“Walter White, Shit Magnet.”
I wrote those four words on my legal pad while I was watching the scene in Live Free or Die, the Breaking Bad premiere, while I was watching all the metal objects in the APD’s evidence room fly off their shelves and stick to the wall, behind which was parked Walt’s latest homebrewed diabolical contraption: A junkyard truck filled with powerful magnets, set up to suck all the meth-lab security-camera information out of the hard drive of Gus Fring’s Samsung laptop, which the APD is holding as evidence in his killing. At first glance, Live Free or Die seems like a relatively low-key opener, especially compared to S4’s grisly premiere, Box Cutter, and the frenzied final episodes of S4: no death, no imminent threats, no blood, no explosions, no poisoning, no weapons brandished (edited to add: okay, maybe ONE weapon brandished). But although Walt and Jesse and Mike have apparently gotten away with their destroy-the-laptop scheme, there are clues throughout LFOD that wherever Walter goes, stuff will be sticking to him, and everyone surrounding him.
Take that cold opening, for instance. Walt is in a Denny’s (not the same one he and Jesse ate in at the end of Box Cutter), calling back to Skyler making a “50” on Walt’s birthday breakfast plate with veggie bacon in the pilot by having Walt make a “52” with the greasy pork bacon on his plate, then presenting the waitress with a fake New Hampshire driver’s license to get his birthday meal comped. Only now Walt not only has a phony name and backstory, but a whole new look: darker, fuller hair, a full beard, hip emo glasses, baggy jacket. And he’s there to buy an M60 hidden in the trunk of a beater car
with a New Hampshire “Live Free or Die” license plate from his old friend Lawson the gun dealer. (On re-watch, I realized the LFOD plate was on Walter’s own car, not the beater.) He’s taking meds in the bathroom and coughing. All righty then. Since a little under a year has elapsed between the pilot and the S4 finale, it looks like Walt has lived an entire year since then, though he doesn’t seem to be doing so hot health-wise, and is planning to blow someone (or something) into little tiny poison-berry-sized bits. Hoo-wee, here we go, buckle your belts!
Not so fast. Turns out that’s just a flash-forward; the very next scene takes up immediately after the events of Face Off, starting with a repeat of Walt telling Skyler over the phone, “I won,” when she asks him if he had something to do with Gus’s death (which is already all over the news). With his family coming home at any moment, Walt moves quickly to destroy all the evidence of making the wheelchair bomb and cultivating the lily of the valley berries that made Brock sick. Walter Jr. is pumped, crowing that his uncle Hank is going to be “a hero, even more than before” for exposing Gus, but Skyler is flat-out terrified of what her (ex?) husband has become, and even tells him so.
But Walt doesn’t have much time to think about his family’s image of him; he has to get a hold of Mike, who has just been released from the Mexican hospital he was taken to after the cartel shootout in Salud, and enlist his help in destroying the contents of Gus’s security cameras, which could get them all in neck-deep fryer oil if the APD gets a hold of it. This is no mean feat, considering that Mike very much wants to kill Walt and only refrains from doing so because Jesse places himself between them as a human shield. Whew. (Talk about your deliberate storytelling; since Jesse was told at the time of Mike’s hospitalization that Mike would be staying there “a week,” that means only a week has gone by since the shootout at the end of Salud, episode 410, and the events of LFOD.)
Meanwhile, in other big news: Ted’s not dead! He’s alive, and he’s sentient, and he’s sporting a shaved head (yet another one for the men on this show!) and a nasogastric tube. And not wanting his family to find out about what he’s done, he tells Skyler, “I’ll never breathe one word of this,” assuring her without rancor that he’s told everyone he had a simple trip-and-fall at home. Walt, however, is hopping mad that Skyler spent some 680K of his meth fortune on Ted’s back taxes, even after Saul tells him Skyler did it to keep the IRS out of Walt’s hair. And what’s more, Saul reveals (to us) that it was indeed Huell, his henchman, who took the ricin cigarette from Jesse at Walt’s request so that Jesse would think Gus had poisoned Brock, but that nobody from Saul’s office had any involvement in or knowledge of Walt’s plan to make a six-year-old boy violently-but-not-fatally ill with poison berries. (So how the hell did Walt get Brock to eat those berries, anyway? They’re never going to tell me, are they?) Saul, completely disgusted with Walt, tries to wash his hands of Walt as a client, but Walt — growing smugger and cockier by the moment — growls at Saul menacingly, “We’re through when I say we’re through.”
And that’s really what this episode is about: Walt spreading his peacock feathers to the width of the city limits, certain he can do no wrong, certain that no one will ever be able to tell him “no” ever again. He outwitted one of the world’s most brilliant criminal masterminds and got a former Mexican cartel boss to act as a suicide bomber; he has completely bamboozled his son and his Heisenberg-obsessed brother-in-law; and he has Skyler completely cowed. His last words to her? “I forgive you.” Skyler is surely no saint, but her wrongdoings don’t have a body count attached to them like Walt’s do. And she’s the one who should feel guilty? That look on Skyler’s face during that final embrace shows a woman who knows she’s trapped, someone who knows she should have fled when the fleeing was good, even it meant engineering an exit worthy of Lucinda Williams’ “Changed the Locks,” but chose the protection of Walt’s reputation as a hero to her son over her own safety. Can Walt really get away with it forever? He does, after all, spend his 52nd birthday in a Denny’s alone, coughing and waiting to buy a machine gun under an assumed name. Something tells me it’s not going to be that easy.