Refresher Course

‘Breaking Bad’: The 7 Plot Points You Need to Remember for the Final Season

The ‘hyperserialized’ saga of Walter White and Co. is a tangled tale. Andrew Romano helps you sort out the story thus far.

Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC

Are you gearing up for the final episodes of Breaking Bad, which returns to AMC Sunday night? Good. So are we.

A word of warning, though: If you haven’t revisited the world of Walter White, Jesse Pinkman & Co. since the show last aired in September 2012—and if you don’t have the gift of total robotic recall-–you’re going to be a little bit lost when you finally get to see the premiere.

This isn’t your fault (even figuring out which season we’re up to can be tricky—for the record, we’re embarking on the second half of Season 5).

Breaking Bad is what creator Vince Gilligan likes to call “hyperserialized” television. “Once I had the ability to write a serialized story, my writers and I got immersed in it,” Gilligan recently told me. “And we intended it to be even more rewarding to an audience paying closer attention. So we put in the tiniest little details that repeat or that we hark back to.”

In a lot of ways, Gilligan’s hyperserialized vision is great. Breaking Bad is endlessly rewatchable; every second is part of the story. But without exposition or explanation, it’s easy to forget important plotlines and events, too. It’s easy to get confused.

In true hyperserialized fashion, Sunday’s premiere is particularly labyrinthine and self-referential. So we’ve put together a quick primer to help you avoid any confusion: the seven things you need to remember to get up to speed for the final eight episodes of Breaking Bad. Peruse it now to refresh your memory. Consult it again while you watch the show on Sunday. Use it to settle any arguments that break out in the office Monday morning.

Just don’t read it if you haven’t seen EVERY SINGLE EPISODE of Breaking Bad to air so far. The following paragraphs consist solely of spoilers.

1. The Flash Forward

The first episode of the first half of Season 5 (“Live Free or Die”) began with a flash forward. It showed Walt on his 52nd birthday—full head of hair, scraggly beard, no wedding band, fake name, New Hampshire ID, surly disposition—eating bacon, eggs, and hash browns at a Denny’s in Albuquerque, then purchasing a set of keys from his old gun dealer in the bathroom after assuring the dealer that “it” wouldn’t leave town. “It” turned out to be an M60 machine gun in the trunk of the car that Walt used his new keys to open.

The first episode of the second half of Season 5 (“Blood Money”) also begins with a flash forward. I won’t reveal anything else other than to say that in order to grasp what is going on, you need to remember (a) what happened in the first flash forward, (b) what the White family’s house looks like (a low-slung ranch with a swimming pool), and (c) what became of the ricin that Walt made for Jesse in Season 4.

2. The Ricin

Don’t fret if you can’t recall every last detail of the ricin plotline; it was impossibly convoluted. All you need to know is that Walt cooked up some deadly ricin in the superlab, concealed it in a cigarette, and gave the cigarette to Jesse. The point was to kill Gustavo Fring, the drug lord for whom they were both working, but Jesse never did the deed. So when Jesse’s girlfriend’s son Brock was rushed to the hospital—and Jesse subsequently discovered that his ricin cigarette was missing—he naturally assumed the worst: that Walt had taken the ricin and poisoned the boy. But after a heated confrontation, Walt convinced Jesse that Fring was responsible and the two were a team again.

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The only problem, as we later learned, was that Walt did take the ricin cigarette (or rather he had his lawyer Saul Goodman’s bodyguard nick it) and did poison Brock (he used the less toxic lily of the valley so that the boy would be sick only long enough to turn Jesse against Gus). In the second episode of the first half of Season 5 (“Madrigal”), we were finally reunited with the ricin. At that point Jesse believed that Brock had ingested lily of the valley by accident and was worried that the ricin was still out there somewhere. To ease Jesse’s mind, Walt made a fake ricin capsule and planted it in Jesse’s Roomba, where he soon found it. Jesse was relieved, and so was Walt—he had already concealed the real ricin capsule behind an electrical outlet in his bedroom.

3. The Cancer

Walt hasn’t seemed particularly sick for awhile, but heading into the final flurry of episodes it will be helpful for you to remember the bleak diagnosis that triggered Mr. White’s crystal-meth adventure in the first place: lung cancer. Walt learned that his cancer was in remission during the ninth episode of Season 2 (“4 Days Out”); cancer receded as a plot point shortly thereafter. But Breaking Bad isn’t the kind of show that leaves loose ends. In the last episode of the first half of Season 5 (“Gliding All Over”), Walt went to the hospital for his routine MRI, and the camera lingered on the same paper towel dispenser he had punched in “4 Days Out.”

I will say no more.

4. The GPS Tracker

Also worth remembering: Walt knows his way around those little GPS tracking devices that police officers like to stick on cars. In Season 4 he spent a few episodes awkwardly chauffeuring around his injured cop brother-in-law, Hank Schrader, while Hank shadowed Gustavo Fring, the Los Pollos Hermanos magnate whom Hank suspected of being a meth kingpin. At one point, Hank forced Walt to plant a GPS tracker in the wheel well of Fring’s Volvo. (Walt told Fring he was doing it, so the data didn’t reveal any suspicious movements.) Later, Walt planted a similar GPS device on Jesse’s car, which is how he discovered that Jesse had a chance to poison Fring with the ricin but didn’t take it.

