What does "breaking bad" actually mean? It's a Southern phrase that means someone has taken a turn to the dark side. And, of course, it is the perfect title of AMC's Emmy-winning drama 'Breaking Bad,' which kicks off its fourth season this weekend (Sun., July 17, 10PM ET).
To celebrate the new season -- which promises to be darker, more intense and every bit as good as the first three -- here's our (warning: spoiler heavy) A to Z trip through 'Breaking Bad' history, with a generous sprinkling of hints about what to expect in the new season.
A is for Aaron Paul, the 31-year-old Idaho native who plays Jesse Pinkman. Pinkman is the drug-dealing, drug-abusing high school dropout who joins in with his former high school chemistry teacher, Walter White, to start a methamphetamine business in the series opener. Jesse was originally plotted to die during the show's first season, but Paul's chemistry with co-star Bryan Cranston, and the fact that viewers embraced Jesse to the point that he's become the series' moral center, extended his TV life. He's also the star of a new 'Breaking Bad' interactive graphic novel.
B is for Bryan Cranston, the 55-year-old 'Malcolm in the Middle' Emmy nominee who plays Walter White. In the series premiere, milquetoast high school chemistry teacher Walt finds out he has cancer and, desperate to make sure his pregnant wife and special needs son are taken care of after he dies, plots to cook enough methamphetamine with his drug-dealing former student Jesse Pinkman to sell and leave his fam a pile of cash.
C is for Consequences. As much cash as Walter and Jesse have made during their stint as the producers of the sought-after blue meth (more than a million dollars), their success has come at a price, for them and those around them. The two of them have committed multiple murders, and are directly or indirectly responsible for dozens of deaths, including Jesse's girlfriend Jane, Jesse's friend Combo and 167 people in the plane collision caused by air traffic controller Donald, who was distraught about the death of his daughter, Jane.
D is for Dollars, as in the $3 million per episode it costs to produce the show. That number is at the higher end of the budget for most cable series, but the $3 million pays for a show that has resulted in multiple Emmys, overwhelmingly rave reviews and an audience that has grown each of the show's first three seasons.
E is for Emmys. Bryan Cranston, previously best known for his TV comedy work on 'Malcolm in the Middle,' 'Seinfeld' and 'King of Queens,' has won the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series Emmy for each of the show's three seasons. Aaron Paul won the Outstanding Supporting Actor Emmy for Season 3, and 'Breaking Bad' has also won Emmys for editing, along with nominations for directing, cinematography, sound editing and Outstanding Drama Series.
F is for Fring, Gus Fring, the Los Pollos Hermanos fast food restaurant owner who also happens to be one of the biggest drug distributors in the Southwest. Played by Giancarlo Esposito, Gus became a major character in Season 2, when he bought more than a million dollars worth of Walt and Jesse's meth. In season three, he became Walt's employer in a specially-designed lab where Walt was paid $3 million to cook as much meth as possible in three months. The job drove a wedge between Walt and Jesse and proved to be much more dangerous than Walt anticipated, leading to a dramatic cliffhanger Season 3 finale and a Season 4 opening episode that -- without spoiling what is one of the more jarring scenes in 'Breaking Bad' history -- takes the series in an even darker, more intense direction.
G is for Gilligan, Vince Gilligan, the creator of 'Breaking Bad.' Gilligan, who writes, directs and acts as executive producer on the show, also wrote the Drew Barrymore movie 'Home Fries' and the Will Smith superhero flick 'Hancock.' His original idea for the show: Walter White transforms from "Mr. Chips to Scarface," and Season 4 most definitely takes Walt closer to Scarface. In fact, in an interview with The Desert Sun, Cranston revealed that the Season 4 finale, which has already been filmed, shocked even him. "At the very end of the season, there are a couple things that happen that are really surprises. One is the big surprise. Then, 'Woooow!' A big wow moment. Then you calm down and there's a bit of a tag to resolve a couple issues, and then, just before it goes black and has Vince Gilligan's name, there's one more little thing. No words, just a visual that the audience will see and it will have the reaction, 'Nooo! Oh, my God!!! No!' It will rock you. Then it goes black and that's the end of the season. And here I am, four years into it, playing the lead character, and I didn't see it coming. It caught me as much by surprise as anyone else. It's so cool."
H is for Heisenberg, the alias Walter White first used (along with his newly shaved head) to give himself the courage to confront drug lord Tuco. Now, because of the quality of Walt's meth and the mystery and legend that has grown around him, Heisenberg himself is known as a local drug lord. In fact, in the Season 2 episode 'Negro y Azul,' viewers are treated to a Narcocorrido (a drug song) ode to Walter's alter ego, called 'The Ballad of Heisenberg.'
