If Breaking Bad as a whole has been an experiment—as Vince Gilligan famously put it, “about a man who transforms himself from Mr. Chips into Scarface”—then Season Five has been an experiment within that experiment: Can you a character continue to be compelling after he has ceased to be sympathetic? In other words, how do you relate to Scarface?
When discussing Season Four, I wrote that Walter White had long since passed the point of being morally defensible, but even that season humanized him in many ways: There were still moments of love between him and his wife; he still faced an adversary even more ruthless than he was; his connection to Jesse still felt sacrosanct. With the conclusion of Season Four, though, it was clear that there was nobody Walt was unwilling to hurt for his own gain.
And while Season Four compensated for Walt’s moral descent by developing and focusing on other characters—most of the first half of that season was spent on Jesse, Gus, Hank, and Marie—Season Five turned into the skid: Other than one episode, (“Madrigal,” devoted to Mike and the details of the Fring operation) Walt was the centerpiece of this season. Even Jesse was relegated to a smaller role than ever before. In some ways this was a drawback—one of Breaking Bad’s strengths at this point is how well it’s developed the world around Walt—but it forced the audience to confront Walt’s venality and hubris. It was like a car crash you couldn’t look away from.
Walt’s hubris was almost laughable for the first few episodes. In each episode he seemed to hatch a new elaborate and risky plan: to destroy evidence, to get Mike to work with him, to have Jesse “find” the Ricin cigarette, to build a new lab, to bug Hank’s office. And though each plan seemed doomed to fail, they all worked. It was as if sinking to his moral depths had made Walt untouchable.
Only in “Dead Freight,” after the most elaborate and exhilarating of this season’s capers, did Walt’s chickens finally come home to roost. The last ten minutes of that episode were probably the best of the season. The highs of (just barely) pulling off a train robbery collided with the show’s worst lows: an innocent child killed to cover up the crime. Though Walt didn’t do the act himself, it still represented a new moral low for him.
That moment, and the chilling montage* that opened up the next episode, represented a stark transition for the season: Where Walt had been untouchable for the first few episodes, the next three had him wallowing in his success. He had “won,” but he had nothing to show for it. His wife was his “hostage,” his kids had moved out, and his partner abandoned him. From Walt’s black comedy dinner with Jesse to his petulant decision to kill Mike to his bored look as he cooked with Todd, the last three episodes played out like an extended version of the restaurant scene in Scarface.
*A show already renowned for its visual beauty, Breaking Bad may have outdone itself in Season Five. The train heist, the offices of Madrigal, the scenes of Skylar in the pool and Walt’s confrontation with her afterwards, and the depressing montage of success in Sunday’s midseason finale were all among the best use of images the show has ever done.
So it was easy to believe that, given the opportunity to get his family back, Walt would actually give up the business he had built and repay Jesse. It was even possible to feel sorry for him: By now, nobody close to him trusts him. Even Jesse felt the need to pack heat while Walt tried to make amends.
Of course, just as the show worked to earn some sympathy back for Walt, it laid the seeds of his ultimate undoing. The final scene of the year, in which Hank finally connects Walt to Heisenberg, potentially reveals too much about next year’s final episodes. Thanks to the flash-forward in the premiere, we know where Walt will be on his 52nd birthday, and now we know that Hank’s after him. With Breaking Bad, though, the question has never really been where Walt will end up, but how we’ll feel about him when he gets there.