Breaking Bad returns Sunday with the corruption of Jesse Pinkman
Before we get into the specifics of Breaking Bad's amazing return to new episodes on Sunday, know this:
This series is the best program on television you're probably not watching.
And I know why. Star Bryan Cranston has transformed himself from Malcolm in the Middle's goofball dad into a bald, goateed teacher-turned-drug dealer so ruthless he will let his partner's girlfriend choke on her own vomit to keep his buddy in the trade. That's a tough character to love.
I once told creator-executive producer Vince Gilligan that Breaking Bad seemed to document the slow curdling of a man's soul; a high school teacher forced by cancer into cooking meth with a junkie former student to cover his medical expenses.
Gilligan suggested a different, simpler take. What happens, he said, when all the stuff in society that moderates our behavior falls away? Who do we become when the only limits are ones we make for ourselves?
We may find out this season, which picks up moments after Cranston's increasingly ruthless Walter White has sent partner Jesse Pinkman to kill another meth cook — a nice guy who was, nevertheless, going to allow White's drug dealer boss to kill him and Jesse without disrupting the product flow.
As last season ended, viewers saw an emotionally strung-out Jesse show up on the other cook's doorstep, holding a gun, unsure if he would pull the trigger. And while I'm not about to spoil the cliffhanger, one thing was oddly obvious.
This addict, meth cook and drug dealer had somehow been driven to the ultimate corruption by his former high school chemistry teacher.
"It's the loss of innocence, really," said Aaron Paul, who won an Emmy award playing Pinkman last year. "He was happy dime-bagging it (as a small-time dealer), and then Walt comes into his life and turns it upside down. He's not an evil person; though granted, he does cook and sell crystal meth."
Even Paul laughs at the irony. Cranston's White — a buttoned-down, frustrated chemistry whiz living in suburban Albuquerque, N.M. — is the one who corrupted a longtime drug dealer and junkie.
"Jesse completely shuts down emotionally and throws himself into this chaos and destruction," Paul said of his hard-partying character this season. "He needs to stay distracted because, if he doesn't, he gets lost inside his own head."
Beyond Pinkman's slide, White's estranged wife Skyler works on their plan to buy a carwash together for money laundering and White himself is deciding whether to knock off his boss Gus Fring (played with emotionless cool by Giancarlo Esposito).
So by the series' end, will White become the crystal meth kingpin of the Southwest?
"I think that's his goal," Paul said. "He might not, you know, say it out loud. But he wants to have the power and the control over it all."
After watching the first three episodes of the new season, all I know for sure is that Cranston and Paul better get a few more Emmy speeches ready.
Breaking Bad returns for its fourth season at 10 p.m. Sunday on AMC.