July 16, 2012





WHERE WE WERE:  Gasping, probably.  Walter White (Bryan Cranston), the former New Mexico high school chemistry teacher who took to cooking meth as a way to pay off his family medical bills when he was diagnosed with lung cancer, has gradually moved from being a tourist in the drug world to a ruthless kingpin of his own.  At the end of last season, he successfully engineered the assassination of Gus Fring, one of the most terrifying villains in TV history.  His wife Skyler (Anna Gunn), who started out oblivious of Walter’s new trade and was then sternly disapproving, has become his accomplice.  He is, for the moment, safe.  But his brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris), a DEA agent, is on his trail–even though Hank has no idea that Walter is the master meth chef he’s looking for.  And as part of his plot to kill Gus, Walter had to convince his former student and cooking partner, the loyal but unstable Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), to side with him instead of Gus, and he did it by poisoning a child Jesse cared about and telling him the boy’s nearly fatal illness was Gus’s doing.  There’s no question that this lie and act will one day catch up with him.

WHERE WE ARE:  After an enigmatic flashforward prologue set on Walter’s 52d birthday (Walter with hair again, a nasty cough and an even nastier gun)–just about where we left off.  The season premiere, written by series creator Vince Gilligan and directed by Michael Slovis, could have been called “Loose Ends,” as Walter and other characters tidied up some of what had been left undone last year.  Most importantly, Walter realized that while he’d blown up the industrial laundry and the meth lab that was located underneath it, the cameras Gus had set to spy on Walter and Jesse had transmitted its incriminating images somewhere.  With the very reluctant help of Gus’s lieutenant Mike (Jonathan Banks), more or less recovered from his gunshot wounds but with a major grudge against Walter, and thanks to Jesse’s good idea (nice to see Jesse as the idea man), the three of them manage to wipe the records from Gus’s hard drive in the police evidence room by means of a massive jury-rigged magnet, a sequence punctuated by a great sight gag.  Meanwhile, Skyler’s ex-lover Ted (Christopher Cousins) beaten into a coma last season, has awoken, but is so terrified by Skyler that he swears he’ll never talk.

Walter White’s journey from ordinary guy to Scarface has been riveting, and now it’s nearing its end:  the show embarked tonight on its final 16 episodes (8 to run this summer, the remainder next year)–not because it’s ratings are declining (it gets a reliable 1.0 or so for AMC, nowhere near The Walking Dead but usually ahead of Mad Men), but because Gilligan is ready to put the story to rest.  Although the entire cast is superb (special kudos to Bob Odenkirk, whose sleazy lawyer is the show’s last vestige of humor), Breaking Bad is ultimately about Walter, and that puts Bryan Cranston at its center.  Evil alter-ego and demonic (or vampiric) possession stories are becoming a staple of primetime, but only Breaking Bad strips away the fantasy and shows a man becoming his own demon.  Cranston’s soft-spoken, unshakable menace in tonight’s episode was chilling–it may be that not since Michael Corleone has an American character said “I forgive you” to another in such a deadly way.

In the “what is the best show on television” debate, there are many who’ll cite Breaking Bad as the absolute peak of contemporary television–I lean toward the multi-layered stylization and historical context of Mad Men, myself.  But no one can question that Gilligan’s show is one of the very best, an edge-of-the-seat thriller, as bone-dry as its brilliant visual design, that looks into the abyss and sees all of us.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."