It took me three years to watch the first four seasons of “Breaking Bad” on Netflix, and just over a day watch the fifth.
I’ve never been a binge watcher. In fact, I’m a weirdo eccentric who’s been known to not finish shows just so I can take comfort knowing there’s more to see (“The Wire” is genius, so of course I refuse to finish season four, much less the entire series). But “Breaking Bad” felt different. I’m not sure if I can remember a more anticipated series finale, and this is coming from someone who hosted not one but two “Lost” theme parties. The propulsive structure, the unique storytelling devices, the ensemble cast, the universal praise — this was a show that you could lose yourself in for long stretches of time. So I pitched the idea of a season five marathon all day Sunday.
Much like Walter White in the very first episode, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
“Breaking Bad” is every bit as brilliant as your friend who won’t stop hectoring you about it says it is, but it’s also completely miserable. There’s putting down a puppy with a shiv to it’s brain and then there’s “Breaking Bad.” After watching the season four finale — you know, the one with that image of Gus that you haven’t been able to shake from your nightmares — I knew there would be some difficult things to get through in season five, yet I was still emotionally unprepared. Things don’t get any better for Walt, Jesse and the rest once Gus is out of the picture; like every major action in the show, this measure only sows the seeds of even more despair.
Of course, I didn’t know this at the time. I just thought ‘wouldn’t it be fun to plow through the whole fifth season on Netflix and On Demand, so I could watch the finale live with the rest of America? I’ll spotlight the cold opens — one of the greatest strengths of the show — write a quick review of each episode, touch on my own emotional and mental state, then hit play on the next one.’
Did I compare myself already to season one Walt already? Oh, okay, good; so you know things didn’t go exactly as planned.
WARNING: SPOILERS FOLLOW
Episode 1 – “Live Free or Die”
Key Line – “Scared? Scared of what?”
Cold Open – Easily one of the best in series history. Breaking Bad frequently uses the cold open as foreshadowing (especially season 2, where almost all tease the climactic plane crash), but this one was particularly compelling, because it drops you into a specific time (Walt’s 52nd birthday, about one year after the show’s present) at familiar place (Denny’s, where I spent an inordinate amount of time downing coffee and smoking cigarettes during my teenage years) but remains tantalizingly ambiguous on the details. Whatever future Walt is up to, the gun in the trunk proves it still involves violence, and the low angle shot from the trunk of the car is familiar, tying his past to his present. A
Critical Analysis – Very surprising way to open the season, with a mission-based episode involving a truck rigged with a super magnet and Ted all sorts of messed up from his rug mishap (way to linger on Skyler’s look of horror before finally showing us the poor bastard). But even though the episode is heavy on incident and action, there are some great character moments involving Walt’s change following the bombing. He physically menaces Saul when he tries to break it off with him and Skyler’s look of abject fear during their embrace at the end of the episode (when Walt “forgives” her for the Ted thing) shows how those around Walt now see him as a monster, even if he’s yet to see it himself. A
Personal Mental State – I’m hitting play around 6:15 am on this episode, as the first streaks of light appear on the horizon. Shower taken, coffee poured, fantastic first episode in the bag, I’m ready to get after this! Also not hurting: the fact that I’m a morning person.
Episode 2 – “Madrigal”
Key Line – “When we do what we do for good reasons, we’ve got nothing to worry about. And there’s no better reason than family.”
Cold Open – A German food-testing lab is not a location I thought I’d ever see on this show, but “Breaking Bad” is nothing if not surprising. Poor Mr. Schuler was so upset about the police, he couldn’t even enjoy the amazing new “Franch” dipping sauce. The lowering of the Pollos Hermanos sign was a great visual metaphor and the odd intricacy of Schuler’s suicide continues the show’s grand tradition of crazy-a** death scenes. You have to appreciate how “Breaking Bad” has widened its scope and the explicit connection it draws between the world of illicit drugs and corporate fast food. A
Critical Analysis – The theme of this episode is about the code that people hold to when offered opportunity at the expense of betrayal. Jesse has become as morally compromised as Walt since murdering Gale, but the idea of being responsible for the poisoning of a child is too much for him to bear. Mike (last name Ehrmantraut!?) insists that his guys will stay quiet even as they begin to betray each other. The corporate stooge Lydia has no loyalty at all, only her own self-interest. And Walt? Best not ask questions about that guy’s loyalty. A-
Personal Mental State – Still feeling great thanks to another strong episode and a Cliff Bar. This is looking easy and fun so far!
