We know, or at least assume, that Walter White lives to see his fifty-second birthday as Breaking Bad’s season five opener “Live Free or Die” shows. The episode’s title comes from New Hampshire’s state motto and not the horrendous fourth Die Hard movie. “Live Free or Die” maintains several of the show’s tropes: an outrageous and near implausible plan coupled with a tease in the form of a flash forward.
The episode begins with Walter eating breakfast or rather playing with his breakfast at a local diner. He looks different as he has a beard, full head of hair and different glasses—he’s incognito. After brief exchange with the waitress and we learn that today is Walter’s birthday and that he has driven, or said he has driven, some thirty hours non-stop for ‘business.’
A man walks into a restaurant and Walter follows him into the bathroom. After a quick exchange, an envelope of cash for car keys, and Walter walks out to find the car. He opens the truck to and finds what he has paid for–M60 machine gun along with about a thousand rounds of ammunition. This scene has direct echoes to last year’s Thirty-Eight Snub.
This story telling strategy has been used in every season of Breaking Bad and it can be effective. It invites viewers a glimpse into the future and to wonder how Walter came to ‘need’ a M60 machine gun. I suspect we will find out near the end of the series. Of course, when someone needs a M60, something has gone awry.
After the flash forward, the show picks up right where last season ended. Walter quickly cleans up after his bomb making in his kitchen. We know for certain that Walter built the bomb that blows up his arch-nemesis Gus Fring, but some wondered if Walter was responsible for poisoning Brock—his retrieval of the Lily of Valley plant confirms with certainty Walter’s culpability.
It is hard to see Walter as the protagonist after his willingness to imperil a child. One of the most interesting elements of the show, it seems to me, is Walter’s transformation from protagonist to antagonist, though it might be properly argued that Walter was always the show’s antagonist.
In addition to the aforementioned tropes, the series has also employed humor throughout. Mike, Gus’s erstwhile “cleaner,” learns that Walter has killed his boss and confronts him. Mike is angry and wants to simply kill Walter—perhaps the best option when the final analysis is in, I predict. When Jesse moves to protect Walter by telling Mike that he will have to kill him too, with perfect exacerbation and weariness Mike says, “Aw Jesse. What is it with you guys?” This is not really funny, but designed to illustrate just how taxing and trying dealing with Walter has been. We sense that Mike has some fondness for Jesse—after all he saved Mike’s life—and Jesse’s recent alliance with Walter confuses and disappoints Mike. After Walter convinces Mike that they need to retrieve a laptop with incriminating evidence on it, he looks toward Jesse and Walter. Standing next to the car, he opens his hand. When the two men fail to comprehend Mike’s gesture, he says with pitch-perfect ennui, “Keys, scumbag. It’s the universal sign for keys.” That is a funny line. Mike has several more throughout the episode.
While Mike, Jesse and Walter develop plans to destroy the laptop despite it being locked away in the Albuquerque police department’s evidence room, we see how other characters are responding to the recent events. Hank, for example, inspects the burned down super lab and discovers the melted remains of a surveillance camera—a camera we know Gus used to monitor Walter’s work and behavior. As Hank watches the laptop being taken into evidence, we feel just how badly he wants to get his hands on it. Time’s a ticking, we sense, before Hank reviews the information. Hank is a formidable adversary, and he will likely have to be dealt with before all is said and done.
As the boys plan to expunge the incriminating evidence, the scenes almost take on a light-hearted comical tone. For example, as Mike and Walter argue with each about the feasibility of the plan, it feels like an elderly couple arguing about when they first met. When Jesse interjects with his ‘magnetic’ idea, it is funny. Even the plan itself is a little comical.
In season’s past, Ted Beneke was often characterized as a non-threatening rube. Scenes involving Ted served as a diversion from the intensity, tension and anxiety that Walter and Jesse often found themselves in. It gave the audience a little break. This dynamic is inverted in “Live Free or Die.”
Ted did not die as a result of his unfortunate fall last season, but he is not in good shape. When Skylar learns of this, she visits him and is confronted with her decision, her plan. She sees Ted confined to his hospital bed with a head and neck brace. His head is shaved and he looks downright uncomfortable and pathetic. While he may have been a bodkin, he certainly did not deserve to have his neck broken. Skylar’s initial response is the most humane one—sympathy and remorse for fellow human being register clearly in her facial expressions. It brings some pathos to the episode, and it is important that the show provide the consequences of the ‘business.’ After being told by Saul of the Ted situation, Walter he seems satisfied and even breaks into a smirk as he hugs his wife. When he says, “I forgive you,” Skylar does not seem to understand. He thinks that she is now part of the organization and willing to engage in nefarious activities to protect the family. We are not so sure.
One final point on the recurring themes: solving one problem leads to another. The giant magnet plan seems to have worked, though the boys don’t really know for sure. Mike, particularly, is not convinced. And he is right to be skeptical, but not for the reasons he thinks. As the episode concludes, the ABPD are inventorying the damage in the evidence room. The laptop is destroyed, but the magnet’s destruction revealed another ‘lead.’ What seems to be a banking routing number is uncovered in behind a picture taken from Gus’ desk. Clearly, this is an account Gus used to deposit his meth money in. One problem leads to another. We can hardly wait to see how Walter deals with that one.