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The king is dead, and Walter White is ready to claim the crown.
The Season 5 premiere of AMC’s Breaking Bad, “Live Free or Die,” is all about the characters’ relationships with Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and the roles they will play in a world without Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). We also get a taste of Walt’s new sense of power (and how he might abuse that power later in the season), now that he has orchestrated Gus’s death. Although Walt may have won the battle against Gus, he could stand to lose so much more, including the love of his family, and of course, Jesse (Aaron Paul). I see a bumpy season ahead.
“Live Free or Die” opens in a Denny’s in New Mexico, although whether it’s Albuquerque is unclear. Walter White is seated at the counter with a breakfast plate. The server notices that Walt has artfully arranged his bacon in a “52” and we see that Walt has a full head of hair, a new pair of glasses, and a full beard. He looks like a man who has lost everything. “It’s my birthday,” he glumly explains to the server, who then talks him into getting his breakfast for free. Walt shows her a New Hampshire driver’s license to prove his date of birth.
In walks the black-market arms dealer (Jim Beaver), who you may remember from the Season 4 episode “Thirty-Eight Snub.” Walt meets him in the men’s room, where they exchange money for car keys. The arms dealer wants to be sure that “it” doesn’t cross the border, and Walt assures him that “it” won’t leave the city. The arms dealer exits the men’s room, and Walt coughs slightly, then removes a bottle of pills from his pocket.
Walt, in a rare showing of kindness, leaves the server a $100 tip, and she calls out to him, “Happy birthday, Mr. Lambert.” In the parking lot he opens the trunk of a car (with New Hampshire plates), removes a duffle bag, and then locates another car, which the arms dealer has left for him. Walt opens the trunk of the second car; we see that he has purchased some sort of assault rifle and its accompanying instruction manuals. He closes the trunk, ending our glimpse into the future.
We then take a step back to the final moments of Season 4. Skyler (Anna Gunn), on the phone with Walt, asks if he had anything to do with the explosion that killed Gus Fring. Walt simply says, “I won,” and on the other end of the line, Skyler looks simultaneously relieved and horrified.
Now we pick up right where we left off: Walt goes about cleaning up the bomb-making mess in his kitchen, and ditching that pesky Lily of the Valley he used to poison to poison Brock, the son of Jesse’s girlfriend, in an attempt to turn Jesse against Gus. He puts all of this in the trunk of his car. Skyler, Walt Jr. and the baby — what is that baby’s name? Conveniently-Not-Around-Most-of-the-Time Baby? — return home now that the hit on Hank’s life has been canceled.
In their bedroom, Skyler and Walt have a tense exchange in which Skyler tells him she’s scared. “Of what?” Walt asks. “You.” Skyler replies. That sets the tone for the episode: Walt may have won the battle against Gus, but there’s a mess left to clean up.
One part of that mess, Walt realizes, is the security footage Gus kept of the underground meth lab – and so he seeks Mike’s help. They meet in a game of chicken in the desert, which seems appropriate given their relationship. Each yields to the other in the nick of time, and the two cars come to stop on a one-lane road. Mike, who not only has had just about enough of Walt, but is angry about Gus’s death, pulls a gun. Jesse jumps between them, telling Mike that if he kills Walt, he’ll have to kill him, too. Mike, annoyed, asks, “What is it with you guys?”
The DEA and Hank (Dean Norris) are bagging and tagging Gus’s laptop, which contains the security footage. Mike places a phone call and confirms that the Albuquerque police department has the laptop. Mike, Walt and Jesse eventually agree to work together to keep the DEA from discovering the computer’s contents, but only after Mike suggests they should all skip town, saying, “You know how they say, ‘It’s been a pleasure?’ It hasn’t.”
Mike and Walt, who both have fatherly relationships with Jesse, begin arguing like a divorced couple about whether to blow up the evidence room at the police station. Jesse finally gets their attention with his suggestion: a magnet.