Episode 3 – “Hazard Pay”
Key Line – “Just because you shot Jesse James, don’t make you Jesse James.”
Cold Open – Mike’s paying visits to his crew that’s been rounded up by the cops. The business-speak they all use underscores the corporate professionalism of Gus’ operation; they want their “hazard pay” and Mike promises to “make them whole.” Still, while it’s cool to see Mike get into the holding cell under the auspice of a “paralegal,” stylistically or story-wise, nothing really happens here that couldn’t have fit in anywhere in the episode. C+
Critical Analysis – Although Skyler’s “shut up” breakdown on Marie was visceral and upsetting, it’s nice to have an episode that’s a bit lighter in tone (any time you get a scene with Skinny Pete and Badger, the mood is going to be as breezy as the classical piece Skinny expertly plays on the piano). Saul’s real estate-agent pitch at potential cook locations was terrific and funny, and the musical montage of their first cook inside a house that’s undergoing pest-control ranks among the show’s best (which is saying something, given how frequently their employed and how expertly they’re executed). It’s also interesting to see Jesse and Walt beginning to develop a friendship when their relationship has been so adversarial and co-dependent in the past. A-
Personal Mental State – Still pretty good, although with all the notes I’m taking for my high-falutin “critical analysis,” I’m not flying through the episodes as quickly as I would like. This day is going to be longer than expected.
Episode 4 – “Fifty-One”
Key Line – “Nothing stops this train. Nothing.”
Cold Open – Walt gets his Pontiac back from the shop, but the black hat triggers his Heisenberg hubris and he dumps it for $50 bucks. After getting his own new luxury whip, Walt pulls up next to Junior’s PT cruiser, who gives him a so-so on the appearance of their cars side-by-side. What’s a father to do? Give Walt Jr. his Charger back and have a dubstep-off in the driveway, of course! Funny yet illustrative about the change in Walt’s personality. B
Critical Analysis – A character-based episode that deals with the way the different people handle mounting pressure. While Skyler is completely cracking under the strain of her deceptions and the weight of her choices, Walt is reveling in indulgences, even getting sentimental over the events that have transpired since his birthday and cancer diagnosis one year ago. Meanwhile, Lydia is barely holding it together and tries to squirm her way out of the pit, while Mike, ever the pragmatist, is looking for concrete solutions. B
Personal Mental State – Fittingly, I’m undergoing my own test on how to deal with pressure, as each completed episode forces me to confront the time I still have ahead of me. A quarter of the way through the fifth season, I’m way behind the schedule I hoped to be on. Fortunately, I’m like Mike; I’m all about definitive solutions. Mine? More caffeine. Something tells me I’ll be needing a lot of that today.
Episode 5 – “Dead Freight”
Key Quote – “There are two kinds of heists: those where the guys get away with it and those that leave witnesses.”
Cold Open – Another cold open staple; a scene of something strange or unrelated to the plot that will factor into the story later on. This was particularly effective in the opening episode of season 3, when “The Cousins” made that ritualistic crawl toward the prayer temple of death. Here, we see a 12-year-old kid riding his dirt bike through the dusty hills on the outskirts of Albuquerque, where he collects a tarantula. Nothing else happens beyond that, but that’s exactly the point: the sight of a tarantula in a jar creates all kinds of suggestions for your mind to indulge. B+
Critical Analysis – Wow. A train robbery episode? Just wow.
