We have finally reached that moment where our endless discussion of TV can turn to how a series finale is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, being granted the luxury of an honest-to-goodness finale denotes some level of success – which, in the case of Breaking Bad, has amounted to three consecutive Best Actor Emmys for Bryan Cranston and two wins for his co-star Aaron Paul – and a insatiable desire from the audience to see how it all plays out. On the other hand, there is the whole "how the heck is this going to play out?" thing that series creator Vince Gilligan and his auteur theory-rejecting staff of writers have to work with their collective backs against, while attempting to serve the story, their desires and, most gracefully, the desires and impression of the audience.
Let's be honest - completing any story is a difficult task, but Gilligan and his crew have maintained a narrative focus that would dictate the level of complexity required to pull off the strategic and artful dismount of one of the most culturally significant shows in the last 10 years. To its great credit – and likely much to the relief of the creative types orchestrating whatever will be the final moments of Walter White – Breaking Bad has had a laser beam-like trajectory, tracking the journey of a lifelong almost-was from meteoric rise all the way to his precipitous plunge into the hellish pit of his own making. In that sense, the series has only the ending of a single story – which began practically without ceremony over five years ago – to worry about.
And the beginning of that ending, 'Blood Money,' is a foretaste at what Walter's endeavors have wrought. The episode begins similarly to last year's 'Live Free or Die,' which saw a scrawny-looking, scruffy Walter handing out exorbitant tips to waitresses as a birthday boy named Mr. Lambert, all the while waiting for a car with a machine gun in the trunk that would make Pike Bishop tip his hat in quiet admiration. This time, however, Walter's digging a bit deeper into the Albuquerque that has apparently been left behind, visiting the now-abandoned and condemned White household and other remnants of his past while the audience is left questioning the circumstances of his future.
These glimpses into what lies ahead are clearly all part of a meticulously calculated two-pronged storyline that effectively doubles the stakes of these final eight episodes. But more poignantly, this dark machine gun and ricin-filled future of the man called Heisenberg affords him (or anyone else, potentially) zero opportunity to enjoy the blood-soaked fruits of his wicked labors.
To that end, it has been almost a year since Breaking Bad was even on the air. When we last saw Walter in 'Gliding Over All,' the sounds of Tommy James and the Shondells' airy and eerily appropriate 'Crystal Blue Persuasion' were still being filtered through our brains as a means to better comprehend the dual montages that saw Walter orchestrate a horrifically brilliant mass-shiving - one that was only slightly less formal and detailed than his amassing a pile of cash so large it begged the question: "How much is enough?" This, in turn, inspired Walt to hang up the pork-pie hat, pack away any thoughts of superlabs or deceitfully fogged houses and hand over five million dollars to Jesse, the student-cum-meth-lab-sous-chef he'd discarded faster than his own morality.
This has effectively moved the baseline of the final episodes away from the idea of empire building (and all the activities involved in such lofty and illegal endeavors), and pointed it directly toward the notion of consequence for all involved. Make no mistake, everyone is in line for a comeuppance: Hank for his inability to see what was right in front of him the entire time; Skyler for her shaky participation; Walt Jr. for demanding he be called Flynn; and, of course, Walt for, well, pretty much everything. That leaves Aaron Paul's increasingly remorseful Jesse Pinkman once more in the position of being Breaking Bad's unlikely moral center, as demonstrated by his random pre-dawn distribution of greenbacks like some altruistic version of a paperboy.
But 'Blood Money' doesn't just imply the stakes of the season will be high; it delivers on them in an excruciatingly tense confrontation between brothers-in-law that rapidly escalates from a punch being thrown to cancers being acknowledged, and finally the issuing of a thinly veiled threat that strikes fear while pointing out the shortcomings of a particular investigator.
"If you don't know who I am, then maybe your best course would be to tread lightly." It would seem Breaking Bad has no intention of taking Walt's advice, if the show's writers plan to cap off critical, longed-for moments like this in such spectacular fashion.
Breaking Bad continues next Sunday with 'Buried' @9pm on AMC.