(In which I re-watch and discuss, with SPOILERS aplenty, the first four and a half seasons of Breaking Bad, one or two or three episodes at a time, leading up to the final half of season five beginning August 11, then continue with write-ups of the last eight episodes as they air. If you’ve never seen the show, you are 1) crazy!, 2) advised to start watching it immediately, and 3) not to read these discussions until you’ve completed step 2)
If the first three episodes of season 5 play up Walt’s megolomania, the next three seem to show how he’s going to completely torpedo his business, how everything that can go wrong will go wrong, that the whole scheme is crumbling away, and will leave him with nothing.
Yet as we know, by episode 8, Walt becomes king. I admit I didn’t see that coming at the time. I imagined season 5 would be one long descent into disaster. Instead we’re once again shown that Walt’s insane single-mindedness, his refusal to listen to anyone else, his endless string of awful decisions, lead not to disaster but to success, at least of the monetary kind. It’s going to be the second half of season 5 where everything goes to shit. Or so I presume.
Episode 4 is unsual for this season. It’s mostly about character, with little plot. It’s centered around Walt’s 51st birthday (one year away from New Hampshire Walt buying his M60). The episode opens with Walt getting his car repaired, then selling it for $50 to the garage mechanic. On the front seat is Walt’s Heisenberg hat. Wearing it, he buys a hot new car, and replaces Junior’s car with a new Dodge Challenger. Boys with their toys. They talk joyously about their new wheels at dinner, while Skyler stares at them vacantly. She is utterly helpless.
Realizing Walt’s back to cooking, Skyler gets it into her head to send the kids away. She’s scared for their safety. She suggests boarding school, which Walt thinks is crazy.
In the morning, Skyler doesn’t bother to spell out “51” in bacon, not until Junior insists she do it to maintain the tradition.
The DEA visits Lydia, who’s a nervous wreck. Her shoes don’t match, which Hank comments on later. She points out a guy in the warehouse. They take him away. She returns to her office and screams into a pillow. Now Lydia needs a new guy to handle the methylamine barrels.
Hank tries to make sense of Fring’s empire, when his interim boss tells him he can have the ASAC job if he wants it. He does, even though it’ll take him off the Fring case. Blue meth is making a comeback, and they don’t know who’s making it. Hank’s at a bit of dead end anyhow.
There’s no birthday party for Walt, just Hank and Marie coming over for dinner. Marie, in typically absurd fashion, reveals to Hank that Skyler had an affair. Dinner is weird and uncomfortable. Skyler stands by the pool while Walt recounts his scary year of cancer and chemo. And then Skyler walks into the pool, sinks below the surface, and doesn’t come up. Walt dives in to pull her out.
Walt and Hank talk about getting Skyler to a psychologist. Marie, after talking to Skyler, suggests that the kids come to their house while Walt and Skyler work things out. Walt sees through her, knows it was Skyler’s idea.
Walt and Skyler proceed to have a brutal conversation, wherein Skyler admits to being as much a criminal as Walter. She’s dying of guilt over what happened to Ted. She wants the kids far away from them both. Walt strikes out at her, asks her what her plan is? What, exactly, does she plan to do if Walt brings the kids back? Skyler doesn’t know. She has no plan. She’s in tears. She has no control of anything at all. All she can do is wait. “Wait for what?” asks Walt. “For the cancer to come back.” Ouch.
Jesse shows up at the Madrigal warehouse and meets Lydia. As they pull down the barrel of methylamine, she spots a GPS tracker stuck on the bottom of it.
Mike and Jesse and Walt discuss what to do. Mike sees what happened. Lydia put it there herself so they’d leave her out of the business. He’s going to kill her. Jesse begs him not to. Finally he appeals to Walt for a vote. Walt says, prophetically, “Nothing stops this train.” They won’t pause in production. The methylamine will keep on flowing.
The episode ends with Jesse giving Walt an expensive new watch for his birthday. Walt shows it to Skyler and tells her he received it from a man who was going to shoot him. That man changed his mind about Walt, and so will Skyler. Nice one, Walt. That’ll put her mind at ease.
Episode 5, “Dead Freight,” contains the biggest gut punch yet. It’s primarily a heist episode. They’re going to rob a train.