“Dead Freight” begins with a theme of manipulation and trust, as Walt’s emotional revelation to the new DEA “bossman” Hank about he and Skylar’s problems is obviously a front to get a bug into Hank’s office. Turns out, Lydia wasn’t the one who bugged the barrel but a rogue DEA team, so she earns a stay of execution with the promise of “an ocean” of methylamine. The train robbery scheme is brilliantly cooked up by Jesse, who has somehow become the brains of the operation. And despite a tense close call, the gang pulls it off — the heist scene is incredibly well-staged and executed. Speaking of which…
Much like Walt and his crew, I just did not see that kid coming. An opening scene with a kid putting tarantula in a jar should mean a future cameo for that tarantula, not the kid. So his surprise appearance during the victory celebration came at me from out of the blue, although his death, sadly, did not. This is one of the best episodes of the entire series. A
Personal Mental State – Pretty frazzled. The ending of that episode is utterly tragic, both because of the kid’s death and the fact that even when Walt and Jesse succeed, there’s still a horrible outcome. This is the kind of episode that would psychologically linger with viewers for days after; I’m not sure if it’s a good thing or bad that I have to continue pressing on.
Episode 6 – “Buyout”
Key Line – “You asked me if I was in the meth business or the money business. Neither; I’m in the Empire business”.
Cold Open – The crew returns from the heist and dismantles the dirt bike, which, like its rider, is slated to be dissolved. Todd, the triggerman, is cavalier about the whole thing, so Jesse punches him. Dave Porter’s dark electronic score has always been incredibly expressive in conveying mood, and imagery like the kid’s hand appearing in the dirt is haunting, but not much happens here beyond picking up the story where it left off. C
Critical Analysis – First and foremost, this is a place-setting episode that resolves some plot threads while introducing others: against Jesse’s objections, Walt and Mike decide to keep Todd in the crew; blabbermouth Marie tells Skylar that Walt told her about Ted; Mike meets with a guy who wants their Methylamine; Jesse comes over for the most awkward family dinner ever.
But even within the template, the show gives us some insightful character moments, like Walt’s revelation about his Gray Matter buyout. Normally, when a character turns down $5 million, it’s hard to believe their motives, but in Walt’s case — with his crumbling marriage and intellectual neediness — you really believe that would trade in that fortune to cling to his his precious Blue; he’s just as addicted to it as the people he sells it to. B-
Personal Mental State – Six episodes in a row and I’m growing more than a bit numb.
Episode 7 – “Say My Name”
Key Line – “Say My Name”
“You’re G***mn right.”
Cold Open – Mike and Jesse drive Walt out to the desert where he talks his s**t to the out of town crew. His confidence and salesmanship has never been better; you could make the same argument for Bryan Cranston’s acting. Even though it’s a direct jump into the story without any foreshadowing or symbolism, it’s still an amazing open. A-
Critical Analysis – The episode’s title might allude to Walt — and his speech to Jesse when he tries to quit is another chilling highlight of Walt’s fatal solipsism — but the central character of “Say My Name,” is Mike. His lawyer stashing all the cash in the safe deposit boxes was an excellent cold open by proxy and the first of two excellent montages set to jazz. He’s doing this because Mike is trying up all his loose ends before getting out of the game. And it appears he’s succeeded too, until his lawyer gets busted and proves he doesn’t have the loyalty of the nine clients he represents.
Mike’s death was unfortunate but predictable. Walt’s ego and vanity have been the source of many of the conflicts thus far in season five, and to call him on it is to pay with your life. I’m sure most Breaking Bad fans would join me in saying I’m very sad to see Mike go. He’s been an amazing character for the show, providing a sense of hard-earned professionalism to their criminal activities while adding much needed grace notes of warmth and humor. Meanwhile, Walt is looking more and more irredeemable. B+
Personal Mental State – It’s Sunday, so this marathon has forced me to miss church, i.e., the Bronco game against the Eagles. And while I’m more than happy to “take one for the team” and skip it to get through this marathon, the Eagles are only down by a score at halftime, it’s looking like an entertaining game, and my brain is having a hard time processing the show after so many hours of watching and writing– now at 10 and counting. I’m taking a well-earned break to watch the second half.
