“I don’t know who you are. I don’t even know who I’m talking to.”
“If that’s true…if you don’t know who I am…then maybe your best course would be to tread lightly.”
That densely loaded exchange between Walt and Hank – and the absolutely incredible scene preceding it – is not only the best part of an immensely satisfying Breaking Bad premiere(*), but indicative of everything “Blood Money” does so amazingly well: Delivering a moment we have been waiting five whole seasons to see – a moment that pays off on everything the audience knows about these two characters and their respective histories – with a level of execution that excels our collective expectations.
(*)Yes, from a technical, contractual standpoint, this is the ninth episode of Season 5. From a reasonable, non-moronic standpoint, it is the first episode of a new season, and I will refer to it as such throughout this review, and do the same for subsequent episodes over the next seven weeks. Whatever AMC is calling this, “Blood Money” walks, talks, and acts like a premiere, so to me, it is episode 1. Next week will be Episode 2. The headline for these reviews will show the overall Season 5 numbering order, but for individual reviews, let’s keep things sane and simple and just refer to these episodes for what they are creatively, not commercially, structured to be: A new, final 8-episode season, not the second-half of a larger whole.
“Blood Money” is undeniably a season premiere, as the majority of its runtime is devoted to rearranging pieces on the narrative chessboard and checking back in on where each character is in their lives. But as an opening to the final season, all this establishing material carries much greater weight than it normally would, especially considering that Vince Gilligan and company have wasted no time whatsoever in pushing their characters towards destinations audiences have been anticipating for a long while – in some cases stretching back to the series’ inception.
Among the many questions this viewer pondered going into this year’s premiere: What would Hank do after realizing that Walter White, his beloved brother-in-law, is his greatest, most elusive nemesis? After seeing just what heights of villainy he ascended to last season, what would a Walter White who has ‘gotten out’ of the meth business look like? And how would Jesse, a man who wears every inch of guilt he has ever accumulated on his sleeves, move on with life after exiting the business for good? Is it possible for him to do so in the first place, and on a similar note, can Skyler truly be at peace with her restored ‘family life’ after everything that has happened? If Walt’s cancer does come back, as had been suggested in the opening flash-forward last season, how would the Walt of today react to such news in contrast to the man we first met in the pilot? And perhaps most significantly of all, given where the arc of the series has taken him, what exactly does the almighty, all-powerful Heisenberg do when he realizes that, for the first time, someone in a position of power isn’t just on to him, but has figured out everything – and does it even matter if that man is his brother-in-law?
What is so impressive about “Blood Money,” then, is that each of these issues, along with several more, gets explored in meaningful depth. We are constantly treated to moments and sequences that we have spent years speculating about, and yet finally seeing such beats play out does not feel easy or predictable, but thoroughly thrilling and invigorating. Gilligan and his team have managed to make the initial stages of pay-off just as tense, inventive, and harrowing as much of what came before, simultaneously defying and fulfilling our heavy expectations at every turn.
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Take the opening sequence, for instance, in which we return to the near future first visited in last year’s premiere, “Live Free or Die,” and see a disheveled Walter White return to his home, now in extreme disrepair. A White family house besieged by violence and decay has long been something predicted by fans, going back to the season 2 flash-forwards of the teddy bear in the pool, and while we have yet to see how the home comes to be in this state, the way we are introduced to do it – including the glorious fake-out of teenagers using the pool as a skateboard rink – is surprising, eerie, and altogether captivating.
What fascinates me most about the pre-credits sequence are the unexpectedly major pieces of information we get about where Walt’s journey is headed. Given that “Heisenberg” has been graffitied in giant yellow letters on the living room wall, and next-door neighbor Carol is terrified to see Walt back in the neighborhood, we can safely assume that the series will not end with Walt perishing anonymously – his identity is going to get out, and he is going to become famous for his crimes. That is certainly one of the possible endgame elements fans have considered, but the tense, gorgeously bleak execution of the scene is such that the information hits like an unanticipated punch to the gut. We may have expected Walt’s crimes to become public at some point in the future, but to actually see evidence to this fact is truly spine-tingling.
And the same can be said of Walt’s reclamation of his ricin, first prepared early in season 4 for use on Gus Fring. The ricin has long been one of the most overtly Chekhovian elements in a heavily Chekovian series, and it should not come as a surprise that Walt has added this weapon to his increasingly deadly arsenal (which also includes objects as simple and blunt as a tire wrench), but the moment when we realize that is what he has returned to find still has impact, and further primes us for whatever is to come.
