(AMC) Breaking Bad could have ended its rise and fall saga on an explosive and legendary high note at the end of Season 4, but show creator Vince Gilligan immediately said that he was far from his tragic anti-hero’s endgame, and that it would take two final eight-episode 'half' seasons to completely conclude the storyline. Even then, as Walter White called his wife to tell her, "I won", Breaking Bad was already considered by many to be the greatest TV drama of all time, so naturally, Gilligan doesn’t take his foot off the gas for this, the first of the man they call Heisenberg's final chapters.
The first episode cold opens much as the second season did, with a moment snatched from the future and imbued with a cryptic sense of foreboding doom: On his 52nd birthday, a grizzled Walt (played by Brian Cranston) buys an M60 machine gun at an Albuquerque Denny's. Gilligan uses this non-linear storytelling tactic never merely for effect, but rather to begin building tension for a later, more-satisfying release. This puzzling, unresolved prologue will continue to burrow itself into the audience’s mind over the next year while sparking endless debates as to its function and meaning.
The majority of the season revolves around Walt tying up loose ends while ruthlessly moving forward in his attempt to build a new methamphetamine empire in the wake of his victory over Gus Fring. Walter and long-time partner-in-crime Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) team up with one of Fring’s ex-employees, Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) to destroy key evidence before Walt’s brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) and the DEA can identify them. After Jesse comes up with a plan worthy of MythBusters, the trio is seemingly out of the fire, with Walter riding in the back seat like any true crime lord – and the first episode isn’t even over. But, of course, this wouldn’t be Breaking Bad if bigger problems didn’t manifest from an initial 'solution'.
What emerges as the theme of this mini-season is that Walter no longer serves the once-noble purpose that carried him through the earlier seasons: Now he continues because he wants to, because he just can't stop. With Skyler (Anna Gunn) becoming progressively more bitter towards her openly criminal husband and Jesse and Mike turning in their walking papers, Walter justifies his blossoming business as the only thing that he has in life, and that those who aren’t helping his cause simply become new problems to be dealt with. Relationships sour beyond the point of repair and an ever-darkening cloud looms: No character is safe in this toxic environment and Walt’s hubris leads to the untimely death of at least one main character as the tension ratchets up and up...
The slow-burning transformation of the show’s protagonist from victimized chemistry teacher into an unstoppable monster fueled by pride and the memory of his past disempowerment, is still brilliantly portrayed Bryan Cranston in the role which has already won him three Emmy Awards. The methodical execution of his arch-enemy has left Walter feeling more powerful than ever, and Cranston simply oozes bravado. His movement is slower, his words more dramatic, his actions calculated. From the first episode on, Walter heads much further into the darkness of the rabbit hole than ever before and this masterfully constructed character truly believes that none of his ambition could be mistaken for grandiose delusion, and that the people around him are simply there to diligently serve 'the one who knocks'.
The show has one of the deepest acting benches in television history, getting huge performances this season from Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn and Jonathan Banks, all raising their games as the endgame comes into sight. Paul’s poise as an actor is stronger than ever, to the point where one could say the show now has two leading men. Anna Gunn’s character shifts from one that viewers have come to loath, back to one they can sympathize with again as she psychologically plummets into the deep end of the pool (both metaphorically and literally), while Jonathan Banks forever cements Mike in the Cult Character Hall of Fame. Beyond the core quartet, Season 5 also sees the supporting pair of Walt's in-laws Hank and Marie Schrader (Dean Norris and Betsy Brandt) gradually step forward into the limelight, and Hank's end of season discovery sets him in place for a major role in the show's conclusion as the transformation he inadvertently set in motion theatens to come full circle. New co-conspirators Todd (Jesse Plemons) and Lydia (Laura Fraser) add new wrinkles to Walt's operation, complicate the story in all the right ways, and most importantly, do not distract from the veteran ensemble's mental contortions and facial fireworks.
The show has always had a Western feel in its cinematography and writing, but Vince Gilligan takes it to a whole new level in Season 5 with the story’s multiple references to Jesse James, heavy scenes of genre-defining moral ambiguity, and a train robbery that goes off the tracks at the very last moment because of an overly ambitious gunslinger. Breaking Bad’s original-homage style will be, and already is a catalyst for future writers and directors to make similarly inspired art.
Great writing and nuanced performances are what drive Breaking Bad, but tight editing and thoughtful transitions make all the difference in the creation of high-grade television. In the stunning finale montage, Walter stares out the window at his home as ten brutally well-orchestrated prison murders take place over Nat King Cole’s crooning rendition of “Pick Yourself Up”. Somewhere, Francis Ford Coppola (and the ghost of Michael Corleone) is impressed.
With the first eight episodes wrapped and a cliffhanger five years in the making now out in the open, we are once again left pondering what will happen next in the tragic story of Walter White. In a brutally human examination of the god complex – and one that often feels like a social experiment – the only thing we can be sure of is that nothing can be ruled out. Except, perhaps, a happy ending.
For Fans Of: The Wire, The Sopranos, Boardwalk Empire
Why We Like It: Brilliant writing and direction, Genre-defining moral ambiguity, Nuanced and powerful performances, Final season of one of the best television shows of all time