Welcome back to PCHA’s weekly Breaking Bad recaps/reviews. It’s been a long time. I’ve missed these guys. And considering how quickly last night’s season premiere flew by, I have the sense that these eight episodes are not going to be enough to satisfy us for another year.
There’s a parallel to be drawn between Breaking Bad at this point in its run, and Walter White as he stands at the open of the fifth season. Both the show and its main character are reveling in their success, and proceeding with a confidence bordering on cockiness.
After the stunning, frenetic end to season four, Breaking Bad took it down a notch to start season five in terms of energy and pace. Just as Walter exclaimed “I won” to close out last season, the series as a whole finds itself sitting on the mountaintop, calmly surveying its kingdom.
“Live Free or Die” served as a primer of sorts, showcasing the strengths of the show for newcomers, while setting the stage for one last sustained run at excellence over the next 16 episodes. The episode was essentially Breaking Bad flexing its muscles, and inviting us to check out the guns.
There was the disorienting opening scene featuring a jump forward at time. The artistic direction and cinematography, the likes of which we don’t normally see on television (particularly the scene of Hank and his fellow agents looking like spacemen, exploring the ruins of Gus’s meth lab.) There was Jesse Pinkman, throwing out one-liners and “bitch”es. “Live Free or Die” didn’t break any new ground for the show — instead, it reestablished its world, allowed us a quick breath after the events of season four, and pulled of an entertaining, self-contained caper that was emblematic of the series at its best.
And there was Walter White, ascendant and arrogant.
Walter won, alright, at least for now, and although there are loose ends to tie up, he’s basically bathing in self-satisfaction. “All hail the king,” say this season’s promos, and Walter is at last his own master.
But the most important moment of the premiere, to me, occurred when Walter sat down for a celebratory scotch (or whatever) — a quiet moment to toast himself and his hard-fought victory. To liberation. Just when Walt when to take his first sip, though, he remembered some more unfinished business (the lily of the valley plant sitting in his backyard). And that’s the problem with Walter White (one of them, anyway) — he can never be content. He can never truly let himself enjoy his lot in life. He needs gods to rage against, slights to bristle at, and injustices to perceive.
That’s why his victory will be short-lived. And that’s what is going to drive this final(ish) season of Breaking Bad.
As we embark on that season, there’s a larger question at hand. Does Breaking Bad have a chance to overtake The Wire as the greatest show of all time? Last year, before season four had even begun, Chuck Klosterman wrote an asinine piece declaring that Breaking Bad was already the GOAT, for reasons that are too imbecilic to get into again.
Klosterman was wrong then in so many ways, but is it possible that when all is said and done, after 15 more hours of Walter White’s moral collapse, that Breaking Bad can surpass The Wire? Is it even possible?
The Wire is not sacred. It’s not blasphemy to claim that it won’t stand as the best ever for all time and always and forever. But it’s certainly set a high bar. The Wire gave us a series that was brilliantly planned and almost perfectly executed….almost.
The Wire’s weak spot — the bare spot in its armor — is its final season, which featured some brilliant moments but also some bizarre plot points and perhaps an overly neat bow tying it all up. So I think it’s a vulnerable if a series can come along and maintain consistent greatness up to and through its final season.
Deadwood was wonderful, but it didn’t last long enough. The Sopranos went on too long and eventually sputtered to an ugly death. That leaves Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Neither show has the thematic ambition of The Wire, making their task of claiming the GOAT title more difficult, but both have been very good for a very long time.
Mad Men just completed its fifth season, equalling The Wire’s entire run, and is looking pretty impressive for an old dog. Breaking Bad is just starting its fifth season, and carries the advantage of having a defined endpoint, just 15 episodes away. (Of course, as we saw with Lost, a definitive stopping point does not necessarily guarantee a stuck landing.)
Of these two, I think Mad Men is more likely to peter out, both because it’s going to last longer and produce more episodes, and because Matthew Weiner’s training on The Sopranos doesn’t bode well. But I strongly believe that either one can eventually surpass The Wire, but only if they’re uniformly excellent until their dying breath. That doesn’t mean having a pretty good end run — it means having a fantastic end run. Because through four seasons of each show, The Wire is still in the lead, despite the recent high quality of the AMC shows.
The Wire, after years of comfortable retirement, has to look in the rearview mirror for the first time. It doesn’t have reason to be nervous just yet, but it needs to at least be aware that something might be gaining on it. And that something might be a Pontiac Aztek driven by this dude: