The fall of Walter White, cancer-diagnosed-high-school-chemistry-teacher-turned-New Mexico-meth-kingpin, continued ever deeper in the fourth season of "Breaking Bad," returning to the heights of season two after a season three with serious highs that also dragged a little in spots. Thanks to the graduation of Gustavo Fring from uneasy ally to full-on antagonist, as he slit the throat of his henchman with a box-cutter in the opening episode, there was a new, contained drive for the season perhaps absent in the previous one: Walt and Jesse needed to find a way to off Fring or their time left on Earth would be a short one. What "Breaking Bad" does better than anything else on television is sheer suspense, both in individual sequences (of which there were many across season four) and in its overall arc, and there were plenty of instances where you couldn't do anything but watch, jaw agape, wondering how the characters could possibly get out of their latest fix. Of course, as ever, it was laced with a wonderful black humor, fascinating characters and some imagery as haunting as anything we saw in the movies in the last year (the show consistently has the most impressive cinematography of anything on cable). Nothing else has balls the size of "Breaking Bad." And nothing else has anything to compare to the titanic performance of Bryan Cranston, who took Walt to a new low in this season (poisoning a child, with every possibility that he might have died), changing dramtically from the person we met in season one. And somehow, you still root for his survival, despite the monstrous acts he's committed. Season 5 could be nothing else but Cranston giving monologues to camera in character and we'd still tune in religiously every week, but we'll be eager to see how the show moves on without Giancarlo Esposito, and with the game entirely changed.
Must-See Episode: The finale, "Face Off," featuring the unforgettable, gory execution of Walt's plan, a rare moment of triumph, and the revelation of the depths to which Walt has sunk.
Consistently one of, if not the strongest, things on television across the last five years, "Mad Men" got an extended hiatus after season four, as negotiations between creator Matthew Weiner, Lionsgate and AMC dragged on and on. But all we can say after the conclusion of the fifth season is that maybe every TV show should get an eighteen-month break before picking up again. The most coherent and best run of episodes that the series has yet produced, season five saw "Mad Men" cement its place not so much as the Great American Novel for television as a collection of Great American Short Stories, each episode telling a contained, compelling narrative while still building towards a bigger picture -- exactly what a serialized television drama should be doing. Weiner and his writing staff took their characters to new and bold places, including Don's new marriage, Pete's extra-marital infatuation, Roger's experiments with LSD, Peggy leaving the nest, Sally's rocky path into womanhood, the prostitution of Joan and the sad, sad tale of Lane Pryce. Even smaller characters were taken into entirely unexpected places -- most notably Paul having become a Hare Krishna with ambitions to write for "Star Trek." Entire essays could be, and have been written (including our own) on the thematic richness of this season, from the bartering of women in society, the coming of the swinging sixties leaving the older generation like Roger and Don behind, unsatisfaction with your lot, the price of success, the steady plunge into depression and death... we could go on. For all the brilliance of all the shows we've been talking about (and the Golden Age of television is clearly continuing), nothing else is even attempting what "Mad Men" is going for, let alone pulling it off. Bum notes have been struck -- Betty's fat suit-aided plotline makes you wonder why they don't just write Don's ex-wife out of the show entirely. But moments of ambition that don't quite hit can be forgiven by the extraordinary level of achievement of 95% of the show. And it truly has the most gifted cast of television as well with Jon Hamm, Christina Hendricks, John Slattery and Vincent Kartheiser all reaching new heights in their portrayals. Plus Pete Campbell got punched in the face multiple times, which is enormously, enormously satisfying.
Must-See Episode: As powerful as the death of Lane Pryce in "Commissions And Fees" was, the low-key brilliance of "Signal 30," revolving around a dinner party at the Campbells' was the perfect example of the short-story structure that's seen the show become even better.