Sunday, July 15, 2012

"Breaking Bad" heads into first half of its final run

It is even worth reviewing "Breaking Bad" at this point? I mean, the series -- which begins the first half of its final run tonight at 10 on AMC --has pretty much cemented its reputation as one of the best shows on TV at this point. You don't really need me to tell you that it's good, right? But, if you love TV, it's not possible to stay silent about "Breaking Bad," because this is a show that's so weird and crazy and unlike any other show on TV.
After all, this is a series where the previous season's finale included a horrific shot of its chief antagonist with half of his face blown off, and revealed that meth-making antihero Walter White (Bryan Cranston) poisoned a child to manipulate his partner Jesse (Aaron Paul). But "Breaking Bad" isn't just about shock value.

In fact, the shocks are doled out so gradually that they never feel gratuitous. They almost seem incidental to the show's real mission, which is to painstakingly detail a seemingly normal man's transformation into a monstrous criminal mastermind. Showrunner Vince Gilligan and his team seldom miss a step in painting Walter's journey. Each bit of the process is show in loving detail, from the precise way Walt and Jesse make their meth to the methodical way Walt plotted his nemesis Gus's assassination to the hilariously long and detailed sequences of people getting dressed, opening bottles of wine or setting up completed pieces of equipment.

Take this season's premiere, which spends a good 10 minutes or so following Walt, Jesse, and reluctant cohort Mike (Jonathan Banks) as they calibrate a magnet. The magnet will eventually be used in a much more exciting scene (which I won't spoil here), Gilligan and co. wouldn't dare skip over this important step in the process.

There are plenty of shows about crime and antiheroes, but most of these "skip to the good parts," so to speak. They don't show a ton of process or buildup. Even the luxuriously paced "Boardwalk Empire" wouldn't spend 10 minutes on a magnet. Yet "Breaking Bad" is rarely boring and is often insanely thrilling.

The two episodes I've seen so far this season aren't among the show's more exciting episodes, but they do a good job of rebuilding the narrative after Gus's death and Walt's assumption of the role of crime lord. There's a lot of talk about what will happen next, and strong hints that, even with Gus gone, Walt will still have people to answer to. There's not a shocking moment akin to the finale of last season's premiere, "Box Cutter," but there's still plenty of good stuff.

Cranston and Paul remain arguably the best acting team on TV, playing off of each other's intense styles well (Note: At some point, the Emmys really should give a lifetime achievement award to the vein in Paul's forehead, which just might be the hardest-working body part in the TV business). Banks, whose role seems to have expanded this season (though, with this show, who knows) is also fantastic, and the second episode gives him a brilliant showcase. On a show full of complicated characters, Mike might be the hardest to pin down. He was loyal to Gus, seems loyal to Jesse and can't stand Walt, which all makes for an interesting cocktail. It will be fun to see where Mike is heading as the show nears its finish.

And yes, the end is coming soon. The series will air eight episodes this summer, and then air the final eight next summer. It will be sad to see this excellent series finish, but I'm looking forward to watching (and talking about) every minute of it.

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