In the opening seconds of the "Breaking Bad" fifth-season opener (next Sunday at 10 p.m. on AMC), viewers will stare straight down into a plate of eggs. Sunny-side up. Two sallow disapproving eyes looking right up into the camera, and into the blighted soul of the blighted man who is about to eat them.
Walter White (Bryan Cranston) grabs a mound of crispy bacon, and places each piece in such a way on the plate so that the bacon spells out the numbers 5 and 2.
It is Walter's joyless 52nd birthday, and as true-blue "Bad" fans will recall, this is almost a flashback to the opening seconds of the series four years ago, when his beloved wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), placed a plate of eggs before him on his 50th birthday, with the bacon spelling out 50.
Much has changed over those 24 months in the life of the former high-school chemistry teacher. The fleeting pathos of next week's opening scene is that Walter knows this, too: He has gone from loving family man to undisputed meth king of the Southwest, after dispatching rival Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) in a wildly violent explosion that blew off half his face at the end of last season.
Yet the metamorphosis of Walter White is still very much ongoing. There are 16 episodes to go in the final season, leaving viewers to wonder, how much worse can Walter get.
"There's a new sheriff in town is one way to put it," said show creator and executive producer Vince Gilligan in a recent interview. "And in the absence of one drug king controlling the Southwest, and in the absence of one main meth dealer, Walt may want to fill that power vacuum. We've seen what it takes to win that."
By critical if still not quite popular consent (about 3 million viewers on average have watched this series since its launch), "Breaking Bad" is one of the three or four finest U.S. television dramas of the past dozen years, standing shoulder to shoulder with "The Sopranos," "Mad Men," "The Wire" and -- on their really good days -- "Lost," "The Shield," "The Good Wife" and "The West Wing."
Cranston's Evil Walter Mitty portrayal is one of the most celebrated in TV history: Three straight Emmy wins for best actor in a drama, a feat matched only by Bill Cosby back in the mid-'60s for "I Spy."
What makes "Bad" so good (besides writing, acting, editing and cinematography, to cite four superlative production elements here)? One answer lies in that plate of eggs. Eggs are all about becoming -- either becoming someone's breakfast or becoming a chicken. They are about transformation. Walter White and "Breaking Bad" are all about transformation, too.
Great series can hatch from modest starting points. What if the core character was a good family man who murdered people on the side ("The Sopranos")? What if the cops were far worse than the criminals they were after ("The Shield")? What if your wildest dreams came true and they made you miserable ("Mad Men")?
Or, what if the series' protagonist evolves into an antagonist, from very good guy to very bad guy?
Gilligan, 45, a Virginia native with a fine arts degree in film production from New York University, got his "Bad" idea after a solid run directing and writing a few dozen episodes of "The X-Files." Naturally he had trouble selling it. TNT wanted to make Walter a counterfeiter. HBO was almost repulsed by his pitch. FX bought the show, then sloughed it off. In hindsight, part of his challenge was obvious. Stasis rules in television. Special agent Jethro Gibbs is squeaky-clean-good and will remain squeaky-clean-good even if "NCIS" runs to 2045. Tony Soprano was born bad, stayed bad and maybe died bad, too. From a TV perspective, stasis is preferable because it means the hit show can return year after year. Flux implies an endpoint.
Gilligan made his hero/anti-hero a chemistry teacher slogging through one whale of a midlife crisis -- bereft, broke and facing a terminal illness (lung cancer, even though he had never smoked). And even though Gilligan knew nothing about chemistry, that would be the guiding metaphor.
"Chemistry is growth, then decay, then transformation!!!" White enthusiastically told his students in the series' opener. They sniggered, then turned away. Walter then decided the universe, and God, had sniggered and turned their backs on him, too.
There are comic as well as cosmic touches here, in a "the gods must be laughing" kind of way. But Gilligan always had a tragedy in mind, and a puzzle he didn't have a solution to: Was Walter born bad or did he become bad through the choices he made? Gilligan and his stable of writers knew from there it was just a short hop to one of the enduring puzzles of the nature of evil. Do people "break" bad -- or are they born bad?
"I can't ultimately tell you what the point of it all is," says Gilligan. "But we do strive to keep him recognizable despite how dark he is. With each episode we chip a little more away at his soul. But we always try to make him human. Maybe it's a cautionary tale, or a 'there but for the Grace of God' one, but he's a character who has fascinated me from day one."
Does even Walter White's creator know how he will meet his end? Gilligan won't -- or can't -- say.
The good guys and bad guys
Skyler White (Anna Gunn) -- Walter's wife, mother of two, and co-owner of money-laudering A1A Car Wash. She's in deep and is Walt's key accomplice.
Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) -- After a season in which Gus tried to develop Jesse as Walt's replacement, he finally chose sides -- "Mr. White's" side.
Walter White Jr. (RJ Mitte) -- Walt and Skyler's teen son with cerebral palsy, and as much in the dark about his parents' activities as ever. How much longer will that last?
Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) -- Still recovering from the gunshot wound he got in the battle with "The Twins." But DEA agent Hank (and Walt's brother-in-law) is now vindicated: He had said all along (or almost all along) that Gus was involved in the local meth trade. But does he think Gus was the elusive "Heisenberg"?
Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) -- Walt's bagman lawyer has taken care of all sorts of unpleasant problems for Skyler and Walt, but is he getting just a little bit tired of all the pressure?
Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) -- Gus' Mister Fix-it (also recovering from wounds received in the shootout with the Mexican drug lord's henchmen) has got a choice to make -- side with Walt or go into hiding?
Marie Schrader (Betsy Brandt) -- Skyler's sister and best friend. But Skyler isn't telling her everything.