Correction: Earlier versions of this TV review of “Breaking Bad” incorrectly described the familial relationship of two characters. Marie (played by Betsy Brandt) is a sister-in-law to Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston). This version has been corrected.
Creator Vince Gilligan’s much-lauded meth lab saga “Breaking Bad,” which is back for what looks to be another superior season Sunday night on AMC, is one of those shows that comes from such a dark hole of the American cultural psyche that you sometimes have to wonder how it ever made it on TV. (Besides the fact that it is terrific award bait, including lead actor Bryan Cranston’s astounding — and frankly deserved — three Emmys in a row.)
“Breaking Bad” has been on since early 2008, and even now viewers have to be all but dragged to it and forced to look. The drug metaphor holds pretty firm here: A little taste and you’re hooked.
Watching the first few episodes of this new season as objectively as I can, I feel fairly confident that a curious viewer could skip the homework of renting previous seasons and just start with Sunday’s episode. In this burdened era of engorged Netflix and DVR queues, that news should come as some relief, and I think it’s the true test for one of these deeply textured, pathologically unhappy cable dramas: Could you start up with it late and not be completely lost? Might you go ahead and simply appreciate it in the moment?
With “Breaking Bad,” the answer is strangely yes. The story remains conscientiously anti-epic and rooted in its premise. No tapestry-weaving here — time moves slowly, and only a few extra characters have climbed aboard.
Cranston is Walter White, an Albuquerque high-school chemistry teacher who became a cooker and dealer of methamphetamine. It all started when Walter learned he had advanced cancer at age 50. The dour prognosis caused him to obsessively mull over ways to provide a secure future for his wife and disabled teenage son; meth was the only alluring (and most sinister) answer.
What makes Walter bad? It’s the eternal rumination here and, by design, it refuses to flesh out into a full portrait of Walter. It’s like a series of charcoal drawings that never become a painting — courtroom sketches of a man who has so far eluded punishment. At its most grisly or brutal, “Breaking Bad” is still a study in understatement, as with a scene early this season involving the dunking and dissolving of a drug thug’s corpse into a drum of acid.
From the beginning, Walter enlisted the help of a former dropout student and heroin addict, Jesse (played with wounded beauty by Aaron Paul), and the two quickly cooked up the purest meth in the West, attracting the ire and envy of competing dealers and cartels. This led to what would resemble — in synopsis, anyhow — other morally bankrupt crime sagas: Walter and Jesse descend into the underground; they barely skirt death and destruction, yet their lives fell apart anyhow. They also repeatedly engage in a twisted take on the father-son dynamic.
Potential explosiveness is continually presented as a literal threat to the meth business but also a subtextual theme to the relationships in “Breaking Bad.” Chemistry is everything.
Walter’s wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), learned of his secret job and now faces quandaries of her own about right and wrong, taking what she feels she’s owed and then taking some more; his brother-in-law, Hank (Dean Norris), who is a Drug Enforcement Administration agent, also got wise to what was going on. That got Hank shot several times and paralyzed, which is where we find him this season, tormenting his emotionally unstable wife (Walter’s sister-in-law, played by Betsy Brandt), who consoles herself by touring houses for sale and stealing various items.
Season 4 picks up with Walter and Jesse’s disastrous confrontation with the brutal Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), a local restaurateur who runs an aggressive drug trade. They killed his meth cook and are now beholden to work for Gus. It’s a nightmare.
It’s rare that I encounter another “Breaking Bad” addict, but when I do, we mostly wind up talking about Cranston’s performance or some other aspect of the show’s careful subtleties. Fans savor it for a number of reasons, but my enjoyment runs to the personally nostalgic: “Breaking Bad” is set and shot in Albuquerque, where half of my family lives and where I cut my teeth as a newspaper reporter who covered a little bit of crime and a lot of high-desert oddballs.
To some degree, “Breaking Bad” has done for Albuquerque what David Simon did for Baltimore and is now doing for New Orleans. Not so long ago, with its paint-huffing drag queens on Route 66 and all manner of other petty criminals, Albuquerque proved too irresistible for “Cops,” which filmed many jaw-droppingly good episodes there until the frustrated mayor banned the show from police ride-alongs.
Likewise, “Breaking Bad” has tapped a disenchantment in the Land of Enchantment, and it’s certainly not fodder for the tourism bureau — not that anyone who’s ever traveled through Albuquerque on the way to tonier Santa Fe was exactly waiting for a TV show about the place. Still, how thrilling it is to hear “Breaking Bad” start off with a panicked 911 call reporting a murder “off Juan Tabo [Boulevard] between Spain and Eubank”? It’s like being home again, where chain-link fences, crumbling adobe, rusted motel signs and sketchy characters abound beneath all that amazing sky.
(One hour) returns Sunday at 10 p.m. on AMC.