Later, at the junkyard (remember it from Season 3?), they test out their magnet plan: They’ll hook up the scrapyard’s giant magnet to a bunch of batteries, load the whole thing into a truck, and park it outside the police station, near the evidence room, with the hope that the magnet will be strong enough to erase Gus’ laptop.
In one of my favorite Mike moments of the episode, the scrapyard owner advises the men to remove all credit cards from their pockets because “You want that plastic workin’, come Miller Time” to which Mike responds dryly, “I can foresee a lot of possible outcomes to this thing, and not a single one involves Miller Time.”
I’m happy to see Mike, one of my favorite characters, getting so many great lines. But the best one-liner award goes to Jesse, who, after the trial run succeeds, yells, “Yeah, bitch! MAGNETS!” Yeah, bitch! Jesse!
The plan to destroy the laptop works, with a couple of snags. Walt and Jesse must leave behind the truck and the magnet, which results in yet another power struggle/argument between Walt and Mike, wherein Walt asserts his authority by telling a doubtful Mike there is no way the truck can be traced to them or the scrapyard. “Why, how do we know?” Mike asks. “Because I said so,” Walt answers.
Also, that magnet is freaking powerful. It not only destroys the laptop, but it causes anything and everything in the evidence room containing a hint of metal to cling to the wall, and subsequently crash to the floor when the magnet was powered down. One of those objects is a photo from the office of one Mr. Gustavo Fring. With the frame smashed and the photo moved out of place, the officers cleaning up the mess discover some interesting information related to an offshore bank account. Who knows where that could lead?
One of the things that makes Breaking Bad such a brilliant drama is how everything gets exponentially worse for its characters, from the first episode to the current one. Just when you think the situation can’t possibly get any more stressful, or that Walt can’t possibly be any more unlikeable, the writers prove us wrong.
Speaking of Walt which: Skyler isn’t the only one whose relationship with Walt has changed. Saul Goodman (played with just the right combination of seriousness, sliminess and comedy by Bob Odenkirk), ever-helpful but totally shady attorney, has some new feelings about him as well.
Walt is angry with Saul for going behind his back to procure the money for Skyler’s IRS/Ted Beneke debacle, and he flexes his muscle, saying, “You work for me.” We also find out that Saul was indeed an accessory in Walt’s plot to poison Brock and turn Jesse against Gus. When Saul expresses reservations about his role, Walt corners Saul and says ominously, “We’re done when I say we’re done.” Saul is visibly shaken, and maybe a bit repulsed. It’s clear to him now that Walt is both a) unstable and b) the boss.
Walt and his ego then return home, where he pulls a Don Corleone, embracing a stiff and terrified Skyler and whispering in her ear, “I forgive you.”
Skyler may be scared of Walt, too, but she’s becoming a force to reckon with, in spite of herself. After asserting her authority over slimeball Ted Beneke, she has proved (unintentionally, but still), that she is not to be messed with. Ted, laid up after his run-in with Saul’s goons, is terrified as he assures Skyler he’ll never say a word about what put him in the hospital. I wonder whether Skyler will realize this power she holds, and how she will use it.
So we have Skyler and Saul both scared of Walt. Mike still hates him, of course. Jesse is the only one with whom Walt still seems to have any sort of relationship, and maybe this sets us up for a confrontation when Jesse finally learns that Walt was playing him all along by poisoning Brock last season.
I hope what we’ll see this season is not only an exploration of these dynamics, but also how each of these characters moves into his or her new role in a post-Gus world: Skyler as the increasingly confident drug kingpin wife; Saul as the sleazy lawyer who always looks out for No. 1, and who doesn’t seem to be loyal to any one person; Jesse as the kid who is finally growing up but will have a hard lesson to learn about trust; Mike, eternal badass, whom I think we’ll see the softer side of, especially where Jesse is involved; Hank, intuitive and back on the job; and Walt, ready to step up to the throne, but probably not without shedding some blood first.