This review will NOT contain any major spoilers for The Final Season.
*Click on all images in this review for full 1080p screenshots.
All I've heard people talk about since 2008 is Breaking Bad. In fact, every conversation I've had in regards to entertainment somehow transitioned into a sales pitch for the show, and sometimes it was completely unsolicited. I'd do something stupid, and a friend - with an absurdly stupid grin - would say something like, "Better call Saul!" I'd raise a quizzical eyebrow… and that's all it took. Before I knew it, I was hopelessly trapped in the back-and-forth dialogue of, "Oh my God! You haven't seen it yet?" Well, after caving to peer pressure about a year ago, I inevitably reached the same conclusion as everyone else - Breaking Bad is one of the most compelling dramas of all time. Of course, I'm late to the party and you already knew that. Still, as consistent as it's been, heading into the final season of any show feels like a risky venture. Despite gobs of early potential and promise, plenty of series have endured the years only to falter in the home stretch, and some notoriously at that. With that in mind, I can't imagine being the only one to wonder if The Final Season would maintain the series integrity.
The penultimate season - otherwise known as the first half of season 5 - had little choice but to introduce new ideas to progress the story. With Gus Fring dead and his super lab in ruins, Walt and Jesse find themselves at the top of the food chain. However, their newfound freedom comes with its own set of limitations - They have nowhere to cook, none of the chemicals, and virtually no way to move such large quantities of product. Saul - their tap-on-the-nose lawyer - suggests they quit the drug trade for good, but Walt's come too far to let an empire slip through his fingers. They eventually use a pest control business as cover, and enlist Mike - once employed by Fring - to handle the business end. Yep, they had it all figured out - Moving between various homes tented for fumigation makes it impossible for authorities to pinpoint operations, and Mike had all the connections they would ever need. But as the old saying goes - If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Mike had jail stoolies to keep quiet, new acquaintances prove to be loose cannons, and the DEA are closing in. Feeling the pinch, Walt and Jesse walk away... but not before Hank discovers the elusive Heisenberg - which was Walt's professional pseudonym - was under his nose all along.
It's not that showrunner Vince Gilligan ever gave me reason to doubt we'd get a decent conclusion, but too many shows have dropped previous plot points so the 'big picture' wouldn't get compromised. The Sopranos never revealed the fate of the Russian, and LOST never got around to explaining why Walt was so important to the island (amongst other things). That said, Breaking Bad was so meticulously crafted since day one, that even the tiniest of loose threads could have caused the entire thing to unravel. Looking back on it now, the writers have essentially spent the last 6 years bringing out my inner-Heisenberg - I wanted skeletons to unapologetically fall from the closet, and because Walt's decisions have seemingly cultivated the perfect storm, I needed to see everyone in his life weather the consequences...
... and I wasn't disappointed.
Before we delve into the aftermath of Hank's realization, we're given yet another glimpse into the future. A disguised Walter White - complete with hair and beard - pulls up to a bleak iteration of his family home. Fenced off and vandalized, the only thing left to occupy the house are his memories. Making haste, he breaks in and recovers the ricin he hid behind the electric outlet. Keeping in mind that there's a pretty massive gun hidden in the trunk of his car, it's clear that whatever Walt is about to do, it's going to be final. It's a look at the Walt we always knew we'd see - He's lost everything and literally has nothing left to lose, except for perhaps a life that's already running on borrowed time. At this point, it's a given that these final 8 episodes will be tragic at best, meaning the only question worth asking at this point is, "How?"
Whisking us back to present day, it's clear that the writers have no intention of beating around the bush. Hank immediately runs home to examine the Fring and Heisenberg case files to confirm his suspicions. In the meantime, Walt is pondering the best way to launder his money when Lydia - the woman he ‘left' his empire to - pops out of nowhere, begging him to come and cook for her. She stands to lose a lot of money because the ‘chemists' in her employ are unable to make his patented blue meth, but Walt, uninterested in taking on unnecessary heat, brushes her off. Whether he wants it or not however, the heat is coming - When he notices a damning piece of evidence has been removed from his home, Walt goes into panic mode and inevitably finds a GPS device attached to his car. With nowhere left to hide, he dons the Heisenberg persona once more to confront his brother-in-law... all this in the first episode alone.
