It's official: by now, the mild-mannered chemistry teacher turned drug dealer Walter White has become as manipulative, two-faced, arrogant and obsessive as Richard III or Iago. In the eight-episode "beginning of the end" that is the first part of Breaking Bad's fifth and final season, the show continues to grow in dimension and in scope, a reality that's also meaningful within its fictional universe. In this "southwestern," allusions to Jesse James culminate in a heist greater than any he ever pulled, one greater than "The Great Train Robbery." Walter's meth empire may just expand to an emerging market in the Czech Republic. And at the end of this road, a question: "How much is enough?"
For fans of the show, these eight episodes are not enough, but despite a suspicion that the show could well have gone on beyond the final eight set to drop in August of 2013, creator Vince Gilligan is no doubt wise to set firm limits on a show that's destined to remain untarnished and an all-time classic. Bryan Cranston's peerless performance as Walter White continues to yield big dividends as the character grows into delusions of grandeur and dangerous hubris, to the point where he tolerates compromising his family. Walter once rationalized his drug dealing and attendant violence as means to the all-important end of providing for his family, and still does. Of breaking bad, he tells his wife Skyler (and himself), "It gets easier. When we do what we do for good reasons, then we've got nothing to worry about. And there's no better reason than family." Now the means have become an end, as Walter comes to realize this has all been about his own ego, about people realizing—after 51 years—that he deserves the height of respect and, while they're at it, awe and fear. Cranston says it all in a masterful combination of body language and speech, moment to moment finding the dramatic and dark-comic truth to ground even the most bizarre of circumstances.
He's matched by an outstanding supporting cast, beginning with the brilliant Aaron Paul as Walter's self-doubting partner Jesse Pinkman. Paul expertly keeps Jesse's heart on his sleeve, credibly accessing raw emotion without ever spilling into bathos. Down the line, Breaking Bad serves up vivid note-perfect performances: Dean Norris as good-ol-boy DEA agent Hank Schrader, Betsy Brandt as his nattering wife Marie, Anna Gunn as her sister Skyler, RJ Mitte as Walt Jr., Jonathan Banks as suffer-no-fools professional Mike Ehrmantraut, and Bob Odenkirk as the ultimate in shady lawyers, Saul Goodman. Of course, the show's writers are also stars, and their increased prominence among the show's roster of directors (half the season's episodes are directed by folks from the writer's room) reflects the tightness of the series from conception to execution, with nothing lost in translation (it's also great to see Looper director Rian Johnson return for the season's fourth episode).
It's a testament to the writing that the expanding Breaking Bad universe fascinates wherever you look. That's certainly true of a character like Saul Goodman, around whom rumors of a "Better Call Saul" spin-off series persist. It's also true of Madrigal Elektromotoren, the conglomerate behind Gus Fring's drug empire. One season five episode deliciously takes us into and out of a food-testing lab at Madrigal HQ for a five-minute teaser that's a funny and disturbing short film all its own. Season Five also adds two characters that have already begun to pay big dividends: B&E expert Todd (Jesse Plemons of Friday Night Lights) makes for a Bizarro-Jesse of sorts, while nerve-wracked Madrigal employee Lydia Rodarte-Quayle (Laura Fraser) presents an ingenious and unpredictable mass of contradictions.
With Season Five, Breaking Bad has finally nuzzled up to Scarface, as Walt watches it with Walt Jr. in his living room, laughing it up as he notes, "Everyone dies in this movie." There's no telling if that's going to prove precisely true in the final eight episodes (though I wouldn't bet against it). One or way or another, Breaking Bad has already proved more fascinating and less obvious than The Sopranos in its psychodrama of middle-class sociopathy gone off the rails.
Sony loads up its two-disc Blu-ray release of Breaking Bad: The Fifth Season with value-maximizing content. each disc contains four episodes and a wealth of bonus features. The picture quality is on par with previous seasons, most notably impressing with its rich and precisely rendered color. Detail is quite good as well, though shadow detail tends to be non-existent. The odd shot here and there doesn't look as stable as it might, but on the whole, this is an impressive visual presentation that never looks anything less than the hi-def that it is (and far better than AMC's HD broadcasts, at least as my cable presents them). The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio mixes are even more impressive. LFE packs a punch whenever it's required. While much of the show is about quietly intense dialogue (which is always clear and crisp), anything from a slamming trunk to a freight train comes through with attention-grabbing potency, as does the creatively applied source music. The mixes also effectively place the sound to envelop the listener, especially with a centerpiece sequence like one involving an electromagnet.
The set includes eight audio commentaries, one for each episode: "Live Free or Die" with creator Vince Gilligan, Bryan Cranston, RJ Mitte, director Michael Slovis, and transportation captain Dennis Milliken; "Madrigal" with Gilligan, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Laura Fraser, director Michelle MacLaren and construction coordinator William Gilpin; "Hazard Pay" with Gilligan, Cranston, Paul, Gunn, Bob Odenkirk, and roducer Melissa Bernstein; "Fifty-One" with Paul, Gunn, Mitte, director Rian Johnson, and producer Sam Catlin; "Dead Freight" with Gilligan, Cranston, director of photography Michael Slovis, director George Mastras, and location manager Christian Diaz De Bedoya; "Buyout" with Cranston, Paul, Gunn, Odenkirk, producer Melissa Bernstein, writer Gennifer Hutchison, director Colin Bucksey and Special Effects Supervisor Werner Hahnlein; "Say My Name," with Gilligan, Cranston, Paul, Jonathan Banks, writer/director Thomas Schnauz and editor Skip MacDonald; and "Gliding Over all" with Gilligan, Fraser, producer/director Michelle MacLaren, writer Moira Walley-Beckett, costume designer Jennifer L. Bryan, editor Kelley Dixon, and Gilpin. These are well worth checking out for die-hard fans, but if you only want to sample, choose the ones with Odenkirk and Cranston, who're always good for some chuckles.
