OK, first of all, screw Donna Bowman at The AV Club for starting her review of “Gliding Over All” with the exact same quote with which I was going to start this one.
Really not cool to pre-steal material, you guys. Also, I was going to change it to “When Heisenberg saw the breadth…” because I’m just that clever and impish. Whatever. I’m not bitter. Anyway, I guess there’s some stuff to talk about?
Ultimately, because of the fucked-up split-season structure in play, I don’t think we can judge season five until all of season five is complete. Really, all we can do now is take a midpoint audit of the season and reflect on where we are.
“Gliding Over All” didn’t take long to disprove my theory from last week that killing Mike would be Walt’s biggest mistake. Ultimately, it looks like his biggest mistake will be a tiny, foolish decision he made months ago, when he didn’t burn that copy of “Leaves of Grass.” Losing his cleaner didn’t slow Walter down much at all: he used what Mike taught him, his own innate problem-solving ability, and a knack for good outsourcing to clean up his mess and expand his empire.
Walter hired Todd’s uncle and Herc from Friday Night Lights/Devil from Justified to kill 10 guys in prison in under two minutes. That’s the kind of enterprise that used to take a full season to set up on Breaking Bad, and now planning and execution combined take less than an act. And you would think that Walter might get into some trouble dealing with a bunch of powerful ex-con skinheads, but apparently the great Heisenberg has it all under control now.
Not only was Mike not needed to clean up this particular mess, his absence expedited Walt’s partnership with Lydia, leading to a whole lot more cash rolling in. (How did Walter and Todd, cooking one batch at a time, produce enough blue meth to satisfy both Declan’s market and the entire Czech Republic? Or I am I missing something?) At least in the short term, Walter didn’t need Mike at all. And I have a bit of a problem with that from a storytelling perspective: for years, Mike has been the logistics guy, the one Walt turned to to fix things, set things up, take care of things, to do things. How could his permanent absence not even cause a hiccup in Walt’s operation?
And speaking of the prison murders, I wasn’t overly impressed by the montage with an oldie playing (Nat King Cole, in this case) as a symphony of violence unfolds with its mastermind a safe distance removed. Leave the mobster movie aping to lesser shows like Boardwalk Empire. Breaking Bad is capable of better.
When season four ended, Vince Gilligan said that in his mind, the series still needed to answer two crucial questions: when does the cancer come back, if indeed it does? And how will Hank find out about his brother-in-law? He seemed to answer both those questions in the first half of the season. I read that scene in the bathroom after Walter’s MRI (and his ensuing departure from the meth business) as affirmation that the cancer is back. And Hank? Well, now he knows.
My heart attempted to pound through my rib cage during that scene out by the pool, a moment of idyllic domestic bliss that Walter and his family simply aren’t allowed to have anymore. I envisioned a bullet flying in from over the hedges, and Walt Jr.’s body falling limply in the pool. Instead, Walter’s world came apart in a very different way, one born of his own hubris and carelessness.
These first eight episodes of season five have been thoroughly enjoyable, with some fun heists and capers and some shocking episode-closing murders. But I don’t think that — so far — this season has packed the emotional wallop of seasons three and four, and the reason for that is twofold:
1) Too much fucking plot. I get that we’re at a point in the series where we don’t necessarily need to see every minor aspect of a plan or operation discussed and executed. That would be boring. But the show glided over so much minutiae that I felt like I had whiplash a few times. Think about how much shit happened in 8 episodes: Walter, Mike & Jesse formed a partnership, restarted the business, figured out how to cook using the pest control subterfuge, robbed a freaking train (!), killed an innocent kid, and broke up the partnership. Walter started a partnership with Declan, screwed Jesse over, killed Mike, met some skinheads, murdered ten more dudes, started a partnership with Lydia to expand internationally, got back in tight with cancer (maybe), and departed the meth business altogether. Meanwhile, his kids moved in with Hank and Marie, and Hank discovered Walter’s secret identity.
That is a ton of shit — enough material for at least two full-length seasons. I wanted to see more fallout from the kid’s death, from Mike’s death, from the prison plan, and a lot more, but there was no time because we were on to the next thing. And I’d love to know how (or even if) Walter was able to leave the meth business clean without making any enemies or leaving a dozen more loose ends. Maybe we’ll out more about that next summer, maybe we won’t. The amount of story the writers got through is even more stunning when you remember how slow episodes two and three were. The pacing of this eight-pack just seemed a little off.
2) If you look at Vince Gilligan’s questions for the final season to address up above, you’ll notice one is missing: what happens to Jesse, and does he find out about Walter’s many betrayals? In season five, as the camera zoomed in and focused on Walter and his black hat, it tended to exclude Jesse from the picture. Breaking Bad started as the story of one man, and that’s how it’s going to end. But I think Jesse’s exclusion is to the show’s detriment: he’s become a tremendously likable, entertaining and compelling character, and his soulfulness helps offset Walter’s descent into pure evil.
I can only hope that Jesse isn’t even further marginalized in the back half of the season. The scene where he and Walter awkwardly discussed old times was the strongest scene of “Gliding Over All,” and scenes featuring just Walt and Jesse tend to be consistently among the show’s best.
These two issues aside, this has been an excellent eight episodes of television. We have to wait and see how the final eight pull everything together before beginning to think about where this season ranks in the Breaking Bad run, and where Breaking Bad itself ranks among the greatest shows ever. (Hint: it’s on that list somewhere.)
Early this season, Breaking Bad seems to be headed in the same direction as Mad Men did in their most recent season, making their metaphors, allusions and themes more obvious. How did that play out over the midseason finale?
Well, Vince Gilligan seemed to pull back in the metaphorical metaphor reins these past few episodes — he barely had time for any literary devices because the episodes were crazy filled with plot to burn through. And even the Whitman thing turned out to be as much plot device as metaphor. In “Gliding Over All,” Gilligan mostly stuck to references to previous Breaking Bad episodes — most notably the fly, Walt and Jesse chatting about the RV, another ominous scene by the pool, and the ricin cigarette.
How Much Ticking Was There in This Episode?
Enough ticking that ticking has become the most memorable, important part of the season’s soundtrack — even more than “Crystal Blue Persuasion.” The question becomes: does the ticking stop now that Hank has figured things out?
What’s Up With Hank’s Mineral Collection?
It’s probably in a dusty storage unit somewhere, like all of Walter White’s money, trapped in boxes, gathering dust. If minerals can cry, Hank’s mineral collection is weeping the tears of the lost and the lonely tonight, waiting in vain for their friend and master to visit.
Is Skyler Still the Worst?
For the third consecutive episode, Skyler behaved in human, recognizable ways consistent with the basis for her character. My head hurts. Let’s get back to this next week.