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SCHWARTZBLOG: BREAKING BAD, "LIVE FREE OR DIE"

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No one does cold opens like Breaking Bad.  Not The Shield.  Not Lost.  Not Buffy.  Not The Wire.  Those all did them well, don’t get me wrong.  But we never know what we’re going to get from the opening of a BB episode.  It could be a flashback.  It could be a flashforward, either to the episode’s climax or the end of the season.  It could be a brief, impressionistic image foreshadowing something indeterminately awful.  It could be a video for a Spanish-language drug ballad.  Often times it’s more like a conceptual teaser trailer for what is to come than the actual beginning of a story.  But it’s pretty much guaranteed to be striking and ominous and to have me muttering “oooohshit...” when the smoke and periodic table and western guitar music comes up.

The opening of “Live Free Or Die” certainly lives up to this tradition.  Much like season 2, we are catching a glimpse of a grim future, but we have a lot more concrete facts to go on than when we were just seeing charred stuffed animals floating in a pool.  We are roughly one year from the “present day”, based on Walt’s 50th birthday being in the pilot (where one of our first scenes had Skyler presenting him with his veggie bacon arranged in a “50” shape) and him talking about having been doing this for a year at the end of last season.  We see that he has grown a full beard and head of hair, suggesting that it’s been some time since he was riding high as Heisenberg.  This assumption is bolstered by the fact that he seems to have actually driven in from New Hampshire; his car has plates sporting the state’s famous motto, and he doesn’t seem to be reaching for a story when he responds that it takes 30 hours driving with no stops.

And less tangibly, but significantly, observe Cranston’s body language.  He looks worn down, resigned, but not sickly to the point of being physically infirm.  Walt carries himself completely differently after embracing the Heisenberg persona than he did in the first season, but this is a completely new bearing for our man.  I’d like to watch it again to try to articulate exactly what he was doing, but I don’t have a DVR, so suffice to say that I was left with the impression that whatever failure or defeat has knocked Walt from the saddle he’s riding in throughout the episode proper, it occurred a good while before the Denny’s scene.

My guess at this point?  When the cartel and/or DEA heat comes bearing down on the Heisenpire over the next 8-16 episodes, Walt decides to call up that vacuum cleaner salesman that Saul turned him on to.  He converts the Whites (or what’s left of them...) to the Lamberts and sets them up with a new life in sunny NH.  With the clock on his cancer running out, Walt decides to come back to the ABQ to help Jesse out of one last jam and check out in proper Scarface fashion.  Furthermore, I believe this plan will go off exactly as planned, with no collateral damage, and Walt and Jesse will ride off into the sunset as noble outlaws, because I’ve been watching this show carefully for several years and have a pretty good bead on its M.O. at this point.

Okay, 1000 words or so in, maybe time to move past the opening credits.  I’ll move through this quicker, as brevity is the soul of wit (or so some old British pervert says), and this is actually a fairly mellow episode of BB, despite including the boys’ biggest caper yet.  By BB standards, it’s a light-hearted romp, with absolutely no intentional harm to the well-being of innocents.  Which is not to say it is not incredibly destructive, dangerous, and damaging to the well-being of the entirety of Albuquerque, but we grade on a curve these days.

Point being, the stakes, while ostensibly life and death for our leads, never feel as tense as something like the Winnebago scene in “Sunset” or even Hank interrogating Jesse in “Bit By A Dead Bee”.  Part of that comes from knowing that it’s the season premiere and the guys will definitely be getting at least a temporary reprieve, but mostly I think it comes down to Walt’s cocky attitude.  “Box Cutter” was a season premiere too, but Cranston’s palpable desperation in the superlab sold that as a legitimately harrowing experience.  But with where the character is at now, it doesn't make sense for Walt to be a ball of frayed nerves even while carrying out an electro-magnetic assault on a police station that I fully expect to reenact beat-for-beat as a mission in Grand Theft Auto V.

Which brings us to the most distinctive aspect of this premiere, that for the first time we're starting the season with Walter in triumph.  The arc of previous years has always had Walt slowly embracing the badass Heisenberg persona, but then the next season has to quickly humble him so he can go through a similar transformation over the next 12 episodes.  Heisenberg makes his first appearance in “Crazy Handful of Nuthin”, but the following episode makes it clear that his chemistry sneak attack has not given him the upper hand in dealing with Tuco.  In season 2, he enjoys his time as a drug lord, has his “stay out of my territory” moment and becomes a millionaire, but in the end his minions are dispersed, his partner is catatonic, his wife takes his children away from him and his pool is befouled by Insta-Karma Brand's patented Accusatory Stuffed Animal Eyeballs (give me a drowned opossum any day of the week).  He spends several episodes in season 3 denying that he’s a criminal and refusing to cook, but of course by the end he’s capping dealers in the head and out-maneuvering Mike and Victor.  Then Gus quickly brings the hammer down and Walt spends the majority of 4 impotently rattling the bars of the cage the Chicken Man has constructed.

This year looks to be very different.  Rather than immediately knocking Walt down a  peg so he can spend the year transitioning from a reactive role to a more assertive one, we have him in Heisenberg mode from the get-go, with the cold open to suggest that we will be seeing an opposite trajectory.  It seems that we will be going from a premiere with Walt as a crime boss smugly in control of his little empire to a finale where he is a beaten down, desperate shell.  Conjecture?  Sure, but again, the way he carries himself and looks at that machine gun does not look to me like a guy slotting one piece into some brilliant master plan. It looks like a guy who has already checked out.

