It's all over for Walter White.
However Breaking Bad ends -- and anyone who thinks they already know is a fool -- it won't end well. As Zack Handlen wrote at the A.V. Club:
Walter White is doomed. There was never any doubt. And in a sense, that certainty means the final eight episodes don’t really matter.
If it wasn't clear from the flash-forward that opened the fifth season, it was with the scene that opened tonight's mid-season premiere. (I hate writing those nonsensical words, but this is the life we've chosen.) It's sometime not long after Walt's 52d birthday, and he's back home, but this isn't the home we've come to know over how ever many seasons you choose to call it. The familiar geography is there, especially the long hallway down which we've gazed so many times, but it's empty, barren. The air vent in his infant daughter's room, the one in which he stashed what he now calls "blood money," is strewn on the floor. All that's left is the vial of ricin he stashed in an electrical outlet. All that remains is death.
There's one new addition: the word "Heisenberg," spray-painted in yellow, perhaps by the same skate rats using Walt's dried-up swimming pool as a half-pipe. The ads for the show's final eight episodes show a menacing Walt and the looking words "Remember My Name," but it's clear, as it always was, that he won't get what he wants. As I've written before, the engine that drives Walt's action is vanity, the festering sore of lost glory and the determination not to miss his second chance. But in creating an alter ego to carry out his misdeeds, Walt inadvertently outsourced his notoriety as well. If he's remembered, it won't be as Walter White; it's Heisenberg they'll remember.
With the episode's final scene, Breaking Bad dispelled any doubt as to the final arc's shape. Walter could have turned and left Hank's garage, continuing to play the guileless brother-in-law, but he is, after all, the one who knocks. No more waiting for the fight to come to him. He wheels on Hank and provokes the confrontation he know will come, expertly choosing his words to leave just enough doubt while making his meaning plain. Hank, as a federal official, could arrest Walt just for threatening him, but he's got his pride as well, not to mention what seems to be a recurrence of his PSTD. Hank's pos-traumatic stress and Walt's cancer recur in tandem; they're both crippled men, though only Walt is rotting from the inside out. Walt wants to believe that he can go back to living a "decent" life -- or at least that's what he has to believe. (How many times have we heard Walt say, as he does to Jesse, "I need you to believe this"?) Is there a decent man left inside him? "Blood Money" suggests he died long ago.
Donna Bowman, A.V. Club:
When he realizes Leaves of Grass is missing, connects the dots to Hank's discomfort, and confirms his suspicions by finding a tracking device on his Dodge Challenger, it’s both terrible and wonderful. Terrible: His secret is out. Wonderful: He has a project. And he feels fully up to the task.
James Poniewozik, Time:
There’s a great moment where, having spent his fury, Hank finally lets show some of his confusion and amazement that Walt -- nerdy, brainiac Walt whose chops he was busting way back in the pilot -- is not just a criminal but a composed, controlled, ruthless monster, and that Hank has been living, professionally and personally, inside a massive lie. "I don't even know who I'm talking to," he says, and it’s a wonderfully plaintive, lost line reading by Norris. He's furious, but he’s also still a little sick, and it's not the potato salad.
Alan Sepinwall, HitFix:
As much as Walt may be enjoying his retirement, and what may be his last days on earth with Skyler and the kids, he cannot resist demonstrating to Hank that he has outsmarted him, and he cannot resist demanding to learn what his brother-in-law knows. He is The One Who Knocks, but he is also The One Who Gloats.
Alison Willmore, Indiewire:
Walt doesn't deserve a happy ending. But death, as inevitable a destination as it seems, does feel like it might be too simple a fate for the man, in a drama in which karma has always come calling.
Scott Meslow, The Week:
As always, Breaking Bad operates on the principles of science, and everything the show has shown us so far has been a kind of lab experiment: How far into the dark side can one man go -- and how much can he do before he'll be punished for it? As the final run of episodes begins, we're finally at the end of that journey -- and it already looks like we're at the moment when everything's about to explode.
Cory Everett, The Playlist:
Though there are no shocking twists, the episode still manages to surprise not for what happens but when.
Tim Goodman, Hollywood Reporter:
This first episode hints at a season (or half season) long arc of cat and mouse in an open field. But I doubt it's going to be that easy to bring down Walt. If the flash forward is intended to give us some kind of hint, I would say that someone burned down their world to get him and they came up empty. Walt still stands, with his ricin, awaiting this final confrontation.
Emily Nussbaum, New Yorker:
This is a show with a long arc, one that has bent, with each season, in some way yet to be determined, toward justice. Over time, Breaking Bad has become as much a critique as a participant in the anti-hero genre -- or if not a critique, at least a puckish intervention and an extension of the form.
Jason Bailey, Flavorwire:
Walter White, for lack of a more nuanced term, has become a monster. It is too late for him. But considering the regrets and demons that still haunt him, can Jesse Pinkman’s soul be saved?