There’s no question that scarier and more depressing things have happened over the course of its four-and-a-half seasons to date, but few scenes in Breaking Bad’s run have quite equaled the sparse, desolate grimness of the prologue to this week’s mid-season premiere, “Blood Money.” There are no beatings; no one is murdered with a box cutter. It is simply a man walking through what once was his house — and is now a boarded-up, deserted, graffiti-covered refuge for skateboarding squatters. When Walt returns to the abandoned home, sporting the look, driving the car, and packing the heat from the season premiere, and surveys the damage, it is possible to feel just a pang of sympathy for him; this was, after all, what he worked for, what he was trying, albeit inadvisably, to save all those episodes ago. That sympathy is fleeting, and it pretty much evaporates when he goes to the bedroom outlet and pulls out that stashed vial of ricin. What, exactly, are his plans for it? And based on the reaction of his terrified neighbor Carol, what all as he already destroyed?
As with Season 5’s first episode, “Live Free or Die,” we return to the previous time frame after the opening titles, so those questions will have to wait. But analysis and guess work about where Walter White ends up, based on that prologue, will presumably dominate conversations about the show in the days to come. Does he go out, Scarface style, clutching that M60? Does his cancer, which (in a pretty ingenious reveal) has returned, ultimately take him? (It would seem not, since he’s sporting that full head of hair in the “future.”) Or will Hank put him, as he later promises, “under the jail?”
Hank’s reaction to his realization is, understandably, a key focus of “Blood Money,” which picks up as he staggers out of the White master bathroom and holds, patiently, on Hank looking at Walt sideways on the back deck as Marie prepares their hasty exit. The question of exactly what he’ll do with this information isn’t too hard to answer; there’s maybe a moment’s hesitation in the evidence room, but there’s little doubt that he will see this thing through, even if, early on, he’s careful to investigate his brother-in-law quietly, from the privacy of his garage.
Yet it’s clear, from the moment Walt wanders up the driveway forty minutes in, that there will be a showdown, and this bookend scene will presumably be the episode’s other hot topic. The tension between the two of them, as they both dance around the matter at hand, is unbearably thick, and the uneasiness of the scene is multiplied tenfold by the neighbor kid running his remote control car around in the cul-de-sac; it casts the uneasy shadow of the “Dead Freight” victim, Drew Sharp, over the scene, and reminds us that there’s little left that Walt isn’t capable of. The sense of relief as the garage door closes is matched only by the shock of Hank clobbering Walt, and the growling rundown of his many, many sins. Walt tries to squirm out (“I’m a dying man who runs a car wash. My right hand to God, that is all that I am”), but when Hank informs him that he has to bring the kids back, Walt won’t be moved. He’s still a family man, after all. That, significantly, is the moment where he stops pleading ignorance, or casting the conversation in “if”s. The closing line is a killer: “If that’s true, if you don’t know who I am, then maybe your best course would be to tread lightly.”
That line is a Cranston special, a thickly brewed reading of the “I am the danger” order. Cranston directed this episode, and he’s got some great moments in it as both an actor and a director; my favorite may be the night scene in Walt’s driveway, with that slow, scary camera move into the street, and the moment of hesitation at the door before he goes to check the car. File that one away among one of the show’s most consistent pleasures: watching Walter White think.
Other moments have to be read more closely, but are laid out cleanly for those of us who’ve been observing him all these years. His cancer is back, but based on the way he hides the medication and runs the water when he vomits, he hasn’t even told Skyler. He may have gone straight and he may resist Lydia’s offer of big money for a “tutorial” in the clearest possible language (though not quite as forcefully as Skyler does), but you can see him jonesing to make plans, to strategize, and to increase profits by fussing over the air freshener displays (“Pine is still our biggest seller?”) and suggesting they franchise. These idle hands aren’t going to be satisfied merely handling car wash receipts, and it could well turn out that this addiction, not the police work of Hank, is his downfall.
However, I’ve got the feeling that the episode’s most important scene is neither the prologue nor the closing showdown, but that sad scene between Walt and Jesse in the living room, as Walt tries again to give him those duffel bags of cash (“Déjà vu, huh?”). Jesse, we have seen, is wrecked; he’d be a shell of his former self, had the deaths of Jane, Drew, and Gale (the latter at his own hand) not already made that burned-out state the rule rather than the exception.
So Walt’s assurances are empty words to him. “There’s nothing left for us to do but try to live ordinary, decent lives.” Is such a thing possible for them? For Jesse, it may not be; look at the anger, the fury on his face as he rockets those stacks of blood money from his car like he’s out on his paper route. He can no longer stomach what they represent — and what they say about him. The most telling line in the Walter/Jesse scene is also about the only true thing Walt tells him: “Jesse, I need you to believe this… I need you to believe me.” The word choice is vital: need. He needs Jesse to believe him, because if he doesn’t, then he’s left a loose end, and that’s no good.
Most intriguingly, the Jesse arc in “Blood Money” asks what may be the most pressing question that Breaking Bad can tackle in these final episodes. Walter White, for lack of a more nuanced term, has become a monster. It is too late for him. But considering the regrets and demons that still haunt him, can Jesse Pinkman’s soul be saved?