During this season of Breaking Bad, the first half of the show's fifth and final, Walter and Skyler White asked her sister Marie and her DEA agent husband Hank to accept increasingly outlandish (and fraudulent) behavior wholesale. Walter had a fake breakdown in Hank's office so that he could plant a microphone in it. Skyler, meanwhile, freaked out at Marie (in the instantly meme-worthy, "Shut up!" outburst) and then went seemingly catatonic in a pool during Walter's 51st birthday dinner. A cover-up so ridiculous hasn't been devised since Walter's Season 2 "fugue state" nonsense. All these lies have been in service of making the couple appear to be socially acceptable messes, and not the outlaw messes that they actually are.
In a beautiful, albeit trying, formal parallel, the show itself has gotten more outlandish. A giant magnet was used to wipe out a presumably incriminating laptop (which turned out to be encrypted anyway) that was being held as evidence (the New York Times had experts weigh in on the dubiousness of this plot point). Walter spent some uncomfortable minutes alone with the child he attempted to sacrifice for his own gain last season, Brock Cantillo. (Brock's recovery from lily of the valley poisoning was an extreme turn itself). Walter and his crew robbed a train in a scene that provided the most breathless suspense I've seen on TV all year, despite it being a modern-day train robbery. The flawless slaying of nine inmates, who held information that could be used to incriminate White and his remaining associates in his meth ring, were executed within minutes of each other on last night's season finale (see the clip above).
A former comedy-drama about cancer and small-time drug-cooking that has taken enough dark turns to make you see stars is now borderline surreal. It's only gotten more brutal, but less gritty, a tonal shift that is not unlike that of the final entry of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy, The Dark Knight Rises. This great show is testing the limits of the suspension of disbelief.
The characters themselves seem amazed by all that has gone down. We were reminded multiple times this season that the bulk of the action – White's ascent from underachieving high school chemistry teacher to notorious drug kingpin who also beat cancer in that time – has taken place in just over a year. Their reflection on this matter was a reminder to the audience of the Breaking Bad's time span, and is an example of the show's faithful consideration to its viewers, the way it dots every I, crosses every T and then circles back around to make sure they're all legible. It has an uncanny sense of what facts need underscoring in its butterfly-effect-driven plot, like when it reminded us mid-season of Mike's beef with the newly introduced Lydia (she tried to off him, remember?). A less considerate show would have made you draw your own conclusion about Marie's offer to take in Walter and Skyler's kids (it was revealed that it was Skyler's idea when Walter asked, thus explaining the catatonic charade). It would have forced you to think back a few seasons and remember that Walter sold himself out of a fortune when he accepted a few thousand dollars for his stake in Gray Matter.
Walter's motivation for continuing this illegal line of work is handled with a lifelike complexity as he becomes less of a human and more of a gravel-voiced, one-liner machine. In this season's second episode, he told an increasingly wary Skyler in bed, "When we do what we do for good reason, we've got nothing to worry about. There's no better reason than family." That idea guided him to cook meth in the first place, and has seemingly kept him there as the bad decisions have piled up. He complained about being broke, but then blew tens of thousands on father-and-son cars after his first (and considerably decreased) payment from his new business setup. And then there was that scene of reflection on Gray Matter: "I'm in the empire business," he told Jesse, his partner on the way out. Add that to the "Shit Walter White Says" video that would also include from this season: "I won," "He handles the business, I handle him," "We're done when I say we're done," "Come on Skyler — you wanna take me on?" and "We're just getting started. Nothing stops this train. Nothing."
Walter has become a larger-than-life tyrant, the kind that says, "Because I say so." Bryan Cranston's performance reveals this as stilted bravado. It always has, with repeated flashes of Walt's bumbling – as much as he tries to be a cool killer, he's in over his head, a dipshit in power, the dad from Malcolm in the Middle. He assassinated Mike in the penultimate episode of this first half of Season 5 and as a result he crumbled and then realized too late that this was all in vain, that he could have wrung the names out of Lydia anyway. D'oh.
Everyone around Walter (except for his new associate Lydia) has buckled and attempted to extract themselves from this ridiculous lifestyle he will not shake. Is his continued survival a result of him being the craziest or fittest? Mike, his apparent model in smooth criminality, seemed to think Walt's behavior was transparent enough to read. "You are a time bomb," he told Walt, whose "pride and ego" Mike also called out. Mike didn't have a spotless record when it came to intuition (he blamed Lydia, not the incompetent police that were actually responsible for a tag on the outside of a barrel of methylamine), but it does seem that Walter is rejecting any possibility of a happy ending. That lie about him having a gambling problem that he and Skyler told Marie and Hank to explain their influx of cash is not a lie at all.
For a show that reveals and reveals completely, the imagination-engaged sport of watching Breaking Bad has long been to guess where it's going, and especially where it'll end. Creator/writer Vince Gilligan told The L.A. Times, "We've got some ideas for the last eight episodes that frankly trouble me and worry me. I worry the audience won't stay on board with some of them. But this show demands dramatic moments and moments of shock and surprise and showmanship, and I want to carry that through to the bitter end - if indeed it is a bitter end." My disbelief already suspended by virtue of that fact that I am watching fiction, I am on board for whatever this show throws at me, however over the top it goes before it lands.