Each episode also comes with two installments of "Inside Breaking Bad," found in the episode menu. These spots produced by AMC come in two flavors: an overview of the episode's thematic and character development, as discussed by Gilligan and cast members: "Live Free or Die" (5:24, HD), "Madrigal" (5:22, HD), "Hazard Pay" (5:16, HD), "Fifty-One" (5:32, HD), "Dead Freight" (4:44, HD), "Buyout" (5:46, HD), "Say My Name" (4:48, HD) and "Gliding Over All" (6:15, HD), as well as behind-the-scenes featurettes offering set footage and details about the filming of showcase sequences: "Making of the Season 5 Premiere" (5:13, HD), "Making of Episode 502: 'Madrigal'" (4:20, HD), "Making of Episode 503: 'Hazard Pay'" (3:39, HD), "Making of Episode 504: 'Fifty-One'" (4:27, HD), "Making of Episode 505: 'Dead Freight'" (4:23, HD), "Making of Episode 506: 'Buyout'" (4:27, HD), "Making of Episode 507: 'Say My Name'" (5:06, HD) and "Making of Episode 508: 'Gliding Over All'" (5:53, HD).
I recommend checking out the extended and deleted scenes as well, as they're worth the time. "Madrigal" includes the extended scene "It Gets Easier (Extra Icky Version)" (HD, 3:37); "Fifty-One" comes with deleted scene "I'm Just Tired" (HD, 1:03); "Dead Freight" comes with deleted scene "Jesse James" (2:04, HD), "Buyout" includes deleted scene "Babe Ruth (2:13, HD) and extended scene "We'll Be Careful" (:54, HD), and "Say My Name" comes with extended scene "I'm Gonna Kill That Guy" (2:18).
Each disc also comes with its own set of miscellaneous bonuses, though the first includes spoilers if you haven't yet watched the season. In Disc One's "Scene by Scene: Directors Discuss Memorable Moments" (12:38, HD), John Shiban, Michelle MacLaren, Rian Johnson, David Slade, Scott Winant, Michael Slovis, George Mastras, and Thomas Schnauz share their favorite scenes from episodes they've directed to date. It's a terrific, brisk watch that gives some insight into how the scenes were shot and the personalities of the respective directors.
"The Writers of Breaking Bad" (8:53, HD) does much the same for the writing staff, demystifying the "breaking" of an episode in the writer's room. Along similar lines, "Writers' Room Timelapse" (8:38, HD) shows what the previous feature tells by letting us see a time-lapse video of the writing of the fourth episode, accompanied by commentary with most of the writing staff.
Disc one also includes the short but sweet "Gag Reel" (3:17, HD) and three more "Inside Breaking Bad" promos: "Where Season 4 Left Off " (4:14, HD), "Season 5: The Cast Looks Ahead" (3:49, HD) and "On the Season 5 Set with Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul" (1:26, HD). Rounding out the disc are two surprisingly fascinating extensions of the show's pop-culture reach. "Chris Hardwick's All-Star Celebrity Bowling" (11:00, HD) is an episode of a Nerdist vodcast with Cranston, Betsy Brandt, Mitte, and Paul bowling for charity against "Team Nerdist," while "Gallery 1988 Art Show" (3:35, HD) gives us a look at an exhibition entirely comprised of Breaking Bad-inspired art at an opening attended by Gilligan and cast.
Disc Two busts out with "Exclusive Scene: Chicks 'n' Guns" (8:12, HD), produced for the Blu-ray. The exclusive scene stars Paul, Odenkirk, Charles Baker ("Skinny Pete"), and Kayden Kross; we also get "Chicks 'n' Guns:' Behind the Scenes" (6:58, HD), a making-of that's almost as long as the scene itself. Though a bit slack, this amounts to an interesting deleted scene that fills in a bit of information skipped past in the eighth episode.
"Nothing Stops This Train" (15:38, HD) goes into greater detail about the filming of the train sequence; it's very nicely done and covers all bases about the sequence, including how a production disaster was avoided. "The Cleaner: Jonathan Banks as Mike" (8:16, HD) celebrates one of the show's popular supporting characters and the actor who plays him.
Rounding out Disc Two are "Prison Stunt Rehearsal" (1:29, HD), "Jesse Plemons Audition Footage" (3:22, HD) and "Laura Fraser Audition Footage" (4:09, HD). The Plemons footage is of particular interest for how the writers obscured potential spoilers with some fancy rewriting.
For the many fans of Breaking Bad, purchasing this overflowing special edition constitutes a definite no-brainer.
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