Tuned In: Tension builds as 'Breaking Bad' opens third season

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No other television show makes as judicious use of silence as "Breaking Bad."

These quiet moments -- of brown, baked New Mexico vistas or characters in repose, shot from a distance -- could be pretentious, but in "Breaking Bad" (10 tonight, AMC) they are portentous, adding to the program's innate, nerve-shattering tension.

"Bad" challenges anxious viewers, but it remains one of TV's best hours, thanks to strong performances from the entire cast and the steady, guiding hand of executive producer Vince Gilligan, who proves in tonight's episode that he values realistic, risk-taking storytelling over the more convenient status quo.

The series kicks off its third season with two menacing well-dressed men crawling in the desert dirt. Viewers can tell they are bad news, but it isn't until this season's third episode that it's clear exactly why they mean trouble for protagonist Walter White (Bryan Cranston), the cancer-stricken high school chemistry teacher turned meth maker.

At the end of the second season, viewers watched in horror as pieces of a season-long visual puzzle came together: A commercial airliner crashed into a small plane over Walt's home; debris and body parts rained down. Walt bore some responsibility for the disaster, which was caused by an air traffic controller who was despondent after the death of his daughter. She was sleeping with Walt's junkie partner-in-crime, Jesse (Aaron Paul), and Walt might have been able to save the young woman from her drug overdose but chose to let her die.

In tonight's season premiere, Walt is not only crippled by guilt over the plane accident -- he spouts uncomfortable facts during a student assembly at the high school where he has returned to teaching -- but he's also devastated that his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), has left him.

Walt got into cooking and selling meth to provide money for his family after his death. But now he's in remission.

"I have more money than I know how to spend," Walt says. "What I don't have is my family."

Many characters from past seasons return -- good, bad and lawyer (Bob Odenkirk) -- and it probably helps to have some working knowledge of who they are and how they relate to Walt's past misdeeds.

Jesse emerges from rehab but remains haunted by the death of his girlfriend. Walter Jr. (R.J. Mitte) lashes out at his mother and blames her for the separation. The show's writers continue to make sympathy flow to Walt, even though it's Skyler who is the bystander most hurt and fearful because of Walt's drastic decisions.

Through the course of the first three episodes, Mr. Gilligan and his writing staff take bold steps for a relatively young series, allowing Walt's secret life-of-crime to become an out-in-the-open wedge in his marriage. Lesser shows would shy away from that choice and all the difficulties that flow from it, but "Breaking Bad" refuses to insult the intelligence of viewers or its own characters.

TV editor Rob Owen: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1112. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook. First Published March 21, 2010 4:00 AM


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