In the closing seconds of the third season, a gun barrel was pointed directly at the face of Gale Boetticher (David Costabile) -- the eccentric, Stephen King-
loving, Italian song-singing meth cook who has been groomed by Albuquerque drug lord Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) to replace Walter White (Bryan Cranston). Walter's fate, meanwhile, was also about to be determined because Gus had ordered his favorite hit man, Mike (Jonathan Banks), to finish him off at the lab.
Back to Gale's apartment: Leading up to those frantic final seconds, Walter had called Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) to kill Gale, reasoning -- as Walter does so well -- that if Gale is dead, then Gus will need him alive to continue operating his $8 million underground meth lab. The gun goes off. Fade to . . . Sunday night.
WHAT SUNDAY'S ABOUT
To preserve the suspense -- which I am certain fans will appreciate -- let's talk in generalities here. Last season, Walter, of course, had come to a tricky juncture in his profitable relationship with Gus. Forced to choose between his boss, Gus, and his partner, Jesse, Walter chose the latter. He killed two of Gus' street dealers as they were about to kill Jesse, which set up the story line for this season.
Walter certainly can't trust Mike, or Victor (Jeremiah Bitsui) -- who has observed his every move in the cooking process. Gus wants him dead and Jesse remains a junkie. Where to turn? Skyler (Anna Gunn), Walter's wife and now reluctant confidant.
MY SAY There's a scene in Sunday's opener that is so ghastly you may be better off taking the dog for a walk before it arrives. Of course you probably won't, but fair warning. How shocking? Let's just say that even Mike, who witnesses this, flinches, and Mike never flinches. It comes out of nowhere, arriving in the midst of a scene so masterfully directed and acted that even your poor, patient pooch will admire the craftsmanship.
But this does pose the fair question: Why? Because with every brutality alongside every scene calculated to draw additional humanity -- or what's left of it -- out of Walter, we are drawn deeper into this deadly game. That's the yin and yang of "Breaking Bad." That's its genius, too. Not since "The Sopranos" has a series more mercilessly -- and effectively -- tightened the screws of dramatic tension. It's almost like crawling into a tunnel that you can't back out of; ideally there'd be light at the end of the tunnel, but, by now, I think we can all be reasonably certain that there's only darkness.
BOTTOM LINE A stunning, brilliant, terrifying launch to TV's best series.