When we last saw Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), they both said they were out of the meth trade, although Walt's DEA agent brother-in-law had just found out he was in it.
(Photo: Ursula Coyote, AMC)
Don't assume you know.
While that's good advice in most every situation, it's a near-essential mantra when it comes to watching AMC's staggering Breaking Bad (**** out of four, 9 ET/PT), which begins its final eight-episode run Sunday. Time and again, Vince Gilligan's classic-in-the-making has led us to think teacher-turned-meth-king Walter White had reached a corner from which he could not escape, or a crime even he was unwilling to commit - only to have him escape or commit in ways that left viewers reeling.
So when you saw Walt's DEA-agent brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) discover a bit of incriminating evidence in last season's finale, you should not have assumed the case was absolutely closed. Just as when you see Walt in Sunday's opening scene, it would be unwise to presume you know how he got there or where his story is headed. Very few shows can match Bad's ability to pull off honest, earned surprises that stay true to the characters and their universe - and chances are the show has a few more in store.
Still, a mere hour into this final run, here's something you will be able to take for granted. Bryan Cranston is still turning in a transformative, unimpeachable performance as Walt, who remains one of the greatest dramatic creations ever to grace our TV screens. What Cranston and his utterly fearless series have allowed us to watch over the past five seasons is the complete moral disintegration of a man who thought he could dabble in drugs for the money and come away untouched. Taken as a whole, Bad is a far more convincing anti-drug screed than any educational film ever shown in our high schools.
What's amazing about Walt is that he remains unconvinced. He still thinks he can take the money and create a whole new life with his wife and son (Anna Gunn and R.J. Mitte who, like everyone in the cast, are pitch perfect). Obstacles may be posed by Hank, but Walt's willingness to explore ways around them provide the opener with some of its most chilling moments.
Then again, these days with Bad, almost anything can provide a chilling moment. Aaron Paul's Jesse, the show's sometimes wonky moral compass, only has to leave a room to set your nerves on edge, wondering what will happen when he returns. That's a tribute to the writers, obviously, but it's also a tribute to Paul, who always seems to be on the verge of either imploding or exploding - and may even be able to pull off both at once.
I wouldn't assume he can't.
Robert Bianco, USA TODAY