Over the course of three previous seasons of AMC's phenomenal "Breaking Bad," viewers have watched Walter White shift from a mild-mannered chemistry teacher and family man into a ruthless, murdering criminal.
Walt's actions, precipitated by a cancer diagnosis and desire to leave his family financially secure, can't be excused because of his sympathetic backstory (in part because once his cancer was in remission and he had a nice nest egg, he continued his involvement in the drug trade). But at the same time, his actions have always been at least understandable (we do not condone!) on some level because at Walt's core, he is a survivor. In fact, his dangerous, destructive path demonstrates a primal "survive and advance" instinct.
When Season 3 of "Breaking Bad" ended, the science teacher-turned-crystal meth cooker was orchestrating a last ditch play to avoid being murdered by his drug kingpin boss, Gus (Giancarlo Esposito). In the final moments of that season ender, Walt (Bryan Cranston) dispatched his partner Jesse (Aaron Paul) to secure their survival in a particularly brutal way. This weekend's Season 4 premiere deals with the immediate fallout from that move.
Without giving anything away, I'll just say Gus is vexed with Walt, and finally shows Walt and Jesse the true monster lurking inside that outwardly obliging fried chicken salesman (hey, you don't become a drug kingpin by being nice, now do you?). Esposito is remarkable in this episode, performing nearly all of his riveting scene with no dialogue, which makes him seem more sinister than if he'd performed in a ranting and screaming rage.
Be prepared for your heart to be racing pretty hard near the end of the episode (we're guessing that's about where Bryan Cranston's daughter fainted during a live screening for the season premiere).
It's been awhile since "Breaking Bad" was on the air (the gap explains the reason there were no Emmy nods for the show earlier this week), and watching this first episode of the new season, I was reminded again of what a brilliant, brilliant actor Cranston is. I'd love to give you specific examples, but again, I don't want to spoil any of the plot. And Paul as Jesse does an incredible amount of acting in this episode with almost no lines. His silence during the episode, unlike the sinister silence of Esposito's Gus, evokes a sense of resignation. Jesse commits a vile act, witnesses the consequences of his act, and accepts his fate.
We also check in with Walt's brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) in this episode, as Hank deals (or doesn't deal) with being paralyzed from the waist down. The real pity in this subplot belongs to Hank's wife, Marie (Betsy Brandt), who is residing in a bleak hell of her own. I think I'd almost rather have a drug kingpin trying to murder me than trade places with Marie.
Walt's estranged wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) makes an appearance or two in the premiere, but for whatever reason, she has always been the "Breaking Bad" character who has interested me the least. It's clear that over the course of this season she will become more and more involved in Walt's business, so maybe we'll see her cross some of the same moral boundaries we watched Walt cross beginning in Season 1.
There's also a sort of Kenny Rogers cameo, and I can't help but think there's a "know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em" message in there somewhere...
"Breaking Bad" airs Sunday nights on AMC at 10pm.