Actor Bryan Cranston stars in "Breaking Bad."

Actor Bryan Cranston stars in "Breaking Bad." Credit: AP

THE SHOW "Breaking Bad"

WHEN | WHERE Sunday at 10 p.m. on AMC

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Walter White (Bryan Cranston) has turned 52 and well-wishes are sort of in order. He choreographed the execution of Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), the meth king of Albuquerque, at the end of the fourth season, which not only eliminated an immediate threat but opened new career opportunities.

The drug trade abhors vacuums. Walter now begins to wonder whether he should be the one to fill it. Of course, he can't move alone, which means co-cook Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) and Fring security chief Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) have to be looped in. And what about his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn)?

Upon finally seeing him for the first time after the showdown with Gus, she says: "I'm relieved and scared." Scared of what? he asks. "You," she says (and she should be). Meanwhile, these other complications now emerge. Walt's brother-in-law, Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) -- now on his feet, though hobbled -- has been vindicated, with his suspicions about Fring proved true in spectacular fashion. But the cops have also turned up valuable evidence, including one laptop in particular.

MY SAY By this late point in the series run, "Breaking Bad" and Bryan Cranston hardly need any more mash notes from smitten critics -- yeah, they're great, enough said -- but some reassurance for fans is in order. "Breaking Bad" is all about transformation, but this fifth season represents one mighty transformative turn of the wheel. Unless there's a movie (a possibility), everything wraps 16 episodes from now (the first eight will air through September; the final eight won't air, though, until next summer), which puts an enormous creative burden on Cranston and the show-runners.

How to tell this gripping story now that Walter has been turned into Gus and is on a collision course with Hank, Jesse, Saul, Mike, Sklyer and anyone else who's ever had the distinct and dubious pleasure of knowing him? The writers don't want to turn this into "Scarface" -- or a grisly 16-hour Cormac McCarthy novel -- but they don't have the luxury of time either.

There really is a new sheriff (so to speak) in Dodge. His story has to be told briskly and a glorious series' artistic intentions laid bare. Even "The Sopranos" fell short on the last leg.

But the first two episodes -- "Live Free or Die" and "Madrigal" -- are more than encouraging. They're a slam-dunk affirmation. Nothing -- not a word, not a glance, not a movement, not a breath-baiting moment -- is out of place. The economy of these episodes is remarkable, the narrative pace as gripping as ever. The performances are also uniformly superb, particularly Banks', who is forced to the front of the canvas early on. Mike Ehrmantraut is cold, efficient, brutal -- and suddenly a very key character. Paul got his supporting Emmy for his role. It's Banks' turn now.

BOTTOM LINE Taut, efficient and directed with a scalpel, "Breaking Bad" remains a marvel.


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