‘Breaking Bad’ returns for penultimate season Sunday

The Associated Press
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This image released by AMC shows Bryan Cranston as Walter White (right) and Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman in a scene from the Season 5 premiere of

Turns out “Breaking Bad” is an inadvertent argument for “Obamacare.”

Consider: if affordable health care had been available to Walter White when “Breaking Bad” began five seasons ago, this struggling high school chemistry teacher might not have felt driven to cook and sell crystal meth to avert financial ruin for his family after he was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer.

On the other hand, there would have been no “Breaking Bad.” This would have deprived viewers of arguably TV’s most twisted, bleakly funny and just plain addictive series ever.

On Sunday at 10 p.m. eastern on AMC, “Breaking Bad” returns for a run of eight episodes that pave the way to a final eight airing next year.

By this point in its fast-evolving narrative, the formerly milquetoast teacher has morphed into a triumphant drug lord (played by Bryan Cranston) in tumultuous cahoots with his one-time slacker pupil, Jesse Pinkman (co-star Aaron Paul).

Last season ended with Walt successfully assassinating Gus Fring, the reigning meth distributor in Albuquerque, to solidify his own rule.

Sunday’s episode picks up with the same phone call Walt placed to his wife, Skyler, moments after the monstrous Fring was blown up in last season’s finale.

“It’s over,” Walt tells her. “We’re safe.”

Long pause.

“Was this you?” Skyler asks him, the question catching in her throat. “What happened?”

“I won,” Walt growls with satisfaction.

Thinking about that scene — and how it gobsmacks Skyler — makes Anna Gunn, who portrays her, laugh.

“At that moment, a hammer comes down,” says Gunn, voicing what goes through Skyler’s mind: “We can never come back. This is a corner we can never un-turn. If Walt was involved with this guy Fring and had something to do with his death: omigod, we’re in trouble!”

Just one of many hitches to Walt’s victory dance: the drug enforcement agents (including, inconveniently, his own brother-in-law) are hot on the trail of the mysterious Heisenberg, which happens to be Walt’s drug-lord alter ego.

By now, Walt and his sidekick Jesse seem beyond any hope of ultimate redemption. The notching-up suspense of “Breaking Bad” now dwells on what manner of dread comeuppance they will suffer in the end.

In the meantime, no character remains so trapped, so caught between ordinary life and the underworld, as Skyler, Walt’s relenting accomplice.

Initially, Skyler knew nothing of Walt’s involvement in the drug trade.

Then, with her shocked discovery of what he was up to, she plotted to run away or turn Walt in to the cops.

But then she began her slide down the slippery slope. Applying her background in accounting, she hatched a scheme to take Walt’s drug money and (in a demonstration of the show’s mordant humour) launder it by buying a car wash.

A by-the-book drama would then have transformed her into an all-in Bonnie to her husband’s Clyde. Instead, even now as his partner in crime, she remains on the margins of his depravity.

“From the beginning, she has laboured under limited information,” Gunn says during a recent phone conversation from her home in Los Angeles. “And she still doesn’t know how deep Walt is into this thing. But she knows this man is not just in it for the money anymore, that there’s something much bigger and deeper and darker drawing him in.

“He’s enjoying the power. He likes feeling like a player. He’s turned into a man she doesn’t know or recognize — and one that she’s truly scared of.”

If Skyler’s state of limbo is nightmarish for this wife and mother of two, it’s a dream for Gunn to portray.

Before “Breaking Bad,” she was best known as Martha Bullock on HBO’s “Deadwood.” She also guested on series including “NYPD Blue,” ”The Practice,“ ”Six Feet Under“ and ”Seinfeld.“ Her films include ”Nobody’s Baby,“ ”Without Evidence“ and ”Red State.“

Now she’s part of a splendid ensemble that includes Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, R.J. Mitte, Bob Odenkirk and Jonathan Banks, and pairs her with the extraordinary Cranston — with whom, she happily reports, she feels in synch on-camera and (befitting his zany past on “Malcolm in the Middle”) off-camera she shares loads of laughs.

Skyler’s contradictions give Gunn lots to work with, she says.

“Skyler was never a shrinking violet. She’s a strong woman, a very pragmatic person,” Gunn notes. “She knows she’s in it deep, so she’s got to keep going. But, poor thing, she still thinks, ’I can launder enough money to provide for the rest of our lives and put the kids through college, and then we can get out.’ I think she keeps praying and hoping for an end date.”

Of course, the only operative end date is next year’s series conclusion. It’s an almost sure-to-be-apocalyptic denouement that at the moment presumably exists only in the mind of “Breaking Bad” creator Vince Gilligan.

“I don’t think Vince means the show to be a morality tale,” says Gunn, whatever messages (like the nation’s punished 99 per cent) it may seem to be making. “But certainly it is an exploration of people’s morality, and the things they choose to do, and the reasons they come up with for doing them.”

And where will those choices finally leave Skyler and the rest?

“All I know is, the show never does anything expected,” says Gunn, speaking for its fans as well as herself. “That’s all I know.”

Organizations: Jonathan Banks

Geographic location: Albuquerque, Los Angeles

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  • Anon
    July 12, 2012 - 10:47

    I think the author needs to look up what Obamacare is...

    • tyr
      July 15, 2012 - 16:10

      Also what penultimate means...