Written by Zac Platt.
You could be forgiven for thinking there was nowhere to go but down after Breaking Bad’s incredible fourth season. With every plot line and character brought so masterfully together, and the conflict resolved, Season 5 was sure to be an epilogue for the real action. But by boiling the show down to its base elements we are given a purer character drama. It’s meditative and a slower burn than the previous two seasons, but when it all comes crashing down Season 5 is a thing of beauty. Vince Gilligan and his writing team use every bit of remaining ammo they have to methodically raze the world they’ve spent years building. Everything you’ve been waiting for to surface does, every character gets a chance to learn who they really are, and every one of them gets the ending they deserve. If ever a show was worth your time it’s Breaking Bad.
Breaking Bad’s attention to detail is astounding. There are so many brilliant details for fans to pick apart and analyse to their heart’s content. From the much discussed colour theory to the tri-meaning of the final episode’s title, every inch of the Breaking Bad’s canvas is capitalised on. Perhaps the most obvious technique employed is the repetition of specific shots being used to replicate key moments from earlier episodes and seasons. It’s extremely subtle and you’ll likely only catch one or two on first viewing, but it says so much about the characters and their current state of being.
With the possible exception of one mid-season montage, every song used for the soundtrack is expertly vetted. The real draw of the soundscape is David Porter’s dark and atmospheric score. For years Porter has been a boon to the series, but in this season he takes it up a notch. It’s an extension of your heartbeat, it holds its breath with you, and it drops you flat on your face when the writers tear the world down around you. We even get to hear the extended version of Breaking Bad’s title music. It’s a trick that could only be used once, and they choose the perfect moment to do so.
Breaking Bad adeptly balances the macro/micro elements of serialised story-telling. ‘Dead Freight’ in particular is a master-class on how to structure an episode of television. It’s shocking ending is teased and foreshadowed throughout the episode, but the suspense of the heist taking place keeps your attention from what the episode (and the whole show) is actually about. ‘Confessions’ is another wonderful misdirection. The episode is a series of false admissions and explanations that get progressively further from the truth. Lies and manipulations build until the real admission of guilt comes completely by accident in a brilliant call-back to a much examined moment of the preceding season.
Season five is Vince Gilligan’s writing machine working at full steam, but if one episode shows what they’re capable of it’s ‘Ozymandias’. Directed by Rian Johnson of Looper fame, ‘Ozymandias’ encapsulates not only Season 5’s themes of legacy and mortality, but also the entirety of Walt’s story that began with the show’s pilot. The whole cast learns who they are and every inevitable moment you’ve been anticipating comes to the fruition. It seemed impossible that the writers could ever bring Walt to a lower point than Season 4’s ‘Crawl Space’, but somehow they have. ‘Ozymandias’ will tear you to shreds.
There’s no question that Breaking Bad has one of the finest casts on television. Dean Norris’ Hank Schrader has slowly become one of the series’ most engaging personalities as Walt’s DEA agent brother-in-law. Uncompromising and determined, Hank will probably be remembered as the only real hero of the show. Skyler (Anna Gunn) and Marie (Betsy Brandt) are given their best material to date. Skyler has all but given up, forced to play Walt’s games of manipulation for the sake of her family. Marie, ever invasive but well-meaning, tries desperately to understand what it is that’s pulling her sister apart. The strain this season puts on their relationship is heart breaking, and it’s handled beautifully by two tragically under-appreciated actresses.
Aaron Paul’s Jessie Pinkman is given one hell of a ride this season. We finally get to see him take charge and stand tall, but not without seeing him at his absolute lowest as well. Every time you think things can’t get worse for Jesse, the writers find something else to take away. Todd (Jesse Plemons) is a wonderful creation that acts as a dark mirror to Pinkman. So dough-eyed and ‘Aww-Shucks’ while at the same time being so completely sinister and devoid of empathy; there is no other villain like him on television.
The real antagonist is Walt himself. His cancer, transformed into hate and resentment, slowly spreads pain and misery out to every other character. If this really is all about providing for his family, Walter White is his own worst enemy. Brian Cranston’s dynamism may be the show’s biggest gun. Few actors, if any, can transition so believably from being utterly terrifying and overpowering in one moment and completely broken and desperate the next. A master liar and actor in his own right, Walt would be a challenging role to the greatest of actors. Cranston deserves every bit of recognition he has received.
Breaking Bad’s final season is a story of reconciliation – not redemption. This is the rise and fall of an unchecked Walter White. Even upon the revelation of what he has become there are no apologies, and only the haunting prospect that it could all be for nothing motivates him in the final act. Yet somehow, when the final credits roll you’re left feeling warm and fuzzy. Both an incredible story on its own as well as the perfect ending to one of TV’s most captivating shows, Breaking Bad Season 5 is television at its best.
THE REEL SCORE: 10/10