Loyal viewers of Breaking Bad were elated when mid-July rolled around, as it marked the return of the dark AMC drama’s anticipated fifth season. After a bombshell ending to the previous season — in which Bryan Cranston’s Walter White, the antihero of the show, blew up a retirement home to kill his boss Gustavo Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) — the first half of the fifth and final season did not disappoint. The first eight episodes culminated in an explosive mid-season cliffhanger.
As the show’s title suggests, Gilligan was determined from the beginning to demonstrate on screen how dire circumstances can shatter a man’s honor and compassion — Walt’s. Since the pilot episode, which revealed Walt has cancer, the degradation of his character has been the show’s defining theme.
Season five revolves around Walt managing his own meth business. But as with everything in Breaking Bad, when a straight path to happiness appears a new foe or obstacle arises to thwart any potential return to normalcy. The show’s creator Vince Gilligan beautifully depicts the way in which supporting characters lose faith in Walt. In the second episode of the season, Walt’s wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) becomes increasingly aware of the darkness growing in her husband. In one scene Skyler admits to Walt: “I’m afraid.” Walter, in disbelief, reminds her his enemies are dead and that he has more control than ever over his drug operation. Skyler, in a heavy tone, responds: “I’m afraid of you.” These vividly tense scenes between Skyler and Walt are the bedrock of what makes Breaking Bad so enjoyable. All the actors in the show can turn dry dialogue into heart-pounding tension.
The first eight episodes of the new season take Walt’s “badness” to new levels. The asymmetry of Walt’s character between season one and season five is constructed with precision. In one of the first episodes, Walt struggles to kill a foe who could incriminate him if released and thinks of any excuse to avoid violence. In contrast, during the recent mid-season finale, Walt orders the murder of nine prisoners in a span of two minutes and waits for the completion of the crime with a satisfied smirk on his face.
The Sept. 2 episode also shows how far from grace Walt has fallen. In one scene, Skyler shows him a pile of cash that would take eight lifetimes to spend and begs him to leave the drug business. Miraculously, and to our relief as viewers, Walt returns home and claims he is finished. In typical Breaking Bad fashion, however, just as we are relieved by Walt’s decision to rebuild his life, Walt’s DEA brother-in-law Hank comes across a note in the bathroom revealing Walt as the crystal meth kingpin — a pivotal moment five seasons in the making.
With a mid-season finale designed to set up the final eight episodes of the series as some of the most action-packed yet, the only question more suspenseful than how Hank will respond to this new revelation is how viewers will wait 10 months to watch it.