NOTE: This review will contain NO major spoilers for season five, however, if you haven't currently seen Breaking Bad up through its fourth season, please understand that it's pretty much impossible to discuss season five without divulging important events from the seasons that came before it.
One of the most ridiculously addictive television shows to come along in years and truly one of the finest series to ever grace the airwaves, with season five Breaking Bad begins to come to a close. Sony/AMC did, however, decide to break what was to be the final season into two parts, so there's more to come than just what's included in the eight episodes here. It's obvious, however, as you watch these episodes unfold that the exploits of Walter White and his collaborators cannot and will not last forever.
If you've never seen Breaking Bad, then you shouldn't be reading this, however the series begins when a high school chemistry teacher named Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is diagnosed with cancer. He and his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn) and their son, Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte), are devastated, of course. Walter, on the other hand, is more concerned with leaving his wife and son enough money to carry on without him when he goes. As high school teachers don't rake in scores of cash, he decides to collaborate with one of his former students, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), to cook meth. When sold at a profit, this is a quick and easy way for Walter to bank some cash and make sure that his wife and son are taken care of. This isn't as easy as it sounds though, as Walt's brother in law, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), works for the DEA. As the series progresses, Walt climbs the ladder of the criminal underworld and when season five begins, he's just eliminated some rather massive obstacles that were not only prohibiting him from doing things his way but which were also serving as very serious threats to his family.
Picking up exactly where season four left off, the focus this time around is on Hank and the DEA crew trying to put together the pieces of the drug distribution empire that was shattered and pinpoint just who exactly did what and how. With the DEA having been keeping tabs on the infamous 'blue meth' so popular in the drug underground for some time now, they approach this with a fervor strong enough that we see in Hank a renewed vigor, the kind that helps him overcome some of his physical obstacles and really focus on the task at hand. While that's going on, Walt and Jesse have to find a new way of getting the distribution that they once had in order to move their product. Playing a key role here is Mike (Jonathan Banks), the former head of security at Los Polos Hermanos. He, along with Walt's lawyer, Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), form an uneasy alliance with Walt and Jesse supposedly handling only the manufacturing and Mike handling all of the business operations. At least, that's their initial agreement.
As whatever is left of 'Walter White' is almost completely overtaken by 'Heisenberg' obviously things are going to change. This doesn't go unnoticed by his business partners nor does it go unnoticed by Skylar. Early in the series she snaps on her sister Marie (Betsy Brandt) who then confronts Walt about the unexpected emotional breakdown she witness in the office of the car wash used to launder Walt's money. Walt, somewhat honestly without revealing aspects he'd obviously prefer kept secret, blames it on her affair with former boss Ted Beneke (Christopher Cousins). Little moments like this show how the family dynamic once so obviously near and dear to Walt and the impetus for his entry into the drug business in the first place has taken a distant second to his lust for power, an aspect of the show that has become increasingly important as it evolves. At this point in the series, Walt really is 'the one who knocks' and he has become as ruthless and evil as any of his predecessors.
A series that seems to be continuously topping itself, Breaking Bad is riveting stuff. It's literally got those kinds of moments where you find yourself sitting in front of the TV, mouth open, completely speechless. The writing team's ability to suck us into the show's world is beyond reproach and their skill in crafting fascinating characters wholly worthy of each and every Emmy Award that has been lauded on their creation. Season five continues that tradition, that ability to completely surprise and shock you as Walt's story comes to its conclusion.
As excellent as the scripting, direction, editing and production values are in the series, it would all be for naught if the cast weren't just as impressive. Thankfully, that is exactly the case and all involved turn in excellent work here. Cranston is, as anyone who has been paying attention, amazing in his role. Anna Gunn and RJ Mitte are just as impressive and the way in which their characters change is every bit as fascinating and handled with just as much skill as Cranston's Walter. Aaron Paul, once the scumbag of the show, transforms Jesse from a lowlife into one of the noblest characters in the series with complete believability while Jonathan Banks has turned Mike into a remarkably human instrument of death. The performances in this series are flawless. It has to be said, however, that this collection of eight episodes doesn't feel as complete as the 'complete season' releases that came before it, simply because it's not. When it ends we're very much at a halfway point, though there is, of course, something to be said for leaving them wanting more. This is building to something big.