Also starting off the season in the catbird seat?  Hank, who barely appears, but does look more mobile than we last saw him.  Which is fitting, since it was clear all along that at least a portion of his difficult recovery was psychosomatic.  I’m very interested in where they take Hank in the home stretch, as his character is the one whose handling I’ve most been impressed with over the years.  I didn’t find space in the previous season reviews to mention how brilliantly the show has positioned Hank, so let’s do that now.

Hank's an incredibly difficult character to handle properly in concept, as his story potential seems major but limited.  It ratchets up the tension to have him be the one chasing Heisenberg, but if he ever actually figures out the truth then the entire show comes crashing down.  But the longer he can’t figure it out, the more he loses potency as a threat and becomes Wile E. Coyote.  How is it that we still view him as a credible lawman after 5 years of failing to see what’s right under his nose?

A few ways.  For starters, he’s come out on top of the two biggest shootouts in the show’s run, taking out 2 of the biggest 3 threats to ever come at our heroes in the process.  It doesn’t hurt our ability to take him seriously to see that when it’s time to showdown, the man can handle himself.  But mainly, the show has been great at finding ways for him to be good at his job without actually accomplishing his primary goal.

It does this by making the rest of the DEA much more credulous about all the smokescreens the meth-makers have thrown up, so that he has spent most of the series running his investigation all on his own.  His having to drag his colleagues kicking and screaming along for the blue meth ride makes his constantly coming up just a little short much less damning of his capabilities.  Basically, the show won’t ever let him win, but it always allows him to be right.  Most excitingly for this year, we’ve reached a point where the DEA has no choice but to recognize that this Cassandra in their midst has been proven completely correct about every “wild hunch” they have dismissed over the previous year.  He didn’t buy that the guy they sent to jail as Heisenberg in S2 was the real deal, and he was right.  Excuse or no, he was right about the blue coming back to ABQ in S3, and while his assault on Jesse created a legal clusterfuck for the department, the fact that the Marie misdirection occurred at all strongly suggests that he is involved in some fairly high-level dirt.  And of course, Gustavo has been posthumously outed as the biggest meth dealer west of the Rockies.  I have a hard time seeing Gomey or Colonel Saltstache poo-pooing any of Hank’s hunches this year.  It just remains to be seen what that will be now that the laptop is trashed.

Is it Sunday yet?  Is it?  Now?  What about now?  Huh?  Man.

 

 

....Now?

 

Estimated Profits: $400,000 ahead. But Walt says he doesn’t have any cash for a magnet?  Of course, he’s probably lying, because he’s a lying liar what lies at midnight and also before and after.  But he may have been hit harder by S4’s expenses than I estimated.  Let’s say $200,000 ahead.

Murders - Emilio, Krazy 8, Jane, two of Gus’s dealers, Gale, Gus, Tyrus, Hector “Tio” Salamanca, two other Fring goons

Lesser Included Offenses - Possession of illegal firearms, breaking and entering (police station), obstruction of justice (normally I don’t list stuff like evidence tampering, but in this case they screwed up all kinds of cases that don’t have anything to do with them)

Collateral Damage - One innocent janitor loses his job and goes to jail on a bullshit marijuana charge.  Hank had to kill a guy, even if he was an insane, degenerate piece of filth who deserved to die, giving him fairly severe PTSD.  Combo was killed dealing for Walt.  Jane’s father’s life is utterly ruined.  167 passengers on two planes are dead.  Skyler is forced to become an accessory after the fact (or take down her son, sister and brother-in-law with Walt).  3 broken Pontiac Aztek windshields.  Jesse’s RV is destroyed (I’m actually suprised how sad I was to see it go, since it’s not like it hosted a ton of good times or anything). On their mission to kill Heisenberg, the Cousins kill 9 illegal immigrants and their coyote, an old woman with a handicap-accessible van, a grocery-shopping bystander, an Indian woman and the Reservation sheriff that investigates.  Also they shoot Hank multiple times, forcing him through a long, painful physical therapy process.  Andrea’s kid brother is murdered by Gus’s dealers due to trouble Jesse and Walt stirred up.  Jesse murders Gale, crushing him with guilt and destroying his hard-fought sobriety.  Gus murders Victor to send a message to Walt and Jesse.  Three Honduran workers get deported (or maybe worse).  Walt purposefully wrecks a car, straining an already-injured Hank’s neck in an unspecified fashion.  Ted Beneke breaks his neck fleeing from Heisenpire goons.  Brock is poisoned and nearly dies.  Tio blows himself up, but no one’s weeping for that vicious old fucker.  The staff of an industrial laundry is out of their jobs.  Dozens (hundreds?) of criminal prosecutions are compromised when the guys wreck the APD evidence locker.

Heisenberg Certainty Principle - “We’re done, when I say we’re done.”

Best Lie -  Mike impersonating a US Postal inspector while talking to the cops.

The Erlenmeyer Flask Is Mightier - The boys improvise a giant magnet device to wreck up the evidence room from outside.

Official Walter Jr. Breakfast Count: 13 (“Pilot”, “Cat’s In The Bag”, “Gray Matter”, “Crazy Handful of Nothin”, “Down”, “Negro y Azul”, “Over” x2,  “ABQ”, “No Mas”, “Green Light”, “Cornered”, “Salud”)

We Are Done, Professionally - Both Mike and Saul attempt to extricate themselves from dealing with Walt.  Both fail to do so.

It’s The Little Things -  Walt and Horace Shapiro, Landfill Attorney* assuming that Jesse has a cock ring. Mike named his favorite Mexican chicken Wendell (for some reason, this is funnier than if he had given them Hispanic names).   “Yeah, bitch! MAGNETS!!!”

*I’m sure that the character has an actual name.  Just as I am sure that name will never appear in this blog.