They might've killed Gus, but Walt and Jesse might have to risk everything to get some crucial evidence back from the cops

By Melissa Maerz
July 16, 2012 at 06:00 AM EDT
Ursula Coyote / AMC
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“Live free or die.” That’s the name of Breaking Bad‘s fifth season premiere, and it’s also the official state motto of New Hampshire, which may or may not play a significant role in Walter White’s future. (I’ll get to that in just a minute.) But as we head into the show’s final season, it also suggests the two ways this series could end. Either Walt will disappear off the grid, possibly with help from Saul’s friend the “vacuum cleaner salesman,” and live like a free man, with or without his family. Or karma will finally catch up with him, and he’ll end up dead, either at the hands of an enemy, or at the mercy of cancer. (Did we see him coughing in that first scene, and taking pills?)

At Comic-Con last weekend, the show’s creator, Vince Gilligan, hinted that he might prefer the latter choice. “Somebody said to me once, ‘Is it possible for Breaking Bad to have a happy ending?'” he said. “And I said, ‘Have you been watching?’ Perhaps the happy ending would be for him to die. He’s become so toxic and cancerous, maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to go.”

For now, though, Walt’s still alive and well. And this episode’s flash-forward opener suggests that he’ll stay that way for a while. When we first see Walt, he has just ordered bacon and eggs at Denny’s, and he’s busy arranging the bacon into the number “52,” to celebrate his 52nd birthday. (The fourth episode of this season is called “Fifty-One,” which is probably a nod to Walt’s 51st birthday, so he’ll likely survive another year.) It’s a trick he learned from Skyler, who arranged his bacon into a “50” to celebrate his 50th birthday in the show’s very first episode.

If this is Walt’s bittersweet attempt to recapture that moment, it’s also a sign of how much things have changed. When Walt first started selling meth, he was in it for the money, trying to protect his family and save them from crushing debt. Now, he’s got enough cash that Ted’s $622,000 check is just a small dent in his fortune, but he’s put his family in danger. And with Hank closing in on the truth behind his “business,” he couldn’t buy his freedom if he tried. So is he really better off now than he was two years ago? Is it better to be a rich man or a free man? Even his Denny’s waitress knows the answer. “Free is good,” she tells him. “Even if I was, like, rich. Free is always good.”

Of course, she’s actually talking about giving him a free breakfast. But their conversation brings up all sorts of larger questions anyway. Is Walt still in New Mexico at this point? When the waitress asks him how far he is from New Hampshire, and he replies that it’s a 30-hour drive. New Hampshire would be a little longer than that, so if he’s driving toward California, as the waitress suggests, he could be in Oklahoma, Kansas or Nebraska. But I’d bet on Texas, since his dealer makes him promise that his gun won’t cross the border. Still, there’s always the chance that he’s still in New Mexico and simply underestimated the length of the trip.

Also, if Walt’s using a fake I.D., why would he choose Lambert as his last name? As he’s leaving, the waitress calls out, “Happy birthday, Mr. Lambert!” Isn’t that Skyler’s maiden name? Why would he pick a false name, only to let it trace back to his real family?

Most important, who is that machine gun meant for? There’s no way Walt bought that thing to target just one man. It could take down a whole cartel. And anyone he knows—Jesse, Mike, Hank—could find himself standing down the bullets.

Maybe there’s another way to look at his options: Die, or live free—and kill everyone around you.

NEXT: “Yeah, bitch! Magnets!”

Back at home, in present day, Skyler’s terrified of Walt, and for good reason. She knows that he’s a drug dealer, but she hadn’t allowed herself to imagine that he’s a murderer—at least, not until he responded to Gus’s death by telling her, “It’s over. We’re safe. I won.” Coming home with Walt Jr. afterward, she sees Walt cooing over Baby Holly, who’s not safe at all with Daddy at home, and Skyler’s face says it all: she can’t decide if it’s a good thing or a bad thing that he’s still alive. “I am relieved, Walt, and scared,” she tells him. “Scared of what?” he asks her. And she answers honestly: “You.”

Who can blame her? The guy’s all-powerful. Not even a guarded evidence room can stop him. Can I just stop to say: How cool was that amazing magnet scene? At times, the chemistry lessons on Breaking Bad are just as exciting as the massive explosions and artery-slicing deaths, whether they’re using a Mylar balloon to blow an electrical wire (as he does in “Full Measure”) or teaching us the best way to dissolve human bodies. (“Hydrofluoric acid won’t eat through plastic,” Walt explained in “The Cat’s in the Bag.” “It will, however, dissolve metal, rock, glass, ceramic. So there’s that.”) And this experiment was easily the best. From the first gentle jitters of the paper clip, to that deeply unsettling scene of the child’s tricycle pedaling itself across the room, to the big bang of the truck crashing down against the wall, the whole thing was the perfect mix of wide-eyed curiosity (yeah, science!) and excruciating suspense. By the end, I was totally with Jesse: “Yeah, bitch! Magnets!” Finally, an answer to Insane Clown Posse’s burning question: “F—ing magnets! How do they work?”

