I'll never claim to be one of those people who lavishly praised 'Breaking Bad' (10PM Sunday, AMC) from the start. As I chronicled in a few 2010 posts (here, here and here), it took me a long time to come to terms with the show's darkness and the characters' bleak journeys, and though there were always elements of the drama I appreciated, I'm of the opinion that 'Breaking Bad' didn't truly hit its creative stride until about a third of the way into its third season.
The evolution of my reaction to the show continues, mainly because the show itself has become more rigorous, more exciting and more fascinating over time. As it has grown increasingly confident, complex and aesthetically ambitious, it has also paid close attention to crucial building blocks like suspense and characterization.
The end result is a season 4 premiere that is not just flawless, but one of the most impressive season premieres I've ever seen.
Most returning dramas begin new seasons with "previously on" segments that catch everyone up on important events that the characters recently experienced.
'Breaking Bad' doesn't do that at the start of season 4, because it's not interested in feeding the audience the mechanical details of what meth maker Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and his partner in crime, Jesse (Aaron Paul), did at the conclusion of season 3. Creator Vince Gilligan is clearly much more interested in plunging the characters and the audience into the emotional reality of what Walt and Jesse did in that pivotal moment.
The season 4 premiere lays out the awful facts of what occurred so cleanly and even elegantly that a first-time viewer would have no trouble following along. For longtime viewers, the season premiere makes Walt and Jesse's terrible actions fresh again, almost nightmarishly fresh, but it doesn't so so in a melodramatic, sentimental way.
In fact, one of 'Breaking Bad's' greatest strengths is that it never tugs at the heartstrings. The viewers is always conscious of a certain restraint on the part of the show, which views its characters at a distance. Is it a distance that implies distaste for the way Jesse and Walt have conducted their lives? It's hard to say, but morality is a deeply important part of 'Breaking Bad.' It is, at its heart, a precise and dramatically compelling exploration of the self-justifications of individuals who want to think they're good people, despite ample evidence to the contrary.
Walt is the cancer at the center of the show. The character's actual cancer is in remission, but his capacity for self-justification infects everyone around him to the point that denial has become a way of life in Walt's world. The brilliance of Cranston's performance lies in the way he shows you Walt doesn't just want to convince others of the necessity of his actions -- he's also, under his intentionally placid surface, frantically trying to convince himself that the things he's done are the only things he could have done. In the first three episodes of the third season, we begin to see Walt's wife, who's now fully aware of his meth dealing, begin to make the same glib justifications that have been familiar to Walt for quite some time. This development is handled in the show's matter-of-fact fashion, but it brings with it a tragic sense of deja vu.
The fact is -- and this something Walt and Skyler will not and possibly cannot admit to -- this seemingly average couple in their average suburban home are every bit as competitive, driven and ruthless as drug dealers in the bad part of town. 'Breaking Bad' never lets you forget that Walt and Skyler (Anna Gunn) think they're better than the skeevy guy on the corner, when the truth is, they're worse because they're lying to themselves in fundamental ways. Gilligan is clearly fascinated by his creation, the goateed former chemistry teacher, but my theory is that Gilligan can't forgive Walt for the fact that Walt lies to himself about what he truly is (and perhaps has always been).
Walt is an addict, but he's not hooked on his product, he's addicted to the idea that, given one more chance, he can make things better or at least right the ship. Is it irony or tragedy that every single thing he does eventually makes his situation worse? Maybe it's both.
It's possible to get lost, in a good way, in the moral and emotional thickets in which 'Breaking Bad' puts its characters (and its audience). And I could spend this entire review raving about the show's gorgeous, gracefully informative visual style -- like very few shows currently on the air, 'Breaking Bad' truly believes that storytelling is about showing and not telling. In a world of people unwilling to be honest, the show's compositions, which emphasize the characters' feelings of entrapment and their compressed emotions, may be the most truthful thing about it. The people often lie, but the camera never does.
Having said all that, the most enjoyable thing about the show's fourth-season premiere is that it was damned exciting. It's not giving anything away to say that Walt and Jesse have a very intimidating boss in Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), who doesn't like any complications to smudge his rigorously disciplined organization. Putting aside the moral questions and the aesthetic flair of 'Breaking Bad,' the entire season premiere revolves around one very simple question: "What will Gus do?"
The show answers that question in a minimalist fashion that has, not surprisingly, the maximum effect. It's a bravura hour, thanks to disciplined writing by Gilligan, almost unbelievably nuanced performances from Esposito, Cranston and Paul and terrific, taut work from director Adam Bernstein.
Restraint, evasion and self-justification pervade the first three hours of the season. His brother-in-law, Hank (Dean Norris), refuses to deal with the serious effects of being shot in season 3. Skyler assumes she can go along with Walt's schemes and keep her family safe. Hank's wife, Marie (Betsy Brandt), refuses to confront Hank about his depression and abusive behavior. But the lesson of 'Breaking Bad' is that nothing stays buried forever. I can only imagine that Skyler's occasional moments of self-doubt will begin keeping her up at night, and Marie puts up a good front at home, but her stress reveals itself in another form of self-destruction.
Jesse is the one character who embraces at least partial self-awareness, and that may be his downfall. One of the most refreshing things about 'Breaking Bad' is that characters don't have what I call 'TV conversations' -- they don't explicitly talk about what the story is trying to say implicitly. So there are no comments from Jesse about his feelings of guilt over the actions he took at the end of season 3 (and before). There are no words that can express the pain he feels, but as Jesse tumbles into numb despair and attempts to distract himself from that pain, it's clear how much his immoral behavior has cost him. The fact is, some things can't be undone, and the fallout from his sins can be found in his haunted eyes.
Perhaps 'Breaking Bad's' most admirable trait is that it refuses to attempt to put into words things that can't be put into words. It brings us back to the awfulness of what Walt and Jesse did at the end of season 3 with images, with memories. The show refuses to let us look away; it says, in its restrained yet insistent way, "Look what they did." Trying to sum up all the things that Walt and Jesse have done in some kind of verbal formulation would be to deny the gravity of those actions. The results of the choices that they made -- and they were always choices -- are too big to process, too hard to put into mere words.
Everything I've said above implies that 'Breaking Bad' is relentlessly dark, when in fact, these days, the show knows exactly when to let up and let a character like Gus' fixer, Mike (Jonathan Banks), make a wry remark or when to let attorney Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) unleash his sleazy charms, and Cranston proves he's still a master of physical comedy, especially in the second episode.
Whatever doubts I had about this show in the past, it has everything calibrated just right now. There are some things in the second and third episodes, mainly to do with Hank and Marie, that get repeated a few too many times for my taste, but that's a minor quibble, and in the main, I have come to enjoy the show's measured pace and its refreshing lack of jumpy editing. Like 'Mad Men,' this show knows when to let itself breathe and when to let moments settle in.
The bleakness I found difficult to take in early seasons is still at the core of 'Breaking Bad'; this is not a show in which there's anyone to root for, per se. But in season 3, the show perfected its approach to good old-fashioned suspense, added some terrific characters to its great core cast and its queasy moral quandaries became ever more compelling and addictive.
At this point, it's just not possible to look away.
Check back in with AolTV later today for Kim Potts' interview with Bryan Cranston.
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