Sony offers up all eight episodes of Breaking Bad: The Fifth Season in AVC encoded 1080p high definition framed at 1.78.1 widescreen. Those accustomed to the show's gritty look will have no problem here, the transfers not surprisingly look fairly close to those seen on Blu-ray releases of seasons past. Grain is present, as the series is shot on film, and that's a good thing, it helps give the visuals some welcome texture and grit and it works very well and is completely in keeping with the show's aesthetic. This doesn't come at the expense of detail, however, as details in both the foregrounds and the backgrounds are generally very sharp. Texture is strong, facial detail is excellent and color reproduction impressive and natural looking despite some instances where things are a bit pumped up. Some of the desert scenes, for example, are very hot looking but this isn't a flaw but a stylistic choice. There's really nothing to complain about here, the picture quality is outstanding. If you really, really look for it you might notice some mild banding and the occasional mild compression artifacts but most aren't going to even notice this. The content looks excellent.
The main audio option in this set is the English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio tracks, but dubbed options are provided in Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound in both French and Spanish with optional subtitles offered in English, English SDH, French, Spanish (Castillian), Spanish (Latin American), Arabic, Danish, Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian and Swedish.
In terms of the quality of the lossless tracks, again, Sony scores top marks with this release. There's plenty of activity present in the front and rear channels throughout the series. The calm, quiet scenes have some interesting ambient noise and sound effects, be it heels on a marble floor or the sound of a car wash in the background of a conversation. The more action intensive scenes open things up considerably, as gun shots have some strong kick and car engines like the one in the scene where Walt and Mike meet in the opening episode have strong, rumbling bass. Voices are crystal clear, with Cranston's deep voice carrying some serious menace when the storyline calls for it. All in all, what with sound design playing such an important role in the series, it's great to see the audio handled with such care here.
Sony have loaded this two disc set with a serious collection of supplements starting with commentary tracks for each and every one of the eight episodes that make up Breaking Bad: The Fifth Season. The participants for the episode specific commentaries are laid out as follows:
-Live Free Or Die: series creator Vince Gilligan, actor Bryan Cranston, actor RJ Mitte, director Michael Slovis, transportation captain Dennis Milliken
-Madrigal: Vince Gilligan, actor Aaron Paul, actress Anna Gunn, actress Laura Fraser, director Michelle MacLaren, construction coordinator William Gilpin
-Hazard Pay: Vince Gilligan, Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, actor Bob Odenkirk, producer Melissa Bernstein
-Fifty-One: Director Rian Johnson, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, RJ Mitte, producer Sam Catlin
-Dead Freight: Vince Gilligan, Bryan Cranston, director of photography Michael Slovis, director George Mastras, location manager Christian Diaz De Bedoya
-Buyout: Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Bob Odenkirk, Melissa Bernstein, writer Gennifer Hutchison, director Colin Bucksey, special effects supervisor Werner Hahnlein
-Say My Name: Vince Gilligan, Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, actor Jonathan Banks, writer and director Thomas Schnauz, editor Skip MacDonald
-Gliding Over All: Vince Gilligan, Laura Fraser, producer and director Michelle MacLaren, writer Moira Walley-Beckett, costume designer Jennifer Bryan, editor Kelley Dixon, and William Gilpin
In short, the commentary tracks are terrific. There's plenty of activity throughout each of the eight tracks and it's interesting to note that not only do we hear from the obvious picks like Cranston, Paul and Gilligan but some of the lesser appreciated behind the scenes participants get their chance to talk about the series too. Hearing from costume designers, editors, location managers, special effects techs and construction coordinators may not be typical commentary material but it's welcome nevertheless. There's a lot of focus here on the character development and what went into getting things just right in that regard but we also learn about what goes into nailing the visuals, getting into character and loads more. There's a wealth of interesting discussion here and if you're the really hardcore fan who wants to know what goes into every facet of production, these tracks will not disappoint.
From here, we move on to more 'disc specific' supplements.
Each episode includes two Inside Breaking Bad featurette. For those unfamiliar with these, they're basically little vignettes that cover the making of each episode. Included on disc one are Live Free Or Die (5:24), The Making Of The Season 5 Premiere (5:13), Madrigal (5:22), The Making Of Episode 502: Madrigal (4:20), Hazard Pay (5:16), The Making Of Episode 503: Hazard Pay (3:39), Fifty-One (5:32) and The Making Of Episode 504: Fifty-One (4:27). The 'making of' vignettes get into the more technical side of things, focusing on locations, effects, stunts and the like while the vignettes named after the episodes are more character themed and feature the cast members talking about their roles and some of the crew members discussing their parts in shaping things. Outside of those ten episode specific featurettes there are an additional three: Where Season 4 Left Off (4:14) which is more or less just a recap of the season preceding this one, Season 5: The Cast Looks Ahead (3:49) in which the cast and crew discuss where the series is going as it comes to its conclusion, and On The Season 5 Set (1:26) in which stars Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul provide some amusing on set antics and show off a bit of the personality quirks that arise during a shoot.
Also worth checking out is the Scene By Scene (12:38) featurette in which series directors John Shiban, Michelle MacLaren, Rian Johnson, David Slade, Scott Winant, Michael Slovis, George Mastras, and Thomas Schnauz talk about their personal favorite moments from the series thus far. Much more than just a bunch of creative types gushing over their own work, this is actually quite an interesting and introspective look into the series' directorial team members respective process'. Similar is a featurette called The Writers Of Breaking Bad (8:53) which is, as you could probably guess, a look at what the writing team does by way of footage documenting different meetings, brainstorming sessions and what not. We learn about how and why the writers work together the way they do, what they like and don't like about the process, and some basic biographical details of some of the members of the team. The Writers' Room Timelapse (8:38) featurette fits alongside this nicely, wherein Vince Gilligan and others provide commentary for a quick, time-lapse video of the entire writing team scripting the Fifty-One episode. Visually it's a flurry of activity but the commentary gives it some welcome perspective.
Rounding out the extras on the first disc are Chris Hardwick's All-Star Celebrity Bowling (11:00), which is a bit in which Bryan Cranston, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte, and Aaron Paul do some bowling for charity, an Extended Scene called It Gets Easier (Extra Icky Version) (3:37) for the Madrigal episode, a Deleted Scene called I'm Just Tired (1:03) for the Fifty-One episode, a look inside a Gallery 1988 Art Show (3:35) where the cast and crew show up at an art gallery exhibition showcasing some truly excellent and creative Breaking Bad inspired pieces, and a Gag Reel (3:17).
Once again we start off with some more Inside Breaking Bad pieces, two per episode: Dead Freight (4:44), The Making Of Episode 505: Dead Freight (4:23), Buyout (5:46), The Making Of Episode 506: Buyout (4:27), Say My Name (4:48), The Making Of Episode 507: Say My Name (5:06), Gliding Over All (6:15) and The Making Of Episode 508: Gliding Over All (5:53). These again split nicely into two formats, with the cast and crew discussing story specific bits and pieces of each episode in the one, with the 'making of' versions giving us more technical info and looking into things like the logistics of shooting in a prison and dealing with trains.
From there we move on to some assorted extras and featurettes starting with an Exclusive Scene called Chicks 'n Guns (8:12)... we're not going to spoil this here, you have to watch it for yourself. It does, however, come with its own Behind The Scenes (6:58) featurette that shows us what all was involved with creating this scene exclusively for the show's home video release rather than for traditional broadcast. Nothing Stops This Train (15:38) is a very interesting look at what went into shooting the train scenes including some insight into the stunts, the locations and just the overall difficulties that were encountered while putting this particular episode together. The Cleaner: Jonathan Banks As Mike (8:16) is, as it sounds, an interesting examination of one of the most memorable characters from the series by way of a recap of who he is and what all he's been involved with.
Sony has also included a couple of Deleted Scenes with Dead Freight getting one called Jesse James (2:04) and Buyout getting one called Babe Ruth (2:13) and both are worth watching. Additionally there are a couple of Extended Scenes here too, with Buyout getting one called We'll Be Careful (0:54) and Say My Name getting one called, appropriately enough, I'm Gonna Kill That Guy (2:18). Rounding out the extras on disc two are a Prison Stunt Rehearsal (1:29) clip in which we see some of the cast preparing for the finale, some Jesse Plemons Audition Footage (3:22), some Laura Fraser Audition Footage (4:09), some promo spots for unrelated Sony properties, animated menus and episode selection. All of the extras in this set are presented in high definition.
As Breaking Bad starts to wind to a close, the brilliance of the writing and carefully crafted character development becomes even more obvious. One of the most intelligently made series to come along in years, it's basically perfect TV. The series is gripping, it's intense and it's even scary but at the same time there are moments of such striking humanity and drama that you can't help but feel for the characters. The superb acting from all involved and excellent production values don't hurt either. As to Sony's Blu-ray release, it proves to be a fantastic two disc set offering up then eight episodes in great quality and loaded with an excellent collection of supplements. This one truly deserves the DVD Talk Collector Series badge of honor.
For the extra adventurous fan, you can visit many of the filming locations showcased in the series by following this helpful Breaking Bad Tour.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.