Obviously, this doesn't bode well for Walt or… well, anyone. For starters, Hank's discovery isn't the career defining win he imagined it would be. The moment he reveals his brother-in-law as Heisenberg to his co-workers at the DEA, he's likely to be laughed out of a job. Jesse has been known to affiliate with Walt before, so he's an obvious target to bring in for questioning. Saul has been Heisenberg's advisor through thick and thin, so his choices are limited if he hopes to remain outside of prison walls. And Skler? Despite her outspoken nature in regards to Walt's new 'job', she chose to lie about where his money came from and even came up with the idea to use a car wash for money laundering. To say she would be implicated is an understatement at best. Lydia isn't thrilled that she was basically told to go screw herself, and Todd is willing to do whatever it takes to learn Heisenberg's meth recipe.
Walt's actions had set a lot of things in motion, and the creative staff managed to every bit of it to their advantage... and yes, that includes tackling the unanswered threads from seasons past. There's not much I could say at this point without giving all of the major shocks away, but Bryan Cranston said it best when he likened this season to a runaway train. The momentum and weight of events this season is a force to be reckoned with, and none of it feels forced. Each and every character ends up in a place that makes sense given the puppet-strings pulled by Walt, yet watching the house of cards fall around them is still mind-blowing... but why? Probably because most shows on television are afraid to actually 'go there', but Breaking Bad does, and multiple times at that. The glue that holds it all together however, are the performances by each and every one of the players. This is the performance of their lives, and although many will (and have) push on to other projects for a long time to come, these final eight episodes of the series are their defining moment.
In short - and again, without giving anything away - this is the strongest season of television I've seen in... perhaps ever. The only minor complaint is that the most memorable moments happen a few episodes before the finale, but everything that comes after the fact is still highly potent stuff. If you were concerned the creators would succumb to the pitfalls that most other shows have in their final year, don't be. You're in good hands. Breaking Bad had a hell of reputation for years, and thanks to Vince Gilligan and the efforts of everyone on and off the screen, that's exactly how it will be remembered - Not as a letdown, but as one of the most powerful dramas of all time.
Some other seasons of Breaking Bad have been criticized for heavy smearing due to DNR (and rightfully so), but The Final Season on Blu-ray - 1080p, AVC encoded (1.78:1) - is the best the show has ever looked. That's not to say the presentation is perfect - there's some minor banding, and noise can often look a tad unnatural, but this is still an improvement over the broadcast from my cable provider. Colors are natural and lifelike, including skin tones. Black levels and contrast are spot on - There are times where black crush appears to be evident, but this reflects the program I saw on television mere months ago. This appears to be an artistic choice, and considering the severity of the events that transpire this year, it's more than fitting. Details and clarity are immaculate, and there's a fair amount of depth to the high-def imagery. Fans of the show will be happy with this release for sure. The only downside? Wishing the rest of the series looked as nice...
Wow. The Final Season comes equipped with a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track... and it's stellar. For starters, there's plenty of environmental ambience. I actually felt immersed in every moment of the season, quiet or otherwise. And speaking of 'otherwise', there are plenty of musical cues that leap from the speakers and the dynamic range certainly helps. The real winner are the action sequences however - When Walt is barreling through the desert in his car or gunfire is erupting from every perceivable angle, each individual sound carries its own weight and distance. If I was a superstitious fellow, I'd probably feel inclined to duck on a few occasions. Dialogue is always crisp, clean and prioritized. For all intents and purposes, the sound design is pretty close to being theatrical, which says a lot for a televised drama that isn't on HBO.
