Based on the previous performance of certain 21st century qualities dramas (The Wire, Battlestar: Galactica, The West Wing), you would be perfectly within your rights to worry that the fifth season of Breaking Bad would join their disappointing ranks. Sometimes the center just doesn't hold for longer than a Presidential term, if that. Fortunately, it very much did. Starting with a pulse-quickening time jump and ending with the soft mental click of a puzzle piece sliding into place for Hank, who has been pursuing the remains of Gus Fring's crew like a Southwestern, geode-obsessed Javert, the fifth season of Breaking Bad was a mind-blower, the most ridiculously intense hour of television the summer had to offer.
A quick summary of the finale: With Mike dead, Walt is now free to shake down Lydia for the list of Mike’s men. She is reluctant, knowing that Walt will kill her as soon as she is no longer useful, so she proposes expanding the blue meth operation overseas to the Czech Republic. Walt then goes through Todd’s uncle, who clearly has ties to the Aryan Nation, to set up (absolutely savage) jailhouse hits on Mike’s men. They are executed perfectly (and grotesquely) and business booms for Walt and Todd. Hank, all of his leads gone, is devastated. Skyler, showing Walt the tower of cash she has in storage, makes one final plea for him to stop the business. He apparently relents, paying Jesse the money he owes him and tells Syler he is removing himself from the business. His children return and things seem as normal as they get. Except… when Hank and his wife are over for dinner, Hank happens upon the copy of Leaves of Grass that Gale gave to one "W.W." You can practically see the piece connect in Hank’s head. The episode closes on his astonished face.
If summer radio was owned by Carley Rae Jepsen, Taylor Swift and fun., and summer movies gave us a cheery Avengers and an even Darker Knight, the bald pate and dated goatee of Walter White dominated the small screen. His deathly glare, that of a man as fully committed to power for its own sake as he once was to making breakfast, was as addictive as the blue meth he perfected.
And yet, last night's episode, the finale of this year’s half-season (the last eight will be shown in 2013) felt like something of a coda to the emotional wipeout that was last week's death of fixer Mike Ehrmantraut, played with canny, grouchy perfection by character actor Jonathan Banks. If Mike was not exactly a good man, he was a man with a code, a guy who felt there was right way and a wrong way to do things.
In fact, all three central rivals believe in precision, in doing their jobs with attention to detail. Walt, of course, believes, with good reasons, that his product is superior to everything else out there, thanks to the passion for chemistry he puts into his cooking. Mike, R.I.P., believed that detail — how a heist works, how to pay of men to keep them loyal — was crucial to staying out of jail. Hank, even thought he has a desk job now, wants to see the Fring/"Heisenberg" case through. Based on his toilet-bound revelation Sunday night, he may just get the chance.
The problem is none of these guys really understands anyone other than themselves. Walt, pretty much a monster at this point, refuses to acknowledge the importance of Mike’s methodical nature while Mike is never completely able to see just how dangerous and unstable Walt has become. Walt is not a professional outlaw, he’s a sociopath. And it seems to have taken Hank forever to piece together that which we know from the start.
Sunday night's finale fit somewhat neatly into the theory that contemporary gangster film and TV tend toward the condition of the Godfather movies.
The scene where Walt just sort of hangs out while Todd’s uncle’s connections (some of whom are clearly supposed to be Aryan Nation, just so we know who Walt is consorting with these days) rub out all of Mike’s men is both gruesome, chilling, and straight out of G-1’s baptism scene. Except Walt doesn’t even pretend he renounces Satan. Say his name. You’re goddamn right.
So who were the winners (and we use the term loosely), the losers, and on-the-fencers this season?
Mike: This one hurt. Shot to death, his crew wiped out, who knows if his beloved granddaughter is ever going to see any of that money. We will miss you, man, and if anyone feels like casting any of the Richard Stark’s Parker novels set in the 1990s, Banks has some time on his hands.
That kid Todd shot and the kids’ bike: One of the coldest moments ever broadcast.
Silverfish in the storage unit: Skyler notes that she sprays for them regularly in the unit with the mountain of cash. Oh well.
Walt: As far as he still knows, he is king of the mountain. And no way he is out of the game. But the finale dropped strong hints that a) his cancer is back and b) our next winner has figured him out.
Hank: May prove himself right all along that Something Was Just Not Right about the Fring case. Then again, it can’t look too good to his bosses that he has dinner with a criminal mastermind, let alone look after his kids.
Todd: He is the new Jesse, complete with connections to some extremely violent people. On the other hand, Walt still doesn’t know that much about him.
Lydia: The Most Nervous Woman on TV has made herself important to Walt, but even she acknowledges she is a loose thread. Then again, everyone might be a loose thread to Walt.
Jesse: The scene of Walt yelling at Jesse in the season’s penultimate episode was as brutal in its own way as Todd shooting that child. But Walt did leave him with bags of money. Will he leave and start a new life or will he get sucked back into Walt’s orbit?
Walter, Jr. and the baby: Not enough therapy in the world, kids. Good luck.
Skyler: She tried to kill herself and came about as close to a nervous breakdown as you can get without actually spilling the beans. But she hung in there long enough to probably get lied to once again by Walt. One wonders if that gun you see Walt buy at the start of the premiere will eventually be aimed at her.