They used a big magnet to solve a big problem on a little laptop, yeah. But in the words of Walter White, there were bigger fish to fry on “Live Free or Die,” Breaking Bad‘s fifth and (technically) final season premiere.
Comic capers are usually prime midseason material for this show. How will Walt account for his multi-day disappearance after Tuco Salamanca kidnaps him? How can Walt and Jesse keep Hank from finding them inside the meth-lab RV? How can Walt get out of bugging Gus’ car on Hank’s behalf in the Los Pollos Hermanos parking lot? The resulting hijinx are agonizingly tense and darkly hilarious, but rarely the stuff of a season premiere’s high emotional stakes – they were nothing compared to the cancer diagnosis and deal-gone-bad of the pilot, or getting in deep with Tuco in Season Two, or the aftermath of the plane crash and the separation from Skyler in Season Three, or finding out whether Gus would kill them for killing Gale in Season Four. So an episode that prominently features False Kramer and whose magnet-based plot often seemed just seconds away from Jesse quoting the Insane Clown Posse seems like an unusual, and maybe even disappointing, choice.
But Walt’s MacGyver-meets-Magneto routine was just a MacGuffin, a ruse necessary to hide the episode’s true task: quietly but firmly yanking the rug out from under Mr. White’s newfound badassery.
For pretty much all of the men-behaving-badly prestige TV dramas, competence is kryptonite. Sure, the point of the Sopranos, Mad Men and so on is to depict the perils of a life lived amorally. But as long as Tony can whack assholes and fuck strippers at will, as long as Don Draper looks great in a suit and can sell ice to Eskimos in a pitch meeting, a goodly portion of the audience will seize on the power of being able to get exactly what you want when you want it and ignore the rest. It’s a competence fantasy.
From the first episode forward, Breaking Bad had gone farther than its peers in refusing to give its antihero his moments of hypercompetent rad-dude-itude. He doesn’t even get to establish a status quo in which he’s basically doing a good job, like Don or Tony; his meth operation is a cascading series of lethal catastrophes from episode one. When Walt has gone alpha-male on us, it’s usually been petty (blowing up some loudmouth’s sports car), dopey (bragging to Hank about how the real mastermind behind blue meth is still out there) or creepy (“I AM THE ONE WHO KNOCKS”).
But at the end of Season Four, Walter White blew up the most powerful criminal in North America. That wasn’t a bark-worse-than-his-bite moment, like spooking some methhead at the Home Depot: that was legitimately hypercompetent! How can showrunner/writer Vince Gilligan, director Michael Slovis and their crew continue to tell Walt’s story without transforming him into a boringly awesome action-movie villain? How can the show proceed without becoming something other than what it was?
“Live Free or Die” solved the problem in three ways. First, in tried and true Breaking Bad fashion, it gave us a glimpse of a mysterious, fucked-up future. Walt’s operating under a fake name with a car and ID from New Hampshire (the location of the breakup with his grad-school girlfriend Gretchen that shut him out of the company he co-founded, if I recall correctly – Google does nothing for me here). He’s haggard, dirty, even gaunt. (Fuckin’ Cranston – how does he work?) Both his hair and his cancer-cough are back, and he’s popping pills. He shows a rare glimpse of kindly old Mr. White when he briefly enthuses about a science museum with a Denny’s waitress. And he’s buying a machine gun from his gun dealer, Lawson (the great Jim “Ellsworth” Beaver). “It’s never leaving town,” he assures the dealer, who is apparently a real upstanding citizen who doesn’t want it falling into Mexican hands. The implication, of course, is that Walt won’t leave town either – not alive, anyway. “I won,” he told Skyler at the end of Season Four, but his victory is short-lived. Or as Mike might put it, “You know, I can foresee a lot of possible outcomes to this thing, and not a single one of them involves ‘Miller Time.'” No amount of PMA will keep Walt from his appointment with that M60.
Second, it may have planted the seed for that eventual downfall, in the form of the Cayman Islands bank account number unearthed from the photo of Gus and his slain business (and more?) partner during Walt, Jesse and Mike’s magnet raid on the evidence room. Fring’s resources, and his connections to people more powerful even than he was, have often been mentioned but never remotely explained. There’s the German business conglomerate responsible for his lab equipment. There’s… whoever he knew or whatever he did in Chile that got all records of him wiped out before his emigration to Mexico, and which prevented the cartel from killing him alongside his partner. The Chicken Man may have been the eye in the pyramid, but there are potentially a ton of bricks between him and the foundation of the operation, and they’re all poised to come crashing down on Walt. The show cleverly faked us out by making it seem that leaving the truck behind – first by possibly getting stuck on that curb, then by tipping over when Walt turned the magnet up to 11 – would be their undoing, only for Walt to insist the truck, and their getaway, were both clean. I love it when I get a chance to write the phrase “little did he know,” you know?
Most fundamentally, “Live Free or Die” cut the Walter White competence fantasy off at the knees by showing us the Walter White sociopath reality. Simply put: What a fucking creep this guy is. Lest we forget that his grand triumph over Gus involved poisoning an innocent child, the episode reminds us twice: first when Walt tosses his poisonous Lily of the Valley plant away with all the other evidence, second when Saul Goodman complains about how Walt involved him and his goon Huell in the operation. “Too sleazy for Saul Goodman” is never someplace you want your life to be.
Then there’s his cock-of-the-walk confidence about the magnet raid. Questioned about everything that could have gone wrong by an increasingly stupefied Mike – who, before he heard about Walt’s hit on Gus out in his desert hospital, was literally watching his chickens come home to roost – Walt replies, with someone-please-break-this-guy’s-nose-again arrogance, that everything went fine “because I say so.” You can’t enjoy someone’s success when they’re being such a dick about it.
Finally – and literally so, since it was the last line of the episode – “I forgive you.” That line from Walt to Skyler, who’d just gotten back from visiting the former lover whom she’d inadvertently turned into a character from a cringe-comedy version of Hellraiser to keep their low-level criminality from exposing Walt’s high-level version, blew my sympathy for Walt apart like Tio Salamanca ringing his bell. Walt is always the selfless hero, always the wronged party, no longer able to admit wrongdoing or honestly evaluate the consequences of his increasingly abhorrent actions to the people he loves and purports to protect. This is the cost of the competence fantasy.
We see some of this rub off on Skyler herself, with her chilling reply to poor, sad-eyed Ted Beneke’s promise not to tell on her. Her ice-cold response of “Good” helped offset a sense that we’d been there, done that with her interaction with Walt this episode. That “I’m scared of you” exchange they had felt like a retread of her great “Someone has to protect this family from the man who protects this family” line from last season, not to mention how firmly established here fear of Walt was by her Shelley-Duvall-walking-in-on-the-dogman-blowing-the-tuxedo-guy reaction to Walt’s cackling in the crawlspace shortly thereafter.
As always with Breaking Bad premieres, hints of the future come hard and fast. Obviously those include the opening sequence and Gus’s hidden account. Given the games BB has played in the past, I wonder if there’s something more to the “52” Walt makes out of his bacon (LOL Breaking Bad and breakfast) than simply his age. The score from composer Dave Porter, which over the seasons has shifted from Southwestern rattlesnake slither to eerie industrial-music buzz, added big bell-like tones – an ominously funereal shift. And with his cane and his limp and his total vindication, Hank is even more of an Ahab figure, relentlessly chasing his White whale in a sea of Blue.