No matter what happens to Walter White, our work here is almost done. Creator Vince Gilligan’s unerringly brilliant “Breaking Bad” is back Sunday for the first of its final eight episodes — technically the concluding half of its fifth season — and this time the show will be met by more than just the elite TV watchers. People have finally (finally) come around to it. There were repeat Emmys, there was critical slobber to spare, but it still seemed to take forever for “Breaking Bad” to break through some Stephen King-like town dome that separates a merely zeitgeist-y piece of popular culture from a full-on mainstream fever.
The ratings will never quite bear this out, but I knew something had changed because this was the year in TV when I stopped getting cornered in stale conversations about Don Draper’s credenza. People wanted to talk about Walter; I at last stopped hearing old theories about “The Wire” and “The Sopranos.”
I have my own little pet theory about why “Breaking Bad,” which is demonstrably the best show of this decade and among the best shows in TV history, never quite had its “Sopranos” moment: It was set in a place no one really cares about.
This has a lot to do with East Coast default settings — an I-95 thing, a New York-New Jersey-Boston-centric culture bias for urban grit, guido-ness and mob narratives. What chance does a show set in Albuquerque have to hold us in its grip?
I say this as someone who has watched plenty of New Yorkers deplane in my beloved Albuquerque and, thoroughly unimpressed, sprint for the rental cars that will speed them to the tourist destinations of Santa Fe and Taos.
Georgia O’Keeffe, a prairie-raised woman who couldn’t stand another minute of New York, was really no different in this regard when she sought solace in the gorgeous emptiness of New Mexico; she was about horizons and mountains and bleached bones. All that nothing becomes something.
“Breaking Bad” also was into bleaching some occasional bones. It inhabited the riches found in both the literal and criminal expanse, but it was also about the terrible beauty in Route 66 decrepitude; those neglected lawn xeriscapes; that magnificently ugly car wash; the slimeball attorney officing on the North Valley strip.
Overall, American TV viewers aren’t particularly attentive to shows that aren’t set in or around the mass markets of New York, Chicago or L.A. (Seattle will sometimes do when the subject is murder and/or rain; Portland is useful mainly as a P.C. punch line; Dallas won’t work, unless it’s a show called “Dallas”; Miami is really just New York in pastels.)
Years from now, when I’m still making lists of what I miss most about “Breaking Bad,” the writing and the acting will rank first and second, but a close contender will be the show’s absolute confidence in its sense of place and in finding an American rock that is seldom turned over to see what scurries out. Set anywhere else, I don’t think “Breaking Bad” would have achieved its eerie sense of remoteness and moral unease. Walter’s story simply lives better in the greatest, beige-est stretch of the flyover. Much of what made the show work was its backdrop; for New Mexicans, it occasionally verged on the documentary genre.
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If you’re getting the sense that I’m purposefully writing around the details of Sunday night’s episode (the only new episode made available in advance to critics), then you’re correct. I’m not here to spoil more than one or two moments of it in this review, and I have to believe that if you live on Earth and like TV at all then you’re caught up on the episodes that have aired to this point. If not, get busy watching.
When we left off, Drug Enforcement Administration agent Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) had discovered the copy of Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” that was on the reading stack of Walter and Skyler White’s guest-bathroom toilet.
What’s inscribed inside, as we all know, reveals to Hank that Walt (Bryan Cranston) is the elusive meth-making genius, a.k.a. “Heisenberg,” the legendary chemist whom he has been pursuing all this time — his own brother-in-law.
Of “Breaking Bad’s” many defining moments, it all seemed to be leading to this Sunday’s episode, when we get to see Hank’s reaction, as well as his next move. Even better? The moment Walt realizes the book is missing. It’s remarkable how far this one episode brings out the landing gear for the entire saga; it also indicates just how much needs to be accomplished to get us to the point of a couple of spooky flash-forward scenes that have hinted at the scope of the disasters to come.