Since the beginning of Breaking Bad, there was always the question of if and when Walter White (Bryan Cranston) would be caught. His brother in law Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) was a DEA agent, so there were so many ways for his work as a meth cooker/drug kingpin to go south. And as the final eight episodes of Breaking Bad began, Hank had finally caught on to his brother in law. It was the start of the end, and it couldn’t end well, at least for the characters. For the audience, it ended spectacularly. My review of Breaking Bad The Final Season on Blu-ray follows after the jump.
First off “The Final Season” is what the packaging says, but that would surely include the episodes from the first half of the fifth season, but season five was divided into two eight episode chunks, even though they were shot and aired nearly a year apart. It must be some sort of contractual thing.
The second half kicks off seconds after the last episode with Hank finding a book of poetry that the late Gale Boeticher gave to Walter. Hank puts it all together, and goes home to do research, struggling with a panic attack as his world comes crushing down. But the great thing about the show is that this tension of Hank knowing could have dragged on for episodes. By the end of the first, he and Walter confront each other. Meanwhile Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) has five million dollars and all he wants to do is give it to the family of the boy whose child was murdered by Todd (Jesse Plemons). He’s too emotionally distraught to make any rational decisions and is eventually arrested for throwing his money away.
Skyler White (Anna Gunn) is confronted by Hank shortly thereafter, and though both love her sister Marie (Betsy Brandt), Skyler doesn’t know what to do, and doesn’t want to incriminate herself so she stays mute. Walter raises the stakes on Hank – who knows his career is ruined the minute he tells his coworkers that his brother is a meth kingpin – to keep him at bay, but Hank is not the sort of officer who backs down because of threats. Meanwhile Todd and his crew are now making meth, and their work doesn’t make Lydia (Laura Fraser) all that happy because their purity levels are far below Walter’s and their meth isn’t even blue. Walter gets Jesse to Saul Goodman’s (Bob Odenkirk), and the plan is to take him to the long spoke of Disappearer, but though Jesse goes along with this, it’s at this time he realizes that Walter was the one who stole the ricin cigarette for him, and he wants revenge. Eventually, he teams up with Hank.
When it all goes down, it goes down in interesting ways that might not be predicted, but feel right for just about everyone. That’s led to problems because it’s a pretty neat package in the end. But that won’t stop Breaking Bad for being revered as one of the greatest accomplishments in television history, up there with (though not on the same level as) The Wire.
If it’s not as good as The Wire, it’s only because at some point Breaking Bad stopped being about the exterior world, and became focused on the human drama. In that way the series peaked in Season 2, when it showed the real world collateral damage of Walter’s pursuit of wealth and power. But the show always had pulp fiction roots, and in comparison to The Shield or The Sopranos, what’s most impressive is how tight the whole thing is – there are no seasons, no episodes, and only a few plot strands that didn’t pay off or add up, and that’s pretty amazing. Much of that had to do with the first season. Had they not had a shortened order for the first year, they might have pushed Walter too far along in his journey into crime, but the way it plays out now, there are 62 episodes and about forty eight hours of a near-seamless narrative that is mostly broken up into acts. And, as series creator Vince Gilligan said from the outset, this was about turning Mr. Chips into Scarface and so each season saw Walter fall further from sympathy, and further from his initial goals of simply taking care of his family. As the character says in the finale, only then can he finally admit he did it for himself.
What the final eight episodes do is unravel everything, with “Ozymandius” the standout episode, as directed by Rian Johnson. To that point, the tension has been raised, and things have to explode, and so explode they do, with no one left uninjured. It’s one of the most harrowing and brilliant episodes of television ever filmed, and it’s amazing how well it pays off so much of what’s been building over the years. But the nice thing about television is that the show had two more episodes to unravel everything else, and gave Walter White a glimpse of Hell, and a moment to make things maybe a little less bad.
At this point, everyone on the show knew what they were doing, and so there are no bum performances, and everyone is doing career-best work, with a deep bench of great supporting players. Kevin Rankin and Michael Bowen play two of the head Neo Nazis, and though both had played toughs before, this isn’t just guest of the week stuff, these characters have lives and feel lived in. It’s weird how great Bowen is, many might know him from Valley Girl, or Jackie Brown (or a small part in Kill Bill), but he transforms himself into another person, and that’s just one of the minor characters in the season. Bryan Cranston is amazing in these episodes as he reveals the worst of the character and then tries to show empathy while doing the worst possible things. That people still like Walt, that people misguidedly champion him has everything to do with how good Cranston plays it. And it’s no surprise that Aaron Paul is moving on to a big screen career, because he and the creators took a nothing part and transformed the character (who was supposed to get killed off in the first season) into the heart and soul of the series.