Nevertheless, it is the present-day material that obviously bears more weight at this point, and I think it goes without saying that whatever we expected of Breaking Bad or Dean Norris in depicting Hank’s sudden realization of his brother-in-law’s identity, “Blood Money” surpasses it. Norris is absolutely tremendous throughout the hour, but the way he plays Hank’s state of total, absolute shock coming out of the bathroom, struggling to process the enormity of his epiphany, may have hit me the hardest. That scene – and the one that follows, where Hank’s emotions lead him to crash the car – is a veritable master class in non-verbal acting, as Norris’ face appears to pulsate with growing, all-consuming horror, while all manner of negative emotions flash by, each warring for supremacy within his conflicted mind. As a viewer, it is one thing to wonder how Hank might react when he uncovers the truth about Walt, but it is another matter entirely to see the beat actually play out, and to see Norris give the scene his absolute all when bringing it to life.
Then there are the moments that flow organically out of these touchstone points – the smaller details we tend not to ponder when predicting the future of this story, but ones that are absolutely crucial to illustrating the bigger picture. So while it would be easy for the show to move right to Hank bringing this information to his colleagues at the DEA, or even having a hurt, headstrong Hank confront Walt directly, neither option would speak to how Hank has developed as a character. The Hank of the pilot may have done something rash or impulsive with this revelation, but the man has come a very long way since then – he’s even been through paralysis and back – and so he instead chooses to investigate on his own, pouring over old boxes of evidence in the very same garage where, all the way back in season 2, he brewed beer as a means to escape from the mental anguish of having shot Tuco Salamanca. And as he does so, we are treated to a patented Breaking Bad montage – one that is, in the house style, much more musically upbeat than what is actually being depicted – and briefly revisit a number of Walt’s most egregious crimes from the past five seasons, dating all the way back to his and Jesse’s very first (and very clumsy) methylamine heist. It is the hour’s defining sequence of building off audience familiarity with past events – we are intimately familiar with everything Walt has done, but to see it all through Hank’s eyes is both satisfying (he finally sees what we see) and terrifying (Walt’s crimes look even more terrible when viewed in a quick succession of totality).
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Jesse, meanwhile, gets his best showcase episode since season four – last year’s episodes kept Aaron Paul on the sidelines, which was narratively understandable but nevertheless disappointing – in a subplot that tackles an issue I have long waited for the show to deal with. Jesse has tried many times in the past to get out of the drug trade, and every time he did I found myself wondering what kind of future this character could have. The meth business has been destroying him, both physically and mentally, since the very beginning, and yet he has often been at his sanest and happiest when having that business as a constant in his life. Jesse is an immensely sensitive person – a good man and endearing character, even considering his criminal activity – and while his involvement with Walter White has led him to terrible things he will always be scarred by, he tends to succumb most heavily to those wounds when he has nothing else to fill his life with. He cannot live with himself when he cooks meth, but he tends to have an even more difficult time when he finds himself with nothing else to do.
So what would Jesse Pinkman do with his life once he has definitively left Walter White behind? That is not the exact circumstance we explore here – Walt’s delivery of $5 million in last year’s finale is obviously the catalyst to Jesse’s latest moral crisis – but it is close enough to count, as Jesse’s arc here is all about how he lives with the guilt of everything he has done. And as we might expect, that guilt weighs so heavily on him that he cannot function, his only means of coping being to give away his eponymous ‘blood money’ to people he feels he has wronged.
Again, this is a Jesse story that we have, on at least some level, come to anticipate, and yet the actual presentation does not feel simple or inevitable. Every emotional beat of Jesse’s struggle rings absolutely true – I was most moved by his insistence on providing for Mike’s granddaughter, Kaylee, which was a very nice callback to Jesse’s friendship with the man – and builds off his long-developing character arc in ways that feel earned, but not overly predictable. Aaron Paul is absolutely dynamite throughout – playing emotional confliction, or outright devastation, is his specialty – and I love the balance between delirium and genuine catharsis he summons at the end, when Jesse deals with his guilt by driving around low-income areas and throwing stacks of cash out the window. I doubt this release will be anywhere near enough to heal him, but I do think it is a legitimate step forward for the character. Paying $2.5 million each to Kaylee and the Smith family is merely attacking his guilt with money, but giving financial aid to the impoverished – however unorthodox the method – is actually altruistic (if not entirely selfless). If he can find more ways to convert the awful things he has done into truly good deeds, perhaps Jesse can discover a real path towards healing – though not, I suspect, if Walter White is still in the picture.
