Following on the heels of a truly mind-melting fourth season finale, Breaking Bad’s season five premier opens with typically cryptic, chronology-tweaking finesse. Counterpointing the shrewd intensity embodied by his lean, shaven-headed physical transformation in prior seasons, season five’s Walter White is introduced, haggard and tellingly bearded, hunched over the counter in a Denny’s and listlessly playing with his food. Bantering politely with the waitress and claiming today is his birthday, Walt gives a fake name and says he’s from New Hampshire, providing a forged I.D. card to prove it. After a furtive dodge into a restroom for an illicit exchange of envelopes with a previously unseen stranger, Walt saunters into the restaurant parking lot to retrieve a duffel bag from the trunk of a parked Volvo with New Hampshire plates, depositing the bag into another vehicle, which a crosscut reveals contains a semi-automatic rifle and sundry accessories.
Flashing back to the immediate aftermath of Gus Fring’s murder in the nursing home, there is a brief replay of Skyler and Walt’s phone conversation regarding the incident – “We’re safe,” he tells her, “I won.” Returning home, Walt frantically collects a slew of electronic appliances from around the house, tosses them into a garbage bag, and stashes it in his car before suffering through a terse and awkward conversation with Skyler, who claims to be afraid of him, and refuses to communicate in any further detail.
Elsewhere, riding the success of his victory over the Fring bust, Hank descends into the ruined shell of the meth lab in the Laundromat along with fellow DEA agents. Regarding its murky depths contemplatively, Hank is the first to notice the lab’s blackened, but still intact mounted security camera.
After fatefully crossing paths in the desert with Walter and Jesse, Mike is initially game to shoot them both, but Jesse and Walt talk him down. They express concern about the still extant surveillance footage, which could put all three of them at risk for prosecution. Quickly seeing their point, Mike pulls some strings and ascertains that Fring’s laptop, where the surveillance footage is archived, has already been tagged and stored in a heavily secured evidence locker. Urgently batting around possibilities about bombing or infiltrating the locker, Mike and Walt are cut off by Jesse, who suggests wiping the computer’s hard drive with a magnet instead.
Picking up the thread of a subplot you probably totally forgot about from last season, in the wake of all the face-ripping explosions and meth lab torching, Skyler entertains an impromptu visit at the car wash from Saul Goodman, who clues her in about the unintended fallout from his hired thugs’ strong-arming over the IRS issue. Turns out Ted is alive, but not good – “He just woke up,” Saul confides earnestly.
Cutting a deal with the owner of a junkyard that demolishes totaled cars, Walt, Jesse and Mike build a primitive test setup using a dilapidated moving truck to determine whether the junkyard’s magnet is powerful enough to corrupt a laptop drive. The laptop screen digitizes and then goes blank before flying ten feet through the air and slamming into the side of the truck. Mike points out that this level of force will likely cause a racket, but Walt is unconcerned – “In 60 seconds, we’ll be gone.”
Skyler visits Ted in the hospital, discovering that he’s lucid, but that his injury has left him completely paralyzed, horrifically confined to an elaborate system of neck and chest braces. Stiltingly, Ted claims he has kept all relevant details about the money laundering to himself, and promises never to reveal them to anyone.
Under cover of darkness, Jesse, Walt and Mike pull up outside the evidence room at the police station where the laptop is being held and power up the magnet. Exemplary of the show’s flourishes of warped surrealism, a slow-boiling montage shows metal-caged ceiling lamps tilting off-balance toward a wall, paperclips sliding off a desk, and a red tricycle sailing balletically across the floor as plastic evidence bins sail off the shelves, breaking open and spilling a huge collection of metal into a glittering assemblage against the wall. In a final operatic crescendo, Walt’s overenthusiasm with the magnet’s intensity knob causes the truck to tip sidewise and pin itself to the outer wall of the building, but by the time agents arrive outside, Jesse and Walt have already fled the scene.
Rifling through the debris in the evidence room, officers finally uncover the Fring evidence. Brushing off a photograph in a shattered frame of Fring and his murdered fast food co-founder, the officer cataloguing the destruction notices a previously unrecorded detail – some text written behind the photograph in ballpoint, including a name, and what appears to be a routing number.
In the kitschy decadence of his office, Saul Goodman chipperly explains the details about Skyler’s money transfer to Ted Beneke, emphasizing that the point of the move was to avoid getting involved in an audit and deter suspicion from the car wash. Walt berates Saul acidly for not informing him about the transfer ahead of time, sarcastically comparing him to Clarence Darrow and mocking his use of the word “ethically.” Insisting on his ultimate loyalty to Walter and waving an empty plastic Ziploc bag, Saul makes obscure allusions to Andrea’s son, lamenting dramatically that he didn’t realize “the kid would end up in the hospital.”
The episode closes on a quiet, and emotionally ambiguous moment between Walter and Skyler. Walter enters the bedroom of their former shared home while Skyler is changing the baby’s diaper on the bed. With apparent tenderness, Walt says that he heard about what happened to Ted. “He’s not going to talk,” Skyler says tersely. Moving toward her slowly and wrapping his arms around her, Walter lays his head on Skyler’s shoulder and after a pause, softly mutters, “I forgive you.” The screen fades out on a shot of Skyler’s stricken, open-mouthed face.
Season five’s premiere is briskly action-oriented for the most part, with downplayed moments of emotionality laced throughout. Appropriately for the series, much of the character development remains poignantly subterranean. It’s especially interesting to observe how totally and unapologetically fused Walt and Jesse have become, no longer bothering to defend or explain their status as a fully conjoined unit. The ongoing power struggle between Walt and Skyler is likewise given a subtle and increasingly dark cast. The stalemate that defines their relationship continues to be more and more aggressively foregrounded by the extremity of Walter’s actions outside the relationship’s parameters, contrasted against Skyler’s unyielding and self-defensive pettiness in the face of them. Aside from the consistent intensity of the plot elements, the premier casts an intriguing and confident new filter on existing character dynamics that promisingly raise expectations for the rest of the season.