-Audio Commentaries - These are absolutely terrific. There are plenty of participants, the information is presented with depth and never veer into snooze-worthy territory, and everyone generally has a good time. As someone who actually finds it difficult to sit through commentaries more often than not, I was actually sucked into each conversation and enjoyed listening to everyone almost as much as watching the show... almost. Commentary are provided for the following episodes:
-Blood Money - with Vince Gilligan, Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, Bob Odenkirk, RJ Mitte, Peter Gould, Michelle MacLaren and Melissa Bernstein
-Buried - with Vince Gilligan, Bryan Cranston, Anna gunn, Laura Fraser, Michelle MacLaren and Stewart Lyons
-Confessions - with Vince Gilligan, Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, Bob Odenkirk, RJ Mitte, Gennifer Hutchison, Michelle MacLaren and Melissa Bernstein
-To' Hajilee - with Vince Gilligan, Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, Laura Fraser, Michelle MacLaren, George Mastras, Dave Porter and Stewart Lyons
-Ozymandias - with Vince Gilligan, Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, RJ Mitte, Moira Walley-Beckett and Melissa Bernstein
-Granite State - with Vince Gilligan, Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Bob Odenkirk, Robert Forster and Peter Gould
-Felina - with Vince Gilligan, Bryan Cranston, Diane Mercer and Nick Forshager
-Inside Breaking Bad - This is actually a series of mini-featurettes that are episode specific. Most of the episodes this season have two featurettes each, and it's worth noting that these appear to be mostly promo-centric material. The content is definitely a lot easier to swallow if you're not a commentary fan, because the cast do recount their experiences and emotions while filming the final season.
-Deleted Scenes / Extended Scenes - Unlike most material left on the cutting room floor, I actually found these deleted and extended sequences to be somewhat intriguing. There's not much more than 10 minutes in material overall, but fans of the show should definitely take a peek.
-Blood Money Table Read - I've seen animated shows get the 'table read' treatment on home video, but never for such a visceral live-action drama. If the prospect of this bonus isn't enough to draw you in, I don't know what is.
-Walt's Confession - For the sake of keeping this mostly a surprise, I'll merely say that you'll want to see this, as it's the full video that we're treated to in the show... and it's full screen, too.
-Jesse Pinkman Evidence Tapes - Same sort of deal as above... although not quite as 'full' of an experience.
-The Layers of a Sound Mix - This takes an important scene from the season and deconstructs the different bits of audio that culminate into the final product. I've seen plenty of storyboard-to-final product pieces on home video, but nothing that devoted itself so much to the audio. Give this a watch.
-Ozymandias Trailer - This was used to promote The Final Season. Chilling.
-Gag Reel - Actually clocks in at over 6 minutes in length. Everyone has a great time on set despite the heaviness of the content, and it shows.
-The Main Event - A major sequence that begins in one episode and ends in the next is deconstructed.
-The Final Showdown - A deconstruction of what went into crafting the finale episode's biggest scene.
-Life of a Show Runner - We all know that Vince Gilligan created Breaking Bad, but what exactly does a showrunner provide to the production well after the fact? Catch this featurette to find out.
-Alternate Ending / Behind the Scenes of the Alternate Ending - Most of you are already aware of what this is, but for those who aren't, let's keep it a surprise. Enjoy!
-Fire in the Hole - M60 Test Footage - Something of a letdown as it isn't footage as much as it is a collection of pictures while the M60 is being tested.
A third disc has also been included, albeit for a limited time, and includes the Mythbusters Breaking Bad episode. They take some of the most notable myths from the show and see how far they'd get Walter White in real life. I love both Breaking Bad and Mythbusters, but I have mixed feelings about having them combined. Have some of these myths debunked sort of took some of the 'magic' of the series biggest moments away, and I've done my best to forget what I saw ever since. Still, I wouldn't recommend passing this over. It's still highly intriguing, and the fact that Vince Gilligan and Aaron Paul participate is definitely a plus!
I've said enough without telling you much, so I'll cut right to the chase - Breaking Bad - The Final Season is what drama is all about. It had more than enough potential to disappoint, but went in with guns blazing - literally and figuratively - to prove that the creative staff weren't about to tarnish a legacy of nearly flawless programming. All the important loose ends have been tied up - including those from seasons past - and the end for everyone is as fitting as it gets. If you haven't taken the plunge on Breaking Bad yet, do yourself and get on it... like, now. There's an impressive slew of supplements on this release, and the A/V presentation is stellar. DVDTalk Collector Series.
For the extra adventurous fan, you can visit many of the filming locations showcased in the series by following this helpful Breaking Bad Tour.