'Breaking Bad': Dark Side of the Dream

One of television’s greatest dramas goes unflinchingly into the continued transformation of its lead character from likable to something beyond despicable. It’s one of the most fearless and selfless gambits ever hatched in the name of enduring art.

The AMC drama returns Sunday and continues to push Bryan Cranston's Walter White into a black hole; brilliance intact.

There are so many levels of genius in AMC's Breaking Bad that you can lose track – and focus – trying to highlight the ones that really make a difference.

But it's actually not that difficult. Series creator and showrunner Vince Gilligan is the genius and the difference in Breaking Bad.

Yes, Bryan Cranston has won best lead actor three times in a row; fellow actor Aaron Paul should have won just as many (he's been nominated twice and won supporting actor once); Anna Gunn is long overdue. The writing is extraordinary. No series on television has better visuals than Breaking Bad – the cinematography is stunning. In the same conversation, no series on television uses color quite like this one, and the sound is a minimalist's artistic triumph.

But then there's Gilligan. Oh, he can aw-shucks you to death with his Virginia sweetness and impeccable manners, but the man has deliberately and with full understanding of the ramifications taunted the television gods with his sacrilegious intent – to take a lovable, sympathetic character and make him morally bankrupt and awful right in front of the disbelieving eyes of the audience.

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Audacious doesn't even begin to cover what this man is doing. Gilligan is attempting (and has succeeded over the course of three brilliant seasons) a kind of confrontational transformation that should, using conventional logic, alienate his core audience and not only slay the golden goose but light it on fire as well. You don't take your main character and make him unlikable. You just don't. Nobody does that. Nobody has ever really done that to this extent.

Yes, you can talk about Tony Soprano all you want. But he was a bad seed when we met him (relatable anxiety problems or not), and he was ultimately, at his worst, no more than a mere anti-hero. You weren't supposed to like him, but you did. It was a problem that The Sopranos creator David Chase took very seriously and wanted, right around season three, to rectify by making Tony more unlikable. But he didn't succeed. In the end, people still loved Tony.

When Breaking Bad ends, it appears to be Gilligan's plan that no one with a conscience will like Cranston's character, Walter White, one tiny bit. Gilligan has said that what he's doing is turning Mr. Chips into Scarface. It's his go-to analogy. Nevermind that such an evolution is counterintuitive in television's storytelling framework and virtually inconceivable in the world of network television (nor is it a rousingly accepted course of action in the cable world either).

Make no mistake about it -- the episodes in Breaking Bad from the pilot onward have been little hourlong anathemas about hero (now villain) Walter.

Who does that? Apparently Gilligan does, and that's why he needs to be singled out for his brass-balled determination not to change course as the acclaim (and Emmy hardware) pile up. In a world where shows go on well past their sell-by date (mostly for profit, partly to keep basking in the light shone on a hit), Breaking Bad is keeping to Gilligan's plan and going over a cliff.

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Honestly, you can't laud Gilligan (and, in some sense, all of the actors and writers and even AMC) enough for this steadfast ode to art. Walter broke bad in season one, but as we enter season four, it's been such a hellish transformation (and impressive as hell) that everyone should go back and watch that first batch of seven strike-shortened episodes just to remember what it felt like to have sympathy for the man.

Recently, Gilligan has stated that he can't see Breaking Bad going past five seasons. He's said that getting Walt out of his head will be a good thing – a necessary break. And it's pretty clear why as season four opens July 17. Things are bleak. The repercussion of individual actions has been a key theme in the series, but viewers will truly be able to feel the weight of it in this season. Lives are being destroyed. What started as a noble, if flawed, lark by Walt – to leave his struggling family some money after discovering he had inoperable lung cancer – went sideways very fast. Each tiny moral shift begat something more unlawful or evil, something that was harder to rationalize or write off as collateral damage.

Season three ended with a cliffhanger of sorts – Jesse (Paul) forced to save his and Walt's life by rushing over and sticking a gun in the face of Gale (David Costabile) and deciding whether to kill him.

But whether Jesse pulls the trigger is neither a cliffhanger nor a spoiler if you understand the fundamentals of Breaking Bad. Of course he does. This is not a series about rainbows and unicorns.

What's important here – as always – is the toll. As Walt moves from Mr. Chips to Scarface, what's the emotional fallout? Certainly there's no better barometer than Jesse. He was never, ever, cut out for the drug business, even though he was making cheap meth when we first met him in season one. Once "Mr. White," Jesse's former chemistry teacher, began to do the cooking and press for success so that he could provide for his pregnant wife, Skyler (Gunn), and son Walt Jr. (RJ Mitre) – who has cerebral palsy – there was always something more dangerous in the desperation.

Along the way, Walt has done some very bad things – perhaps the worst coming when he failed to intercede when Jesse's girlfriend, Jane (Krysten Ritter), was choking on her own heroin-induced vomit. The blowback from that was, of course, epic (it seems no bad or good deed goes unpunished in this series). For Jesse, it was emotionally catastrophic, and Gilligan and the Breaking Bad writers let the impact linger, refusing to move on as if everything was fine.

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Nothing is ever fine in Breaking Bad. And if Jesse – who was far sweeter than his outward swagger in season one ever let on – fell apart at Jane's death, how do you think he's going to handle shooting Gale in the face?

And that's really where we, as viewers, are in season four – a crossroads so far from the first one we met that we're numb to any others that pop up. Breaking Bad has never let its characters forget that once you make a bad decision, the odds are you're only going to make it worse with subsequent actions.

No wonder Gilligan is talking openly about this series ending after season five. He plotted this course. He decided to take a good man and make him bad – to turn a sad sack into a dark force. You can only tell the truth about that journey for so long until it eats into your soul.

Breaking Bad is unquestionably one of the greatest dramas in TV history. What it should be rewarded and applauded for is the wanton willingness to throw the concomitant success of all that away in the service of the story. The decision to do that is Gilligan's – and he hasn't flinched yet.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com
Twitter: @BastardMachine