It is time to enter the savoring phase for “Breaking Bad” fans. Sunday night at 10, the AMC drama begins its fifth season and final run of 16 episodes. (The season will be split in half, with eight episodes airing this summer and eight in 2013.)
Hopes are high that the complete transformation of Walt White from mild-mannered chemistry teacher to cold-blooded drug kingpin will live up to expectations already set by the critically acclaimed series, which has netted star Bryan Cranston three Emmy awards for best actor.
Last season’s explosive finale sent villain Gus Fring out with a gruesome bang and half of a face. Judging by the first two episodes available for review, the new season has even darker corners to explore.
In the wake of Fring’s death, Walt declared, “I won.” But it’s a Pyrrhic victory, as we see that he has poisoned relationships with almost everyone in his life through his duplicity and thirst for power and vengeance. His wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn); his lawyer, Saul (Bob Odenkirk); and his partner, Jesse (Aaron Paul), are all afraid of him to varying degrees and would be even more terrified if they knew the whole truth about what he did and to whom last season.
That creeping sense of dread has been part of what has made “Breaking Bad” so engrossing. With many of TV’s recent, most riveting antiheroes, their damage was apparent, their splits from decency in place from the get-go. Even if the audience “rooted” in a way for Tony Soprano or Vic Mackey or even Don Draper, we’ve known from the beginning who they were, even if they didn’t.
With “Breaking Bad,” we have watched Walt get further and further from who he was — wafting away from “good man” status like the dissipating smoke in the opening credits. The jittery, almost comical man who was only cooking to secure his family’s future in the face of his terminal illness has slowly, with each rationalized-away bad deed, become the murderous “Heisenberg.” Cancer may have been Walt’s original diagnosis, but now something equally dangerous is festering inside of him: arrogance. It may have always been there, but each step up the criminal ladder has fed the monster, and it would appear that this season the monster fully overtakes the man. Cranston conveys this shift beautifully, letting us see the chilling menace in his eyes and body language while also allowing the occasional sense of insecurity — the original Walt — to flit across his face, lurking beneath the bravado.
Saul counsels that it could be wise to simply walk away and consider himself lucky to be alive, but Walt decides to double down on drug dealing and, unsurprisingly, ropes Jesse back in. Their attempts to court former Fring deputy Mike (the great Jonathan Banks) are some of the best scenes in the first two episodes.
Tension also swirls in the form of the secrets that Walt is keeping from Jesse, Skyler’s betrayal of her husband, and the police and DEA investigation into Fring’s death.
Even as Walt looms larger in his own mind, the target on his back is getting bigger. He might want to savor the time he has left, too.