of money before he dies.

From here Walt’s operation grows and grows as he tackles local cartel dealers with his loyal lab partner Jesse and eventually attracts the attention of outside dealers in the form of Gustavo Fring and his second in command, Mike Ehrmantraut. This comes to a bloody and thrilling climax at the end of Season 4 when Walt, after a drawn out game of cat and mouse, kills Fring and gains independence in his meth cooking operation.

Parallel to Walt’s turbulent work life, Walt has an equally volatile home life. Despite his best efforts, Walt was discovered by Skyler, and in response she involved herself in order to protect her children. Always on Walt’s tail has been his brother-in-law Hank Schrader, the head of the local DEA unit who tirelessly pursues Walt’s meth never quite reaching the source right beneath his nose.

The opening to the season is pure Breaking Bad, We see Walt looking shaggy at a Denny’s on his 52nd birthday, with a false identity and illegally purchasing an M60 heavy machine gun, which he promises “will never leave town”. Enigmatic as can be, only Breaking Bad would take the relative harmony of the end of Season 4 and replace it with such a foreboding glimpse of the future.

Breaking Bad has proven itself to be one of the greatest shows in history by developing secondary and even tertiary characters beyond their initial character types. Walt has undergone a transformation from unassuming Chemistry teacher to ruthless drug baron, Jesse began as a stereotypical drug dealer and became the moral and empathetic centre of the show, and Hank started as a cavalier dunderhead but has demonstrated time and again an astute approach to detective work, as well as filling the show’s necessary quota for badassery. By far one of the greatest additions to this season has been Lydia, Mike’s associate at Madrigal, a company formerly used by Fring and eventually used by Walt for international shipping of ‘Blue Sky’. She is tightly wound and constantly on edge making for a good representation of Walt’s shaky operation and an emotional counterpoint to Walt and Mike’s stone-faced approach to business.

However, Season 5 marks a major departure for Breaking Bad, as the character development is almost solely focused on Walt – there are exceptions – but for the most part this season serves to restore focus to Walt. The cast are sparsely used here, many regular faces are more in the background as Walt adapts to the role of King, driving everyone close to him further and further away. It’s a brave move of the show and one which is paid off, as the viewer is drawn into Walt’s world of risky drug business and a cold, distant family life.

In particular Walt’s interactions with Skyler are the most revealing of his character. Following Fring’s death at Walt’s hands, Skyler fears Walt to the point of wanting their children away from him. She presents Walt with the ultimate hypocrisy of his actions, arguing that by continuing his manufacturing he endangers his family, but Walt sees his manufacturing as providing for them. However, Walt has gone beyond merely providing for his family, he’s made more money than they could ever spend, but Walt’s rugged determination to continue demonstrates a darkly ambitious streak to his character as his greed and ego get the better of him.

He’s a man who has been humiliated his whole life, firstly leaving Gray Matter (the company he helped to found), which essentially led to his working as a Chemistry teacher at a low-level high school when he clearly is far more capable than that work requires. A scene which stands out in my mind is from the first episode: before Walt knows of his cancer we see one of his students humiliating him for working a second job at a car wash. It’s a portrait of a man who is defeated and now been given a second chance to regain his pride as a meth manufacturer because, in spite of the risk, the damage it’s done to his family and even the money, it makes him feel like a man.

This season also marks a considerably darker toner than its predecessors. Whereas the subject matter and themes have not changed all that much, the moments of black humour which littered the series are now removed. This is perhaps due mostly to the lack of Saul Goodman, Walt and Jesse’s underhanded lawyer who bends the legal system to his and his clients will with an ineffable charm. Season 5 sees Walt, Jesse and Mike at the helm of a sinking ship, one which is struggling to deal with the impact of Fring’s death and one which the DEA are ever closer to uncovering. There is a sense that Walt’s days are numbered and not only as drug manufacturer.

However, I have to admit that part one of this fifth and final season won’t really stand out as my favourite of Breaking Bad, as strong as it is. The pacing seems a little off; something about some of the scenes feels as though they’re padding out the episode rather than anything else. Admittedly, this season is falling short of a very high precedent set by the previous seasons, and the narrative turns and cliff-hangers are some of the show’s best yet, especially the season finale. But I can’t help feeling something is missing, if only for the fact that my impression of this season isn’t as strong as in previous experiences.

I feel I am selling the show short. The brilliance of a show like Breaking Bad is its attention to detail, the cinematic flair which injects so much tension and immersion into every frame of the show. The score is superb and gauges the emotional response of every scene perfectly, while at the same time allowing for space when necessary. The acting, however is by far Breaking Bad’s strongest attribute; there are no weak performances, which is impressive in a cast so varied. From the first season, Bryan Cranston has been impeccable, perfectly capturing the ‘Mr. Chips to Scarface’ transformation that Gilligan so sought for in the role of Walt. Aaron Paul’s performance as Jesse again is second to none as he plays a character of integrity and heart in the face of many decisions which come to haunt him, and is probably my favourite performance of the season, if not the whole show. Jonathan Banks’ performance as the terminally pissed off, no-nonsense Mike Ehrmantraut still adds a level of cool comedy in his ruthless actions.

It’s the last days of Rome, and Walt may have secured his ascension to the throne, but he is by no means invulnerable. He has transformed himself from Mr. Chips to Scarface, but it’s the latter part of the movie where Tony Montana is losing his hold on his drug empire. There’s a particularly unnerving scene in which Skyler walks in on Walt, Walt Jr. and baby Holly watching the infamous ending of Scarface (spoiler: Tony Montana gets gunned down as his drug empire implodes upon itself and a double-barrel shotgun to the back). This scene may be viewed as foreshadowing, because as most fans of Breaking Bad must have realised by now, there’s only one way the show can end. What makes this scene so unnerving is Skyler’s reaction – she is not angry or disgusted – she’s wary, she knows how this story ends.

Ben James

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2 Comments on this post.
  • Felix
    9 September 2012 at 12:32
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    Great review – I finished episode 8 yesterday, and I know what you mean about something being a bit ‘off’: it’s very focused on Walt – there aren’t really any sub-plots involving minor characters (because a lot of them are dead). I’m just annoyed that we have to wait nearly a year to find out what happens…

  • Anthony
    10 September 2012 at 11:38
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    The final season is always the hardest to do. Still I think they’ve done an amazing job so far; the train heist, Skylar vs Walt, Hanks investigation has all been going along well. It has been a Walt-dominated season. I can’t think of many scenes where its just Jesse or just Skylar. Can’t wait for next year, and I have faith they’ll give us closure and an amazing payoff.

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