I is for Investigation, as in the ongoing investigation, run by Drug Enforcement Agency officer (and Walt's brother-in-law) Hank Schrader (Dean Norris). Hank is hot on the trail of local drug dealers -- Walt initially got the idea to cook up some quick drug cash for his fam while doing a ride-along on a bust with Hank, in fact -- though Hank has no clue that his mild-mannered in-law is the blue meth-cooking criminal he's so devoted to tracking down. Hank, who's married to Marie (Walt's wife's sister, who has an affinity for the color purple and shoplifting), has had several near-death experiences while on Walt's trail, including one that left him paralyzed at the end of Season 3, and bitterly bedridden and obsessed with crystals when Season 4 begins.
J is for Jonathan Banks, the great Emmy-nominated 'Wiseguy' actor who joined 'Breaking Bad' in season two. Banks plays Mike, a former cop who now works in the private sector. Sort of a "cleaner" for Gus, Mike takes care of any nasty messes (including post-death/murder clean up) that might lead to legal woes for the Los Pollos Hermanos owner/drug lord. By extension, Mike has also helped Jesse and Walter and, on the sly, has even tried to give Walt some warning about the way, and with whom, he does business. But in the Season 4 opener, we find out that Mike's loyalty most definitely lies with Gus. And for very, very good reason.
K is for Krysten Ritter, the scene-stealing actress who played Jane, Jesse's tattoo-artist, drug-addicted girlfriend in Season 2. In a major game changer that led to even more tragic happenings, Jane overdosed on drugs she and Jesse had taken. Walt walked into Jesse's apartment while Jesse was passed out and Jane began choking on her own vomit. Sizing up the situation and determining that Jane was going to take Jesse (and him, by association) down, Walt stood by while Jane choked to death. Mike was called in to provide a story for the cops, Jesse was left blaming himself for the death of the person he cared about most and Jane's dad -- the aforementioned Donald, who was destroyed by his only child's death -- allowed two passenger-filled airplanes to crash into each other.
L is for Lung cancer, the disease that will likely kill Walter White (a non-smoker). Unless Gus or some other drug baddie does it first.
M is for Mitte, RJ Mitte, the actor who plays Walt Jr. Walt's teen son has cerebral palsy, as does Mitte, though the actor's CP is a milder version than his character deals with on the show. Providing for Walt Jr.'s special needs is part of what initially motivated Walt to start his meth biz, and Walt Jr. did his part to help pay for Walt's cancer treatment by setting up a Website where he wrote a tribute to his dad and asked people to make donations to Walt's get-well efforts.
N is for New Mexico, specifically Albuquerque, where 'Breaking Bad' is set and filmed. The series' incredible cinematographers make the most of their locale, with frequent shots of the desert skies and the deserts themselves. "The big skies and stark beauty of New Mexico have become characters all their own," Vince Gilligan told New York magazine.
O is for Odenkirk, Bob Odenkirk, the actor/comedian/writer/director/producer who plays Saul Goodman, the shady lawyer who works with Walt and Jesse (and, if the price is right, against them). Saul runs cheesy local TV commercials in which he courts equally shady clientele, with the slogan "Better call Saul!" His law office is located in a seedy strip mall, and his partnership with Walt began when he blackmailed Mr. White into allowing him to help launder Walt's drug earnings -- for a fee, of course. Saul is also responsible for connecting Walt with Gus, a fact that is going to haunt all parties involved in Season 4.
P is for Periodic Table, which, in a nod to Walt's (former) profession as a chemistry teacher and his current profession as a drug chef, is used in the show's memorable opening credits. The periodic table symbols are used to spell out the show's title and the cast and crew's names in the show's credits. For example, Br and Ba (the symbols for bromine and barium) are used to spell out 'Breaking Bad,' and Cr (the symbol for chromium) spells out 'Created by Vince Gilligan.'
Q is for Quezada, Steven Michael Quezada, who plays Steve "Gomey" Gomez, Hank's DEA partner and best friend. There's been some dissention between Hank and Gomey since Gomey was promoted into the El Paso position Hank refused after he witnessed a brutal attack against his fellow agents and started suffering panic attacks, but Gomey was immediately by Hank's side when Hank was shot and nearly killed by The Cousins, Gus' murderous drug biz cohorts, at the end of Season 3.
R is for RV, which has served as Walt and Jesse's office. The fellas bought an old RV, with the idea of using it as their mobile meth lab. They loaded it up with supplies and equipment (and Jesse's idea of nourishment: Funyuns) and drove it into the desert for some marathon meth cooking sessions. The RV also nearly led Hank to bust both of them as the blue meth specialists he's been tracking, so in Season 3's 'Sunset,' they had to have it crushed into a big metal cube, thus eliminating at least one way they might get caught. The RV meth lab is also a nod back to Gilligan's original concept for the show, which came about after he read about a mobile meth lab and he and a writer friend joked that it would be a good way to make money if they couldn't land another writing job.
