Many of the best stories can be defined by the power of their conclusions. In ending, they tell us something definitive about the characters that we have invested so much of our time on. These stories attempt to validate our investment by cashing out in some memorable fashion, which will allow them to reverberate and be retold countless times. Even though (after tonight) we're still 15 hours away from any such conclusion with Walter White, there's still a tangible feeling of imminent completion surrounding the season premiere of Breaking Bad.
Creator Vince Gilligan - who also wrote the premiere - gets the games going early by utilizing a familiar break in chronology as a means to set up the episode. This was previously used to great effect with black and white glimpses of a stuffed animal floating in a pool. Only after we had all the information did the pieces fit together. Revealing the mangled toy to be from a catastrophic aviation accident tangentially tied to Walt (Bryan Cranston) and his handling of Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) and his new drug-addled girlfriend. The effect was engrossing on its own, but also served as a payoff for those who had tuned in week after week to watch Walt's downward spiral.
Now, ushering in season 5, Gilligan offers us a glimpse of what we can only assume is nearly the end of the road. 'Live Free or Die' revels in offering just enough illumination on the mysterious circumstances to spark what will certainly be countless theories leading to the how and why. An unshorn Walt, complete with beard and thick-rimmed glasses, sits alone in a Denny's restaurant, playing with his food by arranging pieces of bacon into the shape of a fifty-two - the age he has turned on this day. He's there to meet up with Lawson (Jim Beaver, Supernatural), the weapons dealer, and purchase a rather large machine gun nestled in the trunk of a car, which Lawson also provided.
The brief scene is telling in many ways, but only telling enough to raise many more questions. For those keeping score, Breaking Bad began on Walter White's 50th birthday - so this is, in a way, Gilligan illustrating to his audience just how far Walt has traveled and in what amount of time. More clues come while Walt is making the purchase from Lawson in the men's restroom. Lawson demands the artillery not cross the border, to which Walt replies it's not even going to leave town - meaning someone is likely about to be on the receiving end of the machine gun. After Lawson wishes him good luck and leaves, Walt dry swallows a prescription pill of some kind, which will undoubtedly leave viewers questioning whether or not his cancer has come back.
Finally, as he's exiting the restaurant, leaving a $100 bill under his untouched plate, the waitress addresses Walt as Mr. Lambert - the maiden name of his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn). In addition to everything the audience is asked to take in, Walt's choice of alias presents a whole slew of questions on its own. Again, Gilligan should be commended for the precision of his approach: it's purposeful and direct without giving everything away.
While 'Live Free or Die' excels in teasing the audience with the season's larger, more ambiguous direction, the episode also handles the fallout of season 4 with a deftness that makes it seem as though Gustavo 'Gus' Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) exited the series just last week. Walt's conversation with Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte) - in the scene released prior to the season premiere - manages to somehow resurrect the intensity of 'Face Off' without resorting to any kind of hokey mid-scene flashback reminding the viewer just how dire the circumstances were. Instead, it simply offers the season 4 phone call between Walt and Skyler as a sort of abridged version of the events that occurred beforehand.
Even with the intensity of last season's finale fresh on everyone's mind, Cranston manages - in his own skillful manner - to clearly define the tonal shift in Walt, now that he's moved into the post-Gustavo world. Gone is the frightened, desperate man who detonated a bomb in a nursing home and poisoned a small child to regain the trust of his partner. In his place, Cranston has breathed new life into the kind of fierce Walter who sought to defend his territory against would-be cookers in a parking lot.
That same bravado is on display throughout the present-day scenes. Walter White is on the top of the world, but he's finding it a very lonely place. Walt Jr. is enamored with his uncle Hank (Dean Norris), and Skyler readily admits she's now frightened of the man her husband has become. In fact, when he's at home, Walt's forced to toast himself in the mirror and enjoy a congratulatory drink by his lonesome. Perhaps that is why, even when facing down the gun of an angry Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), he doesn’t even flinch. Despite Mike's eagerness to kill him - and with Jesse professing his allegiance - it's only in that company that Walt feels he's truly amongst people who understand him.
The marketing campaign of "All Hail the King" is incredibly accurate. Walter White has in fact ascended to the throne. He displays the kind of self-assuredness that comes when one believes he is truly predestined to the role he's taken.
When Walt orchestrates the destruction of Gus' laptop by buying a giant magnet from Old Joe (Larry Hankin) and using it through the wall of a police evidence room, Mike asks if he's supposed to accept that the mission was a success on faith. Walt simply tells him it worked because he says it did. It's the kind of answer one gives to a pestering child, or a person one deems to be beneath them - as the ruling class might look upon the peasants who do their bidding. A thing is because the king says it is.
However, it's not until the episode's end that Walt truly understands, or perhaps accepts, his place in the new power structure he's created. And what an embrace it is. After assuring (read: threatening) Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) that his lawyerly work will still be required under this new regime, Walt comes home to Skyler, making her aware that he's been completely briefed on the Ted Beneke (Christopher Cousins) situation. With fearsome deliberation, Walt holds his wife close and tells her she is forgiven.
As things stand, in the world of Breaking Bad, the power to forgive or condemn, kill or set free belongs to one man. For the time being at least, Walter White finds himself wearing the crown.
In many ways, Gilligan's cryptic declaration that things will change heightens the significance of Walter's shifting demeanor. By hinting at the transitory nature of power - and of course its corruptive properties - Gilligan has seemingly brought a core element of his program full circle, stating: everything in life, including life itself, is fleeting. Best grab what you can before it comes time to check out.
Breaking Bad will return next Sunday with 'Madrigal' @10pm on AMC. Check out a sneak peek below: