In a brief video looking ahead at the final season of Breaking Bad, series creator Vince Gilligan and the show's stars promise the wildest, darkest season yet. Judging by the two episodes that AMC sent for review, there's no reason to disbelieve them.
They pick up where last season's finale, aptly titled "Face Off," left off: Having gotten rid of deceptively calm-mannered drug kingpin Gus Fring, Walter White (Bryan Cranston), the chemistry teacher-turned-methmaker, is high on the victory, feeling empowered and cocky. Walt had always been able to outsmart his foes before, but there was a desperation to his methods. Now that's gone, and Walt seems more dangerous than ever, going further down the road from milquetoast husband and father to finding his inner sociopath.
Other people are seeing Walt differently, too, whether its his longtime drug partner, Jesse (Aaron Paul), Fring's henchman Mike (Jonathan Banks) or Walt's wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn). Now aware of what Walt is capable of, Skyler is both terrified of Walt and tormented by her own actions, all of which is beautifully illustrated in a quiet, shudder-inducing early-season scene in which Gunn doesn't say a word.
It's those quiet scenes that are among the best elements of Breaking Bad, which is TV's most cinematic series, using wide-screen shots that emphasize the smallness of the characters against the New Mexico landscape -- there's a great moment that makes lovely use of the dustiness of the desert -- and tight framing that lends to the claustrophobic air enclosing the characters.
The series excels in finding the uneasiness in the ordinary, whether it's a breakfast plate at Denny's or a ping-ping-pinging car alert insistently reminding you that the keys are still in the ignition.
Last season's bravura finale came after a slow start (slow for this series, anyway), but this season is off to a more streamlined beginning that emphasizes the show's strengths. Last season's most annoying element -- the constant bickering between Walt's brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) and Hank's worry-wart wife, Marie (Betsy Brandt), while Hank recovered from a gunshot wound -- has been eliminated, with Hank returning to work and pursuing the loose ends of Fring's organization.
There are minor flaws: The writers still haven't figured out what to do with Walt's son, Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte), whose role so far this season appears to be giving one of those expository speeches that catches you up on what happened last season. But by the end of the second episode, it's hard to care about the flaws, as the sense of danger mounts and the creepiness sets in.
When the series started in 2008, Cranston was still best-known as the bumbling dad on Malcolm in the Middle and his performance was a revelation; a few Emmys later, he so embodies Walt that you practically forget that there's an actor in there. The supporting cast, especially Gunn and Paul, has risen up with him, and Banks, a character actor with more than 100 credits, is giving the performance of his career.
The ride we're on in these first two episodes feels like that long pull to the top of the first hill on the roller coaster. Can't wait for the twists and turns the writers will put us through next.
Robert Philpot, 817-390-7872