When Eddie Cochran sang "There ain't no cure for the summertime blues" back in 1958, he wasn't anticipating the rise of top-tier-worthy basic cable shows 50-odd years later. Hell, he wasn't anticipating cable TV, period.
If Eddie was alive today, maybe he and the usual crew would be sitting around the living room of his mansion checking out, say, AMC's acclaimed crime drama Breaking Bad, which is back with episodes for Season 5 starting July 15. All seems right with the world.
As Season 4 ended, chemistry teacher turned meth cook Walter White (Bryan Cranston) blew up his boss turned nemesis Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) with a bomb planted in a nursing home, thus making himself the new meth king of New Mexico by default—right?
Of course not. Walter is brilliant at the mental chess he plays with figures in the criminal underworld, as well as the DEA that's always hot on his tail (they just don't know it's his tail). But for every step he stays ahead, he fails to anticipate that one loose string that's bound to get pulled—and someday, it'll send his whole world crashing down.
With only 16 episodes left of the series, that day is coming soon. As the July 15 premiere begins, we get a brief, teasing glimpse into Walt's bleak future. It's a familiar device for Breaking Bad, and damned if it doesn't work—weren't you dying to know all during Season 2 why the men in the hazmat suits were fishing a pink teddy bear's eye out of Walt's backyard swimming pool?
Rather than give away the tease at Season 5's opener—with this show, you want to keep things as spoiler-free as possible—let's just say that it quickly picks up right where it left off. Walt has just killed Gus, and now he has to come home and face his family, only one of whom knows he's a murderer.
That's his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), who has been on his tail from the beginning with a tenacity that would put the DEA to shame, ever since he started cooking meth with his former high school chemistry student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) in Season 1.
As Breaking Bad has progressed, we've seen many sides of Skyler. First, she seemed to be a ballbuster who ruled over a resentful nebbish. Or she was the doting but still-bossy wife taking care of cranky Walt when he was diagnosed with cancer—the event that spurred his life of crime. Next, she was the angry mama lion who left home with her two kids and had an affair with her boss as Walt's lawlessness came to light.
More recently, Walt's descent into evil has proved to be a contagion for her. Reunited with Walt for the family's sake (the same reason he started making meth—for the family's sake), Skyler can now choke back the tears like a pro when her increased involvement in crime has tragic consequences. Re-adjusting in an instant, she puts on the steely demeanor that lets her unintended victim know she means business, and don't forget it.
Back at home, though, she can't conceal that she's now terrified of her husband. For good reason. Gunn plays all of Skyler's sides beautifully, and she's every bit the match for Cranston's Emmy-winning portrayal of Walter White, which is as superb as ever. Ask any fan when Walter became truly evil, and you'd probably get a different answer. Some may say it was when he poisoned a child last season to incur Jesse's desire for revenge against Gus, the supposed culprit. Or maybe, when he killed Jesse's junkie girlfriend by allowing her to choke on her own puke. There was never any evil glee in Cranston's performance—just grim satisfaction, rage and smug self-congratulation for being so damned smart. Yeah, he's messed up.
But when some of his chillingly calm interactions with Skyler in this new episode evoke Michael Corleone hugging Fredo in The Godfather: Part II, there can be no doubt. Walt White is one dark dude.
Unfortunately, the dynamic spark between Cranston and Gunn is about all you can swallow, in a rather off episode that strains belief. The writers came up with a rather fantastic plan for Walt, Jesse and their menacing former criminal accomplice Mike (Jonathan Banks) to foil investigators this time. There's maybe a little too much MacGyver in Breaking Bad these days.
Eyebrow-raising plot contortions have become commonplace for this show lately (Lily of the Valley, anyone?), but character implausibilities are even more worrisome.
For instance, when did dimwitted Jesse become so scientifically clever? Why doesn't hard-boiled Mike kill Walt on sight, as he'd be most inclined to do? (Supposedly, he has a soft spot for Jesse. Really?)
Yes, the writers of this great show need to wrap things up this season, and yes, that's a tall order. Let's just hope they aren't making the same mistake as Walter on his way out—being too clever for their own good.
Dish Network recently dropped AMC as part of a dispute between the companies, but Breaking Bad episodes are available on iTunes and other outlets fairly soon after they air on AMC. That, actually, is another point of contention for Dish, which claims the streaming causes lower TV ratings—an unacceptable development after Dish balked at the purportedly higher fees demanded by AMC. Durham residents can catch Breaking Bad the night it airs and for free at Motorco Music Hall, 723 Rigsbee Ave., while enjoying a delicious beverage (try the Dark & Stormy).
This article appeared in print with the headline "Walking dead."