It begins with what we don’t know is a flash-forward of a 12 (or so) year old kid tearing around the desert on a motorbike. He spots a tarantula, puts it in a jar, and before he rides on, hears a train whistle.
Walt visits the newly promoted Hank in his office, sobs for awhile about Skyler not loving him and not wanting the kids around him, and then, when Hank leaves to get coffee, puts some kind of recording device on Hank’s computer and a bug on a photo.
Mike, Jesse, and Walt bring Lydia to a lonely garage where she thinks they’re going to kill her. Mike explains that he’ll shoot her in the head unless she makes a phone call and reads the script they’ve provided. She calls Hank to ask about a GPS tracker she found on a methylamine barrel. He says he’ll get back to her. Using the bug, they listen in to Hank’s conversations. He has no idea about a tracker. Looks bad for Lydia.
She swears she didn’t do it. Again, Jesse doesn’t want to kill her. At the last second, they hear Hank make a call to the police. Turns out the cops placed the tracker. Lydia was telling the truth. And now she’s got a plan to keep herself alive.
There’s a train carrying 24,000 gallons of methylamine. They should rob it. There’s a communications dead zone the train travels through. They can stop it there. Mike says they’ll have to kill the conductor and the engineer. There can’t be any witnesses. Is that what they really want to do?
Later, Mike and Walt argue vehemently. Mike says they should cook tiny batches with pseudoephedrine instead of methylamine. Because he needs to pay off his guys, says Walt. Does Walt want to kill two innocent men? Jesse speaks up. He’s got a plan where no one will get hurt.
Jesse is like the son and Walt and Mike the parents. The parents fight and argue, the son finds a way to placate everyone. More importantly, and less metaphorically, Jesse is obsessed with not hurting anyone. He’s had enough killing.
The plan is to stop the train in the dead zone, suck out 1,000 gallons of methylamine, replace it with an equal weight of water, and send the train on its way. At its destination, the methylamine will be found a bit weaker than normal. No one will know what happened. To pull this off, they need one more guy, so they bring in Todd. Jesse and Walt make it very clear to him that “Nobody can know that this robbery went down.”
Saul’s guy Gaff stalls a truck on the tracks. The train stops. The guys hook up the hoses. Mike keeps a watch on the stalled truck and the engineer trying to fix it. All goes well until another truck drives up and helpfully offers to push Gaff’s truck out of the way. Which he does. Mike radios the guys to finish, now. But Walt keeps them going. He wants the full 1,000 gallons. At the last second, as the train starts pulling out, the guys get the hoses off. Success!
It’s a hell of a sequence. Tense and exciting in a way not typical of Breaking Bad. It’s exhilarating. It’s a heist! What fun! They guys are thrilled it worked, the audience is thrilled it worked, it’s that rare exciting moment on Breaking Bad where the thrills come not from a disaster or a darkly uttered threat but from a genuinely uplifting success.
Then they see the kid on his motorbike. He sits there staring at them. Waves. Todd waves back. And pulls out a gun and shoots the kid dead.
From the heights of exhilaration to the horrible reality of murder. It’s a devastating ending. It’s also an episode that at the time caught a lot of flak from Breaking Bad fans. Their complaints? A train heist is too unbelievable and too unlike typical episodes, and it’s a random guy who does the killing. Which complaints miss the points entirely. The thrill of the heist is what Walt and Jesse dream of the meth business being all about. It’s fun! It’s thrilling! Sure it’s illegal, but it’s the good kind of illegal. The kind where a theft goes completely unnoticed and nobody gets hurt. It’s a fantasy. The reality is a kid getting shot. Why does Todd shoot him? Because no matter their precautions, no matter how much Jesse may be averse to killing, they can’t control everything.
Episode 6 begins with a scene silent save for sad music of the guys disassembling the kid’s motorbike and putting it into a barrel to be dissolved by acid. Todd digs into the dirt in the back of their truck to find the dead kid.
Later, Todd gives a straightforward, rational explanation of why he did what he did. The kid could have taken off at any moment. He could have talked. He could have done anything. Todd did the only thing he could. Jesse thinks he’s psychotic. But as Walt points out, they have but three options: kill Todd, pay him off big in the hopes he keeps his mouth shut, or keep him employed back on the exterminator job. Mike and Walt vote for the last option. As an aside, Todd also mentions having an uncle with prison connections. A possible threat? Could be, but Mike’s not worried.