Afterward, even Mike looks like his mind’s blown. “Did all of that even work?” he asks, whisking Walt and Jesse away in his getaway car. “I’m supposed to take that on faith? Why?” Walt’s response is chilling: “Because I say so.” Judging by the nervous looks exchanged by Mike and Jesse, something’s different about their boss now.

A long time ago, when he was still teaching high school, Walt told his class that chemistry was the study of change. The same is true for Breaking Bad. Over the past few seasons, Walt has been transformed, as Gilligan often puts it, from Mr. Chips to Scarface. But as the fifth season begins, he’s become something else entirely, something far more frightening. He’s so powerful, he can move large, heavy objects across the room with the power of his mind. (Well, with his mind, and a massive junkyard magnet.) He can resurrect people from the dead. (Or at least from the good-as-dead. Welcome back, Mike, we missed you!) And he demands that his minions have eternal faith in him. He’s not Scarface anymore. He’s a god now. At least in his own mind.

The posters for Breaking Bad‘s fifth season suggest his downfall is eminent: the tagline says “All hail the king,” which is what Jesus’ enemies shouted before he was crucified. But for now, Walt is almighty. When Saul tells Skyler what happened to Ted, he even calls it “an act of God.” And Ted’s so frightened of the White family now, he’ll never tell anyone what happened. (Anna Gunn is fabulous in that scene, her demeanor slowly changing from deeply horrified to completely cold-blooded. She reveals her inner Mrs. Heisenberg when Ted pleads with her, promising he won’t talk, and she answers, icily, “Good.”) The very last scene is almost Biblical: Walt walks into the room, with his arms spread wide, telling Skyler softly, “I forgive you.”

The expressions that move across Skyler’s face in that final moment are very revealing. Walt clearly misunderstood why Skyler is scared of him. This isn’t really about Ted. It’s about the evil sociopath he’s become, and the fact that she’s stuck with this guy, till death do us part. Walt might be the king now, but it’s not always good to be the king.

And with the cops studying all the evidence, his reign might be shorter than he thinks. That handwritten note in the corner of Gus’s photograph says “Bancsuisse Cayman,” which sounds like a Swiss bank account in the Cayman Islands, and there’s a routing number, which could easily help the cops trace Gus’s funds back to Walt. Next week’s episode is called “Madrigal,” a reference to Madrigal Electromotive, the parent company of Los Pollos Hermanos. Walt had better start living free, because that freedom won’t last.

NEXT: What happened with the ricin cigarette? What’s up with the Denny’s?

Until next week, a few random observations:

–I was glad to see that the mystery of who took the ricin cigarette has been solved—kind of. Apparently, Saul got his bodyguard, Huell, to take it from Jesse while he was frisking him. (That was one of a few options I’d mentioned in my recap of last season’s finale.) “[Huell’s] got fingers like hot dogs,” Saul confesses. “He could’ve easily busted this in two and killed everyone in the office!” But I’m still not totally clear what happened after that. Saul tells Walt, “You never told me that the kid would wind up in the hospital.” So does that mean Saul wasn’t the one who fed the Lily of the Valley plant to Brock, or just that he didn’t realize just how sick it would make the kid when he did it? If Walt was the one who poisoned Brock, he’ll be in big trouble if he ever runs into Jesse while he’s with the kid.

–I love how Denny’s has become so central to Breaking Bad. Walt and Jesse had brunch there after watching Victor get his throat slashed last season. And now Walt gets his bacon and eggs before unleashing a machine gun on the world. If this is product placement on Denny’s behalf, it’s genius: every time I see blood, I crave a Moons Over My Hammy sandwich.

–Weirdest thing we learned from this episode: At one point in time, Jesse might have had a piercing, um, down there?

–Second weirdest thing we learned from this episode: “Apparently the teeth do this popcorn thing when they get too hot. So they tell me.”

–Best lines in the episode (both courtesy of Mike): “Keys, scumbag. It’s the universal symbol for keys.” “You know how they say it’s been a pleasure? It hasn’t been.”

–[UPDATE: One of the commenters over at Hitfix noticed that Walt isn’t wearing a wedding ring in that first scene. Good catch! What will happen with him and Skyler this season? She’s stuck with him for so long, he must do something totally irredeemable to make her leave.]

Okay, your turn, readers. Tell me what you thought of the episode. Favorite moments? Interesting things you noticed? Predictions for what will happen next?

Episode Recaps

Walter White descends into the criminal underworld.
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  • 01/20/08-09/29/13
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