Breaking Bad returned on Sunday with “Blood Money,” the premiere for the second half of its fifth and final season, pushing the story onward explosively. Breaking Bad showed little hesitation in getting to the core drama that’s been merely theoretical for most of the show – meth boss Walter “Heisenberg” White (Bryan Cranston) and his DEA brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris). There’s no doubt that creator Vince Gilligan’s final act of his critically acclaimed show will be impeccably paced without any sense of a rush to tie anything up, or the need to leave too many rocks unturned.

The first eight episodes of Breaking Bad’s fifth season ended last year with Hank learning that timid, nerdy straight arrow Walt was Heisenberg while flipping through a copy of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass while sitting on a toilet. After a brief fast-forward shows a deserted White house, the story picks up at the family BBQ after Hank’s fateful visit to the bathroom.

For many Breaking Bad fans, one of the few inevitable scenes more anxiously awaited than the moment Hank learns about Walt’s drug activity is the moment he acts on that knowledge. He could have swallowed the information calmly and taken the information straight to his colleagues. He could have confronted Walt in the immediate aftermath as he bounced his daughter on his lap by the pool (when you hear Marie (Betsy Brandt) teasingly call him "the devil"). He could have unloaded it on Marie on the way home. He could have buried it. Instead, the information understandably blows his mind to the point of giving him a panic attack that leads to a minor car accident.

Hank ultimately decides to have the case files sent to his house and gets to work piecing things together in private. Walt, realizing he might be on to him, pays him a visit in the garage and shows him the tracking device he found on the car. Wordlessly, Hank hits the garage door remote and slugs Walter across the face. What follows is a very carefully scripted conversation that clearly indicates that the battle is on between them. It’s a verbal dance that lets loose the many faces of Walter White and the complexity of Hank’s revealtion. Both parties are vague about what their course of action will be from here on out, but it ends on a perfect Walt quote: “If you don’t know who I am, then maybe your best course would be to tread lightly."

Ordinarily, narratives about criminals and antiheroes gradually humanize a person with monstrous tendencies. It’s been made clear that with Walt, if any alterations to his character were to be made they’d be for the worse. Slowly, we’ve seen an amiable high school science teacher and committed family man devolve into a ruthless career criminal whose hubris can’t be contained. The antihero has become less and less empathetic, getting supplanted as the one you root for by his arrogant blowhard brother-in-law law enforcement agent.

While the standoff serves the cat and mouse and family stories impeccably well, the story of Walt’s transformation is never more clear than it is in his conversation about Mike (Jonathan Banks) with Jesse (Aaron Paul). Sure, Walt has always had a way of condescending to Jesse, but lately he's been taking his manipulative efforts a bit further. Instead of badgering him, beating him into submission with slights and digs, he appeals to him as a father. The paternal pats on the back, calling him “son,” persisting in the idea that he knows best in conjunction with his repeated bold faced lie that he did not kill Mike is unsettling to say the least. Paul’s ability to portray Jesse’s brokenness and confusion is just as captivating as Cranston’s understated malevolence in the scene.

If “Blood Money” gives any indication of the quality to be expected in the rest of Breaking Bad’s final episodes, it’s going to be an end to a show commensurate to the impossibly high standards the series has risen to since day one.

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