By Cory Everett | @modage July 15, 2012 at 10:12AM
In four years “Breaking Bad” has become one of the most acclaimed series not just on television today, but of all time. Throughout its forty-six episodes we’ve seen Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a mild-mannered chemistry teacher turned crystal meth dealer, begin his transformation “from Mr. Chips into Scarface” as creator Vince Gilligan has been quoted as saying. While the show and its star are roundly celebrated today, back in 2008 when the series began, the actor was originally much more of a question mark. Execs had been skeptical of casting “Malcolm In The Middle” Dad Cranston in the lead and with probably good reason: whoever his audience had been up until that point were likely not the target for this darkly funny series. The initial poster for the first season featured the actor standing in the desert in his underwear holding a gun, which was a striking image for sure but not likely to send throngs of viewers setting their DVRs for a season pass. Cranston undergoes such an incredible transformation as this character, most viewers would now have a hard time seeing him as anything other than Walter White, a role in which he's now won three Emmys, one for each season that he's been eligible. He's supported by one of the strongest ensembles on television, including Aaron Paul (who also took home an Emmy for his role), Anna Gunn, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, R.J. Mitte, Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks and (until recently) Giancarlo Esposito. (R.I.P. Gus Fring.)
After several years of stellar reviews and the many options for viewers to catch up -- reruns, DVDs and streaming on Netflix and elsewhere -- there are a lot more people watching the show now than when it premiered. But despite the flood of latecomers, you’d be hard pressed to find any fans who are going to wait a single day past this Sunday to find out what happens next. Once you’re hooked on “Breaking Bad,” you’re going week to week, proving that the streaming/DVD model can actually help ratings for a series still on the air. (The show’s ratings have climbed exponentially since the first season with last season being the highest rated to date.) This writer initially came across the show during its first season but wasn't initially won over and moved on. After a year or two of deafening praise I decided to re-evaluate the show during its third season. Rewatching the early episodes brought on the same criticisms I had the first time around but I pushed on past these initial doubts and an episode or two into the show’s second season, something clicked. The writers' strike, which had cut the first season short, turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the show, a chance for the writers to evaluate what had worked and hadn’t in the initial episodes and make adjustments accordingly.
Suddenly the writing was better, the actors had fully settled into their roles and the stakes had been raised significantly. In an instant, it became clear that everyone else had been right: this was one of the best shows on TV. From that point on, the series' highs came fast and frequently (spoilers for the uninitiated): Walt letting Jane die, Hank’s heart-stopping parking lot showdown with the Mexican cousins, Walt’s “RUN” to Jesse after mowing down drug dealers, Jesse killing Gale, Gus’ warning with the box-cutter, Walt’s mental collapse in the crawlspace, Gus' unforgettable demise and the final bomb dropped last season: the revelation that Walt, not Gus, poisoned Brock as a strategic maneuver to get Jesse back on his side. So much has happened over the course of the series that we have to remind ourselves it’s only been about a year in the lives of the characters. But skeletons are piling up in Walt’s closet and it’s only a matter of time before Jesse uncovers them. Jesse may be looking for a father figure in Walt or at least to earn his approval, but sooner or later he’s going to learn about the things Walt has kept from him -- most notably Jane and Brock -- and there will be a reckoning.
Promos have been light on what’s actually next for the show but Gilligan told the packed audience at Comic-Con yesterday, "This season is about winning; and what it means to stay on top." As for the moral decay of Walter White, the creator warned, "He does something this season that, as the first viewer of the show, I myself would probably say, 'I lose all sympathy.' " But the most important question for fans may not be what will happen next but -- with only sixteen episodes to go -- can Gilligan and co. possibly keep up the quality? If the first two episodes of Season 5 are any indication, the answer is yes. Since it’s hard to discuss any of the events in the premiere without feeling like we’re delving into spoilers, we recommend you not reading on until you’ve seen the first episode. What we will say is there is an image in the opening teaser of the first episode that is so simple and yet likely to intrigue and delight viewers like nothing else since the teddy bear in Season 2. So, if you’re ready to dive into some major spoilers for the Season 5 premiere, read on.