Walter White seems to have emerged now twice as confident and aggressive since we saw him last, and for good reason. Gus Fring was a TV villain for the ages, cold, cunning, and willing to commit acts of great violence. He was insulated enough to seem untouchable, but also present enough to operate as an imposing figure of fear. When Gus met his end at the hands of a wheelchair-bound suicide bomber, walking several steps while missing half of his face before dropping dead, it could’ve been a rare misstep – a death scene more fitting for a comic book supervillain than the antagonist of a realistic drama. But the overkill fit perfectly. A man like Gustavo Fring doesn’t die at the hands of an arbitrary assassin.
The Walter White of old schemed and finagled to get what he needed. He cowed in the face of men like Mike and let others guide his decisions. But when Mike – seemingly fully healed – returns to confront the man who took out his boss, Walt barely flinches. It’s easy to imagine that he considers himself essentially untouchable at this point. He took on Tuco, Gus, and the DEA and walked out (physically) undamaged. There’s not a situation he hasn’t managed to think his way out of. Jonathan Banks’ portrayal of Mike has been particularly terrific in its world weariness towards drugs and murder. His seen-it-all-before outlook gives him an invaluable pragmatism – Mike wants nothing to do with the unbalanced and dangerous Walter White, but when their mutual well-being hinges on the same piece of evidence – the CCTV footage of the superlab, saved on Gus’ laptop – he accepts that Walt could, maybe, think of a way out.
Walt’s wacky magnet scheme closes off the events of season four, for now at least. With the evidence (presumably) erased, there is nothing tying Walt, Jesse or Mike to the blue meth or Gustavo Fring. In the morality play of BREAKING BAD though, you can bet there won’t be a clean getaway. Since season two or three, many have predicted that Walt will meet his end at the hands of his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank, be that in jail or in his grave. And a newly vindicated Hank, restraining himself from ‘I told you so’ in the wake of Gus’ criminal exposure, will be more of a threat to Walt’s operation than ever. Appearing more mobile than we’ve seen him in a while, Hank mainly served as a plot device to remind us of Gus’ CCTV cameras in this episode, but with Walt’s increasingly cocky attitude, it can only be a matter of time before the DEA is back on him.
This brings us to perhaps the main lingering question of the first episode back: when are Walt and Jesse going to get back into the meth game? Vince Gilligan’s long term plan was to take Walt from milquetoast to kingpin – ‘Mr Chips to Scarface’, to use Gilligan’s oft-quoted summary. There’s an empty throne in Albuquerque, and if the fantastic ‘all hail the king’ promotional images are any indication, only one man capable of taking it. Understandably, ‘Live Free or Die’ was centred mostly on cleaning up old business, but a colder, harder Walter White will eventually succumb to the siren’s song of money, power and pure blue meth.
And it’ll be interesting to see what, if anything, this has to do with the oh so cryptic cold open. Always happy to throw its audience for a loop, the episode starts in a diner, where Walt, complete with a New Hampshire ID and full head of hair, celebrates his 52nd birthday. After a tedious conversation with the waitress, he steps into the bathroom to receive a set of keys from the returning Jim Beaver, of DEADWOOD fame. This is BREAKING BAD at its absolute finest; shamelessly racking up the tension for a payoff weeks if not months down the line, it demands your attention, teasing you with pieces of a puzzle you can’t even begin to see yet. The final shot of a serious looking weapon, now in Walt’s hands, is an implicit promise to the audience: stick around, something crazy is going to happen.
Check out next week’s BREAKING BAD Series Blog!