Sunday night’s episode of “Breaking Bad” unfolds like a symphony, with show creator Vince Gilligan as the maestro. Every instrument is playing at its peak under Gilligan’s control – the soft-to-loud soundtrack, the camerawork that exquisitely frames every single shot, the unerringly authentic acting, the suggestive and laconic scripting. Even the costuming chimes in effectively, with slimeball lawyer Saul Goodman’s sickly green shirt making him into a twisted villain out of “Dick Tracy.” As the hour moves forward from long scene to long scene, it goes from strength to strength.
And yes, I completely realize that the kudos for “Breaking Bad” sometimes veer into hyperbole, that my opening paragraph could probably double as a parody of a fawning “Breaking Bad” review. And yet, if I want to be honest, I can’t do anything but lavish praise on the show, which returns Sunday night at 9 for the final eight episodes. “Breaking Bad” actually may become one of the rare prestige TV dramas that doesn’t falter in its later seasons. If Sunday’s episode is any indication of the quality of the last seven hours of season 5, the show may ultimately have a close-to-perfect run.
By the way, in this review I will reveal only a few of the setups and scenarios from the episode. So there are spoilers here, but they’re only from the first episode – I haven’t seen the rest of the season – and I don’t make mention of a number of twists. Still, as always, proceed at your own risk.
Gilligan has generally not been coy in his storytelling, by withholding answers or tricking us with false leads, and so the premiere gives us exactly what we want and expect, and what we’ve earned after years of close viewership. Following one of the show’s trademark opening flash-forwards, the action picks up right where it left off last summer, with Hank (Dean Norris) realizing that Walt (Bryan Cranston) is Heisenberg. It’s the next moment, and yet the story line has taken a full U-turn and the world of the show is completely changed. The Hank-Walt endgame is here, now, and I imagine it will form the backdrop for much of the juiciest material across the entire half-season.
The post-revelation tension is thick. Hank is merely walking out of the Whites’ bathroom, but it comes across like a climb out of hell. Listen to the building soundtrack, with Squeeze’s “If I Didn’t Love You” sidling in and out, culminating in a mass of unearthly sounds that recall “Insect Fear,” a nickname for the Grateful Dead’s most nightmarish and jumbled LSD jams. Watch Norris stumble, breathless – Hank’s off-kilter on all levels, as if he just stepped off a roller coaster. The acting is consistently strong, but Norris deserves extra credit here. We’ve been waiting for years to see how Hank would react to knowing about Walt, and Norris does not disappoint.
Hank’s first response is contained in a masterful extended sequence, and it rhymes with another toilet-related scene later in the hour. “Breaking Bad” continually harks back to earlier scenes, rewarding viewers who pay attention. Note the door-knocking in the premiere, which, ominously, recalls Walt’s declaration in season 4 about his own dangerousness: “I am the one who knocks.”
It must be a thrill for Gilligan, to know that everyone he has hired is operating at full bore. Everything on the screen and coming out of the speakers seems to have significance and resonance, even when nothing big is happening, When we first see Jesse (Aaron Paul), he is sitting silently in a chair with a light show on the TV behind him, a powerful externalization of his internal turmoil. His two friends engage in a passionate stoned rap about “Star Trek,” while he fumes. It’s a throwaway scene, to some extent, but it is so artfully put together that it’s indelible.
Later on, watch how, while Jesse and Walt talk about their recent past, the camera focus leaves Walt blurry, a specter that seems to be sitting on Jesse’s shoulder. The image perfectly coincides with Walt’s advice to his younger friend, “You need to stop focusing on the darkness behind you.”
As usual, “Breaking Bad” moves slowly and relatively quietly. Generally speaking, there isn’t a lot of dialogue, and there are many silent scenes and characters of few words. And yet the episode seems to fly by, because the handiwork and the psychological dynamics are so fine along the way. If you watch the episode twice, you’ll pick up more the second time around. It’s the opposite of a show such as Aaron Sorkin’s “The Newsroom,” which is overstuffed with words and fast movements in order to hold your attention.
The quieter “Breaking Bad” gets, the more we hear.Matthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.