Seasons one and two introduced us to Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a high school chemistry teacher with lung cancer; in a desperate attempt to leave a nest egg for his wife Skylar (Anna Gunn), son Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte), and newborn daughter, he talks a burnout former student and drug dealer, Jesse (Aaron Paul) into joining him in a scheme to "cook" crystal meth. Surprisingly enough, milquetoast Walt proved not only a gifted drug manufacturer, but a particularly effective businessman and criminal—even with his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris), occasionally and unknowingly on his trail.
Season three ended with one of the show’s most powerful moments: the cold-blooded murder of Gale (David Costabile) at the hand of Jesse. It was a heart-wrenching moment; Gale was a genuinely sympathetic character, and pulling that trigger was a leap into far darker territory for Jesse. Breaking Bad has always been a show about consequences, and in picking up exactly where we left off, and following through on the psychological repercussions of that act, we see how it changes Jesse, plunging him into a terrifying drug relapse and orgy of pernicious behavior.
Jesse’s move to the brink, and his unlikely return from it, is a powerful season-long arc; so is the slow but undeniable expansion of Walt’s ego, which threatens to slip out of his tenuous control and put him in real danger. His predilection for self-destructive behavior in season four may be less explicit than Jesse’s, but it’s as much a part of the narrative (particularly on reflection at the close of the season). More than ever, Breaking Bad is a show about people under pressure and not handling it well, whether it’s Walt’s raging, Jesse’s nihilism, or Marie’s thievery, and both Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul continue to find new ways to convey that pressure and all of its complexities.
In many ways, though, this season belongs to Giancarlo Esposito, whose kingpin Gus Fring is given several unforgettable moments: his cold, methodical suiting-up for bloodshed in the season opener, a flashback that betrays a rare moment of fear, a forceful scene in the very next episode that shows the kind of strength he’s worked up in the intervening years. Dean Norris’s playing of Hank only gets more interesting, with his bedridden angst giving way to a new sense of purpose over the course of these 13 episodes. The lying and stealing of Hank’s wife Marie (Betsy Brandt) is one of the show’s rare story threads that goes nowhere, but her scenes with Hank are their most interesting to date. And Anna Gunn’s characterization of Walt’s wife Skylar continues to fascinate; this season, entirely in the loop (well, almost) on her estranged husband’s activities, she finds a power and confidence in their wealth that mirrors Walt’s in season one.
The season is filled with remarkable set pieces: Jesse’s terrifying trip into the home of two meth-heads, his horrible moment of realization at the hospital, the pool party gone awry at the home of Don Eladio (Steven Bauer, from Scarface). But it is also a patient show, one unafraid to put the narrative on pause for, say, Walt’s long and evocative monologue about his only real memory of his father. The sense of dread and constant tension is as thick and powerful as ever (aided immeasurably by Dave Porter’s remarkable music); the show is permeated by the constant feeling that something bad is going to happen, as well as the subtextual thrill of wondering at the end of each episode (and season, for that matter) how the hell the characters—and the writers—will ever get out of the corner they’ve painted themselves into. And yet, they do.
As the climax of the season’s final episode was clicking into place, this viewer thought, with a bit of a sneer (can you think a sneer?), It’s gonna take something really incredible to cap off this season properly, and there was some doubt that they could do that. That doubt, to say the least, was misplaced. The conclusion is both visceral and incredibly satisfactory, though it does initially leave the viewer wondering exactly what is going to happen next—it feels like the ending of the series, not of the season. And then, with one carefully executed shot, they punch you in the gut. Again. Breaking Bad is as good as television gets.
"Breaking Bad: The Complete Fourth Season" is out on DVD and Blu-ray tomorrow. For full A/V and bonus feature details, read this review on DVD Talk.