Breaking Bad (AMC, Sunday, 10 ET/PT; * * * * out of four) may be the best argument against drug dealing TV has ever made.
That's not the show's purpose, of course. This soul-scorching drama, which begins the first of its two final eight-episode runs Sunday, is about as far from some cautionary-tale after-school special as dramas can get — not to mention as inappropriate for a school-age crowd as television can be.
Clearly, Bad is too complex a series and too brilliantly distinctive a creation to be reduced to a simple "Crime does not pay" motto. Still, what creator Vince Gilligan has shown us over the past four seasons is how crime can induce the moral disintegration of a kind, dying man, one who thought he could dabble in drug dealing just to provide for his family.
What began for Walter White as a sometimes comic battle to survive has transformed into a reckless, increasingly remorseless need to triumph — complete with a full-fledged embrace of murder that has removed any bit of sympathy we might have had for the character.
And yet Walt refuses to see it; he continues to insist he's a family man doing what he does for "good reasons," a mantra that now seems deluded and more than a little chilling.
What's so incredible about this transformation is how skillfully it has been managed. Watch the first season, and you can see the roots of the man Walt would become; watch Sunday, and you can still see some lingering traces of the man he used to be, though those are disappearing quickly. That's a tribute both to Gilligan and, of course, to Bryan Cranston— an always-terrific actor rewarded with a once-in-a-lifetime role, who rewards us in turn with a once-in-a-lifetime performance.
Walt returns Sunday facing a choice: count himself lucky for surviving his war with Gus Fring and walk away from meth (the path advised by Bob Odenkirk's skeevily amusing Saul Goodman) or find a way to relaunch the business himself.
It's no spoiler to say he gathers up Jesse and Mike (the equally wonderful Aaron Paul and Jonathan Banks) and begins again — not just because there's no story if he doesn't but because Walt is too far gone to stop until he leaves us for good.
Which for viewers will be the worst crime he has committed yet.