Bryan Cranston and Vince Gilligan of 'Breaking Bad' at the 2013 TCA Awards.
Bryan Cranston and Vince Gilligan of 'Breaking Bad' at the 2013 TCA Awards.

Tension builds between Tennant's D.I. Alec Hardy, a city detective fleeing a scandal who swoops in to take the promotion that Colman's veteran local copper Ellie Miller thinks should be hers. In the early episodes they are faced with a surfeit of suspects, townies who are hiding things that may or may not be relevant. And actual honest to God themes begin to emerge, in the literary sense of what the story is ultimately on about, right up to the rare surprise twist ending that doesn't feel arbitrary.

The run up to the final eight episodes of "Breaking Bad" is all about anticipation, at this point, stoked by a ubiquitous ad campaign. I've been fueling the flames by attempting to watch the first four-and-half seasons over again from start to finish. It's as absorbing as ever, the early episodes wonderfully in tune and resonant with the later ones -- suggesting that the run of the show taken as a whole is truly a personal work for show-runner Vince Gilligan's authorship, despite the highly collaborative creative process of TV.

One thing that surprised me on this second viewing was what a fast start "Breaking Bad" got off to. I had it firmly in mind that this was a slow burn program that took its time laying the groundwork. But already in the pilot episode high school chemistry teacher Walter White got his cancer diagnosis, unleashed some startling violence on a group of jerks who were taunting his son, and contemplated meth as a possible source of emergency income. By episode two, people had started dying.

The key to this, I think, is something that actor Bryan Cranston says about Walt in a podcast panel discussion about the show. Moderator David Edelstein suggested that Walt's alter ego, the porkpie-hatted bad ass Heisenberg, was a mask he assumed in order to be intimidating to his rivals. No, Cranston said, "Walter is the mask." The show quite correctly indicates that Heisenberg was in there all along.

The only demurrals I've heard to the obvious greatness of "Breaking Bad" have been on this point: No matter the richness of the drama that's been sculpted around its central premise (Gilligan's famous formulation is "Mr. Chips turns into Scarface"), the premise itself may be less than profound, a somewhat hackneyed male fantasy of unleashing the Id, spin-off of Jekyll and Hyde. 

The central tension of the show, in fact, is between the huge gratification Walt feels in being unfettered, in grasping what he wants and obliterating his competition, becoming the King of the Jungle, and the constraints of family life, which he never renounces. Note, for example, that Walt never does the one thing that would seem to obligatory for the newly unfettered: getting a little strange. No equivalent for Heisenberg of Tony Soprano's ashtray-hurling Russian chippies.