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'Breaking Bad' review: A worthy setup

From left, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) and Walter

From left, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) and Walter White (Bryan Cranston) in a season 5 episode of "Breaking Bad." Credit: AMC

THE SERIES "Breaking Bad"

WHEN | WHERE Sunday at 9 p.m. on AMC

WHAT IT'S ABOUT The first half of the fifth season ended with that grim middle distance stare of Hank Schrader (Dean Norris), who -- while pursuing the reading material in the Whites' bathroom -- learns who "Heisenberg" really is. (After absent-mindedly checking out a copy of "Leaves of Grass," he recognizes the calligraphy of the inscription as that of David Costabile's Gale Boetticher, the murdered associate of "Heisenberg.")

The profound shock and realization that his own brother-in-law is the king of the Albuquerque meth trade, sets up the final eight episodes, but the repercussions are immediate, and severe. Without giving too much -- in fact, anything -- away, let's just say Hank has some thinking to do. Meanwhile, Walter (Bryan Cranston) has extricated himself from cooking, plunging into a new business (a car wash) with his partner and wife, Skyler White (Anna Gunn). Jesse Pinkman's (Aaron Paul) guilt has become all-consuming, particularly in the wake of the murder of the young boy who witnessed them just after they robbed a train.

MY SAY We're all "Breaking Bad" fans here (right?), so no one really needs to be told whether Sunday's return episode is good or indifferent. With this series, you can pretty much take it on faith that the former is always the correct choice.

However, Sunday's, in fact, is great. Everything -- every word, gesture, action, shot, scene and story idea -- combines to form an episode of uncommon power and forward momentum. The producers and writers had to make some critical choices, and they have -- audacious ones that also happen to be the absolutely right ones. Rather than methodically steer this classic to some sort of fateful showdown -- a TV version of "High Noon" -- "Bad" scrambles the formula, which demolishes any preset notion you may have of how this all might end. There was a hint of this at the start of the season, with a flash-forward moment where Walter checks out some serious weaponry in the trunk of a 1979 Cadillac Coupe de Ville, after telling a waitress at Denny's that he is from New Hampshire (the coupe was a favored mob model, but the meaning of New Hampshire?).

That scene set up a whole series of all-too-obvious questions, and more are piled on Sunday, when the flash-forward Walter and his Coupe de Ville reappear in the opening moments. The scene almost creates the sensation of looking at the last moments of "Bad" and Walter's story through a straw. Then it all dissolves back to "present" time, or immediately after Hank has been thunderstruck by that copy of "Leaves of Grass." More than any series I can think of, "Bad" creates moments of extreme tension mixed with pure anticipation -- which is just a fancy way of saying, "What the hell is going to happen next?" Beats me.

BOTTOM LINE Perfect setup for the beginning of the end.


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