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Wednesday, 30 of September of 2020

Breaking Bad – “Live Free or Die”

“Yeah, bitch! Magnets!”

Walt and Jesse cook up a plan to destroy Gus's laptop at the junkyard.

“You’re disturbing my oboe practice.”

Oh. That’s what breathless anticipation for next week feels like.

The finale last year left me a little disappointed. There wasn’t a cliffhanger in the traditional sense since Walt took care of the immediate danger looming over him. The threat was gone. There, seemingly, was nothing left for him to react against.

It turns out there are a lot of loose ends. Without an adversary to occupy his time, he’s left to deal with the repercussions of his lifestyle on his family, what’s left of his work, and his overall freedom. Last year’s “well, what now?” has turned into “Oh. Right. All that.”

After a depressing season of Mad Men that replaced any semblance of a cliffhanger with characters tumbling further down the hole of personal atrophy and irrelevance and a general apathy for the characters on The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones (except for Arya and Tyrion), it’s nice to get this show back to remind us what it feels like to painfully wait a whole week for another episode.

And it looks like Walt’s setting up a pretty breathless season for us.

It’s fitting that, as Walt becomes Heisenberg, the defining characteristic that made Walt who he is starts to deteriorate. The attention to detail, forethought, being ten steps ahead, all of those things start to fall apart during the pursuit and immediately after the fiery slaying of Gus Fring. While Walt has a tendency to be reactive (and overreactive), he also had a gift for the minutiae of a situation. Not following the trail all the way back to Gus’s lair to destroy any evidence of him is an oversight obfuscated to him by his inflated ego.

His language is grander, his schemes are bigger, and his britches seem to have grown a couple sizes, though Mike might say he’s still to big for them.

For my science lab credit in college, I took a Geography and Meteorology (I was a film major — get over it). One of the things my Geography teacher waxed poetically about was how Atlanta (the city in which I attended university) could feasibly extend as far as it wanted to go because there are no natural obstacles to stop it. New York City is on a string of islands, LA is bordered by coast/desert/faultlines, Chicago has the lake, but Atlanta could stretch out for a hundred miles in every direction before hitting anything. Its resources would be stretched thin but, technically, the crawling and annex-hungry suburbs could make the metro area hit the Savannah river if it wanted.

And that’s where Walt is. Gus is gone and, beyond these comparatively minor obstacles, the Heisenberg brand can grow as much and as quickly as it would like. His mind is already there. And you can tell that Mike doesn’t like it. It seems like Gus was a man he could understand, someone who was methodical and rational. Walt is too damaged, too desperate, too egomaniacal to run an empire that commands respect and, simultaneously, stays in the shadows. Walt is too volatile. And it makes Mike ill that he’s forced to stick around.

Jesse, maybe unsurprisingly, is reduced to a bit character in the first episode. The obvious example is his being ignored while Walt and Mike have a tinkle-tinkle contest over how to get into the police evidence room. Jesse has the idea but can’t get through. After that he’s just the money, the guinea pig for the magnet test, and, finally, the masked truck driver whose pleas to escape fall on deaf ears.

He may have the best lines of the episode (although I feel like his use of “bitch” in this episode felt forced, like the writers giving an audience who adores watching every “yo” said by Jesse cut together on YouTube what they want) but Jesse’s second banana in this plot right now. Mike clearly still has trust in his protege but he’s starting to see that Jesse was Walt’s padawan first. Mike is sage, however, and can see the path to doom ahead (the same one we’re treated to in the flash-forward).

Beyond the obstacle of Gus’s laptop, Walt also has the fallout with his family. Of course, Flynn knows nothing but Skyler has every right to be afraid. If she wasn’t rattled by his “I am the one who knocks” speech, she must be shaken by the execution of that tenet. Skyler, however, executes her own bit of Heisenberg when she visits an alive (!) Ted and makes sure he isn’t talking (even if that wasn’t her intention when going to the hospital). Scared as she might be of her husband she’s just like everyone else that gets implicated into the Heisenberg syndicate: darker with an exposed id.

Lastly, though it’s not a situation that’s on Walt’s radar yet, Hank is on the trail. Now that we’re in the last season, we can get really excited about the inevitable confrontation between these two. Remember when Hank couldn’t show any respect for his passive, nebbish brother-in-law? As he tracks Walt down through the ruins of conquests, ruins you could even say are cocoons for the megalomaniac he’s sure to become and grow, Hank proves himself to be preternaturally good at this and might be the only adversary truly worthy to contend with Heisenberg. Because, for some reason, Walt still has a thing for family. When’s that going away?

Overall, it’s a pretty good beginning. The feeling I had last season after the fall of Gus was quickly remedied by the flood of minutiae that has to be resolved before Walt can become the tragic Scarface character he’s destined to be. I just hope the flash-forward is better than the plane crash arc. It has to be. Right?

Other things:

  • The title of the episode is “Live free or die.” Walt’s alias is from New Hampshire. Get it?
  • Mike with the chickens is the cutest.
  • I like how Jesse has enough of a shorthand with Walt that he just has to make magnet noises and the whole plan is realized.
  • How deep did you gasp when Saul said he just woke up? Now that’s an act break!
  • You may pretend to be a handy facilitator, Old Joe, but we all know you’re just Mr Heckles from downstairs.
  • “Ted, I just — I told you to move that rug.”
  • Walt just loves twisting the knob on that power, doesn’t he? He’s like the Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor of evidence room heists.
  • WALT: “Because I say so.” Add in a God complex to his list of self-important neuroses!
  • I’m not sure anyone could’ve played that scene where Saul is scared of an approaching Walt as well as Bob Odenkirk did. A subtle sense of comedy with an understandable tone of fear. Hearts and stars.
  • Was that “I forgive you” a question?
  • How badly do you think the writers wanted Jesse to, at some point ask, “Fucking magnets. How do they work?

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