It’s important to keep expectations in check at all times, but especially with beloved TV series. There are so many variables at work, so many moving parts operated by so many individuals, that even with the smartest showrunners, the best writers’ room, and the most stellar cast, things can go off the rails when you’re least expecting it, often at the worst possible time. So it’s with a sense of relief that “Blood Money” opens with what might be one of the two or three cold opens the series has ever pulled off (and that’s saying something). And yet it’s the end of the episode that easily slides into the all-time Breaking Bad Holy Shit Canon.
For now, that cold open. Taking place shortly after the flashforward that opened season five, it finds Walt returning to his home, the house where we’ve spent so much of the series, to find it foreclosed, with HEISENBERG scrawled on the wall. There’s a remarkable shot in which Walt stands up after finding the ricin capsule he hid long ago – to what end, we don’t know – and when he does, the bathroom mirror distorts his features in a truly ghoulish way, just for a moment. And then he emerges to dispassionately scare the crap out of his former neighbor Carol, ending the sequence with an unexpectedly potent comic note. In about two minutes: dread, surprise, surreality, and sly humor.
It’s the first, but far from the last, indication that Vince Gilligan and company are supremely confident in their endgame, and it’s already clear this is going to be an absolute blast to behold. One of my favorite things about one of the other best dramas on TV, Justified, is the way it cannily acknowledges when it’s being awesome and doesn’t shy away from flaunting its iconography. That sense of swagger is on display in “Blood Money,” which displays a keen understanding of how best to exploit the series’ many narrative and character tensions for maximum entertainment value and minimal unnecessary contrivance.
That sense of understanding means that nearly every character move makes perfect sense for them; this was a major issue with the first half of the season, especially with regards to Mike, but that doesn’t seem to be an issue at all going forward. Jesse feels terrible about his life and decisions, and feels the need for salvation, which he ultimately attempts to find in the brashest, most Jesse-like possible fashion: by literally throwing his millions out the window. Saul, for his part, maintains the showmanship, while acknowledging that representing Heisenberg got a little too hairy when “the lawyers started to get it.” Yet he can’t help but get involved again when he sees all that money at his literal doorstep. The episode is crammed with smart character choices like these, and for the first 55 or so minutes, I was perfectly satisfied with what I found to be a smartly assembled, superlatively thought-through set up for a fine ending.
And then it happens – one of the biggest narrative gambits the show has ever devised, one which hits the accelerator on plot events we knew had to happen, but which most, if not all, assumed would take place over a much longer timespan. As a remote-controlled car zips along in the background, Walt decides to pay Hank a visit while he’s in the midst of reviewing his case. Hank is many things, but between him and Walt, it’s clear that there is only one great liar. It quickly rises to the level of “he knows I know he knows” and so on, and in previous seasons, the show might well have been content to let that dynamic simmer for three, five, eight episodes. And as Walt turns to leave, we suspect that’s exactly what we’re about to see.
Not the case.
Instead, Walt turns around and mock-pleasantly confronts Hank about the one thing he’s confident he won’t be able to worm his way out of: explaining the DEA tracking device he’s found on his car. To be clear: there are a couple of major contrivances at work here. Hank knows that Walt is a secret criminal mastermind, but still thinks he’ll be able to carry on a covert investigation against Walt while lifting key evidence from his house and deploying standard-issue DEA tach that Walt has actually seen installed first-hand. That can be waved off on account of Hank’s hysteria upon making the discovery, but it’s still not airtight writing. With that said, contrivances are much easier to swallow when they ultimately serve to subvert our expectations of pace and direction in a thrilling way, and that’s precisely what the bravura closing sequence of “Blood Money” does. Here, we get a definitive first confrontation, of the sort we might reasonably have expected to see in, say, the penultimate episode. Hank – noticeably buffer since Dean Norris took on Under the Dome (how many actors can say they got to play a hero and a villain, respectively, on two very different and wildly popular series at the same time?) – gets the physical upper hand easily, but he gets his first-ever dose of patented Heisenberg mindfuckery, of the sort that apparently only Jesse has completely learned how to see through. First, he’s informed that Walt’s cancer has returned, and that he claims to have only a few months to live. Knowing that, and already having a sense of what an incredibly deceitful and manipulative person Walt apparently is, there’s no reason for Hank to doubt that Walt’s claims about the stability of his own defense – which would most likely keep him out of a jail cell long enough to live out the remainder of his life. So – what now?
Hopefully, whatever comes will remain mostly contingent on the characters we have spent the most time and effort investing in. Laura Fraser’s Lydia turns up for a great scene with Skyler, but if that’s the last we ever see of her or her Madrigal overlords, I wouldn’t mind. (The most likely scenario to my mind, based on what we’ve already seen, is that Madrigal winds up wooing Jesse somehow, or muscling their way into his life, leading to further complications down the line.) Between Walt, Hank, Jesse, Skyler, Marie, and Saul, there’s enough personal history and dramatic potential to raise the stakes and keep them high without the appearance of another would-be kingpin, though that would admittedly be thematically appropriate. Whatever Gillian and his crew decide to go with, it’s already clear that we’re in good hands.