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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