Personal note – The Denver Broncos provided a much needed respite from the moral salaciousness of Breaking Bad by turning it on in the second half and destroying the Eagles 52-20. This was like a personalized happiness injection into my day as I prepare to plunge back into the abyss.
Episode 8 – “Gliding all over”
Key Line – “We? Who’s we? There is no we, Jesse. I’m the only vote left.”
Cold Open – Begins with a closeup of a fly, a clever callback to the season 3 episode. Walt’s attentive yet vacant fixation on the bug indicates he has fully gone over to the dark side. And when Jesse shows up asking about Mike, who Walt says is “gone,” and inquires about their plan to deal with the guys with the information, Walt dismisses him with a patronizing snarl above. It’s effective in establishing the tone, but not particularly clever. B-
Critical Analysis – This is an odd episode. It moves fast and purposefully, but it also feels rushed, like they needed to wrap a lot of things up before the back half of the season. The inmates who are lining up to sing like an American Idol audition get knocked off just a few scenes later in a brutal montage. Lydia proposes using Madrigal to expand Blue distribution into the Czech Republic and that too is quickly resolved with a “things are really cooking with this new Czech meth arrangement” montage set to Tommy James & The shondells “Crystal Blue Persuasion” (which begs the question ‘did they come up with this entire show just so they could set a montage to that song’?) Suddenly Holly is almost walking and we’re three months in the future and Walt has a pile of cash the size of a small storage unit and Skylar wants her family back and Jesse gets the money he’s owed and Walt quits and that’s that.
It’s a great credit to the show that the even the happily ever after scene is filled with tension and dread, as a lingering shot of the White’s all chatting around the pool primes the audience to expect something horrible. But it’s not an assassin’s bullet or an exploding plane that breaks the pool’s still waters; it’s Hank’s bowels. When he goes to the bathroom to relieve himself, he finds a Walt Whitman book among the bathroom reading material, a book the G.B. (Gale Boetticher) gave to W.W. as a gift. The obsessive mind of Hank quickly makes the connection and Walt’s final reckoning begins from the crapper. C+
Personal Mental State – Things are not moving swiftly. I’m spending far too long writing these things when I still have eight episodes to go. I feel like I’m lacking in clarity and focus, and while these first eight episodes were fantastic, it’s too much of a good thing all at once, like a firehose of beer. I’m worried that my metaphors are strained. I’m worried I’m starting to lose it.
Episode 9 – “Blood Money”
Key Line – “If you don’t know who I am, then maybe your best course would be to tread lightly.”
Cold Open – Like many other cold opens, the episode starts at the pool, but instead of floating teddy bear eyes, there’s a bunch of kids skateboarding in it. Yes, it’s time for again for disheveled future Walt! He arrives back at his long since wrecked home on to find a friendly greeting of “Heisenberg” spray-painted across his mantle. The house looks like a drug squat, but Walt doesn’t encounter any junkies as he makes his way to the bedroom where he collects the ricin pill. Like the audience, the next door neighbor gapes in disgust and amazement at future Walt. Can you blame her for dropping her groceries when he offers a friendly, “Hello, Carol?” A
Critical Analysis – “Blood Money” is a well-constructed episode that serves as a reintroduction to the world of “Breaking Bad” for fans who waited almost a year (or in my case, about 15 minutes) for the episode. Picking up exactly where the previous left off — with a thunderstruck Hank returning from the bathroom just in time to hear Marie call Walt “the devil” — it deals with the fallout from Walt’s retirement from the meth game and themes of identity and reinvention.
Jesse, who would rather hang out in Saul Goodman’s waiting room than hear Badger’s pitch for a Star Trek movie, wants to free himself of the titular “Blood Money,” first by giving it away to Ehrmantraut’s granddaughter and the parents of the kid who was shot, then as the Robin Hood of Albuquerque’s ghetto. Walt, “right hand to God” car wash employee, is also trying to absolve himself of his past, when Lydia pops into the car wash to get Walt to “right the ship” of his abandoned operation before being chased off by Skylar. And Hank, pulled back into the maddening depths of the Heisenberg case, finally confronts Walt in a scene that fans have anticipated/ dreaded for years. A great way to start the home stretch. A-
Personal Mental State – I hoped it wouldn’t come to this, but there was no way around it: I took a caffeine pill, aka “trucker speed,” to get me through this last stretch. Holy wow, it’s doing it’s job. I could go all night on stuff, (and at this rate, I’ll probably have to).
