One episode into the new season (okay, technically, new half-season) of Breaking Bad, we’ve already got our latest lingo from AMC’s stellar series, the one I’d claim is the best currently on television. The series occasionally gifts us with such turns of phrase — “I am the danger,” “I fucked Ted,” “the one who knocks,” “magnets, bitch!” and so on — that end up becoming a kind of shorthand for fans to communicate with each other and hashtag and meme. “Tread lightly” may not sound like much out of context, but you can bet we’ll be reconsidering those words a few episodes from now, or whenever the Walt vs. Hank showdown reaches its inevitable boiling point. Up until now, Walt has treaded lightly enough to avoid detection, but is Hank capable of doing the same? Is it really wise for him to do so? Or could it get him killed?
Breaking Bad itself is a show that treads lightly, all things considered. Rather than explosive confrontations, characters speak in code. Hank and Walt have a key interaction in this episode, but if “Blood Money” was the first episode of Breaking Bad you’d ever watched, would you have any idea what the dynamic between them was? Unlikely. “Tread lightly” is as much a threat as Heisenberg needs to give the DEA agent who’s been doggedly hunting him for a year now, not the sort of explosive outburst you’d expect between a criminal mastermind and an agent of the law in any standard crime thriller.
But Breaking Bad is a light treader, trusting its viewers to pick up on and relish in the less-is-more approach to suspense and drama. It is one of few shows that rewards careful watching and rewatching, that demands a faithful and intelligent audience, that refuses to dumb itself down for anyone who might be flipping channels and stumble upon the greatest show on TV. Somehow, Breaking Bad manages to tread lightly and still leave maximum impact. The lighter it treads, the more we’re on the edge of our seat, just waiting for it to all come crashing down as we’ve always known it must.
And with just seven episodes to go, it’s finally going to happen. Soon.
Breaking Bad‘s eight episode denouement kicks off with “Blood Money,” a curious title — because there are several episodes of this series that could just as easily be called “Blood Money.” In fact, you could retitle the entire series Blood Money and it’d make perfect sense. It’s Jesse’s storyline that informs the title, as guilt and boredom gnaw away at him until he rashly decides to relinquish his fortune to the survivors of two of Walt’s victims — Drew Sharp and Mike the Cleaner. Yes, Jesse has put the pieces together and guessed that Walt offed Mike, and even when Mr. White lies to his face and swears that The Cleaner is alive and well, it doesn’t look like Jesse’s buying what Walt is selling anymore. Of course, Jesse’s plan to buy his way out of culpability is half-cocked — Mike’s granddaughter has already lost her future millions twice, and there’s not much Jesse can do to get the money to her now. And Drew Sharp’s parents don’t want a few million dropped in their laps, they want to know how and why their little boy disappeared. If Jesse really wanted to redeem himself, he’d find a way to tell them. (And maybe, just maybe, that’s where his character is headed — turning himself in to bring down Walt and company.)
Clearly Jesse wants to get rid of this money more than he cares how it disappears, which is how he ends up driving down a street in a bad neighborhood and throwing cash into strangers’ yards. Jesse effectively got himself out of the meth-making business and returned to a meaningless life with his doofy buddies, whiling away his hours getting high and staring into space in a poorly-decorated house. It doesn’t look like he’s spent a single dime of that money, because what does Jesse Pinkman want anymore? Deep down, he’s kind of a sweet guy and arguably the moral center of the show, despite some obvious flaws and transgressions. But he’s got nothing. Left to his own devices with too much freedom and a hefty load of emotional baggage, he’s wasting his life. Maybe we want to see Jesse reach some kind of happy ending by the series finale, but the careless Jesse of “Blood Money” isn’t really a guy we can put much stock in. If this is the best Jesse can do with himself, do we really care if he survives?
“Blood Money” begins with another flash-forward, even more tantalizing than the one we got at the beginning of Season Five last summer. Walt returns to the White residence and it looks like a century has passed (really, it’s less than a year) — the place has been closed up and turned into a makeshift skate park for restless teens. Most tellingly, someone has spray-painted “Heisenberg” on one of the walls inside, so now it’s clear: the world knows. (Walt’s neighbor Carol sure does, as a bunch of bruised oranges will attest.)
So it all comes into focus. The last eight episodes of Breaking Bad will unveil how the world finds out who Heisenberg is, as Walt’s public persona and secret identity finally merge. Only a handful of characters have been privy to both so far, and only Skyler really had to reckon with that dichotomy. (Jesse was witness to the gradual creation of Heisenberg, so there was no moment of realization.) Of course, Hank is the major player to spell trouble for such a revelation, and we knew at the end of last season that he’d put the pieces together. I surmised that it would take two or three episodes for Hank to work out the clues and be confident in his unmasking of the legendary meth-maker, but Vince Gilligan & co. clearly know that they don’t have much time to fuck around, and “Blood Money” gets right to the confrontation we’ve known was coming ever since that very first episode. (Because you don’t create a show about a drug kingpin with a DEA agent for a brother-in-law and then not pay that off.) It’s the sort of showdown that, theoretically, might not have occurred until the very last episode, but the show’s writers love milking every last ounce of suspense out of such a storyline. So the cards are finally on the table between these two. (Brilliant moment: Walt throwing up at the very same toilet that played such a prominent role in “Gliding Over All,” and realizing his Leaves Of Grass is missing.)
