The first time we saw Walter White, he was turning fifty, having breakfast with his family, “50″ spelled out in veggie bacon. (“This smells like Band-Aids” –Walter Jr.) The first time we see Walter White in Breaking Bad‘s final season, he’s turning 52, spelling out his age himself in real bacon–a bout of cancer and a life with the drug cartels, I guess, lessens one’s focus on one’s LDL cholesterol—and, most important, he is alone.
By Breaking Bad‘s timeline, this flash-forward is over a year later than the “present” of the series. We don’t know how Walt, now sporting a head of hair, is driving a car with New Hampshire plates. We don’t know why he looks so bedraggled. Above all, we don’t know why he needs a machine gun. But if the main action of “Live Free or Die,” after the cold open, shows Walt confident and triumphant, this scene makes clear: don’t get used to it.
There’s a little reminder here of The Sopranos, another series that split its final season into two halves and involved a sojourn to the Granite State. (Vito! Johnnycakes!) But where that series showed Tony triumphing over his enemies and then cut to black, the final run of Breaking Bad seems ready to focus on what victory has done for Walt, and to him, and what it means for its already arrogant protagonist to believe he is unstoppable.
So much of “Live Free” finds Walt facing the people in his life in triumph, showing each the face that his confidence frees him to reveal. He comes to Saul as a bully, unrepentant about the poisoning scheme and unwilling to take the slightest pushback. (“You’re not Clarence Darrow. You’re a two-bit bus-bench lawyer… We’re done when I say we’re done.”) He deals with Mike as a peer, unflinching and serene. (“How do we know [the magnet scheme worked]?” “Because I say so.”) And he deals with Skyler, increasingly terrified of him, with condescending magnanimity. (“I forgive you.”)
Skyler’s subplot was probably the weakest aspect of season four, but in its aftermath, I like the idea of her confronting just how criminal she’s willing to be—particularly when she visits the frightened, debilitated Ted Benecke, who believes that she is The One Who Knocks. Here too, there’s a slight Sopranos echo: there, Carmela had to ask how complicit she was in Tony’s crimes (even if she eventually found ways to avoid it again). Here, Skyler sees direct evidence that, accident or no accident, she is far more than an accountant enabling a crime in the abstract. But she can’t commit to it the way Walt does, urging him to believe that Ted will never talk (a concern that Walt, of course, can only process egotistically, through the frame of her having slept with Ted—hence the “I forgive you”).
Much of the rest of the episode deals with the aftermath of Gus’s fall, through a familiar but satisfying Breaking Bad setup: the science-based covert magnet operation, a sort of virtual heist caper. The mission to wipe the video on Gus’s laptop is not the gripping, horrifying sequence that the Superlab scene was in the season 4 opener, “Box Cutter.” But it is pretty amazing to watch—is a suspenseful, ingenious use of applied physics that reminds me how lucky we are Vince Gilligan did not choose to use his imagination on the wrong side of the law.
Walt and Jesse’s plan works—except that it seems to reveal a secret Fring bank account in the process—but it’s notable that Walt has no way of knowing it, except for his own superconfidence. Mike, of course, is not entirely convinced. I wrote last season that Jesse had oddly turned into the moral center of Breaking Bad, and in the same way Mike Ehrmantraut has become its designated voice of reason—a professional trying to do a job, his patience ever more tested by two interlopers who can’t leave well enough alone. “What is it with you guys?” he asks Walt and Jesse, exasperated, in the desert. “Honest to God.”
That last line is a throwaway, but also an appropriate one in an episode that turns on how Walt, the man of science, has become a man of abiding and blind faith—in himself. Apparently, Walt is not just king but, as he sees it, a deity. But one who, as the opening flashforward suggests, had better keep saying his prayers.
Now for the hail of bullets:
* Breaking Bad Visual of the Week: Lots of candidates, but for me, the laptop flying out of Jesse’ hands into the side of the truck. “Yeah, bitch! MAGNETS!”
* One nitpick about the magnet plan—did anyone else have a hard time buying that Jesse and not Walt thought of the plan, or at least that Walt did not immediately know what Jesse meant as soon as he heard the word “magnet”?
(LIST: Top 10 TV Series of 2011)
* “Keys, scumbag. It’s the universal symbol for keys.”
* Not a lot of Hank in this episode, but just enough to remind us of the long game of the Heisenberg investigation. That and: “Apparently the teeth do this popcorn thing when they get hot.” See? You do learn things from TV!
* “I want you thinking one thought: Hogan’s Heroes. Sgt. Schultz. ‘I know nothing!’”
* “What about that stuff you young guys wear at the end of your pricks? Speak now or forever sing soprano!”
* Finally, we have a lot of time and, I assume, we’ll get more clues, but I’ll open the floor to your theories about the cold open. What or who was Walt running from? And what’s he going to use that machine gun for?