Last season ended with the revelation that Walt had secretly poisoned Jesse's all-but-adoptive-son Brock, as part of a vaguely convoluted but ultimately successful bid to defeat seemingly indestructible drug kingpin Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). With Gus now dead and no higher power yet making itself known, Walt begins this season on as absolute a note of victory as the show has ever allowed him – and as it turns out, success does not look good on him.
However heinous his actions have become over the course of Breaking Bad's four cannily plotted, masterfully tense seasons, it's remained somewhat easy to root for him because he has always been the underdog. First the cancer patient struggling to provide for his family, then the rookie meth cook in way over his head, and last season the lackey under the thumb of a far more vast and ominous evil. Walt has never been on top, and has never been in control; every transformation into badass alter-ego Heisenberg has been followed by a hefty dose of rock bottom.
But now Walt has finally won, and this week he just keeps on winning. Penned by series creator Vince Gilligan, 'Live Free or Die' is a moment of relative calm after the storm, or at least a breath of fresh, frequently comedic air after the relentlessly dark, toxic fumes of last season. Its main thread sees Walt, Jesse and a reluctant Mike dealing with the loose ends left over from their clean-up of Gus's operation - specifically a laptop containing incriminating CCTV footage from the lab.
What follows is a mini caper-movie in the vein of season three's 'Sunset' (the scrap yard from that episode, and its Mr Heckles-shaped owner, both reappear here), with our unlikely trio pulling off a bravura, science-based stunt against all reasonable odds. After the bleak season Jesse had last year, it's a pleasure to see Paul given the chance to be funny again, and anybody feeling nostalgic for the simpler days of "Yeah, SCIENCE!" will spend a good chunk of this episode beaming.
But with Walt's ego so plainly, terrifyingly out of control, it's hard to stay uplifted for long and Banks's presence is crucial in this regard. Mike has evolved subtly from a plot device into a dynamic and lovable character, and his air of resigned, dog-tired decency here is a much-needed antidote to Cranston's perfectly pitched arrogance.
The other puncture wound to our anti-hero's over-inflated self-image is the cold opening, which flashes forward to a bearded, dishevelled Walt under a new identity, toting a machine gun along with several rounds of ammo. It's hard to tell whether he's on the run or on a rampage, but neither bodes well for the increasingly slim possibility of his redemption. Jesse's reinvigorated loyalty, meanwhile, only makes the prospect of his discovering Walt's betrayal all the more heartbreaking - and now that we know Saul was in on the plan, it can only be a matter of time.
The episode's B-plot saw Skyler (Anna Gunn) discovering that Ted (Christopher Cousins) is not dead, as most viewers assumed last season, but has been left paralysed by the incident with Saul's goons. The scene in which she visits him in hospital is a stand-out for Gunn, who seamlessly takes Skyler from horrified sorrow to quiet menace as it becomes clear that Ted, far from threatening to sell her out, is afraid that she'll come after his family. In that moment Skyler becomes the monster Ted believes her to be, just as Walt seems to embrace the revelation that his wife is now truly afraid of him.
Ted is terrified of Skyler, who is terrified of Walt, who is - for the first time - terrified of absolutely no-one. This new status quo, solidified by the episode's chilling final line, lays the groundwork for Breaking Bad's most disturbing season yet.
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