Though his cancer is now in remission, Walter White (Cranston) is no longer the teacher or family man he once was. Kicked out by Skyler (Gunn), he re-teams with a recently-clean Jesse (Paul) and accepts a lucrative offer from Albuquerque kingpin Gus (Esposito) to start cooking their crystal meth again in a state-of-the-art production lab. Meanwhile, a couple of cartel hitmen are looking for Walt…
We’ve come a long way since we first met the mild-mannered, ‘tache-toting chemistry teacher Walter White. Whilst we began with a hard-hitting human drama about a luckless father breaking the law in order to provide for his family, the show has gradually become more immersed in the crime-thriller side of things as that man continues to vanish into the darkness. Quite rightly, there’s been critical love from the start, but the third season of Breaking Bad is arguably the best and darkest yet, as we delve deeper into the shadowy Albuquerque underworld.
Despite the noted evolution though, creator Vince Gilligan keeps his winning formula intact, blending together the same dazzling cocktail of sharp writing, black humour and surreal imagery. Importantly, it’s still not an ‘actiony’ show (24, it is not), as Gilligan and his team consistently ratchet the slow-burning tension to unbearable levels before unleashing explosive, breathtaking payoffs from time-to-time. Indeed, an episode can crawl along with superb character chat and talky monologues for a whole hour before suddenly surprising us with a spectacular, game-changing moment.
As such, it’s a show which requires patience. But while the eventful episodes build their tension carefully and the less-eventful ones tend to be quieter, introspective affairs (like Rian Johnson’s bottle episode, set entirely inside the super lab), the eventual outbursts are always worth the wait. The finale boasts a brilliantly-realised sequence where Jonathan Banks’s fixer (happily getting an expanded role) skillfully dispatches of four Mexican gunmen, but undoubtedly the season’s highlight in this regard comes in episode seven with a stunning carpark shootout between Walt’s surly brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris, fantastic support as always) and the eerily mute twin assassins. Gripping, movie-standard stuff.
With Gilligan admitting that much of season three was written as it went along (as opposed to season two which was meticulously pre-planned), the episodic pacing does feel a tad uneven in retrospect. But yet, while some plot-arcs come and go (the twins, for example, were originally supposed to play a bigger part), the lack of a neat, recognisably conventional structure is more life-like in its randomness. Plus, as the writers scramble to write themselves out of narrative corners, this lends a huge sense of unpredictability to events.
By now it almost goes without saying that Bryan Cranston is magnificent throughout, somehow remaining sympathetic (for now) despite Walt breaking bad even further. Whilst the whole cast is really top drawer, Aron Paul’s grieving Jesse arguably runs him a close second and Bob Odenkirk continues to skyrocket the entertainment quotient as sleazy lawyer Saul (“My very own PI’s threatening to break my legs! That’s like Thomas Magnum threatening that little prissy guy with the moustache”). As mentioned, Jonathan Banks’ hitman Mike is upgraded to a key player this time around (great move), as is Giancarlo Esposito’s chillingly-calm drug kingpin Gus Fring (likewise).
Though looser in structure, season three of Breaking Bad is the best and darkest yet. Consistently brilliant and frequently gripping, it’s hard to think of a better show on TV.