After all, as moments of long-awaited pay-off go, Jesse finally realizing that Walt is indeed a pathological liar is pretty spectacular. There will certainly be lots more to come from this point – I predict this is the first step towards Jesse uncovering all the other lies Walt has told him, including killing Jane and poisoning Brock – but even as I have spent several seasons now waiting for Jesse to finally call Walt on his bullshit, I absolutely did not expect Jesse to deduce the truth about Mike’s fate this quickly. But given how much of Walt’s dark side Jesse saw near the end of last season, this feels like the right time for this to happen. Walt gives as good a performance as ever in trying to convince Jesse of his innocence – and Jesse lets Walt think he believes him, because like Hank, Jesse senses it is better to wait and form a plan of attack than confront Heisenberg outright – but Jesse knows Walt far too well at this point (and cared too much for Mike to just let this one pass), and I think he, like Hank, is no longer fooled by the mask. And now that Jesse knows what a lying Walt looks like, I don’t think it will be long before he starts remembering all the other times Walt has used that performance tactic to convince Jesse of a platitude.
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As for Walt himself, “Blood Money” is filled with story beats we have been waiting to see, and none of them disappoint, starting with an exploration of how a retired Walter White operates. Bryan Cranston’s performance has always had to be extraordinarily dynamic to make this character work, and he debuts yet another version of Walt here, playing a domesticated, but no less fierce, Heisenberg. I think the reading that the original, human Walter White died laughing in the crawlspace back in season 4, broken by the stress of having all his criminal efforts collapse in on him at once, still stands, as the character we see here – laughing with his family, amiably doing business at the car wash, etc. – is the same monster who dominated last year’s batch of episodes, putting on a ‘human’ face when necessary and letting it slip away whenever he feels threatened. This man has long since lost his soul, and the criminal persona he spent five seasons forging is still in command. Notice how, even though he is no longer cooking meth, Walt still wants to make sure that giant pile of money we saw last year is laundered, and how much of an intense flair for business he still has in suggesting ideas for the car wash. Heisenberg always wants more, and that remains true, even outside of the meth trade.
More importantly, it is revealed here that Walt’s cancer has indeed returned, which is something many fans, myself included, had predicted at the end of last season. Walt’s decision to leave meth behind in “Gliding Over All” felt abrupt – intentionally so, I think – and learning that his cancer is back does a nice job to fill in the gaps. I do not think a healthy, physically able Walter White would ever step away from his meth empire, no matter how much money he had accumulated, but Heisenberg might be brought back to earth by the knowledge of his own impending mortality – not so much to spend time with his family, perhaps, as to enjoy the fruits of his ‘legendary’ works while he still can.
In any case, the most interesting element of Walt’s cancer here is the intriguing contrast it establishes between the events of this episode and the last time Walt went through all this, back in the first two seasons. Back then, there was so much danger and uncertainty encircling his treatment; Walt, still fundamentally human, did not know whether or not he even wanted chemo, and a major part of why he chose to continue cooking meth was to make sure he earned those treatments, rather than receiving them by way of what he viewed as fiscal ‘charity.’ As such, Walt’s original bout of cancer was surrounded by lies, deceit, and increasing instability, whereas here, roughly one year later, everything is theoretically ‘easy.’ Walt has the money for treatment, he is not technically doing anything nefarious on the side, and he can go home to a family unit that is as stable as it can be after everything that has happened. Everything is ‘clean’ this time around, and my reading of Cranston’s performance, during the chemotherapy scene and other quiet moments, is that Walt does not mind dying so much, because he has achieved much of what he always wanted: A solid, stress-free environment in which to do so, where he controls the circumstances of his dying days.
Which is exactly why learning Hank is on his trail would set Walt off as much as it does, leading us back to that spectacular final scene. Each Breaking Bad viewer has surely spent the last year imagining what this confrontation would look like, and once again, the actual execution is so much more than we could have imagined. Writer Peter Gould crafts the scene perfectly, in a fashion that builds off everything we know to be true about these characters – Walt reveals himself to Hank out of pride (and a mistaken belief that he is impervious), while Hank puts all his cards on the table in an outburst of pure, uncontrollable emotion – and pits them against each other in a direction unlike anything we have seen before.
