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By Melynda Nuss

LOS ANGELES, 12 AUGUST 2013 — I recently saw a picture of Warren Buffett and Keith Richards together at the Breaking Bad season premiere party in New York City. To me, it nicely encapsulates what the series has become. What began as a quintessential fish-out-of-water story, where a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher turned to drug dealing to support his family, has turned into an exploration of business strategy and physical limits. Where we once wondered whether Walter White could do it, we now admire the strategy with which he does it. Would Walt really poison a child to get Jesse back on his side? Kill the gentle and admiring Gale to secure his position in Gus Fring’s organization? Could he defeat the cartels, dethrone his employer, and build the greatest drug empire in the Southwest? Absolutely. Like Buffett and Richards, he is a known quantity, a man at the top of his profession. What business will he enter next? What miraculous new blood transfusion will keep his battle-scarred carcass going?

One of the qualities that has rocketed Breaking Bad to the top of its profession is its ability to allow its characters to grow and change.  But this decision, however admirable, has created some difficulties for its writers. The arc of the first two seasons was watching Walt gain experience and ruthlessness. The title, after all, is Breaking Bad. But what happens when Walt has already broken? The show has handled the problem artfully, shifting its moral focus to Jesse, then to Skyler, then to Hank, and finally to bad guys like Mike Ehrmantraut and Gus Fring. It has introduced interesting new characters like last season’s Lydia and Todd. And when all else fails, the show stuffs itself with comic genius, from the macabre severed head riding on the back of a turtle to Bob Odenkirk’s miraculously sleazy Saul Goodman. For the last few seasons, Walter White has been the least interesting part of Breaking Bad. Like global capitalism, he lurks in the background, a malevolent presence against which the rest of the characters play out their lives.

Bryan Cranston as Walter White in Breaking Bad

This season, though, the focus shifts back to Walt, as last season’s closing episode suggests that Hank might finally be catching on to Walt’s secret identity. Will Walt finally get his his comeuppance at the hands of the law? Will he repent? Do we even want him to? At the end of season four, when Walt kills Gus Fring, there is a tantalizing moment where it looks like Gus has survived the explosion. As Gus straightens his tie, viewers are allowed to wonder whether they are glad he has survived or whether they wish he was dead. As Hank opens the book that reveals Walt’s secrets, we only have a few more episodes to ponder: do we want Walt to repent and pay the price for his crimes, or do we want him to get away with it? We only have two more days to find out.

Melynda Nuss is a writer and an Associate Professor of Romantic Literature and Drama at the University of Texas - Pan American. A regular contributor to Culturekiosque, she last reviewed the film The Great Gatsby

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