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"Breaking Bad" Review: "Live Free Or Die"

Jeremy Fuster |
July 16, 2012 | 9:32 a.m. PDT

Staff Reporter


Remember reading 'Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' in high school? If you werepaying attention in class, you may remember your teacher talking about the good/evil dichotomy in the story, and how Mr. Hyde was a concentrated form of evil that was slowly taking over the good Dr. Jekyll. While Jekyll was still a flawed man dealing with his own inner demons, there was absolutely nothing holding back Hyde from consuming Jekyll completely. Jekyll's fate was sealed the moment he drank the concoction he created in his lab.  A tragic chain reaction brought about by chemistry.

Now, 125 years after Robert Louis Stevenson first published that famous novella, we have a Jekyll and Hyde story for modern times. Only in this story, Jekyll is not alone. Oh, no. Jekyll has a wife and two kids. And an accomplice. And a brother-in-law hot on his tail. And a laundry list of criminals that know his secret.  And the lab concoction is no mystery.  It's meth.

The Jekyll is Walter White, the Hyde is his criminal alter-ego Heisenberg, and the tale is the critically acclaimed drama "Breaking Bad," which has just kicked off its final season.

Over the past four years, we have watched Bryan Cranston put forth a brilliant performance as a man who has transformed from a mild-mannered, cancer-riddled high-school teacher who only engaged in meth cooking to support his family to a dangerous drug lord who will go to greater and greater depths of immoral behavior to achieve his ends.  In no particular order, Walter has deceived his family, blown up a room with a cube of fulminated mercury, allowed his partner's girlfriend to choke on her own vomit in her sleep, and devised a plot that ended with the biggest drug lord in the state having half his face blown off to the bone.

Oh, and as the final shot of last season's finale revealed, he's even willing to put children in harm's way to manipulate others into doing what he wants.  For so many fans of the show, the words, "Lily of the Valley" will never be the same again.

With each action and each episode, Walter has dug himself into a deeper hole, but now he's past caring.  His motives have changed, and he no longer feels a need to reduce his feelings of guilt with weak rationalizations.  With all the top dogs gone and all the power in his hands, Heisenberg has completely taken over, and the old identity of Walter White is simply a mask used the same way Vito Corleone used his olive oil company as a front business for more shady dealings.

But if last night's events are any indication, Heisenberg isn't done corrupting Walter.  At the start of this season's first episode, titled "Live Free Or Die," we see Walter celebrating his birthday alone at a Denny's.  His hair has grown back and his beard is longer.  But more importantly, we are given the sense that Walter is now on the lam, as he hands a fake ID to the waitress and conveys a sense of complete defeat as he tries to avoid small talk with the waitress.  While Walter's final fate is still undecided, this quick fast forward shows that he is in for a hard fall and that his actions as Heisenberg may force him to completely abandon any hope of resuming the life he once led at the start of the series.  

After the opening credits, we are brought back to where the fourth season left off, as Walter and his partner Jesse attempt to tie up the loose ends left behind by their successful plan to murder Gustavo Fring.  When they discover that the DEA has found a laptop with security camera footage that could incriminate them, they come to an uneasy truce with Gus' right hand man Mike, convincing him to put aside thoughts of revenge in order to work together to destroy the evidence.  What comes next is a wild plan to drive a truck alongside DEA headquarters and use a giant magnet inside a truck to wipe the laptop's hard drive clean without even touching the building itself.  It's a scheme that's crazy on paper and even crazier to watch.

"Live Free Or Die" demonstrates how massive Walter's ego has become ever since Heisenberg took over.  In the first season, Walter was way in over his head when it came to the meth business, and he knew it.  His very first attempt to cook meth ended with him suffocating two thugs with deadly chemicals, making a futile attempt to put out a fire in the middle of the desert, and driving through the desert in an RV wearing nothing but underwear and a gas mask with an unconscious Jesse riding shotgun and the two dead thugs sliding around in the back. 

Now, the prospect of being in such an undignified position would appall Walter. He is Heisenberg now, and Heisenberg must always be in control of everything. When Mike tells him about all the potential holes in his plans, Walter just smugly replies that things will work out "Because I say so."  In the very next scene, the police find a new lead amid the destroyed evidence, and our anti-hero's hubris-fueled ideas have only made things even worse. Again.

Things aren't much better on the home front for Walter.  He expects to come home to a wife relived to see that he is safe.  Instead, his wife, Skyler, is completely terrified of him and knows that if Walter is exposed, he may take everyone he knows down with him.  But Heisenberg doesn't care.  Heisenberg only wants recognition for his supposed genius, ramifications be damned.  It is at home where the disconnect between how Walter sees himself and how others see him is most visible.  Walter is still clinging onto the "I'm doing this for my family" excuse, but now he now longer uses it to quell his conscience. In his mind, that excuse justifies his belief that Skyler should give him her unflinching support instead of forcing him to look at the monster he has become.  

Meanwhile, his son, Walter Jr., still remains blissfully unaware of this increasing tension.  He is a fragment of innocence in a sea of sin.  It is very likely that he will finally discover the truth about his father before this season is over, and it will likely be the most heartbreaking moment of the whole series.

"Breaking Bad" is about to take its fans on a rough ride over these final 15 episodes, and the best part is that while we all know that at the end of the road lies a tragic resolution, we don't know exactly what that resolution entails or how the show will take us there.  However, it's safe to say that death will be involved.  After all, this is a Jekyll and Hyde story, correct?  You remember how that story ended?  Spoiler alert: Jekyll committed suicide so he wouldn't be stuck as Hyde forever.  Maybe for Walter White, death will become the only escape.



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