Sympathetic criminals may be the perfect dramatic characters: we like them and want them to survive; they let us live out our most dangerous, secret impulses vicariously; and when we're ready to get thoughtful, they're an endless source of knotty moral problems. We're still liking and worrying about Tony Soprano years after his screen went dark.
If you've followed Breaking Bad, you know that Walter White has the most dramatic trajectory of any recent sympathetic criminal. You have to feel for a meek high-school chemistry teacher diagnosed with cancer who becomes a meth dealer to leave his family some money - but that was season 1. As season 4 begins on Sunday, his cancer is in remission, he has made millions of dollars that his once-unsuspecting wife is helping him launder, and he has become a cold-blooded killer. No more nice-guy, but then his enemies are so much worse. And if you haven't been following all that, you're where I was two weeks ago. Luckily, it's easy to catch up before the dynamic new season begins.
Catching up is also worth doing. For years people whose taste I respect have been telling me that Breaking Bad is one of the best series on television. I didn't appreciate why (a high-school teacher who cooks meth in an RV in New Mexico? really?) until I started dipping into the earlier seasons.
Bryan Cranston, who has won three Emmys in a row for playing Walter, has made the character grow gradually darker, and by the end of season 3 he's pretty abhorrent. But we can still glimpse the good Walter. It's a tricky, brilliant piece of acting. (Because of the season break, the series wasn't eligible for this year's Emmy nominations.)
How broken-bad has Walt become? At the end of last season he sent his partner and former student, Jesse (Aaron Paul, who walks a fine good/bad line himself) to kill a competing scientist. In the final scene, Jesse points the gun and . . . fans of the series have been waiting since then to learn what happened.
Whatever the outcome - and I'm not squealing - Walt will still have issues with the one person more powerful than he is, Gus, the drug lord masquerading as a businesssman, played with sinister cool by Giancarlo Esposito. All I'll say about the explosive season opener is that Gus does something shocking even by his standards.
I may not be prepared to call to call Breaking Bad the best series on TV yet, but it's now one I wouldn't want to miss. If you need to play catch-up too, here are a few quicky and breezy ways to do it.
New York magazine's Vulture has the most fun version, a slideshow that illustrates Walt's moral decline while neatly filling in the major plot turns from earlier seasons.
The Atlantic Wire has a colorful catch-up guide with snippets of reviews and videos.
The AMC website has its own "New to The Show" section, although it's oddly flat compared to the others, not nearly a match for the live-wire series it's about.
And take a look at this effective season 4 trailer. It outlines the story and gives a sense of Walt's tenacity, strength of feeling, and self-justification, as well as the series' high-action - all in two quick minutes.