I especially love how much the episode itself builds to this moment. Gould is wise to keep us from seeing exactly how much Hank has pieced together until the character starts delivering that furious monologue listing all of Walt’s various wrongdoings; it both completes Hank’s arc of emotional confusion within the episode, and maximizes the pay-off we feel seeing Walt attacked by someone who knows everything he has done. And in the same fashion, it feels only appropriate that for all of Walt’s attempts to find power working at the car wash or dealing with cancer, he cannot resist this opportunity to express his villainous dominance over the man who finally uncovered him. This is what Walter White truly lives for now, if he lives for anything, and he does not so much mind Hank’s physical beating if it gives him an opportunity to demonstrate the extent of his machinations, and to mock Hank with the knowledge that he will never be put behind bars.
Dean Norris is once again the episode’s MVP, expressing such a deep feeling of hurt and betrayal as he looks upon this man he truly loved and cared for, now revealed to be an absolute monster living in human skin. Breaking Bad has spent a lot of time over the years establishing just how much Hank really does care for Walt and his family – even if he sometimes has a hard time showing it – and the look on Norris’ face as he says “I don’t even know who I’m talking to” is one of the most heartbreaking moments in the series’ history. It is not just the betrayal of his friend and family member having turned to evil that cuts through Hank, but the knowledge that so many of the moments he shared with this man were falsehoods – and that this horrible confrontation they are now engaged in is one of their only genuine moments together in over a year.
That is what pay-off is all about: Taking everything we have experienced up to now and bringing it together in a moment that bears the collective weight of a long, complex series’ worth of experiences. Breaking Bad obviously has a lot of balls in the air coming into this final season, in terms of both narrative and character-based material, and we still have seven episodes left to see if they all come back down in a completely satisfying arrangement. But so far? Gilligan and company could not be doing any more to make sure those balls matter, and to be putting each one in place to maximize the immediate and eventual pay-off. As someone who felt last year’s episodes were a tad disappointing, good but not great entries in one of the all-time great television dramas, I could not be happier to see Breaking Bad return at the top of its game, tackling the beginning of the end with the same inventive, emotional spirit that defined the show during its greatest, most legendary periods.
- Skyler’s involvement in this episode was brief, but crucial. Just as I have wondered about how Walt or Jesse might live outside of the meth trade, I watched most of last season wondering exactly how Skyler could ever live a normal life once all this was theoretically ‘over.’ The answer? Not well. She is still obviously (and justifiably) terrified of Walt, even when he’s suggesting something as simple as rearranging air fresheners at the car wash, and when Lydia arrives insisting Walt come back to ‘work,’ Skyler has none of it – she just regained a semblance of family stability, and she isn’t going to let a pushover like Lydia ruin it. A very nice beat for Anna Gunn, who plays it excellently, as always.
- Speaking of Lydia, her presence also helps to address one of the loose ends from last season. Namely, how Walt could walk away from such a massive, complex meth operation without consequence. Turns out there is consequence, in one form or another – and I suspect Lydia begging Walt to come back is only the beginning. Walt isn’t going to get out of this cleanly.
- Bryan Cranston directed this episode, as he has several season premieres, and this is easily his most impressive work to date behind the camera. I especially love the shot in the opening of Walt looking at himself in the broken mirror, only to see a distorted reflection where his face is split in two, but there are other great or clever visual moments as well, including the slow zoom in on the bathroom door at the beginning or framing Walt and Jesse during their confrontation with the two giant bags of money literally in between them.
- Badger and Skinny Pete talking Star Trek is a minor comic masterpiece. I just love the intricacy of Badger’s Trek story – he clearly put a lot of thought into it, even in his own addle-brained way – and how completely off-brand it is for the series, even as he seems to have a relative grasp on the characters. I would put that scene toe to toe with Patton Oswalt’s epic Star Wars/Marvel Universe crossover improve bit from Parks and Recreation. In any case, that’s the kind of silly, relaxed scene Breaking Bad is assumedly going to have much less time for over the next seven hours, so I am glad we got this one in advance.
Follow author Jonathan Lack on Twitter @JonathanLack.Previous