Breaking Bad, Analysis of a Scene

by: L.P. Hanners

With the final episodes of this iconic series just a few months away we feel the urge to get the conversation started, beginning with an in-depth look at Season Five’s most significant scene…..

Episode 501 – Live Free or Die

Scene 1:  Cold Opening – Denny’s

Mo’ money, mo’ problems.  Living the dream cost Walter White his life. This resulting sadness is overwhelming Walt during this sobering moment, that is the first shot of Season Five – Walt decorating his birthday plate all by his lonesome.  This is an an homage to the opening scene of the series when Skyler writes out his age in bacon for his 50th birthday.  In retrospect, veggie bacon can never be a good sign of things to come ((But the use of veggie bacon in ‘The Pilot’ episode was telling of Skyler’s love for Walt as she was concerned about his cholesterol – last time we saw her she was “waiting for the cancer to come back” and concerned only about her children.)). Now, we find Walt unaccompanied at Denny’s, and this is how you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that home doesn’t exist for Walt anymore ((Or, is it possible I am being manipulated into believing Walt’s family is gone, and he is alone, because I mistook his weakness from a possible return of the cancer for sadness?)).

What has led Walt to this point?  After witnessing in impressive detail Walt’s metamorphosis from school teacher to kingpin it would be naive to be surprised that Walt is alone on his birthday, and as weathered as we have seen him thus far.  Things have fallen apart for Walt. Walt is too impulsive to run a successful business at length. He has exhibited often that he is less than perfect, yet his ego continues to grow steadily, anyhow.  In ‘Crazy Handful of Nothin’, he had a full-on man-gasm after his first meeting with Tuco.  In ‘4 Days Out’, Walt’s reaction to entering remission for the first time was to beat the shit out of the hand towel dispenser in the bathroom of the cancer center ((Which Walt reflectively revisits in Season Five’s mid-season cliffhanger, ‘Gliding Over All’.)).  He’s been losing it, so it’s curiously remarkable how calm he’s acting in the flash forward.  It seems that his sanity, even his own safety, is the least of his worries.

Who is this fellow (above)?  What’s he doing looking at Walt like that?  Does he recognize him from wanted posters?  Of course he could possibly just be an innocent customer, taking in his surroundings and curious why the man next to him is playing with his food. But this is Breaking Bad we are talking about here – usually all the pieces matter. Is he an undercover cop, or henchman for Declan that was tipped off about Heisenberg coming back?  Is he in on a ploy to get Walt back into town ((I know it’s only been 3 shots in 12 seconds, but I’m already having Jesse withdrawal.  It seems heartless not to be thinking about Jesse’s place in all this.  Where is he?  What’s he doing?  Is he even alive?  Jesse could be working for Declan at this point, or he could be working for Hank.))?  Anyhow, that gentleman peering at Walt as he toys with his bacon is nosey, and possibly there for a reason.  But what? ((Maybe it’s worth mentioning that at this point my brain wants to force similarities to the last scene of The Sopranos finale, simply because it’s all happening in a diner.))

Any appropriately obsessed fan of the show will let their imagination run wild as soon as the scene cuts to Walt sporting a full beard, new glasses, a head full of hair, aberrant clothing and tons of regret.  He sounds pitiful as he enters further into his conversation with the waitress.  He seems like he’s lived an entire lifetime full of experiences in his fifty one years. One could assume that at this point in the story that at least one of our lead characters could be dead, enrolled into a witness protection program, or even in jail ((Vince Gilligan has mentioned, in recent interviews, that he would be up for a Saul Goodman BB spin-off, so that he has no intention of killing Saul, if Vince isn’t setting us up for a surprise there)).

The things Walt told the waitress about himself were spoken so deliberately, and gracefully, that it is easy to forget the last time we saw him the son of a bitch had poisoned a child.  You nearly fall into that same trap Vince Gilligan sets for the viewer time and again – the one where you empathize with an evil man ((We even catch a glimpse of the old Walt we thought we knew and loved – when he remarks that Boston also has a great Science Museum.  Science, a former lover of Walt’s cast aside during his rise to power.)).  The sadness in his demeanor makes me wonder if he will do anything in the upcoming last half of Season Five to win us back over. We know he’s sorry that everything got fucked up – he has to be as he started all of this to try to help his family out in the first place.  However, it soon became a means to finally fulfill his “Empire-building” ego, after losing out on billions of dollars by selling out his stake in Grey Matter, the company he co-founded.

The gentleman that walked into Denny’s and prompts Walt to follow him is the arms dealer Walt bought the thirty-eight special from in ‘Thirty-Eight Snub’.  He was concerned for Walt when they first met, but their relationship has changed.  Now, the gun dealer is just looking out for his own ass.  “I got your word this won’t wind up over the border?” he asks Walt.  “It’s never leaving town.”  Walt answers.  Walt passes him some cash, the salesman passes him a set of car keys, then wishes him luck and bounces.  The interesting part is what happens after the salesman leaves:  Walt coughs.  Then he pulls out a prescription bottle.  If the cancer is back, which one can easily presume, then that would explain at least part of Walt’s demeanor.  It would also explain how he has the balls to make such a bold purchase. and would explain his heightened fearlessness.

Earlier in the scene, the waitress mentions the grandeur of acquiring things for free – as Walt was enjoying Denny’s policy of lavishing it’s guest with a free birthday meal.  Walt leaves the waitress a generous tip, which reminds one quickly of Walt’s behavior in‘Fifty-One’, when he sold his Aztek for fifty dollars to his mechanic.  The big kicker here is hearing the waitress, unaware of the tip awaiting her, saying “Goodbye, Mr. Lambert” as he heads out the door.  Walt neither stops nor responds.  We now know that Walt surely has a fake ID, and possibly received “deluxe services” from Saul sometime back when the shit hit the fan ((A number of times in Season Four, Saul referred to a “disappearer” that, for $125,000 per person, could set you up with a new identity.  Just before the final frantic few minutes of ‘Crawl Space’,  Saul explained that you would call the number on his vacuuming services business card and leave a message asking for a new “dust filter for a Hoover MaxExtract 60 PressurePro”)). But now Walt is back, and he appears hell bent on returning in dramatic fashion.

Season Five of Breaking Bad didn’t begin with a bang, but it did begin with a big ass gun.  Vince Gilligan has famously kept his less than ten word sales pitch of the show fresh in the echo chamber:  “I wanted to turn Mr. Chips into Scarface.”  So, how can the final scene of Scarface not go through your head when you see this weapon ((In Episode 503 Walt and Walt bond over the climactic scene of Scarface on television one evening.  “Say hello to my little friend!” Walt Jr. says in unison with Tony Montana)).  Something, or someone has backed Walter White up against the wall, and he appears poised to do something about it – even though he seems to realize the cost will be colossal ((His life?)).

This was the only time filming a scene that Bryan Cranston had ever asked for information from Vince Gilligan that wasn’t already in the script.  Even Cranston himself didn’t have an idea of what was going on.  An actor needs to have their motivation clarified so they can act accordingly.  Vince claimed up to a year later that he didn’t know what was going to happen in the final episode, but he knew enough to write that scene, and he knew enough of what was going to happen after it.  What Vince told Bryan is the furthest insight yet into what’s going to happen:

1.  “Am I alone?” he asked.

     “Yeah” Vince answered.

2.  “Why am I coming back to Albuquerque?”  he asked.

     “You’re coming back because you need to protect someone.” Vince answered.

3.  “Is the cancer back?” he asked.

     “Possibly” Vince answered.

I’ve come to realize something extraordinary about Season Five that I don’t think can be said about any of the other seasons:  All the episodes stand on their own.  I don’t know if this is a good or bad thing, but it might be a sign that the writers have an appropriate desire to pull out their own big guns for these final episodes ((I have a feeling Walt is going to announce that the cancer is back very soon after Hank leaves the bathroom when the season begins this summer. Boom!)). Hopefully they’re rewarding us, and we are on the verge of an incredibly memorable conclude.

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