Tuned In

Breaking Bad Watch: I Am the One Who Gets Knocked Out

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Ursula Coyote/AMC

Spoilers for last night’s final-season premiere of Breaking Bad follow:

If you were worried that the final run of Breaking Bad episodes would be lackadaisical in ramping up the drama and advancing the story as the finale approached: well, you can stop worrying. The return, “Blood Money,” meant business.

Walt’s cancer is back–something broadly hinted at before the show went on hiatus but made crystal-blue-clear now. (He is also, evidently, concealing it from his family, as evidenced by his hiding his chemo-induced sickness. Because of course he is.) We now know, in the flash-forward, that not only is Walt seeing hard times–and is now armed with both a machine gun and ricin–but so is his family, or at least his family home; it’s fenced off, the swimming pool (the site of so much White family life) being used as a skateboard pit.

And everything is out on the table between Hank and Walt. We’ve spent five seasons–well, I have, anyway–wondering how Hank would react to learning that Walt was Heisenberg all along. Would he go into denial, unwilling to accept how he’d been deceived? Would he play things cool, keeping Walt close until he was ready to lower the boom? Would a cat-and-mouse game follow, building to a confrontation in the final episode or two of the series?

Nope. Granted, the jaw-dropping throwdown between Hank and Walt was precipitated by Walt’s figuring out that Hank was on to him. But you can see–after his literally sickened response to first learning–that the discovery has awakened a fury in him. There’s no regret in his turning on his brother-in-law, no apparent fear or hesitation, but rather, great relief.

It’s an astonishing scene (in an episode, by the way, by Bryan Cranston, as if to spike the ball). And it’s a reminder that, while Cranston has won deserved praise for playing Walter White for five years, he hasn’t carried this series by himself. Dean Norris and Cranston are both eye magnets here, and the force just arcs between them as your attention is drawn irresistibly to both at once.

(MORE: Breaking Bad Is Back: Why It’s the Most Moral Show on TV)

The conflict is both explosive and subtle at once. There’s a lot of alpha-dog fury here, from the blammo! moment when Hank punches Walt out. But listen to the fencing match of their dialogue, the way Walt, even as he’s caught red-handed, pleads with Hank without ever actually confessing in so many words. (“These wild accusations, they could destroy our family. And for what!”)

And then, as Hank presses his attack (“Rot, you son of a bitch”), a silent turning point is reached, and the subtle pleas become subtle threats. (That point, perhaps, is when Hank insists that Walt bring the kids to him and Marie.)

There’s a great moment where, having spent his fury, Hank finally lets show some of his confusion and amazement that Walt–nerdy, brainiac Walt whose chops he was busting way back in the pilot–is not just a criminal but a composed, controlled, ruthless monster, and that Hank has been living, professionally and personally, inside a massive lie. “I don’t even know who I’m talking to,” he says, and it’s a wonderfully plaintive, lost line reading by Norris. He’s furious, but he’s also still a little sick, and it’s not the potato salad.

Walt answers with a characteristic understated threat–“maybe your best course would be to tread lightly.” But by now we know the stakes, because we know precisely who Walt is. There’s no more left to say for now, and so Walt and Hank stare each other down, size each other up, in a Western-like final long shot.

Game freakin’ on.

Now for the hail of bullets:

* Maybe even more menacing than Walt’s threat to Hank is the coldness with which he dispatches Lydia, who–after apparently her takeover of the business has gone south–is essentially begging him to save her life. Walt may be acting out of commitment to go clean for good, but his refusal is pure Heisenberg. Who would think the phrase “Have an A1 day!” could be so frightening?

* Walt, though, is not the only one who’s learned to scare people off. Skyler is stone-cold in shooing Lydia off–“Never come back here”–but equally impressive is how incisively she sizes up the danger. (As the saying goes, no one has ever washed a rental car.) The scene, I think, shows that as much as she and Walt are working to go legit, Skyler too has been changed by the past year, in ways that can’t be unchanged simply by buying another car wash.

* Walt, as I’ve written earlier, does believe in his typical hubris that he can change that if he stays out of the game, no matter what he’s done before, he can be a decent person again; “The past is the past.” Jesse, who isn’t able to retrofit his morality so conveniently, isn’t buying it; still haunted by Drew Sharp’s murder, he’s trying to get rid of his money as if it were cursed. The past, for him, is not past; it’s soaked into every one of those $100 bills.

* And yet even in this moment, even as Walt insists he’s quit the game, it’s clear he’s hardly changed–at least not in his ability to look at Jesse and baldfacedly lie about not having killed Mike. (And another brilliant line read from Aaron Paul, who pours a five-gallon jug of contempt into, “Yeah. Like you said. He’s alive.”)

* We still don’t know whom the machine gun is intended for. Are we all guessing that the ricin is meant for Walt himself?

* Nice callback to the season-4 poison caper as Huell watches Jesse light up a cigarette in Saul’s waiting room.

* “Why do you think McCoy never likes to beam nowhere? Cause he’s a doctor, bitch! Look it up, it’s science!”

* I would not have pegged Walt and Skyler for Squeeze fans! Though “If I didn’t love you I’d hate you” would at this point be a pretty optimistic read on their relationship.

* Please tell me AMC is going to license Schraderbrau novelty mirrors for sale.

* And the return of the Breaking Bad Visual of the Week: Not the showiest shot of the episode, maybe, but I really liked the disorienting pull-back after Walt discovers the GPS tracker. That, or Jesse hurling stacks of bills from his car like a guilt-wracked paperboy.

One final note: I’m going to be reviewing Breaking Bad’s last run of eight episodes, but–between travel out of town and the fact that AMC is not sending review copies of every episode–I probably will not be able to review every week. But I’ll see you back here (hopefully) next week.