In his car, alone, Todd produces the jar with the tarantula in it. A weirdly touching and/or disturbing moment.
Gomez and a partner spy on Mike at a playground with his grand-daughter. Mike leaves something under a trash can and walks away. Gomez slyly checks it out. It’s a note that says, “Fuck you.” Ha.
Skyler continues being a miserable pain in the ass with Marie, claiming that if she told Marie what was going on, Marie would never speak to her again. Marie admits she knows about the affair with Ted. As if that was the problem.
Cooking meth in their latest bug-bomb house, Jesse and Walt take a break and watch TV. On the news is the report of the missing kid. Jesse is a mess over it. Walt says he can’t sleep because of it. He promises nothing like it will ever happen again. Tells Jesse to take the day off. As Jesse leaves, he hears Walt whistling happily to himself. Yep, Walt’s real broken up about that kid.
Later, Walt finds Mike and Jesse talking at their office. Mike reveals that the DEA has been following him for weeks. Walt flips out as usual, but Mike says he’s decided to quit their gang. Suddenly Walt’s in a good mood. But Jesse’s out too. He and Mike plan to sell their two thirds of the methylamine to a guy Mike knows. They’ll make $5 million each. As Jesse says, are they in the meth business or the money business?
Mike and Jesse meet the guy, Declan, with a sample gallon of the methylamine. Declan’s cool with the price until he realizes the blue meth is still going to be out there. He wants all 1,000 gallons, or the deal’s off. He wants his competition gone.
Jesse goes to Walt’s house to try to convince him to sell. It’ll mean $5 million for each of them, far more money than Walt ever wanted to make initially. Walt tells Jesse the story of Gray Matter, how Walt left his fledgling company for unnamed personal reasons (something to do with Gretchen, obviously. Did Elliot steal her away? Was that all it was about?), and was paid $5,000, at the time a lot of money. Gray Matter is now worth—Walt checks it weekly—$2.6 billion. He’s not taking a buyout again. He’s not in the meth business nor the money business. “I’m in the empire business.”
Skyler comes home to find Jesse there. Walt, being a dick, insists Jesse stay for dinner, which dinner is the most uncomfortable one of all time. Jesse sits in the seat opposite Junior’s normal spot, the sort of anti-Junior, or Walt’s other son. No one but Jesse says anything, until Skyler, drinking an entire bottle of wine, asks Walt if he’s told Jesse about her affair? After she leaves the table, Walt reveals that Skyler has taken his kids away from him and is waiting for his cancer to kill him. The business is all he has left.
Walt attempts to make off with the tank of methylamine when Mike appears, with gun. Together they sit in the office all night long. Mike’s going to sell it all. But he’s got to see the DEA first. He zip ties Walt’s hand to the radiator and leaves.
Saul and Mike meet with Hank and Gomez. Saul calls their surveillance of Mike harrassment, and says he’s got a restraining order against the DEA. Which in the car Saul reveals won’t hold up for more than 24 hours. Enough for Mike to make the methylamine deal unobserved.
Meanwhile, Walt tears a coffee-maker cord in half with his teeth, strips it, puts one half under the zip tie and one half over it, and burns the thing off, burning the hell out of his wrist in the process.
Mike returns to find the methylamine gone, and Walt still in the office, Jesse too. Wisely, Mike puts a gun to Walt’s head. But Jesse says Walt has a plan, one that’ll pay them all off. “Everyone wins,” says Walt, which I’m pretty sure to Walt means, “I will win, and to hell with everyone else.”
Walt’s hold on his business is as thin as it’s ever been. But as always, his desperate madness keeps him alive, however tenuously.
Previous in this series:
- Season 1, Episodes 1-3
- Season 1, Episodes 4 & 5
- Season 1, Episodes 6 & 7
- Season 2, Episodes 1 & 2
- Season 2, Episodes 3-5
- Season 2, Episodes 6 & 7
- Season 2, Episodes 8-10
- Season 2, Episodes 11-13
- Season 3, Episodes 1-4
- Season 3, Episodes 5-7
- Season 3, Episodes 8-10
- Season 3, Episodes 11-13
- Season 4, Episodes 1-4
- Season 4, Episodes 5-7
- Season 4, Episodes 8-10
- Season 4, Episodes 11-13
- Season 5, Episodes 1-3