Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Breaking Bad Review: Season 5 (First 8 Episodes)

Disclaimer: If you aren’t an already informed and passionate fan of Breaking Bad, this post probably won’t make any sense to you. I hate to leave any reader out, but this is kind of a fans-only thing. So come back tomorrow when I go back to other topics! Or read it anyways for my wit and charm.

Since Breaking Bad debuted in 2008, it was never intended to run forever. Vince Gilligan had a clear arc in mind and knew that it would take 5 seasons to do the story justice. I always like this style of television drama better than most network shows who have it in their best interest to keep their shows running for as long as they can, so they can only go so far with their characters and plotlines. But a show such as Breaking Bad, or Dexter, or The Shield, for instance, have the end in sight as soon as the show begins. That means the writers can put their characters through absolute hell, because they know that the universe they're creating is finite, so revealing major secrets or killing off half the cast resonates stronger and is easier to pull off. Earlier this year, it came as a shock to most fans that AMC decided to split Breaking Bad's fifth and final season into two 8-episode half-seasons. It makes sense, from a business perspective, but I'd be lying if I said it wasn't damn annoying that I now have to wait 10 months to experience the (bloody) resolution of one of my favourite shows. Of course, it is just TV, and life goes on. Next July will come soon enough.

In the televised world of embarassing 'reality' shows, tired soap operas, try-hard reboots, repetitive crime-drama procedurals, and everything in between, it's rare to find a show that genuinely and creatively surprises, shocks, and entertains all at once. Of course, you know what I'm going to say: Breaking Bad is that show, for me, at least. Now, I understand that the world of drug distributors, criminals, liars, schemers, and murderers doesn't qualify as everyone's source of televised pleasure, and at times, I find myself almost feeling guilty for enjoying a show about such bad people. It's not an exaggeration to say that in order to fully appreciate what Breaking Bad has to offer, you have to 'break bad' yourself. Yeah, people on the show get murdered, sometimes even children, but it's important to remember that creator Vince Gilligan isn't out to exploit criminal acts for pure pleasure, this is a show about consequences. It's hard to find another television drama with such a long memory, and even the most terrible acts are never just glossed over, there's always a result for each action, even if it comes episodes or even seasons later.

Breaking Bad has enough of a buzz that even people who don't watch the show know the basic plot: A high-school chemistry teacher learns that he has cancer, and resorts to manufacturing and dealing meth in order to provide for his family after he's gone. And Gilligan has made it clear from the beginning that this will be a story about the rise and fall of a criminal kingpin. So when Season 4 ended with Walter White murdering his biggest nemesis, it was pretty clear that Season 5 would be the season that Mr. White was on top. For the most part, this expectation was carried out to perfection throughout the first 8 episodes of Season 5. If anybody is wondering, 'Where the hell was the villain this season?', you've missed the point. Whether we like it or not, the lead character, the man we're supposed to be cheering for, he is the Big Bad. And while some still question the realism of a mild-mannered pushover husband such as Walt taking such a dramatic turn within the course of a year (in the show's timeline), this is where the cause-and-effect nature of Breaking Bad comes into play. And it's also important to remember a theme that was emphasized in these 8 episodes: Even before the show ever began, Walter White was a bitter man who believed he deserved more than he got. Sure, it's about the money for him, but even more than that, it's about the thrill of the power, the buzz he gets from breaking bad.

The major theme I picked up throughout these eight episodes was the theme of transition, for just about every character. We see Walter making the transition into full-blown Heisenberg, truly believing that by killing Gus Fring, he is now The Boss and should not be questioned. And as things continue to run smoothly for him, his ego grows to massive proportions. Then there’s Jesse Pinkman, who many believe to be the conscience of the show, although he is also a drug manufacturer and murderer. This season was all about Jesse’s doubt, his fear of Walt, his urge to leave the criminal lifestyle behind. But as we saw in his final scene of this half-season, there’s not much out there for him, outside of the world he and Walt created. Other transitions include: Skyler, everyone’s least favourite tv-wife, transitioning into Walt’s captive, unable to stop him and also unable to leave. Hank, transitioning into the role of head supervisor for the DEA, being forced to give up his hunt for Heisenberg. And Mike, legendary tough-guy, first tries to make the transition from Gus’s hired security to Walt’s hired security, then when the heat gets too hot, he tries to leave. Thanks to Walter, he also had to transition into death. It’s very refreshing that even in the final season of a series, we’re still seeing these characters grow, transform, and decay.

Also, throughout this half-season, we were treated to a few fun schemes and capers by Walt and his crew. From the ridiculous magnet sequence in the season opener, to the genius idea of using fumigation tents as a cover to cook meth in people’s homes, to the absolutely intense train robbery, Gilligan and the writers really pushed the boundaries of what we as an audience would accept. Some people cried ‘jumped shark’, but I bought most of what I was sold. All the logic of the show doesn’t have to make sense to the world I live in, it just has to make sense to the universe that they live in. Since season 1, we’ve been asked to go along with crazy science and insane circumstances, and the fact that the level of these situations increased so high this season is only a testament to Walter’s own rise to criminal royality. But, as always, when the characters are at their highest high, reality comes crashing in. In this case, it was the cold-blooded murder of a teenage boy that ended this party. And although Walter insisted that his ‘empire’ keep on as planned, things weren’t really the same after that moment.

