When we last saw Breaking Bad, Aaron Paul's Jesse had raised a gun, aiming to shoot David Costabile's Gale, the fastidious meth maker. In what we now recognize as the hallmark of a Bad season ender, the world seemed to be tumbling down around most of the major characters. How much lower can Jesse and Bryan Cranston's Walter go in this drug world, and how are they going to get out of their mess?
I'm loath to give away much of anything that happens in the season 4 premiere, since the twists of Bad are what give its storytelling momentum. Yet creator Vince Gilligan distinguishes between surprises for the sake of mere WTF? discussion topics and unexpected turns that reveal more about the fundamental natures of these characters. This season Jesse has been driven to a point of despair that no amount of drug-profit money will comfort. Walt, by contrast, has taken ownership of his outlaw status. Think how far we've come: The series began as the tale of a timid New Mexico chemistry teacher, diagnosed with lung cancer, who decided to use his knowledge to make a tantalizingly pure form of crystal meth. Any profit he secured from this work would go to his family in the event of his demise; that was the altruistic, if morally compromised, plan.
Now we have an emboldened Walt who's one tough hombre: shaved head, neat goatee, steely glare, and a black hat worn to signify serious business either villainy or at least a very dark soul. It's gratifying to see Anna Gunn's Skyler, Dean Norris' Hank, and Betsy Brandt's Marie take on larger roles. Skyler, now in on what Walt has been up to, does not let new motherhood stand in the way of her good sense as a businessperson. This plays out, sometimes hilariously, whenever corrupt lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) gets involved. The marriage of Hank and Marie is fraying, though. Hank, bedridden at home as a result of being shot last year, barks at and belittles his wife to a cruel extent, and Marie, so often a meek soul, reacts in a way that's both startling and sensible (soul saving, even), given her circumstances.
What else can I tell you that will entice you without giving away the precious unpredictability? Walt will wear a T-shirt with a picture of Kenny Rogers on it. (Spot-quiz question: Is this a symbol for Walt as a gambler, or as a roasting chicken?) And Giancarlo Esposito's Gus will prove once again that he is the most shockingly unknowable of villains. Yes, Breaking Bad is back, and bent on upending every expectation you bring to it. A–