When "Breaking Bad," the AMC series that returns for its second season Sunday at 10 p.m., premiered in January 2008, many viewers didn't know what to make of it. Certainly the central premise - that a meek high school chemistry teacher (Bryan Cranston) stricken with terminal lung cancer might start moonlighting as a meth dealer to earn enough money so his family could survive after he died - sounded like a very dark comedy.
And the sight of Cranston, a comedy favorite from his seven years on Fox's "Malcolm in the Middle," frantically running around the desert in his tighty-whities in an early episode, seemed to underscore the absurdity of the situation.
As the first season unfolded, however, Cranston's character, Walter White, quickly saw that his hopes of covertly running a small but profitable drug business abetted by Jesse (Aaron Paul), a former student, were doomed, the risks escalating and events spiraling out of control until Walter reached the point of no return: He killed a drug dealer he was holding prisoner in his basement. It was a chilling moment, both for Walt and the AMC audience.
"There was that oddity of seeing Walt making a sandwich for the man he was about to kill, cutting the crusts off it," Cranston says of that episode. "It's almost troubling to think that someone actually comes up with some of this stuff, but [series creator] Vince Gilligan is a man who doesn't do any drugs. Maybe he should. Because he really needs to calm down, get something to take the edge off. I'll have to suggest that."
Cranston is kidding, of course, about the man whose writing helped earn the actor an Emmy last fall as best actor in a drama series over heavyweight competition that included James Spader ("Boston Legal"), Hugh Laurie ( "House") and Jon Hamm ("Mad Men").
And he's equally psyched about the upcoming season, in which Walt confronts increasingly serious tensions at home with pregnant wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) in addition to mounting danger in the world of drugs (Cranston directed the second-season opener).
"You're going to see that close-knit family being very tested this season, starting with Skyler, who finds out certain lies that I've been telling her, and it just completely erupts," Cranston says. "I had told her about the cancer, which bought me some time with her, but she's going to find out that I've been lying about several things, and it builds to a point where she can't take it anymore and actually wants to dissolve the relationship, so that everything I'm working for, the whole point of doing this to protect the family, becomes moot."
Playing Walt is physically and emotionally exhausting, Cranston says, although thankfully he's able to leave the role at the stage door when he goes home. And he knows it's all part of Gilligan's grand plan.
"Vince's whole intention from the very beginning was to see whether it was possible, in series television, to turn a character from a milquetoast, a Mr. Chips person, to a [dangerous] Scarface," Cranston explains. "So if we are allowed, over time, to tell our story, that's exactly what we're going to attempt. Walt is going to make a metamorphosis into a completely different kind of person, and hopefully, if we do our job properly, it'll be justifiable. You'll see how he gets there. It's not implausible."