Breaking Bad, 5x08: “Gliding Over All” (2012)
It would not be an exaggeration to say that with its 5th season, Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad has become a almost entirely different show. As expected, the killing of Fring toppled the paradigm, thrusting Walt, who had up until that point been our, if ever so slightly, redeemable protagonist, into a position of unprecedented power, effectively turning him into the show’s antagonist. Some would (still?) argue for the “anti-hero” moniker, but if this half-season has served any purpose, it is to show how deep greed and hubris can run; how far Walt is ready to go and how unpleasant the (meth) business can become when one has vilified oneself from friends, associates and family - i.e. effectively driven everyone away.
With the endgame looming over everyone’s heads, the pacing of this season, unlike the previous ones, has been - and will most likely remain - relentless, coverings heaps of months at at a time. Understandable, yet no less unsettling, I was shocked when Marie tells Skylar “It’s been three months” since she’d surrendered her kids over (four episodes ago). Which would explain why Walt’s action - among many things - felt precipitated throughout the season; his transformation (and quick reversal in this episode) uncannily Manichean in a show that had, up until then, taken its time with complex characterization, covering (as episode “Fifty-One” would confirm earlier this season) exactly a year in time in 46 episodes. In this fifth and final season, tasked with covering a full year from Walt’s fifty-first to fifty-second birthday (glimpsed at in “Live Free or Die”), Marie’s words come simultaneously as a helpful reminder - and a confirmation - of the breakneck pace that awaits.
For that reason perhaps, this half-season has been consistently heavy on the montage. Once upon a time, these condensed sequences (this one, amazingly set to Tommy James & The Shondells’ “Blue Crystal Persuasion”) of Walt’s growing empire would have sent a thrilled tingling down my spine, but I found myself watching “Gliding Over All” in horror, or a more accurately described mix of dread, sorrow and anger. Walt’s sociopathic treatment of partner-in-crime (let alone wife!) Skylar and best bud Jesse has been so awful and manipulative throughout the season that I couldn’t help but look at him with a sickening knot in my stomach. Also crushingly punishing in how Walt (read: the writers) refused to address last week’s murder, this episode really being about Walt going through the motion at his most disillusioned — before being confronted with a shockingly visual representation of his life’s work and self-destructive greed (above). A chilling sight to say the least that forces him, the audience and the show’s plot to move on, move forward - precipitately - towards the final eight episode; the final confrontation between law and kingpin.
Dubious, if unbelievable, storytelling mechanics aside , trying to restore Walter White’s humanity through having him (seemingly, at the very least) come to his senses in the accelerated last moments of this episode brings this whole half-season into sharp focus. In many ways mirroring the arc of the 7 episode-long 1st season almost perfectly (in which Walt slowly but assuredly convinced himself to start cooking meth), this first half of the 5th season (aside from promising to be the almost polar opposite of the second half, coming in 2013) has been all about Walt’s hubris; kidding himself to stay on top despite the heavy, lonesome weight of his crown. The split is clear, only confirming my impressions of the show having plateaued before inevitably having to come crashing down.
Both are standing before the comically large mount of money. “How much is enough”, asks Skylar before saying “I want my life back” and echoing my thoughts exactly. It isn’t so much that I want my show back: I am, after all, perfectly content, if inconvenienced mentally and physically every week, by the dark and twisty road the show has taken toward its conclusion — and final confrontation between Hank and Walt. No. It’s that I want Walt back; I want my main protagonist back and Heisenberg dead. But after this brief, rocky and highly unsuccessful stint the top (no matter how much Walt is willing to kid himself and no matter how many impressive Godfather-styled mass prison assassinations he’s able to orchestrate), it’s all downward from here on out.
A full year will be a long wait, but in the meantime, I would be fascinated with rewatching the show - and the half-season as a whole - and see how much this change of pacing and dynamic is relevant in the grand scheme of things. Breaking Bad remains the most aptly photographed, thought-provokingly scripted drama on television and as always, Vince Gilligan and co. has me in a chokehold, experiencing a myriad of conflicting emotions. In the end, that’s what matters.