'Breaking Bad' Goes for Broke, and Brilliance, in Fifth Season: TV Review

Fresh from his season four "victory" over Gus Fring, Walter White is now in charge. And he's loving it. Jesse is back, Mike is sort of back, wife Skyler's early fears may be masking what she really feels inside and series creator Vince Gilligan appears to have done it again. It's not a matter of wondering if Breaking Bad will be great, but where in the pantheon it will ultimately reside. 

Season 5 puts a crown on Walter White, drug kingpin. It seems heavy.

Pretty much any discussion of the two best series currently on television involves Breaking Bad and Mad Men, though others are certainly in the mix for Top Five status. AMC has been the beneficiary of this incredible run. And critically, the recently completed Season 5 of Mad Men, with more notable flaws than in the past for critical nitpickers, still came out the other end having accomplished what so few truly great series ever did – have five consecutive seasons with no significant slip.

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On Sunday, Breaking Bad will enter its own Season 5 – one that will consist of an initial eight episodes and eight more come summer of 2013. This is a series that, like Mad Men and The Wire before it, comes into the fifth season without any need for hype. It has been great from the opening scene of the first episode and has surpassed what those vaunted series have done by, I believe, achieving true greatness faster than either one. The Wire’s Season 2 switched gears as it was about to unveil the depth of its ambition and Mad Men had to vigorously reinforce to people that it was more than a show about drinking, smoking, amazing clothes and midcentury modern furniture. Of course both series validated their Season 1 promise but if you put the first two seasons of Breaking Bad up for evaluation – 20 episodes of genius in the writing, acting, cinematography and sound categories – no other series reached those heights so quickly.

Clearly, Season 3 and Season 4 did the same, as series creator Vince Gilligan made good on his audacious plan to “turn Mr. Chips into Scarface.” In the process Gilligan and his writers have taken enormous risks. They have upped the ante throughout each season and will end up doing what David Chase with Tony Soprano and Matthew Weiner with Don Draper never did in the former’s case and is unlikely to do in the latter’s case, and that is take the anti-hero so adored in cable (and critical) circles and push him two steps too far.

Even after watching the only two episodes that AMC released to critics, it’s blatantly clear that when all is said and done, viewers won’t have the same fondness they do for Tony and they’re likely to have for Don, when it comes to Walter White (Bryan Cranston). Nope, Walt has been breaking bad for some time now and there’s a point where the past-tense broke is more appropriate. The series and character may have reached that in technical terms a season or two ago, but in these last 16 episodes Gilligan will have done what nobody else has attempted to such a degree – presented a loveable, if milquetoast character way, way down on his luck, coaxed viewers through his flinching moral compass as he made meth to leave money to his family as he was dying from lung cancer, then snatched away all the sentiment, sorrow and likeability and made those very same viewers hate the main character they came to know and love.

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It’s been a masterful manipulation – because such a twisted, emotional journey from where Walt was in Season 1 to where he is as we start Season 5, could not be done abruptly without cheating the complexity of the story. But what’s especially intriguing about Season 5 is that not only is there a certainty to it (we know it will end in the summer of 2013 and that will probably set up a cliffhanger of epic proportions in the eighth episode this summer), but we know that something bad, something particularly heinous, must happen to Walt.

Or maybe not – maybe his cancer comes back and he goes out that way. But the key is that Gilligan has spent the first four seasons essentially giving stories to viewers where there’s panic about Walt and Jesse (Aaron Paul) getting caught. Walt may have “won” when he battled with drug kingpin Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) through the bulk of Season 4, but it's not just staying free that counts now, it's staying alive. Sure, with Hank (Dean Norris) and the DEA closing in, there's always the threat of prison -- but that's a very unlikely ending for this series as most fans will tell you (and Gilligan, if he goes that route). Other kinds of finality seem more likely. If you’re the meth king, someone is going to come gunning for your crown. If not locally, across the border. And let’s not forget the cancer.

I would suspect that by splitting up the 16 episodes in such a way, and the fact that Gilligan told The Hollywood Reporter that Walt will have his fair share of “winning,” that the final eight episodes will be where the rest of hell breaks loose – but that in typical Breaking Bad fashion, the first eight will not only have more than their share of anxiety-producing moments of insanity, but that viewers will get a very good look at the corrosion of Walt’s soul and what that’s doing to his family.

(If it calms any worries about this first batch being all “set-up” to the final eight’s implosion, rest assured that the first two episodes sent to critics are well and truly awesome, with plenty of shock-filled moments -- and humor, since Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) is still around.)

It’s also important to remember that Breaking Bad is not all about Walt. Jesse, against all odds, is the emotional connective tissue for viewers, and he’ll no doubt be on a hell of a ride. Walt’s wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) could very well have the most transformative season for her character, as she embraces her dark side and the bad deeds that Walt has done. Perhaps most enthusiastically, viewers will be getting a lot of Mike (Jonathan Banks), who just about steals the first two episodes.

In lesser hands, it might be worrisome that the inevitability that was present in Breaking Bad from the start is now so startlingly clear. This is the beginning of the end for the series. Karma, so lost and adrift in the dry Albuquerque landscape, will gets its GPS working as sure as the devil gets his due. And Walt, well, the king may stay the king in The Wire, but that’s not likely to happen to in Breaking Bad.

Mr. Chips? Sure, he might have won. But Scarface won’t. We know it. We expect the worst and respect Gilligan’s ability to unwaveringly get viewers there. The difference when you’re dealing with brilliance on this level, is that the inevitable comeuppance of Walt White will not be predictable – hell, we might not even see it coming.

But it’s coming.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine