It is a bold move when a program takes a well-established and frighteningly enjoyable villain and supplants him with another. It's even more astonishing when that program chooses to succeed said villain with the show's main character. Breaking Bad has been establishing Walter White (Bryan Cranston) as the successor to Gus Fring, and now, in the villainy department, anyway, Walt's certainly shown he's got what it takes to be the king.
WARNING!!! MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW!!!
As opposed to the time Walt sent Jesse (Aaron Paul) out to do away with Gale, he's now done his kingly duty and pulled the trigger himself. Sure, Walt's killed up close and personal before, but there was a real sense of malice behind his shooting of Mike (Jonathan Banks). It was almost born entirely of his frustration and the sense that Mike refused to pay him the respect Walt is convinced he's owed. Had Mike said thank you, had he not gone into his tirade about how the current dismal situation (Mike's mostly) is a bi-product of Walt's ever-expanding need for more power, more money and more admiration - perhaps things may have turned out differently. Then again, remembering after the fact that Lydia (Laura Fraser) would also have access to the names Walt so desperately wanted, certainly suggests that Mike's demise was premeditated as soon as Walter saw the revolver in the go-bag.
For Mike to have survived all the attempts on his life – especially the one that put him out of commission long enough for Fring to die – only to be eliminated by the man who tore down the relative comfort of his life - is tantamount to adding insult to fatal injury. It was always a foregone conclusion that Mr. Ehrmantraut would wind up a casualty of the Breaking Bad endgame machine, but now, in yet another power vacuum created by the same mechanism, Walter stands poised to ascend higher, which will make his inevitable fall all the more calamitous.
It was telling how Walt spoke word of Mike's pending retirement like a triumph when he was negotiating the terms of his distribution deal with the intended buyers of his methylamine. In Walt's eyes, this was the deal of the century, and somehow, he managed to sell it to some drug dealers he'd never met as just that. Brilliantly playing up the notion of brand recognition and brand loyalty, Walt compared himself and his product to the New York Yankees and Coke Classic, responding to a threat by suggesting the world would be a far less wonderful place if it were to be deprived of Coca-Cola (i.e. Walt's proprietary blend of blue meth). Walt even suggested a hint of copyright infringement on behalf of his potential new partners, something Walt almost certainly would have taken to court if such a thing were possible. Instead, Walt settles for intimidation and the promise of great wealth, as long as those he sees as inferior are willing to hitch their wagon to Heisenberg's star.
Now that Walt has established a brand, and made himself the spokesman of it, he sets off to speed the money-making process up a bit, suggesting that Jesse open up his own lab – the two of them being equal partners and all. Only Walt's pitch isn't as successful on someone so disillusioned. There is a look of understanding on Jesse's face when he watches Walt deal with Skyler (Anna Gunn). She and Jesse are in the same position; a man they no longer want to associate with holds them hostage and is holding past actions over them as a means to ensure a small amount of compliance. In fact, Jesse and Skyler aren't too far removed from the situation Walt was in with Fring last season. Who is to say they won't respond in a similar fashion?
When faced with the choice of zero dollars or untold millions, Jesse opts for nothing after Walt reckons his partner's newfound sense of morality means cutting ties with the business altogether. As Walt essentially puts it, why would Jesse want money earned through death and drug dealing if those are the very reasons Walt is to be left high and dry when he's so close to achieving his goal?
And since there's so much money to be made, in the interest of time, Walt hires Todd (Jesse Plemons) as his new sous chef, so to speak. It seems like a win-win for Walt: Todd's ambitious, seems to want to learn the ropes in the kitchen, and isn't really constrained by that whole pesky morality or guilt thing. Walt slips right back into high-school science teacher mode, giving Todd an "A" for effort and manages to seem impressed at the young man's desire to learn. Still, something about Todd (and his ambitions) screams trouble for the newly crowned meth king of New Mexico.
But Walt's not the only one making questionable moves in his new position. Hank (Dean Norris) gets a stern talking to by his superior for continuing to act like a field agent even though he's now in charge of his department. It seems too much time has been spent covering that Ehrmantraut fellow at the great expense of other cases and departmental budget. Ever crafty, Hank agrees to leave Mike alone, but then turns around and puts agents on his other lawyer, Dan Wachsberger (Chris Freihofer) – a move that almost instantly yields results. While at Hank's office to retrieve the bugs he planted, Walt happens to overhear that lawyer Dan has been apprehended and is now in the process of giving Mike up to the DEA.
With the hush money no longer an option, and any protection Mike could potentially offer them now completely out of the question, it seems as though Walt's next move is to eliminate the nine incarcerated members of Fring's organization before they can bring the entire operation to the ground.
Breaking Bad concludes the first half of its final season next Sunday with 'Gliding Over All' @10pm on AMC. Check out a preview below: