AMC's Breaking Bad wrapped up the first half of its 5th and final season Sunday night with a cliffhanger for the ages. Vince Gilligan, ever the master of suspense, has seen fit to delay the final eight episodes for another year, forcing legions of die-hard fans to sweat it out until next summer. At least it should be well worth the wait. This first eight episode installment of Season 5 was absolutely stellar, and is just as good, if not better, than seasons 1 through 4.
For one thing, Bryan Cranston has become Walter White to such an incredible extent that reruns of Malcolm in the Middle are pulse-pounding by association. Walt's insane arrogance reached new heights this season, and Cranston's performances have been beyond gripping. My favorite scenes from recent episodes have been Walt's interactions with Hank, where he exaggerates his heartbreak over his failing relationship with Skyler. Watching Cranston so perfectly walk the line between a believable performance and an obvious put-on has been a treat, and the simple fact that you can tell when he wants you to know he's acting is a real testament to his abilities.
In fact, Cranston is so good that one criticism of the show could be that it has become too much of a “Bryan Cranston as Walter White” showcase. Jesse in particular has faded into the background as more and more of the show is geared towards putting Walt and all of his bad-assness on display. For the first four seasons, it could have been argued that Breaking Bad was primarily about Walt and Jesse's unlikely partnership, highlighting the vast differences between the two men. Jesse Pinkman, played by Aaron Paul, used to have almost as many of his own storylines as his counterpart, but Season 5 has been all about Walt. Now Jesse is often reduced to a pensive on-looker who watches in disbelief as Walt spirals even further out of control. Of course, we could certainly do worse than having to endure brilliant performances from a great actor playing a phenomenal role.
Sunday night's mid-season finale was spec-tac-ular, a triumph in evocative entertainment. For the first half hour, the tension was immensely palpable, building to a climax so vividly fierce that when the commercials rolled I said out loud (to an entirely empty room), “Jesus ... fucking ... Christ.” It is a truly rare and precious thing when a show can provoke a visceral reaction so intense that it literally makes you talk to yourself, and Breaking Bad achieved that. Admittedly, the show has always pushed the envelope a bit when it comes to brutality, but last night's prison scene makes earlier seasons seem about as vicious as a particularly tame episode of The Big Bang Theory.
The second half of Sunday night's Breaking Bad was equally engrossing, but for completely opposite reasons. In an almost paradoxical fashion, the lack of intensity made it intense. After the prison scene, Walt is “#winning” (a la Charlie Sheen). Literally everything is going his way, and it's absolute torture to watch because you know it can't last. Scene after scene ends with Walt flying high, forcing you to wait with bated breath for an unknown catastrophe to shatter his world. You can almost feel the hand of the director toying with you as Walt plays with Holly or beams a smile at Skyler. Personally, I became like the kid in the shadowy bedroom where everything starts to look like monsters. Even the most innocuous interactions filled me with dread. When Walter Jr. was invited out with his friends, I immediately assumed that he was going to die in a car wreck (he didn't ... yet!). I remember thinking to myself, “this is the mid-season finale, there has to be something.” And then there was.
I won't ruin it, because it is beyond imperative that you watch for yourself. Though I will say that the climax to last night's episode virtually guaranteed an epic conclusion to the series. Yes it sucks that we have to wait until next summer, but there's a silver lining to the delay. If for some reason you or someone you care about still doesn't watch Breaking Bad, you have a whole year to catch up before what will undoubtedly be some of the most amazing television of all time.