Hank knows. Walt knows that Hank knows. And in that final scene, Hank knows that Walt knows that Hank knows. It would have made some sense for the two to have a fight to the death right there, but Breaking Bad prefers to — yes — tread lightly. And so this show will bide its time until it can surprise and delight us at how these two move against each other from here. Will Walt make an attempt on Hank’s life? (We know he hasn’t used the ricin as of that flash-forward, so he’d need to get at him another way.) It’s unclear how Hank will proceed — even if he has enough evidence to convince the DEA that Walt is Heisenberg, could he admit to being so incompetent that he had his sworn enemy right under his nose this whole time? My guess is Hank will attempt to resolve this without the aid of his employers, and that will end up being a mistake. Last season Mike was the character in the Breaking Bad universe with a target on his back, and look how that turned out. This season, it’s clearly Hank.
If there’s one obvious flaw in Breaking Bad‘s current trajectory, it’s Skyler. Last season’s finale jumped forward a few months and gave us Skyler White smiling at her murderous, money-grubbing tyrant of a hubby. The same man she desperately wanted to hide her kids from. The man she half-heartedly attempted suicide to escape from. The man she explicitly said she wanted to die of cancer at his birthday party. Yes, Walt quit his sinister business, but he still did a whole lot of bad things — some of which Skyler knows about. That she could sweep this under the rug so easily feels a bit incongruous with how hard she took the news in last year’s episodes, and how terrified and repulsed she was of him. We didn’t get enough of a glimpse at how she managed to overcome this revulsion in order to buy her transformation into a woman who seems pretty well-adjusted to a post-criminal life.
Walt and Skyler wear beige to work, looking like the least threatening people on the planet; if this visual is to be believed, they’re a team now. Skyler even shoos off the skittish Lydia in a delicious little interaction after Lydia tries to pull Walt back into her hellish trade. Skyler’s not having that. She apparently believes the worst is behind them, because she isn’t aware of all the loose ends we know about. She’s seemingly fine with blood money so long as the blood’s not being shed anymore. (Unlike Jesse, still haunted by the red all over his green… thanks to their blue.) And Walter? Well, blood money’s just fine for him. He no longer sees the blood — to him, it’s just money.
“Blood Money” also confirms what the first half of the season hinted at — Walt’s cancer has indeed returned. It’s probably the reason he allowed himself to quit while he was ahead as meth manufacturer, and why he won’t rejoin Lydia even though she promises more of his favorite thing in the world — money. (Well, his very favorite thing is probably an ego boost, but when was the last time anyone paid him a compliment?) Irony of ironies, it may be Walt’s cancer that saves him from the consequences of his many nefarious actions; as he tells Hank, he may not live long enough to ever see the inside of a jail cell… so what’s the point of busting him? Yet as we see in this episode, people will find out who Heisenberg is, and if next-door Carol’s reaction is any indication, he won’t be seen as a meek cancer patient who made a few wrong turns, but as the cold-blooded killer he is.
And that’s pretty interesting, because while we’ve often wondered what would happen if various characters found out the truth about mild-mannered Mr. White — Skyler, Walter Jr., Hank, Marie — we haven’t so much thought about what will happen if everyone knows who he is. More than anything, Walt wants respect and admiration. He told Skyler that he wanted to be feared, but does he really? Does Walter White see it as a victory when a kindly neighbor drops her groceries in terror at the mere sight of him? I don’t think so. It’s a nice case of “be careful what you wish for,” and also a paradox. To the criminal world, Walt wants to be Heisenberg, the badass who can’t be fucked with, the killer of Gus Fring and anyone else who stands in his way, porkpie hat and all.
But to everyone else, Walt still wants to be the hero. A loving father, a devoted husband… a good man. Walt’s never been willing to give that up, and now that he’s facing a likely (or certain?) death at the hands of his cancer, his legacy must be forefront on his mind. Is that what he’s fighting to preserve now? Will he take Hank’s life merely to salvage what’s left of a good reputation? So that his children will never know their father’s true, dark colors?
Well, as that flash-forward indicates, it’s unlikely that anyone in this show will end up not knowing the truth about Mr. White. He’s got his guns, he’s got his ricin… and yet it’s unclear what he’s fighting for, since he’s lost his family and his good name. He can’t be fighting for his life, because the cancer has taken that, too. So what else is there? What means enough to Walter White that, at the end of this series, he still has some unknown enemy out there to kill? Is it an act of self-defense? Or, more plausibly, one of revenge? Maybe even an act of heroism, if someone who once mattered to him is in peril?
We’ll see as the next seven weeks unfold. Until then, “Blood Money” is a satisfying opener with a killer flash-forward and a hell of a showdown between Walt and Hank at the end, however lightly it treads. The stuff in between is solid, if a bit unremarkable — we’ve seen guilty and inert Jesse so many time in this series, his role in this episode didn’t really break new ground, and I’m still not sure Skyler from Season Five Part One really connects with Skyler from Season Five Part Two. Before the series ends, I’d really like to see both Marie and Walter Jr. break out of their shells, so to speak, since these characters have changed so little over the course of the series. I want to see something new from them, and with so few episodes to go, I can’t help but be a little impatient at seeing them playing the same old beats here.
That isn’t to say that I’m disappointed in this episode. Just that, when it comes to jaw-dropping Breaking Bad moments in Season Five, I think the best is yet to come.