Breaking Bad: TV's Best Thriller

Over a stunning season, Breaking Bad has gone from quirky drug drama to TV's best thriller

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White (Cranston) puts his chemistry skills to illicit use.

Walter White (Bryan Cranston) has lived too long. This is not a criticism of Breaking Bad (AMC, Sundays, 10 p.m. E.T.). It is White's anguished assessment of his own soul. In Season 1, White, a brilliant chemist turned disappointed high school teacher, was diagnosed with lung cancer. Facing devastating bills, he decided to provide for his family's future by applying his skills to cooking crystal meth for sale on the streets of Albuquerque, N.M. In Season 2, he learned to negotiate the deadly territorial wars of the drug cartels. His cancer went into remission. But the allure of drug money — and of being the best in his new field — didn't.

Now, in Season 3, White is the high-paid employee of Gus Fring, a drug mogul played with suave ruthlessness by Giancarlo Esposito. White has earned his family nest egg and then some, but his deceptions have ruined his marriage. He is wealthy, and terrified, and miserable.

And in this season's 10th episode, he identifies the precise instant he wishes he'd died: just after he'd made a pile of money cooking meth, just before the surgery that saved him. He was at home, he recalls, listening to his wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) sing their baby daughter a lullaby. "If I had just lived right up to that moment and not one second more," he says, "that would have been perfect."

Life instead went on, and Breaking Bad, whose season finale airs June 13, grew into the best drama currently on TV. Over the course of its third season, with a string of tour-de-force episodes, it's found a higher gear, going from a quirky story about an unlikely criminal to a moral thriller of intimate psychology and epic vision.

If the Coen brothers were to make a TV show, it might look something like this. Like Fargo, Breaking Bad is the story of a mild-mannered man who, first through need and then through greed, spirals into criminality. Like No Country for Old Men, it levels an unblinking gaze at human cruelty. And like many of the Coens' films, it leavens these dark themes with a mordant sense of humor.

Creator Vince Gilligan (formerly of The X-Files), together with Cranston, has made White a fascinating character study. He's a law-abiding guy who "broke bad," and yet the seeds of his fall were there even before his illness, in his bitterness over his career and his alienation from the world outside his family.

White is not immoral so much as he has moral tunnel vision; he's intensely dedicated to his family, but he ignores his culpability in dealing death. Until the violence hits ever closer — his DEA-agent brother-in-law is almost killed by thugs, and a child is killed in a drug hit by associates — at which point he finds himself in too deep to get out.

In the episode that gives us White's epiphany, he's working in Gus' lab with his partner Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), a slow-witted small-time hood (and White's former chem student). The entire episode involves their trying to kill a fly, which threatens the hyperclean lab environment they need to cook in. Their hunt for it is part slapstick yet dead serious: a failed cook means angry bosses, which means death. (Jesse, unlike White, can't see the implications; his naive street-punk criminality, next to White's cold calculation, oddly makes him something like this show's moral center.)

This is Breaking Bad's world: small moments slowed, probed and stretched for tension. Cranston, who's won two straight Emmys for the role, plays White haunted and emotionally as taut as a guitar string. And Gilligan and cinematographer Michael Slovis build that atmosphere with some of the most stylized visuals on TV, shot on location on 35-mm film rather than video. A camera shoots through a blue sheet of meth as Jesse shatters it gorgeously into crystals; outdoor scenes are irradiated with blinding Southwestern light.

Breaking Bad is a story of the modern-day New Mexico suburbs, but in its pace and vistas it plays like a western. And like a good western, Season 3's heart-stopping finale builds to a showdown as Gus decides that the hotheaded Jesse is a problem and White must weigh loyalty against self-preservation. Tired of life as he is, he does not really want to die. He struggles on, led by the tantalizing idea that he can get his family back and fix everything, by the hope — perhaps deluded — that with just a little more time, he can break back good again.