This article contains plot points up to and including the premiere of season 5.2 of Breaking Bad. If you don’t want the story to be spoiled, do not read.
With its Sunday night premiere of the episode “Blood Money,” Breaking Bad garnered its highest ratings ever, pulling in a whopping 5.9 million viewers. It’s a testament to not
only the show’s quality, but to its steady growth over its running time. When seasons 1 and 2 of Breaking Bad were airing, the show didn’t pull in a fraction of that 5.9 million, instead establishing a presence as a critically acclaimed prestige drama. Now the show is at the top of the heap, drawing the highest praise from fans and critics alike. The buzz for the show has been deafening in the weeks leading up to the premiere, building a level of hype that even the most devoted of BB fans could worry about.
But the series has always had a habit of subverting expectations, of taking the core story and turning the intensity up to eleven. So when I watched the season premiere on Sunday night with lowered expectations (media hype has made other shows crumble in the spotlight), Vince Gilligan and company did what they do best: completely shattered those expectations.
But for all of Breaking Bad’s famousness for intensity and suspense and plot twists, the show isn’t a completely plot-driven action thriller a la 24 (though that is certainly in the show’s DNA). For the most part, Breaking Bad has kept its audience off balance through its use of pacing rather than its use of high concept plot devices. In season 3, Tuco’s cousins are established as the Big Bads going after Walter, but they end up being dispatched in the first half of the season. Breaking Bad can burn through plot faster than you can follow and then turn around and produce an episode like season 3’s “Fly” that takes place entirely in the lab with Walt and Jesse tracking a pesky insect. To borrow a metaphor, the show is like an elephant’s trunk: it can knock over tree or pick up a housekey.
Now in the midst of its final 8 episodes, the plot is showing no signs of slowing down. Considering the show’s history with pacing, one could conceivably have predicted how Vince Gilligan would handle Walt and Hank’s cat and mouse game, but did anyone actually think they would face off in the first episode of the season? That incredible scene, anchored by magnetic performances from both Dean Norris and Bryan Cranston, is a confrontation 5 years in the making, and everybody (cast and crew) is on their game.
Breaking Bad isn’t just a compelling story with great actors, though; it’s also, by TV standards, a marvel of filmmaking. Michael Slovis, the Director of Photography, has been on record with how the show’s lighting has changed over the seasons to become more stylized, more operatic, and the final image of the episode shows the meticulousness of the crew of Breaking Bad. As Walt and Hank face off, we cut to a low angle wide shot. The two men are in each other’s face, Hank square in the middle of the beam of daylight coming through the garage window, with Walt (or more accurately, Heisenberg) standing at the edge of shadow.
If this premiere is any indication, this last run of Breaking Bad episodes will be a fast-paced, mind-blowing picture of Walt’s final descent. The brilliant flashforwards in this episode and in “Live Free or Die,” the premiere of the first half of season five, may lead to widespread speculation about the plot twists to come. It’s impossible to predict where the show will go, but if the quality of this episode can be sustained over the remaining 7, we should be in for quite a ride.