S is for Sidekicks, who've played a big role on the show. Jesse's pals, for instance, have been both his fellow partiers and drug dealers for the magic blue meth he and Walter cook. Skinny Pete (Charles Baker) is the Tommy Lee-lookalike who often travels with tall, perpetually high Badger (Matt L. Jones), who used to be the frequent companion of Combo (Rodney Rush). "Used to be" because Combo (named for his love of the cheese-filled pretzel and cracker salty snacks) was murdered by drug dealers who were ticked off that Walt and Jesse's crew was encroaching on their turf, adding yet another body -- a very personal one for Jesse -- to the list of those who've suffered the consequences of Walt and Jesse's actions.
T is for Trejo, Danny Trejo, the cult fave character actor who played Tortuga, a drug dealer who turned DEA informant. Tortuga's name means "tortoise," which he was obsessed with, and which led to a particularly gruesome death for him. When his cohorts found out he'd flipped, they cut his head off and placed it on the back of a real giant tortoise, with "Hola DEA" painted on the tortoise's back. The tortoise was then loaded with a hidden bomb and sent off to a meeting of DEA agents -- including Hank -- where the bomb exploded and several agents were killed or partially dismembered.
U is for Uncle,as in Don Salamanca (Mark Margolis), the drug kingpin uncle of both Tuco and The Cousins. He is referred to as "Tio" by Tuco, and because he's wheelchair-bound and unable to speak, the only way Tio can communicate is by ringing a little bell attached to his chair. That bell has spelled trouble for Walt and Jesse, as Tio tried to use it to warn crazy Tuco (Raymond Cruz) that Walt and Jesse were plotting to kill him and escape after he kidnapped them. Hank actually killed Tuco in a shootout, but Tio blames Walter for Tuco's death and sicced The Cousins -- menacing twin killers played by real-life brothers Daniel and Luis Moncada -- on Walt. That resulted in a conflict with Gus, a partner of Tio's, and ultimately led to The Cousins attacking and nearly killing Hank during Season 3. Instead, Hank killed one of them and the other -- who had lost both his legs in the fight with Hank -- died while in the hospital, after a visit from a syringe-toting Mike "the cleaner."
V is for Vehicle, as in Walt's battered Pontiac Aztec. The Waltmobile is a running joke on the show, because, in various activities related to Walt's new profession, the windshield of the Aztec has been shattered. Yet, despite his newly-earned millions, Walt continues to replace the windshield instead of replacing the whole car (which we'd argue, at this point, has some seriously bad karma attached to it).
W is for Wife, as in Walt's wife, Skyler White (Anna Gunn). Skyler is a published writer who was pregnant (unplanned) and tried to make extra cash by selling tchotchkes on eBay when 'Breaking Bad' began. And though she was completely supportive of Walter when he got the cancer diagnosis, his suddenly-sneaky behavior -- which included having a secret second cell phone and frequently disappearing -- led her to suspect that he was having an affair, or worse. When he accidentally confessed to the secret cell phone, she took that as a signal that he could no longer be trusted, so she got a job, they separated and she began an affair with her boss. When Season 4 begins, Skyler, who now knows the truth about what Walt has been up to with the meth biz, begins to soften towards him a bit, and even decides to use her own business skills to come up with a way to launder the millions Walt is making cooking meth for Gus.
X is for 'X-Files,' the Fox drama on which Vince Gilligan was a writer and producer. It's also where he first witnessed the talents of Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, who guest starred on the show. Cranston played a man who had to be driven westward at a high speed lest his head explode in the Season 6 Gilligan-penned episode 'Drive,' while Paul was in Season 9's 'Lord of the Flies' (a Gilligan-produced episode) in which he played Sky Commander Winky, a teen who filmed 'Jackass'-ish stunts with his friends.
Y is for Year. Though the first three seasons of 'Breaking Bad' have been incredibly action-packed, with storylines moving forward at a furious pace, the entire series so far has taken place across the course of one calendar year.
Z is for Zaniness. Though 'Breaking Bad' is inarguably one of the most intense dramas on TV, there are also plenty of well-placed moments of levity on the show. From Walter's obsession with catching a fly in the meth lab and Jesse's chair-skating through the lab while playing with all the equipment, to Walt blowing up the car of an obnoxious, loudmouthed guy who kept crossing his path and the episode where Jesse fell through the roof of an outhouse, Gilligan and company know just when to deliver a moment of comedy. Usually of the dark, over the top variety, but welcome humor all the same.
Are you excited for 'Breaking Bad' Season 4? Sound off in the comments.