Episode 10 – “Buried”
Key Line – “AM I UNDER ARREST?!?!”
Cold Open – Jesse’s free-money-as-newspaper-boy routine has it’s first happy customer, an old dude out to warm up his car. The trail of fat stacks leads to Jesse’s car, left abandoned at the playground as Jesse lies zonked on the merry-go-round. Sure, the playground symbolism is a nice touch, but this is the rare cold open that just feels like a normal scene from the show. C-
Critical Analysis – “Buried” is about the secrets we keep, from others and ourselves. Hanks wins the cell phone race to get ahold of Skylar, but when he presses her to talk at the coffee shop, into a recorder, using her full name and the date, his fanaticism is clear, even if he has convinced himself that he’s helping her. Same goes for Marie after her big talk (and smack) of Skylar; she might be morally in the right, but snatching away your sister’s baby is not the way to prove it. Following a great scene where Huell and Kuby Scrooge McDuck the storage unit cash, Walt takes his secret barrells of money to hide out in the desert, ensuring that it gets to his children. After signing off on a hit of the Arizona crew, Lydia literally covers her eyes against the violence she’s involved in.
The anticipation of the denouement has made many of these scenes highly anticipated and they deliver. Anna Gunn deserves a lot of credit for her performance in season 5, where she’s had a number of emotional moments that have all been amazingly well-acted. A-
Personal Mental State – I’m still feeling good from that caffeine pill. The first couple of episodes have continued the excellence established long ago, and the anticipation of nearing the climax helps push me through.
Episode 11 – “Confessions”
Key Line – “Would you just, for once, stop working me.”
Cold Open – Long scene of Todd and his ex-con Uncle bullsh**ing about the train heist (a certain detail is crucially omitted). Then they take off in the truck back to New Mexico with all the equipment for Todd to set up a lab. It provides a bit of color to some of the ancillary characters, but there’s nothing special about it. Aside from the opener, cold opens have not been a strength to start the second half of this season. C
Critical Analysis – Hank confronts Jesse in interrogation, and they both have a surprising amount in common, even if they’d rather not admit it. After an awkward moment at the mexican restaurant, Walt leaves Hank his “confession,” where he implicates him as the ringleader of the Blue operation.
This season needed a little injection of Jesse and after a great scene with Jesse calling Walt on his BS, this episode brought it. He doesn’t fall for Walt’s speech about leaving town and finally discovers the truth about the Ricin cigarette. Incredible for a show to run a plot arc that long before paying it off. Not the best episode of the season so far but solid, thanks in large part to Walt’s fantastic confession video. B
Personal Mental State – It’s coming up on midnight and I still have four episodes to go. I’m awake thanks to the caffeine pill, but I’m weary. The road is looking long at this point, and there’s still much more to go.
Episode 12 – “Rabid Dog”
Key Line – “We’ve come this far. For us. What’s one more?”
Cold Open – Walt races home to confront Jesse but he’s already left without torching the house. Walt discovers a scratched up CD. That’s it. The cold opens have been the worst part about this season. C-
Personal Mental State – I’m fatigued and my tummy hurts, yet there’s still so much more to come. I find myself longing to simply watch an episode instead of writing about and (over) thinking it. So I do just that. One quick observation, however — Every episode in the back half of season five has shown Bryan cranston in his underwear.
Critical Analysis – Everyone wants to kill Jesse. The Jesse/ Hank team up is super weird. Best episode of the season second half of the season so far. A
Episode 13 – “To’Hajiilee”
Personal Note – I can’t front anymore. I’m spent, physically, emotionally, psychologically. I made it through this episode but the details are a bit fuzzy. The big shootout at the end got my attention but when you’ve been binging on a show for nearly 24-straight hours, attentiveness is not your strength. I’ll watch the last three episodes in the morning. For now, I’m going to bed. N/A
Episode 14 – “Ozymandias”
Key Line – “You’re the smartest guy I know and you’re too stupid to see he made up his mind 10 minutes ago.”
