Dirty deeds: Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) and Walter White (Bryan Cranston) are up to their usual tricks on Breaking Bad.
Few of its many devoted fans would believe Breaking Bad could get much better after its perfect fourth season. Even we can't say its fifth matches it, but only because those sneaky folks at American cable channel AMC have split it in two. The last of its first eight episodes aired in Australia yesterday; the next – and last-ever – eight are due next year.
Skyler (Anna Gunn) and Walter White in a scene from the first half of Breaking Bad's split season.
What we can say is that it's well on track. The first half-season began with an ominous look into the future at protagonist Walter White (Bryan Cranston), alone on his birthday and looking sinister, even more so when we saw the serious weaponry in his car boot.
White has made some dramatic shifts in character over the years, but the scene provided a mesmerising teaser to go in tandem with this eight-episode document of the latter stages of his descent into hell.
He crossed a moral line when we met him in 2008 – deciding, when diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, to provide for his loving family by switching careers from high-school chemistry teacher to manufacturing the purest methamphetamine New Mexico has seen. Yet White probably never envisaged a situation where he would have to head the whole drug-dealing operation and get his own hands properly dirty with all the duplicity, theft and murder that come with the territory.
In many ways, worse still for our antihero is the fact that his marriage has suffered almost irreparably. The irony that he went down this grim path to make money for his family and has driven his wife to despair is lost on no one.
Then we get to the problems pertaining to his closest ally, an unreliable ex-student of his (Jesse Pinkman, played by Aaron Paul) who knows the product too well – from having been a meth user to now helping White “cook” the stuff – and his brother-in-law, Hank (Dean Norris), a tenacious Drug Enforcement Administration agent oblivious to White's involvement but coincidentally obsessed with his case.
It's a gloriously rich web of relationships, which, combined with some ingenious plotting, continues to give rise to some of the most memorable scenarios, twists and turns in recent TV history. The entire cast is sensational, but the riveting Cranston is in a league of his own as the complicated and conflicted White.
As gifted as creator Vince Gilligan and his fellow writers are with drama, they've a deliciously dark sense of humour that also comes through. And each episode remains classily shot and put together by a crack team (no pun intended) of directors and editors – there isn't a dud in this first batch of the season.
Were this not reason enough to wait for the second half with bated breath, the way the eighth episode panned out sets things up beautifully – and surprisingly subtly – for an epic finale. The next northern-hemisphere summer can't come quickly enough.