Leave it to showrunner Vince Gilligan and his "Breaking Bad" writing team to kick off its beloved show's final season not with a new, even-scarier villain to replace Gus Fring (R.I.P.) but with a practical question: After finally outsmarting and defeating his rival, how does Walter White clean up his mess?
If "Live Free or Die" (the episode's title is taken from New Hampshire's state motto — more on that later) is a preview of Season 5, Part I (the final eight episodes will air next year), then we will spend at least part of it watching Walt and his partner Jesse Pinkman attempt to cover their bloody tracks. Walt's murder of Gus (and former enemy Hector Salamanca in the explosive process) felt like the final power move in a life-or-death game of chess.
But now what? (The answer turns out to be more complicated than "It's time to make the donuts crystal meth.")
Most pressingly, Walt needs to destroy the damning video evidence on the laptop Gus constantly surveyed from his fast food restaurant. If police ever watched the footage, they would see Walt, Jesse and Gus' right-hand man Mike Ehrmantraut (among others) behaving very badly in the now-destroyed mega meth-lab over the course of many dirty months.
This leads to Season 5's first memorable scene — the trio uses a super-super-charged magnet (it pays to have a connection at a junkyard) that they hope will scramble the laptop's harddrive. Ironically, it was Jesse's off-the-cuff idea but, of course, former science-whiz teacher Walt executes it.
As Walt controls the magnet from a truck next to the prison, we see the plan slowly come together. Using the power of science (!), a metal toy-tricycle (strange evidence) slowly pedals itself toward the concrete wall, a sight gag that shows their plan will indeed work and one that reminds me of the trembling glass of water in "Jurassic Park." It instantly rachets up the drama without using a single line of dialogue, and it's just another classicly BIG scene "Breaking Bad" always seems to execute with ease.
In the end, a pile of damaged evidence (including Gus' computer) lays ruined against a wall. Crisis — one of about 6,000 I'm sure we'll encounter this season — averted.
"What is it with you guys?" Mike asks Jesse while pointing a gun at Walt. Earlier in the episode, we see Mike learning of Gus' death and flooring a Cadillac to presumably kill Walt as a loyal act of revenge. Perhaps heavy handidly, Jesse jumps in front of Mike's gun to defend Walt, symbolically indicating Jesse will do anything for his partner. The odd couple of Walt and his former student Jesse is one of TV's most complicated relationships, but right now, things are sunny ... or at least as amicable as they can be on a show as dark as "Breaking Bad."
It's hard to expect things to remain this (relatively) easy for Walt and Jesse. (Like, say, if Jesse ever finds out Walt was behind the poisoning of his girlfriend's son, Brock, well ... watch out.) There are plenty of indications in this episode that Walt (or is it his drug lord alter-ego Heisenberg?) will have to battle himself from constantly tripping over his inflating ego. For example: Mike — not Walt's No. 1 fan — is skeptical of the magnet plan's effectiveness. As the three drive away from the prison, Mike wants to know why Walt is so sure the plan worked.
"Because I say so," Walt deadpans. Jesse, riding shotgun, shoots him a horrified look, like the one America gave when Kanye interrupted Taylor. We are a country full of arrogant characters, but many of us — like Jesse — can still bristle at claims so brazen.
I'm a believer that Walt will not make it out of "Breaking Bad" breathing, and just like so many likely and unlikely drug kingpins before him, it will be his ego that will betray him. When Walt later plays the tough-guy bully with hilarious "two-bit" lawyer Saul Goodman, I wanted to email Gilligan with the subject line: "OK, I get it! He's full of himself!"
But this is a show that has yet to fail in delivering surprising plot turns, especially with its chronologically ambiguous cold opens (the opening scene before the title card), and "Live Free or Die" was no exception. Before we're thrust back into the chaos of a newly Gus-free New Mexico, Season 5 kicks off with a bearded Walter White looking shady over a California Denny's omlette on his (supposed) 52nd birthday. We don't know when this is or why Walt is wearing glasses Dwyane Wade might wear to a post-game conference. A suspicious looking man walks in the restaurant and Walt gets uneasy (reminding me of the last scene of "The Sopranos"). But when Walt meets him in the bathroom, they exchange an envelope and car keys.
Before the show cuts to its first commercial, Walt opens a car with a New Hampshire plate (there it is!) and grabs a gym bag. Then, using the keys given to him in the shady bathroom deal, he opens another a car in the same parking lot. In the trunk, we see an intimidatingly large gun (let me know in the comments what kind it was, if you caught it). Walt places the bag in the trunk with the gun and the mysterious scene concludes. We hear the familiar, eerie theme music that informs us The Man Who Knocks is at the door.
It makes me wonder: Is Walter White dead, and has Heisenberg taken his place permanently? His wife seems to think so. Skyler is clearly afraid of her husband, a man capable of elaborate plots to blow up big-time drug dealers. When "Live Free or Die" ends, we see Walt awkwardly embrace his wife, telling her, "I forgive you," for sleeping with her boss, Ted Beneke (and for the subsequent IRS fiasco stuff, too). Skyler's look of surprise, confusion and befuddled fear seem to capture how we should see Walt: As an egotistical man capable of things most people are not, and someone who will stop at nothing to make sure he always ends up on top. I can't help but think this blind arrogance will be Walt's ultimate downfall.
What'd you think of "Breaking Bad's" season premiere? Let us know in the comments.