There is a scene, in the final episode of the fourth season of Breaking Bad, that made me do the following four things simultaneously: 1) gasp, 2) sit up from my lounging-on-the-couch position, 3) put my hand over my mouth, and 4) yell (yell) "HOLY SHIT." As soon as I completed this quartet of overreactions, I felt like an idiot--like a bad actor in a subpar television commercial. This show does that to you; it's that shocking, that tense, and (when the payoffs arrive) that exciting. My review of their third season posited, simply, "this is the best show on television." It still is, and somehow, it got better this year.
Seasons one and two introduced us to Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a high school chemistry teacher with lung cancer; in a desperate attempt to leave a nest egg for his wife Skylar (Anna Gunn), son Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte), and newborn daughter, he talks a burnout former student and drug dealer, Jesse (Aaron Paul) into joining him in a scheme to "cook" crystal meth. Surprisingly enough, milquetoast Walt proved not only a gifted drug manufacturer, but a particularly effective businessman and criminal--even with his DEA agent brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris), occasionally and unknowingly on his trail.
Season three ended with one of the show's most powerful moments: the cold-blooded murder of Gale (David Costabile) at the hand of Jesse. It was a heart-wrenching moment; Gale was a genuinely sympathetic character, and pulling that trigger was a leap into far darker territory for Jesse. Breaking Bad has always been a show about consequences, and in picking up exactly where we left off, and following through on the psychological repercussions of that act, we see how it changes Jesse, plunging him into a terrifying drug relapse and orgy of pernicious behavior.
Jesse's move to the brink, and his unlikely return from it, is a powerful season-long arc; so is the slow but undeniable expansion of Walt's ego, which threatens to slip out of his tenuous control and put him in real danger. His predilection for self-destructive behavior in season four may be less explicit than Jesse's, but it's as much a part of the narrative (particularly on reflection at the close of the season). More than ever, Breaking Bad is a show about people under pressure and not handling it well, whether it's Walt's raging, Jesse's nihilism, or Marie's thievery, and both Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul continue to find new ways to convey that pressure and all of its complexities.
In many ways, though, this season belongs to Giancarlo Esposito, whose kingpin Gus Fring is given several unforgettable moments: his cold, methodical suiting-up for bloodshed in the season opener, a flashback that betrays a rare moment of fear, a forceful scene in the very next episode that shows the kind of strength he's worked up in the intervening years. Dean Norris's playing of Hank only gets more interesting, with his bedridden angst giving way to a new sense of purpose over the course of these 13 episodes. The lying and stealing of Hank's wife Marie (Betsy Brandt) is one of the show's rare story threads that goes nowhere, but her scenes with Hank are their most interesting to date. And Anna Gunn's characterization of Walt's wife Skylar continues to fascinate; this season, entirely in the loop (well, almost) on her estranged husband's activities, she finds a power and confidence in their wealth that mirrors Walt's in season one.
The season is filled with remarkable set pieces: Jesse's terrifying trip into the home of two meth-heads, his horrible moment of realization at the hospital, the pool party gone awry at the home of Don Eladio (Steven Bauer, from Scarface). But it is also a patient show, one unafraid to put the narrative on pause for, say, Walt's long and evocative monologue about his only real memory of his father. The sense of dread and constant tension is as thick and powerful as ever (aided immeasurably by Dave Porter's remarkable music); the show is permeated by the constant feeling that something bad is going to happen, as well as the subtextual thrill of wondering at the end of each episode (and season, for that matter) how the hell the characters--and the writers--will ever get out of the corner they've painted themselves into. And yet, they do.
Video & Audio:
The second and third season sets featured some of the best-looking TV presentation I've seen on Blu-ray, so this rather average MPEG-4 AVC transfer is a bit of a disappointment. Those wide desert views are as gorgeous as ever, and detail work is quite good (check out the gun-wielding meth-head's face--or better yet, his teeth). But banding is a real problem here--from the red floors of the lab to colored walls and other solid backgrounds, it's present in just about every episode, and noticeable. It's not a deal-breaker by any means, but it certainly isn't what I've come to expect from these sets visually.
Audio, on the other hand, couldn't be better. The English DTS-HD Master Audio track is vibrant, active, and immersive; the spread of effects utilizes the entire soundstage in nearly every scene. Ambient noises of the lab, the machine gunfire in sudden (and scary) action scenes, the music of Jesse's new sound system, the effects of the desert and Don Eladio's patio--all are well aimed and beautifully dispersed, while dialogue is constantly crisp and crystal-clear. Only one complaint, however, and I'll admit that it may be operator or player error: several scenes are in Spanish, and I had to manually turn on the English subtitles in order to get the translation (a problem I've never had with other discs that trigger the subs).
English, English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles are offered.
Bonus features are, as expected, copious. They're spread out over all three discs, though most of the stand-alone extra content is on disc three (which only has three episodes, as opposed to the five each on discs one and two). All three discs offer goodies for each show within the "episode selection" menu, with informative and good-humored group Audio Commentaries on every episode, Extended and Alternate Scenes for "Box Cutter," "Open House," "Corner," "Hermanos," and "Salud," and Deleted Scenes for "Shotgun," "Problem Dog," "Bug," "Salud," and "Crawl Space."
As has become the standard for the series, the 21 "Inside Breaking Bad" featurettes (1:22:21 total) tackle each episode, in addition to spotlighting individual stunts, sets, and sequences. The third disc also includes "Video Podcasts" (2:09:38) for each episode, with cast and crew popping in to talk about the show.
On disc one, "Gale's Karaoke Video" (4:18) gives you the chance to see, on its own in all of its glory, the murdered chemist's performance of "Major Tom (Coming Home)." The rest of the featurettes are on disc three. "Inside the Explosive Finale" (23:13) takes a close and detailed look at the extensive preparations for the big wrap-up, "The Sets of Breaking Bad" (8:55) features the production team walking though and talking about the sets, "The Invisible Driver" (4:09) looks at the stunt driving trickery for the "Shotgun" episode, and "The Real Family of Breaking Bad" (4:20) is a montage of the cast and crew working hard and having fun on set.
As ever, the "Better Call Saul Commercials" are a comic highlight of the special features, and there are two of them here: "Fatty Fat Fat" (:59) and "Fighting for You!" (1:11). The entertaining "Gag Reel" (4:59) features flubbed lines, cutting up, and joking around between takes. The remaining promo featurettes are interesting, though the graphic design and choice of clips make them seem like leftovers from earlier seasons: "Cast Chemistry" (5:41) looks at the character of Walt and his relationship with Jesse from the show's inception forward, "Color Me Bad" (4:42) examines the show's color scheme, "The Science of a Hit Show" (5:35) focuses on Gilligan's development of the series, the "Superlab Tour" (3:06) is, well, a tour of the superlab set, and "The White House Tour" (3:55) offers another (rather redundant, after the "Sets of Breaking Bad" featurette) look at the set for the White family home.
As the climax of the season's final episode was clicking into place, this viewer thought, with a bit of a sneer (can you think a sneer?), It's gonna take something really incredible to cap off this season properly, and there was some doubt that they could do that. That doubt, to say the least, was misplaced. The conclusion is both visceral and incredibly satisfactory, though it does initially leave the viewer wondering exactly what is going to happen next--it feels like the ending of the series, not of the season. And then, with one carefully executed shot, they punch you in the gut. Again. Breaking Bad is as good as television gets.
For the extra adventurous fan, you can visit many of the filming locations showcased in the series by following this helpful Breaking Bad Tour.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.