Despite residing to a degree in “Mad Men’s” sizable shadow, “Breaking Bad” doubtless has as many rabid devotees within TV’s creative community as any series, so its fifth-season return is an occasion, even if there’s relatively little spoiler-free commentary one can offer without inviting their wrath. Mindful of that, let it be said that last season’s explosive showdown — in keeping with the program’s brilliant high-wire act — merely created new complications, and further frayed its ever-evolving relationships. Simply put, there’s no more unpredictable series, and its delicate handling of combustible ingredients will be admired and studied by writers for years to come.
At its core, “Breaking Bad” has charted the moral descent of its central character, Walter White, as played by Bryan Cranston. Yet Walt’s decision to cook crystal meth — initially to provide for his family in the face of a cancer diagnosis — has yielded a domino-like effect on everyone around him, and last year’s epic struggle with Gus Fring (we’ll miss you, Giancarlo Esposito) only underscored how there’s always some new headache on the production or distribution end in the dirty and dangerous business he’s entered.
The new season gradually introduces several new players — including Germans who were affiliated with Gus — and expands roles for some existing ones, demonstrating, among other things, what a sensational addition Jonathan Banks has been as Gus’ right-hand-man, Mike.
Mostly, series creator Vince Gilligan (who wrote the first two hours) continues to milk suspense and dark humor from a concept that often moves about as quickly as watching someone back into a parking space with a distracted squirrel in it. Nothing happens very fast, true, but it’s hard to look away until you know precisely how the situation’s going to be resolved.
AMC is splitting the show’s closing run into two eight-episode arcs, and in light of the channel’s ongoing carriage dispute with Dish TV, it’s hard to think of a program whose fans would be any more outraged about being deprived access. That’s in part because the series so inventively sets up “Holy crap” scenarios, only to engineer ingenious escapes before throwing its antiheroes into some new fire and fresh hell.
Emboldened by his triumphs, Walt increasingly appears to have become what he once he feared — a growing confidence subtly conveyed by Cranston’s performance — prompting one character to infer his story can’t possibly end well.
Not that anyone could hazard a guess as to where “Breaking Bad” will ultimately wind up. Because much like “The Sopranos,” this is one of those landmark series where viewers can only take it on faith Gilligan knows where he’s heading — with the reassuring note in terms of quality control, that he hasn’t delivered a bad batch yet.