'Breaking Bad' season premiere review: Tense, funny, frightening, and 'free.' Plus, magnets!

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Image Credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC

The fifth season premiere of Breaking Bad, titled “Live Free or Die” and written by show creator Vince Gilligan, was satisfying and tense and funny and witty and ruminative. Plus, magnets! Among other things, the opening hour was a caper film as good as any you can see at the movies.

The new ad campaign for the show positions Bryan Cranston’s Walter White as a king — the king of the hill; the drug kingpin; the Scarface at the height of his paranoia and corrupt power, shortly before he tilts face-down into a mound of cocaine and comes back up looking like a clown. We know the ads are meant to be ironic, but the series itself avoids such easy irony. It’s not letting Walter, or anyone else around him, get off that easily. Breaking Bad is playing it dead earnest; the show, like the characters inside it, is a trap.

The hour began with a beautiful tease: A bearded, flak-jacketed Walter showing up for a Denny’s power-breakfast, making the number “52″ out of pieces of bacon. A chatty waitress hoping for a nice tip asks him what all that is about, and he told her it was his birthday. Birthday meals are free at Denny’s, she informed him, adding, “even if I was rich, free is always good.” All Walter has to do is present a valid ID. Not wanting to talk and figuring this is the quickest path to silence, he produced an ID — a false one. As he left the restaurant, he slipped a $100 bill beneath the plate. Walter White, even in the midst of extreme criminality and in pursuit of power, cannot resist rewarding a waitress for a job well done.

The restaurant was a connection point; he met up with Supernatural‘s Jim Beaver, who I can only assume was not playing his Supernatural role, and was given the keys to a different car. Walt the fugitive seemed to be on the run, and in need of a weapon. He opened the trunk of the car and peered inside. My instant thoughts: “How many times has the show set up this shot, with the camera inside the car, pointing out to frame the person looking into the trunk? And why does it still give me goose-bumps of pleasure?” I know the answer to the second question for sure: It’s because one never knows what the reaction of the person looking into the trunk will be, and what’s in that auto frequently proves to be a new source of mayhem, trouble, and confusion. And those three qualities are some of the primary sources of Bad’s rich, never-ending satisfaction.

The camera lingered briefly on a New Hampshire license plate and the state motto: “Live Free or Die.” Given this plus the waitress’ comment that “free is always good,” a viewer was left to grope for a meaning in this. But having set this up, it was time for the opening credits, and — zoom — we were time-zapped back to the moments immediately following Walt’s successful removal of half of Gus Fring’s face and Fring’s soul from his body.

That fourth-season-ender has now led us to a Walter White feeling triumphant. “It’s over; we’re safe,” he tells Anna Gunn’s Skyler over the phone as she watches news reports of the nursing home explosion. Nonetheless, Skyler said she was scared. “Scared? Scared of what?” asked Walt. “You,” replied Skyler.

“I won,” says Walter. But no rest for the triumphant: He has to clean up every trace of the work he, Aaron Paul’s Jesse, and Jonathan Banks’ Mike did in Gus’ now-exploded meth lab, a crime site from which the police gathered evidence. From elsewhere, there was also that laptop with loads of incriminating info. Thus was the night’s grimly merry caper embarked upon.

It was Jesse, not the squabbling Walt and Mike, who came up with the idea of “magnets!” The newly formed, if reluctant, trio repaired to a junkyard we’ve seen before, owned by a character played by the superb character actor Larry Hankin, once and future member of the groundbreaking improv troupe The Committee. Hankin (Mr. “PMT — Positive Mental Attitude”) helped the boys rig up a super-magnet that led to the night’s set-piece, a Mission Impossible scheme that was at once comic (all that metal stuck to the wall in the evidence room) and suspenseful in the Hitchcockian manner, with the laptop the MacGuffin.

Mission accomplished, the hour reached its climax in the ride home, when Jesse and Mike, sitting in the front seat, asked Walt why they should assume their scheme worked. Walt, in the center of the camera frame in the back seat, said with chilling directness: “Because I said so.”

With this, Jesse and Mike — and we — knew that a line has been crossed. Walt is now overcome with hubris; he is the tragic hero who must, this final season, be brought low. The only question is how it will happen. Cancer? Drug overdose? Murder? I would not presume to guess.

Later, this fatalistic augury was reaffirmed when Walt met with Saul, who’d decided that things were getting too hinky even for him; he wants out. Not so fast, Walt cautioned him: “We’re done when I say we’re done.” Combine this with the final scene whisper into Skyler’s ear — “I forgive you,” said Walter to his wife, of her adultery, her doubting of her husband, her own scheming — and Breaking Bad has set us up for a big fall this summer.

Breaking points:

• Mike impersonating a postal inspector on the phone to the police, identifying himself as “Inspector Dave Clark, like the Dave Clark Five.” Think the callow officer on the other end of the line knew that baby-boomer reference?

• Saul to Skyler: “Remember Hogan’s Heroes? Sgt. Schultz? ‘I see nothing’?” Leave it to Saul to free-associate and come up with the nation’s foremost Nazi prison-camp sitcom as a metaphor for the silence that must be maintained.

What did you think of the Breaking Bad season premiere?

Twitter: @kentucker

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