Home > Reviews, Television > Waiting On The Breakdown: Breaking Bad – Season 5

Waiting On The Breakdown: Breaking Bad – Season 5

The final season of Breaking Bad was widely hailed as a cultural event, but it’s far from the series’ peak-level material, sacrificing thematic cohesion and sociopolitical applicability for neat narrative closure via shocking violence. This should not be surprising to dedicated viewers, as the show had been migrating from the study of a moral decline with social critique elements to a New West gangster noir with Bryan Cranston’s iconic anti-hero Walter White as the morally and physically doomed Caesar figure. With some questionable turns and vaguely unsatisfying conclusions, it’s not certain that Breaking Bad ended with the accumulative power that its complex and intriguing saga retained for four previous seasons.

The fifth and concluding season of the show follows hard on the heels of Walter’s assassination of his meth lord boss Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) in a retirement-home bombing. This act frees him from Fring’s increasingly oppressive control over him and his meth-cooking, allowing Walt to collaborate with longtime partner Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) and Fring’s erstwhile jack-of-all-dark-trades Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) on their own operation to manufacture and distribute Walt and Jesse’s trademarked blue-tinted, nearly 100% pure product.

This stream of the narrative represents the continuation and indeed the culmination of Walt’s economic progression from responsible penury to dangerous entrepreneurial dabbling in the drug world to wage slavery in a major shadow corporation to final big-dog status at the head of a major operation. Breaking Bad did once find time to consider the harsh social costs of meth use and addiction, but has long since dropped the subject for the violent twists of a gangland storyline emphasizing the constant taking of masculine measure. Even the critique of American health care that was foundational to the show’s concept has long since faded, though it did bubble up again in the third and fourth seasons with Walt’s drug earnings secretly funding Hank’s recover from a cartel hit that Walt directed his way. With these themes slipping into the background, Breaking Bad‘s most thorough and absorbing theme in its closing hours was unquestionably its expansive dark-mirror metaphor for the vagaries of American capitalism.

Deprived of the state-of-the-art meth lab in the basement of a laundromat owned by Fring (Walt and Jesse burned it to cover their tracks after Fring’s death), our non-heroes strike a deal with a pest control business to take their new lab mobile. Cleverly setting up their equipment in houses quarantined for fumigation, the cooks make their product and get out with the homeowners none the wiser. The exterminator cover brings in a new accomplice, a deceptively clean-cut American kid named Todd (Jesse Plemmons) who becomes ever more inculcated in the business and brings a chilling, uncompromising unpredictability and dangerous associations to bear. He’s instrumental in a daring train robbery to acquire a new methylamine supply (a suspenseful caper that may well have been the season’s high point), as well as a shocking murder to keep it secret. His associations come in handy when Walter decides to off the Fring’s toughs in prison that Mike has been paying not to testify to the feds (after Walt semi-accidentally offs Mike).

Todd’s menacing Uncle Jack (Michael Bowen) and his white power gang prove that the extermination business is not just a cover, but quickly move beyond Walt’s ability to control them. They back the tightly-wound Lydia (Laura Fraser), Fring’s former methylamine supplier, in a massacre to take over the blue meth’s distribution arm, and then kill DEA agents Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) and Steve Gomez (Steven Michael Quezada) in a desert shootout that frees Walt from custody but also relieves him of most of his meth-trade millions and condemns the long-suffering Jesse into meth-cooking servitude for the gang. All of this precipitates a climactic endgame that brings Walter, his family connections sundered, his cancer returned, his meth empire out of his hands, to a desperate encounter with his deferred fate.

The shattering of Walter’s family bonds happens, ironically, after he attempts to retire from the business that made him rich but also morally crippled him. The turning point is somewhat controversial for being a bit too slight: over at the White abode for dinner, Hank finds a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass in the washroom signed by murdered meth lab assistant Gale Boetticher (David Costabile) to “W.W.” This single drop overfills the cup of Hank’s suspicion, and he realizes that Walter White is not merely Gale’s lab partner but also “Heisenberg”, the shadowy mastermind of the meth trade that he has hunted for months on end. It’s a neat little device, and a flashback to a conversation that Hank and Walter had about the true identity of W.W. (Boetticher scrawled a similar dedication in his lab notebook) cinches the connection. But it is odd that this detail sets Hank after Walter rather than other seemingly more telling ones.

Walter’s wife Skyler (Anna Gunn, coming into her own in these last episodes) stands by him when his true nature is exposed, to an extent; she’s so deeply implicated in his money laundering scheme that to do otherwise would be to self-incriminate. But after Hank’s death, which Walter does not claim credit for but does not effectively deny engineering either, all ties are cut. Walter is relocated by an agent of Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) to a cabin in snowbound New Hampshire, and even his once-worshipful son Walter, Jr. (R.J. Mitte) won’t engage with him or accept his attempts to send money. At this low ebb, Walter sees his former friends and scientific business partners Elliot and Gretchen Schwartz (Adam Godley and Jessice Hecht) on Charlie Rose disavowing his role in the founding of their lucrative firm, Gray Matter.

This last insult, this erasure of the greatest achievement of his respectable life, spurs Walter into a final acceptance of his achievements in the meth underworld. In his final meeting with Skyler, he finally admits to her that he did it all not for the good of his now-broken family, a rhetorical feint he constantly returned to in justifying his actions, but for himself, for his pride, ego, and sense of masculine self-fulfillment.

This is the thematic message that resonated most strongly as the credits rolled on the series finale, of a mutated modern form of capitalist competition that can only be effectively conquered by circumvention of the rules of society and of basic morality. The message itself is shared with many recent notable American TV novels, from The Sopranos to Boardwalk Empire to Mad Men to The Wire to Deadwood and beyond, no doubt. Breaking Bad was a narratively absorbing, cinematically-scoped, character-driven drama that explored well-worn themes of contemporary American society and culture. If it stood out from the other television luminaries mentioned, it was on the basis of its particular approach to those visual storytelling elements rather than any unique or groundbreaking thematic or metaphorical incisiveness. Breaking Bad had a tone and an aesthetic vision all its own, but not necessarily one that placed it above all others.

Categories: Reviews, Television

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