Nothing else on television comes closer to approximating the unsettling feeling of a Coen brothers movie than “Breaking Bad,” which returns for its third season at a deliberate pace that would be death for most shows yet which simply makes this one more absorbing. Bryan Cranston has rightfully collected awards for his portrayal of a cancer-stricken teacher who desperately begins cooking crystal meth to provide for his family, leading down a veritable yellow-brick road of unsavory characters and questionable moral choices. The unforeseen twists in that road continue qualifying “Bad” as one of TV’s best dramas.
For those who skipped season two but might want to catch up at some point, go away. OK, now we can talk.
A tightly wound testament to regret and roads not taken, Walter White (Cranston, who also directed the season premiere) has done some very bad things in the name of amassing a nest egg for wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and their two kids. But his constant deception to hide that double life has caught up with him, and she’s booted him out of the house.
Meanwhile, Walt is wracked with guilt over a plane crash that closed season two — one largely attributable to the devastating effect his actions had on an air-traffic controller. It’s the sort of chain reaction at which series creator Vince Gilligan excels, along with a streak of dark humor that permeates the proceedings, such as Walt’s attempt to rationalize the tragedy in front of a slack-jawed school assembly.
Capitalizing on the arresting New Mexico locales, the opening is almost surreal, as the drug cartel Walt has crossed begins zeroing in on him. This plot thread yields a vague echo of “No Country for Old Men,” with implacable killers in what feels like slow-motion pursuit, which only heightens the tension.
The show has also upgraded its cast with last season’s addition of Giancarlo Esposito as a low-key drug kingpin and Bob Odenkirk as a sleazy attorney, while still carving out interesting subplots for Walt’s partner Jesse (Aaron Paul) and Gunn, who has an opportunity to shine in these early episodes.
The show’s most remarkable feat, however, has been taking what initially seemed like a confining premise — how long could a terminally ill novice keep outsmarting committed criminals, much less hide his dual existence? — and evolved into a series of frayed nerves, unanticipated consequences and endless (usually awful) possibilities.
“Bad” would probably best be served by emulating “Lost’s” example and bringing Walt’s story to a close before the writers’ delicate juggling act risks unraveling. For now, though, the show keeps delivering the kind of mind-expanding dramatic highs that ought to require a prescription.