But then there’s also Anna Gunn, who many fans grew to hate, but who brilliantly played a conflicted woman who was in a relationship she couldn’t get out of, and would occasionally vacillate into accepting the evil around her. And RJ Mitte as Walter White Jr., the one person who fully believes in his father until he finally sees the monster within. And then there’s someone like Bob Odenkirk, who is mostly comic relief, but manages to bring a reality and empathy to his shyster lawyer, and that’s not to mention Jesse Plemmons great work as Todd, whose baby face is a perfect counterbalance to his sociopathic nature.
It’s also worth noting that the show was shot on 35mm, and that mixed with the directors means this is one of the most cinematic shows on television. The camera moves in ways that advance the story, and where most TV shows can be enjoyed without watching the picture the whole time, here there is so much going on in terms of visual storytelling. If you watch “Ozymandius” a second time, during the flashback opening, a key prop is placed prominently in the frame, as if to set up its role later in the episode. You don’t get that from most TV shows.
Ultimately, Breaking Bad is a great work, a great story, and it’s easy to see why people champion it as being as good as the best of cinema. Though that’s apples and oranges –it’s pointless to compare the greatness of Jaws to the greatness of Moby Dick, or Hamlet to The Beatles. That said, one wishes there were more than a handful of shows on this level. Hopefully Breaking Bad will spawn them.
The series is presented widescreen (1.78:1) and in DTS-HD Master Audio. Disc one offers the first four episodes. The first episode “Blood Money” comes with a commentary by Vince Gilligan, Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, Bob Odenkirk, RJ Mitte, Writer/Producer Peter Gould, Producer Michelle MacLaren and producer Melissa Bernstein. It comes with two episodes of “Inside Breaking Bad” on the making of the episode (7 min.) that are pretty puffy. The second episode “Buried” comes with commentary by Gilligan, Cranston, Gunn, Laura Fraser, MacLaren, writer/producer Thomas Schnauz and production manager Stewart Lyons. It also gets two episodes of “Inside Breaking Bad” (9 min.) and three deleted scenes (2 min.), which includes more time on the money bed.
Episode 3, “Confessions” includes a commentary by Gilligan, Cranston, Gunn, Odenkirk, Mitte, MacLaren, Bernstein and writer Gennifer Hutchison. It also gets two “Inside Breaking Bad” episodes (7 min.) and two deleted scenes (3 min.). Episode 4, “Rabid Dog” features a commentary by Gilligan, Cranston, Aaron Paul, Mitte, Bernstein, writer/director Sam Catlin, producer Diane Mercer, and supervising sound editor Nick Forshager. Again, there’s two episodes of “Inside Breaking Bad” (7 min.), and two deleted scenes (3 min.).
The supplements on disc one also offer a table read of the episode “Blood Money” (41 min.), It’s followed by an uncut version of Walt’s confession (6 min.), and Jesse Pinkman’s evidence tape tape (5 min.), and “The Layers of a Sound Mix” (6 min.), which walks though the production sound, the soundtrack and the final mix. The “Ozymandius” trailer and the gag reel (6 min.) close out disc one.
Disc two kicks off with Episode 5 “To’Hajilee” which comes with a commentary by Gilligan, Cranston, Gunn, Fraser, MacLaren, Lyons, and writer/producer George Mastras and composer Dave Porter. It’s followed by another two episodes of “Inside Breaking Bad” (7 min.). Then comes the commentary for “Ozymandius” which offers Gilligan, Cranston, Paul, Mitte, Bernstein and writer/producer Moira Walley-Beckett, which is followed by two episodes of “Inside Breaking Bad” (7 min.).
Episode seven “Granite State” comes with a commentary by Gilligan, Cranston, Paul, Odenkirk, Gould and Robert Forester. It’s followed by another two episodes of “Inside Breaking Bad” (7 min.) and an extended scene (3 min.). The finale “Felina” offers a commentary by Gilligan, Cranston, Mercer and Forshager. Then there’s another two episodes of “Inside Breaking Bad” (10 min.) and an extended scene that is only contained in script pages.
Okay, now on to the last supplements on the disc. For starters this set comes with the Mythbusters episode on Breaking Bad (43 min.) in a plastic sleeve (hopefully this is also available to regular consumers), but this disc starts off with “The Main Event” (14 min.), which focuses on the shootout at the end of “To’Hajilee” and the aftermath of it in “Ozymandius,” and it’s followed by “The Final Showdown” (10 min.), which focueses on the last episode and the gunfire in the final segment. “Life of a Showrunner” (10 min.) focuses on Vince Gilligan. There’s the faux alternate ending (4 min.) with a making of about it (5 min.) Rounding out the supplements is test footage of the M60 (1 min.). As for the commentaries, they’re packed with people, and there’s some good bits here and there, but they don’t prove all that illuminating. There are moments of interest throughout, but often there’s so many people that some participants seem neglected.