Blood Money is an incredible start to the last season of Breaking Bad. In my review of the first half of the show’s fifth season, I argued that the pacing of that season felt a little slow. It took a while for Walt’s drug empire to build and nothing of any great consequence happened until the last couple episodes. As the series’ final eight episodes begin, it is already clear: the piper is going to be paid much more quickly this time around.
As fans no doubt remember, the last season ended with Walter White out of the meth business and his loose ends seemingly all tied up. Then DEA agent Hank Schrader, Walt’s brother-in-law, stumbles on a clue that links Walt to the Heisenberg identity. For a year, fans wondered how Hank would handle this information. Blood Money gives the answer.
The episode opens with another flash-forward, set shortly after last season’s flash-forward. Walt returns to Albuquerque to find his home condemned and covered in graffiti. Kids are skateboarding in his empty pool. But the one thing no vandal found in their pillaging of the White household is the poison ricin hidden behind the outlet in Walt’s room. Walt clearly has nothing left to lose. He enters the property in broad daylight with a tire iron and when an utterly shocked neighbor spots him, he greets her with a simple hello. Whatever Walt is planning with the ricin, it’s going to happen shortly after he retrieves it.
These openers are notoriously teasing. We now know more about not only Walt’s circumstances but the circumstances of the entire White family. The entire community, maybe the entire nation, knows Walt is Heisenberg. And yet the information begs even more questions, questions the final season seems on the fast track to addressing.
When the episode proper begins, it picks up directly where the last season left off. Hank steals the copy of Leaves of Grass that clued him into Walt’s secret identity and immediately begins a new investigation using boxes upon boxes of clues from the Gus Fring case. All this evidence-gathering actually serves as something of a red herring. Hank gets his own musical montage and it basically just consists of him throwing around pictures of Mike, Gale and Gus. Initially, it seems like the show is setting up another drawn-out Hank investigation.
Happily, it all comes to a head very quickly.
But before I get to the episode’s spectacular, white-knuckled ending, there are some minor items. Lydia wants Walt back in business. Presumably, so do her associates. It seems careless of Walt to so rudely dismiss her when she visits him at the car wash. He must know that drug distributors of this caliber do not so easily take no for an answer. Maybe the scene served to reaffirm Walt’s distance from the drug world and Lydia won’t be heard from again. Story-wise, there is plenty to work with without involving her. Eight full episodes of the family drama could easily take up the entire season without the various satellites of Walt’s criminal past popping in and out of his life. Such a clean break from his former associates, however, seems unlikely.
Speaking of, Jesse is literally littering the streets of Albuquerque with clues. His relationship with Walt as of this episode is not unlike Skyler’s in the last season. As Jesse tries to distance himself from Walt and convey his mistrust of him, Walt talks to him in a fatherly tone and tries to assuage Jesse’s suspicions. Walt even refers to Jesse at one point as “son.” It reminds me of Walt’s awkward, menacing spooning of Skyler during several scenes of the last season. He has a tendency to become concerned and affectionate when people are most unsure of him. And while Walt has manipulated Jesse from the very beginning using everything between and including kindness and cruelty, he has rarely looked Jesse square in the eye and flat-out lied to him as he does when Jesse expresses his suspicious regarding Mike.
Things are not OK inside the head of Jesse Pinkman. He’s doing drugs and hanging out again with Badger and Skinny Pete. Their appearance in the episode is funny, but they aren’t especially convincing Trekkies. Anyway, atonement is clearly what Jesse is after. With Saul refusing to give Jesse’s $5 million to some of the victims of the Heisenberg empire’s bloodshed, Jesse drives around and throws the money out the window in bundles like a paperboy Richie Rich. Some of it lands in the bushes; some of it goes straight into the sewer. Jesse just wants to be rid of it. Saul makes a comment about Jesse still being two miracles shy of sainthood even if he gives away all his money. While doing the right thing seems to be Jesse’s goal of the moment, his character is too complex to be transformed into a possession-free street saint.
Also of note is the return of Walt’s cancer. He’s seen in the episode receiving chemo therapy and throwing up in the bathroom. And it’s as he’s throwing up that he notices his copy of Leaves of Grass missing from the bathroom magazine basket. After a search of the house, he seems to indifferently conclude that the book will turn up eventually. But with the timing of Hank’s supposed illness, Walt can’t shake his suspicion that Hank is onto him.
For the first forty minutes, Blood Money feels like a typical Breaking Bad episode. This isn’t a knock: everything is done professionally, as always, and the acting is also superb. But there’s a constant nagging feeling, an elephant in the episode that feels inadequately addressed. While it’s a thrill to see everyone again and find out where all the characters are, the wider story has barely moved forward.
That is, right up until the end. I’d assumed Hank and Walt would take their time monitoring one another from a safe distance, covering their tracks and continuing to put on happy faces for the family and each other for as long as possible. But this episode does away with that prediction. The ending altercation between Walt and Hank is right up there in intensity with the best moments of Goodfellas or any other tough guy movie you could name. That moment when Hank closes the garage door on Walt is the moment you know: shit is about to get real. It’s that rare kind of magical storytelling that surprises you even when you see it coming from a mile away. There is no gradual sharing of information, no feeling one another out; there isn’t even much from Walt in the way of a denial. By the end of the episode, everything is on the table between Walt and Hank.
And the cliffhanger ending is almost as gripping and thought-provoking as last season’s cliffhanger of Hank’s realization. Hank’s position over Walt is so supreme that Walt’s threat feels empty, but that he made it at all sets an interesting tone for what is to follow. The question of what’s going to happen next, with the bitter rivals squared off in Hank’s garage, is even more interesting than the question of how Hank would confront Walt that racked the imagination of fans for a year. Obviously Hank cannot simply let Walter go. He wants to involve the family. One way or another, something big is going to happen. Mercifully, this time, there is only a week to wait before we know what it is.
The second half of Season 5 is starting off with far greater purpose and intensity than the first half did. There is still a lot of ground to cover. Who is the ricin for? How will Walt get away from Hank? Will the money Jesse’s tossing around be traceable back to anyone? We won’t learn the answers to all these questions next week, but next week’s episode is guaranteed be a life-changing one for Walter White. Season 5′s first half felt clunky, but Blood Money is a laser. It has already set into motion the show’s entire endgame. Everything that happens from here on out is going to be pivotal.
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