No matter what happens to Walter White, our work here is almost done. Creator Vince Gilligan’s unerringly brilliant “Breaking Bad” is back Sunday for the first of its final eight episodes — technically the concluding half of its fifth season — and this time the show will be met by more than just the elite TV watchers. People have finally (finally) come around to it. There were repeat Emmys, there was critical slobber to spare, but it still seemed to take forever for “Breaking Bad” to break through some Stephen King-like town dome that separates a merely zeitgeist-y piece of popular culture from a full-on mainstream fever.
The ratings will never quite bear this out, but I knew something had changed because this was the year in TV when I stopped getting cornered in stale conversations about Don Draper’s credenza. People wanted to talk about Walter; I at last stopped hearing old theories about “The Wire” and “The Sopranos.”
I have my own little pet theory about why “Breaking Bad,” which is demonstrably the best show of this decade and among the best shows in TV history, never quite had its “Sopranos” moment: It was set in a place no one really cares about.
This has a lot to do with East Coast default settings — an I-95 thing, a New York-New Jersey-Boston-centric culture bias for urban grit, guido-ness and mob narratives. What chance does a show set in Albuquerque have to hold us in its grip?
I say this as someone who has watched plenty of New Yorkers deplane in my beloved Albuquerque and, thoroughly unimpressed, sprint for the rental cars that will speed them to the tourist destinations of Santa Fe and Taos.
Georgia O’Keeffe, a prairie-raised woman who couldn’t stand another minute of New York, was really no different in this regard when she sought solace in the gorgeous emptiness of New Mexico; she was about horizons and mountains and bleached bones. All that nothing becomes something.
“Breaking Bad” also was into bleaching some occasional bones. It inhabited the riches found in both the literal and criminal expanse, but it was also about the terrible beauty in Route 66 decrepitude; those neglected lawn xeriscapes; that magnificently ugly car wash; the slimeball attorney officing on the North Valley strip.
Overall, American TV viewers aren’t particularly attentive to shows that aren’t set in or around the mass markets of New York, Chicago or L.A. (Seattle will sometimes do when the subject is murder and/or rain; Portland is useful mainly as a P.C. punch line; Dallas won’t work, unless it’s a show called “Dallas”; Miami is really just New York in pastels.)
Years from now, when I’m still making lists of what I miss most about “Breaking Bad,” the writing and the acting will rank first and second, but a close contender will be the show’s absolute confidence in its sense of place and in finding an American rock that is seldom turned over to see what scurries out. Set anywhere else, I don’t think “Breaking Bad” would have achieved its eerie sense of remoteness and moral unease. Walter’s story simply lives better in the greatest, beige-est stretch of the flyover. Much of what made the show work was its backdrop; for New Mexicans, it occasionally verged on the documentary genre.
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If you’re getting the sense that I’m purposefully writing around the details of Sunday night’s episode (the only new episode made available in advance to critics), then you’re correct. I’m not here to spoil more than one or two moments of it in this review, and I have to believe that if you live on Earth and like TV at all then you’re caught up on the episodes that have aired to this point. If not, get busy watching.
When we left off, Drug Enforcement Administration agent Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) had discovered the copy of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” that was on the reading stack of Walter and Skyler White’s guest-bathroom toilet.
What’s inscribed inside, as we all know, reveals to Hank that Walt (Bryan Cranston) is the elusive meth-making genius, a.k.a. “Heisenberg,” the legendary chemist whom he has been pursuing all this time — his own brother-in-law.
Of “Breaking Bad’s” many defining moments, it all seemed to be leading to this Sunday’s episode, when we get to see Hank’s reaction, as well as his next move. Even better? The moment Walt realizes the book is missing. It’s remarkable how far this one episode brings out the landing gear for the entire saga; it also indicates just how much needs to be accomplished to get us to the point of a couple of spooky flash-forward scenes that have hinted at the scope of the disasters to come.
In any season, “Breaking Bad” belongs to Cranston and his co-star, Aaron Paul (as Jesse Pinkman), with certain seasons serving as a showcase for the various characters and the strong ensemble who played them. A large part of seasons 3 and 4 belonged to Giancarlo Esposito (as Gus Fring, the head of a meth cartel) and Jonathan Banks (as Fring’s right-hand, Mike Ehrmantraut), while Anna Gunn (as Skyler) outdid herself in the latter half of season 4 and the first half of season 5.
Now, judging by Sunday’s episode, this season could be Norris’s strongest. Whatever sense of justice “Breaking Bad” has left will be Hank’s burden to bear.
But the show’s moral center — as well as any viewer’s heart — belongs to Jesse. Nothing has been the same since the shooting death of Drew Sharp, the kid on the motorcycle who witnessed Walt, Jesse and company’s successful train heist in the desert. As other critics and viewers have noted, death is no cavalier matter on “Breaking Bad.” Each one counts; each one digs us deeper into a hole.
Jesse, mostly stoned numb these days, aches to somehow make penance for the boy’s murder, which served as “Breaking Bad’s” point of no return. “You need to stop focusing on the darkness behind you,” Walt implores Jesse in Sunday’s episode, once more advocating a fresh start and an end to their run as meth kings. “The past is the past. Nothing can change what we’ve done, but now that’s over. You’re out and so am I.”
Jesse just stares into the distance. Paul does so many moods and states of mind so well — a tweaking hyperactivity, the subtle fear, the panic, the odd humor, the shiftiness, the overcompensating toughness. But sorrow is his real gift; sorrow and regret and a desire to put things right. (My only worry: Will audiences ever accept Paul, the actor, in another kind of role?)
Everything’s in place in this one episode. We just have to bite our fingernails down to nothing while we ride it out.
Meanwhile, the end of “Breaking Bad” triggered a lot of discussion over the last couple of weeks at the Television Critics Association’s summertime press tour in Beverly Hills, Calif. There, while sorting through a fall season of mostly bland new offerings, everyone — including more than one network exec — wondered aloud if we’re nearing the end of the “difficult men” antihero era of quality television. Next month, “Dexter” will murder his last; “Sons of Anarchy” appears ready for a sunset ride; “Mad Men” bows next year. James Gandolfini’s sudden death in June, and the tributes that followed it, seemed to symbolically close a circle for those who are busy drawing one.
I can’t predict the entire next wave of TV programming, but I can usually read a room: No one’s truly ready to let Walt go.
(one hour) returns Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC.