The first episode in Breaking Bad’s two-part fifth season, which aired over a year ago now, began with a tantalizing prologue: Walter White, his hair regrown, a scruffy full beard across his grim face, eating at a Denny’s. It is his 52nd birthday (so we’re a good year in the “future”); he’s traveling the Southwest from New Hampshire, according to this driver’s license and his car’s plates. And in that restaurant’s bathroom, he makes a purchase: an M60 machine gun. That prologue was never hinted at again in the episodes that followed, but there is a mirror image of it in the first scene of the season’s back half — a scene that follows Walt back to what was once his Albuquerque home, and makes clear precisely how far he’s fallen.
Of course, that heavy weapon in the trunk was the first thing viewers remembered when the partial season came to a close last fall, with Hank discovering that engraved copy of Leaves of Grass among Walt and Skyler’s toilet reading, and the sudden realization that, wrap-up montages to the contrary, Walter White wasn’t going to get away clean after all.
But we knew that. Vince Gilligan and his writers tipped their hand right away, clear back in that opening, and what remains of the White home in episode nine, “Bloody Money,” confirms it. Deeper in the episode, once the timeline returns to the point where we left off, proper time is spent with Hank as he carefully pieces together exactly what he’s discovered, and who his brother-in-law is. (Perhaps the greatest pleasure of Hank’s character is how, over the course of the show, he’s become a great investigator — the hero of the story, going from the buffoon to the protagonist while Walter has transformed from hero to villain.) Those scenes are enjoyable, but in a peculiar way, because we are one step ahead of him. Yet as per usual with Breaking Bad, the thrill is less about what’s going to happen (we know at least the broad strokes) than how it’s going to happen.
And beyond the obvious question of what will become of Walter White (gunned down by his brother-in-law? Dead of cancer? Rotting away in a tiny cell? Floating away in a boat full of cash?), and exactly how much wreckage he’s created, there is the matter of Jesse Pinkman. We’ve become so obsessed with Walter’s fate that we may not have properly considered his young protégé, who has still not recovered from the events of the previous season; we’ve seen Jesse burned out, a shell of himself, but it’s no longer the exception to his personality. He and Walter share a scene in the next episode that is one of their grimmest, full of lies and deception and accusations and things left unsaid. And, eventually, Mr. White just loses his patience. “You need to stop focusing on the darkness behind you,” he tells Jesse. “The past is the past.”
That line may well hold the key to exactly what these final episodes of Breaking Bad will be. This is a thoroughly moralistic show, and much of its genius lies in how stubbornly it insists on considering consequences. Throughout its run, Gilligan and his writers follow through not just on the logical domino effects of split-second decisions and rotten luck, but on the hefty psychological repercussions of its characters’ actions. The darkness behind these two men is considerable, more than any of us could imagine having to bear. Jesse can’t stop focusing on it, can’t let it go. Walter White is more than willing to; it comes easily to him. The question is whether his horrifying past is, in fact, just “the past” — and whether it is through with him.
With Breaking Bad, television’s finest drama, winding up for the beginning of its final season this Sunday, Flavorwire is taking a look back at five years of America’s favorite meth-cooking cancer survivor, and preparing for the last eight episodes of his story. Click here to follow our coverage.