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'Breaking Bad's' Final Season Premiere: TV Review

"Breaking Bad"
Frank W. Ockenfels 3

The Bottom Line

Vince Gilligan and his cast hit the ground running in the show's last eight-episode stretch.

Airdate

Sunday, Aug. 11, 9 p.m. (AMC)

Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul return as the last episodes of Vince Gilligan's AMC hit debuts.

There’s no way to begin a discussion about the final eight episodes -- ever -- of Breaking Bad without first discussing its legacy. Few series have ever made it to the midway point of their fifth season with the kind of relentless genius that pervades Breaking Bad. If it can close out those immensely important last eight episodes without much creative stumbling, it will be an achievement for the ages.

Given the first (and only) episode shown to critics prior to the series’ return, fear not.

Written by Peter Gould (who also wrote the penultimate episode), the return episode is riveting from start to finish -- with the use of another flash-forward that also kicked off this final season -- and it concludes with an extended scene that is written, acted and shot with the kind of magnificence that is at the heart of why the series is so exalted.

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So, no, you shouldn’t expect any stumbles in the home stretch.

It’s important to note that one episode is not really enough to provide many -- or any – spoilers. After the flash-forward, the episode picks up immediately where the first half of the final season left off, with Hank (Dean Norris) having just had a staggering jolt to his system while in the bathroom -- it's evident from his expression that he now knows Heisenberg is Walt (Bryan Cranston).

In many ways, fans knew this moment was coming for a long time. It’s been right under Hank’s nose for a while now, and subconsciously he was probably picking up the signs even if they were not registering in his brain.

And while creator Vince Gilligan undoubtedly has all kinds of shocks and surprises – maybe even some twists – that he will reveal to us episode by episode, the Hank revelation is sure to be the backbone of the final run. And it really has to be this way, certainly in the early going. Hank’s always been too good to never find out, and even if the final detail was a fluke -- finding Walt Whitman book Leaves of Grass in the bathroom while dining with Walt, Skyler (Anna Gunn) and Junior (RJ Mitte), thus flipping a switch in his brain when he read “the other W.W.” inscription from Gale (David Costabile) -- it sets in motion the inevitable.

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Who knows if the final eight episodes will be one heavyweight championship fight after another between Walt and Hank, but we all knew it was coming, and when there’s no longer any point for either man to deny the obvious, look the hell out.

Gilligan has told TV critics and writers that Norris was the one actor who both changed the most and surprised him the most. In the first-season pilot, Hank is just a blow-hard macho man who runs all over Walt’s surprise 50th birthday party, but Gilligan had written that before casting Norris, whose work he didn’t know. Once it was clear that Norris had some serious range, that character quickly blossomed.

And give Norris a ton of credit, because when he finally comes face to face with the truth, his fine acting goes off the chart, and, playing off of Cranston’s own brilliance, causes a million goose bumps to rise on the viewer.

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Hitting the ground running is precisely what Gilligan had to do in this last eight-episode stretch of Breaking Bad episodes. He’s told the press that he believes viewers will be satisfied with what transpires ultimately, and he’s never given us any reason to doubt him.

Nothing more really needs to be said. The entire run of Breaking Bad has been remarkable and, as I’ve stated in the past, I don’t think any TV series got out of the blocks and reached greatness faster than Breaking Bad.

With Walt’s secret revealed, the coiled intensity of both the final discovery and the pressure that’s been building inside both men, is an incredibly volatile explosion in the making.

Let’s sit back and enjoy how Breaking Bad sets it off.

E-mail: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine