In its rise to basic cable dominance, AMC’s lodestars have been two shows, Mad Men and Breaking Bad, whose storytelling could not be more different. Each show’s most recent season premiere is illustrative. Whereas Mad Men spent two leisurely hours leading up to a major plot twist (Don’s affair with Sylvia), Breaking Bad opted to open its kimono right from the get go, flashing us forward to Walt’s below the radar return to the ABQ on his 52nd birthday and a graffiti-strewn, condemned, and turned-into-a-skate-park horror show that was once his marital home. The outside is framed in chain-link fence and the inside has been stripped bare, a bright yellow HEISENBERG tag suggesting homage to the meth king of New Mexico. But Walt is not there to admire the scenery or watch the teenage boys who have turned his now empty pool into a half pipe, no, he’s there to secret away that tiny vial of ricin hidden in the electrical socket fixture in his former bedroom. His mission complete, it is left to former neighbor Carol to express what we as the audience feel: drop-your-groceries shock at what’s to come.
To Vince Gilligan’s credit, Blood Money plunged right into deep storytelling that had me gripping the remote harder than Hank grabbing the steering wheel after discovering Walt’s true identity. Indeed, the close-up of Dean Norris’s face as he struggles to process the big reveal neatly captured much of the episode’s vibe – a troubled façade covering a roiling wave of emotions. Walt’s ability to compartmentalize his ever-increasing viciousness became eerie over time, his lies and manipulations more difficult to justify even as he kept fooling the people around him. Now, those closest to him, Skylar and Jesse, do not even pretend to believe much of what he says. Walt may want to focus on the placement of pine scent air fresheners and European vacations, but Skylar is jaded enough to pick up the weird energy from Lydia, who lingers just a beat too long in the car wash. And while Walt ruminates on expanding their car wash empire, all Skylar can think of is the lifetime of money laundering that will be done to that incomprehensible pile of money sitting in long-term storage.
Meanwhile, the psychological toll of nestling under Walt’s wing appears to have broken young Jesse Pinkman, whose ego was slowly rebuilt after Gale’s murder, from his successful “cook” in Mexico to his role in spiriting Gus out of Don Eladio’s ranch and continuing after Gus’s demise by directing the purchase of equipment needed to set up Vamanos Pest Control and playing a key planning role in the methylamine train heist. But all that came to a tragic end when Todd put a bullet in young Drew Sharp’s chest. Since then, Jesse’s despondence has grown and he also knows Walt well enough now to know that Mike was part of the closing of loose ends even as Walt tries, begs, Jesse to believe otherwise.
Jesse’s predicament may, as he would put it, be Kafka-esque (yo) but he has struggled with a very simple concept from all the way back in Season 4’s “Problem Dog,” when, during one of Aaron Paul’s standout scenes, he asked rhetorically, “the thing is, if you just do stuff and nothing happens, what’s it all mean? What’s the point?” In the absence of a karmic (or prosecutorial) comeuppance, Jesse can’t accept that he “got away” with the things he cannot undo. Frustrated in his attempt to give his money to Mike’s granddaughter and Drew’s parents, he simply flings it, willy nilly, out his car window.
If Jesse is playing Santa Claus to the impoverished, Hank is still the gritty bulldog who just would not let go of “Heisenberg” even after Gale and Gus’s deaths. For his doggedness, he is rewarded with an awful truth that will tear his family asunder and devastate those closest to him. With the “W.W.” piece in place, Hank quickly fills in the rest of the puzzle, offering us a “where are they now” montage of the now deceased and clues along the way that inextricably show Walt’s alter ego.
Of course, Hank is not the only one who knows how to do investigations. Walt discovers that Leaves of Grass has been taken from his home, setting off enough alarm bells that he checks the wheelbase of his Chrysler, where, sure enough, he finds one of Hank’s GPS trackers. When Walt goes to the Schrader residence, Hank can no sooner hide his revulsion at Walt than Walt can hide his smarter-than-thou tendencies in the episode’s climactic scene. The two go through a Kabuki dance of pretending that each is unaware of what the other knows, and while Walt probes and Hank dodges, it appears things will end in a stalemate, but Walt forces the issue, dinging Hank for pulling the same GPS ploy on him that they did on Gus. From two combatants warily circling each other, Hank goes full UFC, sucker punching Walt, pushing him up against the garage door, excoriating him (you can literally see the spit from Hank’s mouth hitting Walt in the face) for Walt’s litany of sins and releasing all the anger and fury he feels towards his brother-in-law.
While Walt is initially cowed, he quickly gains his sea legs, reminding Hank of the consequences of pursuing an investigation against a dying man (another reveal) who would never see the inside of a jail cell. More ominously, when Hank says he does not even know who Walt is; Walt cleverly inverts the cliché, suggesting to Hank that if that is true, he probably should not threaten him. Having bared their fangs and landed some initial blows, the two men retire to their corners, but we know there are more battles ahead.