The cryptic flash-forwards in the second season of Breaking Bad were among the most controversial moments for the show. Oblique, mysterious, leading toward an entirely unexpected ending for the season, and they still stand out, stylistically, as one of the strangest narrative decisions on the show. The glimpses into the future at the beginning of the fifth season, and at the start of tonight's midseason premiere "Blood Money," convey a different effect.
It's still mysterious, but far more assured. We know Walt reaches 52, that he comes back to Albuquerque, that he's armed to the teeth, and his cancer is back. His story is public, his house is boarded up, vandalized and used by skaters for the empty pool in the backyard, but why he's out wandering Albuquerque alone and breaking into his family's house to reclaim the ricin vial remains unclear.
Bryan Cranston directed the second and third season premieres ("Seven-Thirty-Seven" and "No Mas"), but "Blood Money" is his final turn as a director for the series, and it's the most skillfully crafted. From that cold open, as a broken mirror clearly reflects the shattered Walt, this is the most hands-on Cranston has been in crafting a final portrait of the character that will define his career.
John Slattery has turned in a handful of expertly handled episodes of Mad Men (and certainly seems more well-suited to directing than Jon Hamm), but Cranston's season premieres form a triptych of episodes, littered with standout moments.
Flashing back to when Hank finds Gale Boetticher's handwriting in the bathroom copy of Leaves Of Grass, the slow track in on the bathroom door before Hank walks out lasts for an eternity, drawing the tension out long as possible. Hank's disoriented, in a state of disbelief, overhearing the rest of his family talk around the pool. Marie even chillingly jokes to Walt, "You are the devil." Hank's world has just been turned upside-down, and he's so thoroughly focused on the monster hiding right in plain sight in front of his face that it causes another panic attack while he drives home with Marie.
Walt and Skyler go about their business none the wiser, talking about reorganizing the air fresheners and expanding their car wash franchise to further mask the massive amount of money laundering left to do. Meanwhile, Jesse can't adjust to life with all the guilt he's carrying. Skinny Pete and Badger talking the intricacies of Star Trek leaves him bored, and the "blood money" he received, for his end of the partnership, still burns a hole in his conscience. But going to Saul and trying to give away his money, risking exposure, is a surefire way to invite others to offer helpful advice to the contrary.
Aaron Paul has shifted from a loudmouth punk to a depressed man, hiding an ocean of sadness underneath a hardened veneer. His performance makes it harder and harder to remember that, while he isn't a monster, he's still a criminal. But the way he can't seem to cope with his demons makes Jesse sympathetic as he rides the edge.
Of the tragedies within Breaking Bad—and it's sometimes a mess trying to keep all the various spirals in order—the most affecting to me is the increasingly meticulous emotional manipulation Walt perpetrates upon Jesse. The amount he's warped that poor boy's mind makes my skin crawl, from pushing him to expand business into rival territory, to pulling him back from the brink after Jane's death, to Gale, to "helping" Jesse find the ricin pill and planting a seed of doubt in his mind about his relationship with Andrea and Brock. After Saul tells Walt about Jesse's attempt to give away his money, the episode shifts to small, staged scenes with only a few characters interacting.
It starts with another confrontation between Jesse and Walt, this time relatively muted, but no less troubling. After all that emotional torture, Jesse might just be able to see through Walt's bullshit. He pushes Walt about Mike's whereabouts, and though Walt feigns hope and vociferously assures Jesse that Mike is safe out there somewhere, something about Jesse's acquiescence without meeting Walt's gaze signaled to me that he doesn't believe a word out of his former partner's mouth. It's unclear what Jesse wants, or what he's willing to do in order to manage his guilt (or if he even wants to deal with that pain), but he's not just a pawn anymore.
Back at the White home, Walt excuses himself from a college discussion over dinner to vomit in the bathroom. He's going back to chemo, hasn't told the rest of the family, and in another moment where the results forgive the inexplicable cause, discovers that Leaves Of Grass is missing from the bathroom, then thinks to check his car for a tracking device. Suddenly, Hank's recent sickness starts to seems far more disconcerting.
But the final scene is a pinnacle that Breaking Bad has built to for 55 episodes. I never thought for a moment that the show would put Walt and Hank in a room together with the truth between them. It's shocking and cathartic, following Hank delivering a well-earned punch to Walt's face. Now that Hank has the evidence—the security video of Walt and Jesse stealing a barrel of methylamine from all the back in the early seasons, the drawing that now unmistakably shows Walt in Heisenberg mode—the cards are Hank's to play however he sees fit.
Hank knows. Walt knows he knows. But what's particularly telling about that confrontation in the Schrader garage is what Hank first lists as Walt's crimes: swerving into traffic to keep Hank from Gus Fring's Laundromat, blowing up a nursing home, executing an intricate multi-prison murder spree to eliminate 10 witnesses. He doesn't have the full web, or most importantly, how Walt's descent into the meth trade helped cause the Cousins' attack on Hank back in "One Minute." He doesn't recall the fact that offering to take Walt on a ride-along helped initiate this spiral. "I'm a dying man who runs a car wash. My right hand to god that is all that I am. What's the point?" That may be outward appearance at the moment—and Lydia's surprise visit to the car wash suggests that Walt isn't as far out of the game as he wants to be—but with Hank making more connections as time wears on, the distance between this and Walt's 52nd birthday doesn't bode well for the appearance of domestic bliss.
The list of terrible events, emanating from Walt's bloody rise to internationally-known meth-chemist extraordinaire, isn't complete in police records. The tables have turned in the Walt/Hank relationship to the point where Walt warns Hank to exercise caution–the final line of the episode. But credit Vince Gilligan and company with yet another bold sidestep, out of a corner they'd built for themselves. Now that the cat's out of the bag (or the bag's in the river, so to speak), Breaking Bad isn't pushing away from its flash-forward with delay tactics; it's hurtling toward convergence.
Now we get the aftermath of the crash.
I'd be curious to find out more about how Cranston went about directing that scene between him and Dean Norris in the garage. My instinct is that they stuck to the script almost to the letter, but I'm curious whether Norris had some leeway about the list of accusations thrown back at Walt.
"Who washes a rental car?"
"Hello Carol." Nice little Francis Ford Coppola touch with the groceries spilling out of the bag she drops.