5. The Murders

There has been no shortage of bloodshed lately on Breaking Bad. At the end of Season 4, Walt blew up a nursing home in order to kill (and de-face) Gus Fring. And at the end of the first half of Season 5, Walt successfully arranged for all 10 remaining members of Fring’s drug empire—i.e., the 10 people who could still finger him as Fring’s meth cook—to be shanked, strangled, or burned alive in prison.

But it’s the murders of Gale Boetticher and Mike Ehrmantraut that you’ll need to recall most clearly at the start of the second half of Season 5.

Boetticher was Fring’s original meth cook: the cultured libertarian chemist who set up the superlab but then, upon analyzing Walt’s “Blue Sky” product and declaring it the purest meth he’d ever encountered, convinced Fring to hire Walt, too. The problem, of course, was that Fring only needed one cook. As Fring and Walt’s relationship deteriorated, and as Boetticher mastered Walt’s recipe, Walt started to worry that he was making himself expendable. So at the end of Season 3, Walt convinced Jesse that Boetticher had to go, and in the finale (“Full Measure”) Jesse wound up shooting Boetticher on the doorstep of Boetticher’s apartment in order to save Walt’s life.

The man who was hoping to kill Walt that night was Mike Ehrmantraut, the head of corporate security at Los Pollos Hermanos and hit man, consigliere, and enforcer in Fring's meth operation (as well as occasional private investigator and fixer for Saul Goodman). Mike was also hoping to kill Walt at the start of the first half of Season 5, when he returned from recuperating in Mexico—he had been shot by a cartel member—in order to avenge Fring’s death.

But Mike was gradually brought back into the fold. First he, Walt, and Jesse needed to destroy a laptop seized by police that contained incriminating surveillance footage from the superlab; then Mike realized that without Fring’s offshore money, which had been seized by the authorities, he had no way to keep Fring’s remaining henchmen quiet or provide for his granddaughter Kaylee. So Mike spent the rest of the season working alongside Walt and Jesse as they cooked meth in local homes that had been tented by a team of fake exterminators.

Until Mike wanted a buyout. In the penultimate episode of the first half of Season 5 (“Say My Name”), Walt and Mike met in the desert, ostensibly so that Mike could slip away with his cash before the DEA could catch him. But after the two men argued—Mike accused Walt of botching everything and refused to provide him with the names of Fring’s henchmen—Walt shot Mike in a fit of frustration and anger. Mike stumbled away and died in silence on the banks of a nearby river. In the finale of the first half of Season 5 (“Gliding Over All”), Walt hid Mike’s corpse from Jesse and assured him that Mike had gotten away.

Another desert murder worth remembering: after Walt & Co. siphoned off “an ocean” of methylamine—a key ingredient in crystal meth—from a freight train tanker car, their young accomplice Todd Alquist (Friday Night Light’s Jesse Plemons) shot and killed a boy on a dirt bike who had accidentally witnessed them celebrating the heist. Jesse was particularly upset about this.

And one person who wasn’t killed, irritating though she was: Lydia Rodarte-Quayle, the fidgety head of logistics for the German manufacturing and shipping conglomerate Madrigal Electromotive who provided Fring with methylamine and who first appeared at the start of Season 5, desperate to have Fring’s remaining henchmen offed. She’s still kicking.

6. The Money

After Mike’s death, a lot of stuff happened very quickly—all of it during the last episode to air (“Gliding Over All”). The money is the most important thing to remember. At the start of the finale, Walt agreed to partner with Lydia on a new venture selling Walt’s 99 percent–pure Blue Sky crystal meth in the Czech Republic, where the competition would be only 60 percent pure. In exchange, Walt got the names of the remaining henchmen (whom he had killed).

Over the next three months, Walt and Todd cooked millions of dollars worth of meth; eventually, Walt’s wife, Skyler, showed him a storage locker full of hundred dollar bills that she was unable to launder through their car wash and asked him to retire so she could be reunited with their children, who had been staying with their aunt and uncle, Hank and Marie Schrader. Soon after, Walt delivered two duffel bags of cash to Jesse—who began to cry, seemingly out of guilt—and returned home to announce that he was “out.”

7. Leaves of Grass

And then there’s the momentous final scene of “Gliding Over All,” which is where Sunday’s premiere picks up. Walt was finally retired. His children were back home; Hank and Marie were visiting. Everyone was gathered around the table in the backyard by the pool. Hank excused himself to use the bathroom, where he started to thumb through some magazines. Nothing interesting. Suddenly he spotted a book. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman. He opened it, absent-mindedly, to a inscription written in a familiar hand: “To my other favorite W.W. It’s an honour working with you. Fondly, G.B.”

With that, Hank flashed back to a scene from “Bullet Points,” the fourth episode of Season 4. At the time, Hank suspected that the murdered Gale Boetticher had been Heisenberg. But when he asked Walt to examine a chemical equation in Boetticher’s notebook, Walt noticed a Walt Whitman poem and a dedication: “To W.W. My Star, My Perfect Silence.”

“W.W. Who do you figure that is?” Hank asked Walt. "Woodrow Wilson? Willy Wonka? Walter White?”

“You got me,” Walt joked.

G.B.: Gale Boetticher. W.W.: Walter White.

Cut to a close-up of Hank on the toilet, his face frozen in shock.