As far the quality of this season goes, it probably goes without saying that I enjoyed it. I realize that any television series is going to have it's weaker moments and plot holes, but I felt that the overall vibe stayed true to the evolution of the first 4 seasons. I predicted early on that we would see camera angles and techniques that we'd never seen before on the show, and I was right. Even in it's fifth year, Gilligan's crew haven't run out of ideas, and always have a fresh idea about how to shoot a particular scene. As for the performances, everyone, even the characters that annoy me, were top notch. Bryan Cranston has proven that he's a master of dark comedy, and Aaron Paul probably had the toughest job out of anybody, since his character (even moreso than Walt) has gone through the biggest transformation since episode 1, season 1. Each episode had a good mix of action, development, dialogue, montages, and of course, violence. Watching the boy get shot really made me hate the show, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy the gruesome prison-killing-montage in the last episode. Mike's death was special for a couple reasons. First, because it was Walt's first passion kill, not out of necessity or self defense, just because he was mad. Also, because it was a tragic end to a fan favourite. But finally, it showed how talented Gilligan's crew can be when it comes to handling the material. Mike is dying, so we're heartbroken, but we're also treated to an amazing view of a sun shining over a creek. This show does an amazing job of mixing in the beautiful with the terrible, and that scene was one of the best examples of that. 

One aspect of this season that I didn’t predict was the addition of new characters. With all that’s happened to our main cast up until this point, I felt like there was enough drama to carry the season without any fresh faces. However, three new characters joined the show. First, there’s Lydia, the ultra-paranoid executive who has broken bad a long time ago and was working for Fring before Walt executed him. I love the energy that Lydia brings to the show and she has proven her worth both as an asset for Walt’s distribution network and for us fans as a talented actress. Next, there’s Todd, the wild-card. As soon as he was introduced, I had the feeling he’d be trouble, and I was right. Finally, there’s Declan, the leader of his drug network, who in the 7th episode of the season is convinced by Walt himself that he should be a part of the Heisenberg team. Although things seem to be running smoothly between Declan and Walt, I’m fully expecting him to be a villain in the back half of this season. From a writing perspective, I can see why these characters were introduced. Lydia, on paper, is a convenient solution to a lot of the technical problems behind Walt trying to build his own network, especially after Mike has ‘moved on’. And Todd, aside from being unpredictable, was worked in so that Jesse’s character could move on and Walt would still have an assistant, maybe one with sensibilities that are more suited to what Walt asks of him. Declan’s character is still a mystery, but I assume he was brought in for added tension in the last 8 episodes, when his deal with Walt inevitably goes wrong.

At the beginning of the season, Gilligan pulled a very tricky move, providing a flash-forward into Walt’s life a year from now. He’s at a Denny’s, hair fully grown back, appearing depressed and alone, with a fake name, and the need for a very deadly weapon. This scene raised a hell of a lot of more questions than it answered, and even at the end of episode 8, it’s only speculation as to how Walt gets to this point. Gilligan has revealed (it must be so difficult to be a show’s creator, having to hold in all these secrets from super passionate fans) that Walt is returning to protect somebody. Who that somebody is, and who they need protection from, will remain a mystery for now. However, at the end of the season, Walt (in my favourite Skyler scene of the season), receives his most effective reality check when his miserable wife takes him to the storage unit where she hides all of his money. All of his ego, his wild talk of building an empire, all of the lying and manipulation and murder, it all became quantified in that pile of money, more than anyone could ever spend in a lifetime. This comes after a 3-month montage of Walt’s new organization running like clockwork. Sure, Walt’s a power-hungry ego-maniac who wants to rule the world, but he also seems to feed off of problem-solving and seemingly impossible challenges. So whether it was the boredom of actually succeeding, or seeing the actual result of all his efforts sitting in that storage locker, he tells Skyler, ‘I’m out’. At this point, he’s the Gus, with a whole bunch of people (who likely don’t make nearly as much money as he does), relying on him. So when the Kingpin quits (and I believe Walt when he says he’s out), his people may revolt, which could be why he needs that Scarface gun we see him buy in the flash-forward.

Then, of course, it wouldn’t be a (half) season of Breaking Bad without the cliffhanger. Here’s a very rare spoiler alert. Stop reading if you don’t want to know. Okay? Understood? Good. Hank knows. He finally found the piece of evidence he needs to start to put it all together, and the look on his face that closes out the episode gives us every indication that he is now officially suspicious of Walt. So with all the questions that we’re already left with, like is Walt really out and will Jesse be pulled back in, now we’re left wondering how Hank is going to deal with this situation. It’s not as easy as, ‘Walter White, you’re under arrest’, not when he’s the ASAC (I actually don’t know what that stands for) of the DEA and his brother-in-law turns out to be the very guy he’s dedicated a year to capturing. I had a feeling that the very last shot of episode 8 would be Hank’s ‘I know’ face, and I was right, which is always a nice feeling. But if I think for a second that I know how the final 8 episodes are going to play out, I’m probably dead wrong. That's probably enough Breaking Bad love for now, though I could probably keep writing about this show until next July comes.

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