Tuned In: 'Breaking Bad' is back and better than ever
AMC's "Breaking Bad" is back and that's nothing but good news for fans of smart, cinematic, well-written drama, especially in a summer devoid of "Mad Men," which won't air new episodes until early next year.
It's probably true that "Breaking Bad" is a tougher sell than "Mad Men" because the stakes are so much higher. "Breaking Bad" is a challenging show that revels in making viewers squirm. Not all viewers appreciate that edge-of-their-seat nervousness. But those who do recognize there's no sweeter discomfort than an hour of "Breaking Bad" (10 tonight).
Starring: Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul.
When the show ended its third season last year, cancer-stricken-but now-in-remission chemistry teacher-turned meth maker Walter White (Bryan Cranston) ordered his flunkie, Jesse (Aaron Paul), to kill his former lab assistant, Gale (David Costabile), in order to keep their boss, Gus (Giancarlo Esposito), from killing them.
The show's fourth season premiere jumps back in time for a bit of backstory involving Gale and Gus and then quickly moves to explore the aftermath of last year's cliffhanger. Much of the hour is given over to Walt and Jesse, held by Gus' henchman, Mike (Jonathan Banks), as they wait in agony to learn their fate.
"You kill me, you have nothing," Walt tells Gus. "You kill Jesse, you don't have me."
Once again the show's deliberate use of silence -- particularly Gus' slow-moving, no-speaking methodical stalking around the meth lab -- is most effective at terrorizing Walt, Jesse and viewers watching at home.
Yes, there is blood in the episode in a tense scene that begins as anxious and moves into terrifying territory before ending in a gross-out funny gag with a smash-cut from mopping up blood on the floor to sopping up ketchup on a plate with a French fry.
Written by series creator Vince Gilligan and directed with the goal of stealing breath from the audience by Adam Bernstein, tonight's episode (titled "Box Cutter") drags viewers right back into the murky abyss of this particular corner of the New Mexico drug world. It's a scene and vibe setting episode that also revisits Walt's lawyer, corrupt Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), and Walt's wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), who now wants to partner with Walt in the drug trade.
Future episodes show just how much Walt's equal Skyler turns out to be when it comes to making illicit business deals. Her eye for details and willingness to dig into research come in handy as she tries to acquire a car wash to use to launder the family's drug money.
Skyler's sister, Marie (Betsy Brandt), reveals a kooky-funny penchant for storytelling and petty crime as an escape from her husband, Hank (Dean Norris), who's recovering from being shot last year. Hank is jovial with his DEA and cop buddies who visit him during his home rehab but he's sullen and morose with Marie. By the third episode of the season, Hank receives a piece of crime scene evidence that might just bring him out of his funk.
What's most fascinating about "Breaking Bad" -- and I recognize I risk jinxing the show by saying this -- is that it's the rare prime-time television series that has yet to make a misstep three full seasons into its run. The show avoided allowing Walt's secret drug dealer life to get old by destroying the secret and allowing Skyler into his other life. And the show hasn't shied away from showing that this secret life has turned Walt from a good, decent person into a self-preservationist willing to kill innocents.
None of these twists are for the faint of heart, which is why "Breaking Bad" is a smart, thought-provoking TV show that elevates the artistic achievements of the medium.
First Published July 17, 2011 12:00 am