Cold Open – Flashback to the first cook in the desert and the first lie Walt told Skylar. The glimpse of these characters before everything went awry and the location of the first cook now being the site of a gun fight brings everything full circle. A
Cricial Analysis – One of the most gut-wrenching episodes in series history. Walt’s knife fight with Skylar, Hank’s murder, Junior, excuse me, Flynn finding out his dad was a drug dealer, Walt’s final call to Skylar, all of it is absolutely brutal. A
Personal Mental State – After four hours of sleep, I’m back at it and ready to wrap things up. It was nice to fall asleep anticipating the finale, as so many other fans did, and the rest has me feeling rejuvenated.
Episode 15 – “Granite State”
Key Line – “Even if I said yes, would you believe me?”
Cold Open – Saul is getting away thanks to his fixer Robert Forster (!) but Walt is still hiding out as well. Nothing special. C
Critical Analysis – Another heartbreaking episode that mostly just sets up the finale. Poor Skylar. Poor Walt Jr. Double poor Andrea. Poor everyone. B+
Personal Mental State – I’m know I’m giving short-shrift to this penultimate episode but I’ve been at this a while and the end is so very close. On to the last one!
Episode 16 – “Felina”
Key Line – “Just get me home.”
Cold Open – Walt makes his way into an unlocked car. He struggles to hotwire it but the black and white are approaching. The cops pass and Walt checks the dash; the keys were there the whole time. Perfect metaphor for his character. A
Critical Analysis – I couldn’t understand the social media chatter surrounding Breaking Bad theories. This wasn’t “Lost” or “Battlestar Galactica;” theories are made for science fiction shows with no conclusive finality. But the flash-forward structure of two of the cold opens in the final season provided tantalizing glimpses into the future that tickled the imagination. Although I steered clear of this speculative fiction, I personally held out some small hope that the violence, destruction and despair wrought by Walt would be revealed in the final episode as a chemo-induced fantasy and the show would end with him waking up from a dream after considering a career change to a meth cook. He’d learn a terrible lesson from this vivid fantasy and vow to be a better father and husband, eventually beating cancer and getting his life together. Everyone would be spared.
I should have known better.
Of course there would be no happy endings in the saga of Walter White, not even a last minute redemption; only more deception and death. And while we all agree (right?) that Walt got what he deserved, this feeling is both satisfying and not.
Pulling together one last plan, Walt finds a way to leave his kids money via Gretchen and Elliott, who I’m sure many believed, as I did, would meet a violent end in the finale. He gave Skylar information that could help free her from the police investigation. And he rescued Jesse Pinkman, the only one who got away, although not before trying to use him one last time.
But Walt had to die. All things considered, this actually was about as happy of an ending as possible. Even Walt’s death was in a meth lab, his sick sanctuary. In the episode’s most poignant scene, he was finally able to tell Skylar the truth when she asked him the all important why. “I did it for me. I liked it. I was good at it. And I was alive.” The truth had finally set him free, now it was time to go. A
Personal Mental State – Well it’s over for me too. After gorging on 16 episodes over the course of 27 hours, I’m feeling a little like Jesse right now: traumatized, frazzled, and eager for a fresh start. There may be some who can binge watch television, but I’ve learned now that I’m not one of them. “Breaking Bad” is such an emotionally taxing show that my spirit feels a bit like a pinata. As gratifying as it is to be able to join the discussion about the show’s ending pretty much in real time, I think shows as complex and detailed as this deserve more consideration than you can give when blasting through it. More than almost any show I can think of, “Breaking Bad” gives you something to chew on and savor; I took a couple of bites and swallowed.
There will come a time when I go back and revisit the show, taking my time and appreciating it differently now that I know the ending. In spite of the special love I had for you, my “Baby Blue,” I’m relieved it’s over.