AMC's Breaking Bad begins its final season: Watching Mr. Kotter turn into Scarface
What would happen if Mr. Kotter turned into Scarface?
That's the theme at hand as AMC's brilliant Breaking Bad returns Sunday for its fifth and final season, broken into two, 8-episode cycles airing this year and next.
We already know resident antihero and high school science teacher-turned crystal meth-maker Walter White (Bryan Cranston), has just eliminated the kingpin drug dealer who employed him, Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito).
Using a bomb attached to an enemy of Fring's in a convalescent home — I can't believe AMC has shown the scene where Fring walks out of the explosion with half his face blown off in commercials — White is now deadlier than ever.
Over the course of four seasons, we've seen White morph from a frustrated high school teacher with cancer, turning to meth as a way to fund his treatment and keep his family afloat, into a ruthless player in New Mexico's illegal drug scene.
And throughout his descent into the criminal life, White's transformation has been a series of simple, awful choices.
He turns to making methamphetamine as a source of cheap and easy profit. When his partner and former student gets distracted by love, White removes the distraction by letting the girlfriend choke to death after she gets high. When Fring hires another chemist to learn his methods, White send his young partner to kill him.
And when Fring finally decided to end their lives, White blew up a room in a senior citizens home to end the threat.
Tired of living in fear from cops and his criminal partners, White has become the big fish of crime in his small town, using his talent for manipulation to stay one step ahead. But what happens when a man with children and an alienated wife goes from beleaguered employee to mack daddy master criminal?
The first two episodes of this season find White and partner Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) cleaning up the mess from last season's action, including dealing with any clues Fring may have left connecting them to his drug business.
In the meantime, White has to hide how he poisoned the son of Pinkman's latest girlfriend to pull him back into their partnership, while keeping his government agent brother-in-law from discovering his secret source of income.
If it sounds a bit like Peyton Place set in New Mexico's drug underground, that's only because executive producer Vince Gilligan's sly, overlapping plotlines keep the show's sprawling cast bouncing off each other.
Gilligan's eye for detail is also amazing. In one scene from the season's second episode, viewers' few clues that it is a flashback comes from White's haircut and the fact that he's still taking medication (his cancer has been in remission for a while now; staying in the drug trade after he got well was just another awful choice).
The executive producer has said he wanted to make a series where the protagonist turned into an antagonist. And as the fifth season opens, we see White more confident than ever — convinced he's smarter than anyone else in the room and ready to take Fring's place at the top of Albuquerque's drug industry.
But when ruthless choices become easy, what does a man sacrifice?
Something tells me that, over the course of this final season, we're all going to find out in the most entertaining, breathtaking way possible.