Think back to a few of your favorite television series, the ones you watched from start to finish. How did they flow from season to season? Did they hold up? Did they get better? Did they end on high notes? There's still one elongated season of 'Breaking Bad' awaiting us (eight episodes of it will run this summer, the final eight will run next summer), but I can boldly say that this is one series that started strong and only improved over time. Each season has proven to be even better than the bar-setting one that preceded it. I've loved several dramatic series – 'Quantum Leap,' 'Lost' and the currently running shows 'Walking Dead' and 'Justified' being a few of them – but 'Breaking Bad' takes the cake. If I was stranded on time-skipping island infested with "others," zombies, and gangster hillbillies, and I had to choose just one series to watch over and over again, it would be 'Breaking Bad.'
'Season One' was brilliant. We watched a man who had been ground down by life and had hit rock bottom - and in the very first episode! Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is one of the smartest and most innovative chemists in the industry, but he's been reduced to teaching at a public high school in Albuquerque, New Mexico. With a mildly disabled teenage son and a baby girl on the way, Mr. White has to work a second job as a cashier in a car wash. When things couldn't get any worse, he's diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. Much like the black comedy 'Falling Down,' Walt snaps and decides to shatter the system that has beaten him down. How does this high school teacher do it? By teaming up with former druggie student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) to cook the most pure methamphetamine ever made. The income will be more than enough to sustain the White family long after he's gone.
The first season is all about exploring whether a good man can dabble in an evil industry without going to the dark side. Can a good guy do the bad things that it requires without becoming bad himself? 'Season Two' shows the unlikely duo getting in over their heads via competing against and selling to local drug distributors. 'Season Three' shows the repercussions of working for "the man" after being their own bosses for the first two seasons. And 'Season Four' is ... something else.
Be warned: Spoilers ahead! The third season was a slow burn. We watched Walt and Jesse begin working in the "superlab," an underground high-tech laboratory completely invisible to the outside world. The efficiency of their new workstation provided more than enough of the iconic blue meth to dominate the market in the surrounding states. Not only was the DEA hunting down the mysterious Heisenberg (Walt's pseudonym), but the competing Mexican cartels were sending hitmen after him. With the help of their new boss Gustavo "Gus" Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), Walt and Jesse's cook was invading other dealers' territory. Walt and Jesse were in good standing with Gus, so he protected them – but when Jesse and Walt noticed that the evil underbelly of Gus' operations was responsible for using children for drops and exchanges, things changed. Being personally connected to one of the Gus' employee kids killed in action, Jesse took matters into hands. Knowing this would infuriate Gus, Walt protected Jesse under the safety net that no one else can reproduce Walt's cook – that is, except for Walt's previous assistant, Gus' friend and colleague Gale. What did Jesse do in the finale to ensure that Gus wouldn't just kill the two of them off and have Gale take over? The final shot of 'Season Three' is Gale's POV as Jesse holds a revolver to his face and pulls the trigger. Bang! Lights out. That's a wrap for 'Season Three.'
'Season Four' picks up right where three leaves off. The "Is Gale dead or isn't Gale dead?" question that all of the fans were wondering since the previous season was answered almost immediately. Yep – he's dead. In fact, we're even shown the entry wound just below his right eye. Jesse isn't a natural born killer, so he's sitting in a dazed state of shock and sadness when Gus' henchman shows up to bring him back to the superlab where Walt is being held.
The entire season poses one question to the audience, the same question that Walt and Jesse are asking themselves: how in the hell is this going to end well for either of them? The only reason they're still alive is because they are indispensable to Gus' business – or are they? Walter White is an exceptionally smart man. We've learned that throughout the series. But functioning on the same level of genius is Gus. Walt is to chemistry as Gus is to business. There's no doubt that Gus wants Walt and Jesse dead, but Gus also knows without a doubt that Walt wants him dead too. Kill or be killed. 'Season Four' is all about their playful game of who is going to kill whom first – only it unfolds like an intricate game of chess where the loyalties of the pieces are blurred.
Of course, many other subplots unfold that bleed into this mind game along the way, each with consequences of their own. Walt's DEA agent brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris) finds the motivation to get out of bed after his shootout in 'Season 3' when he starts piecing together facts about Heisenberg. The cartels are now really out to get Gus. Walt's estranged wife Skylar (Anna Gunn) is incessant about helping him launder his money, only she's got problems of her own. And killing Gale has thrown Jesse into a downward spiral of depression not unlike that of 'Season Two'/'Season Three' when his girlfriend overdoses – only this time he's back on the rock.
Each of these things works together to take the series to one place – it's explosive finale. When you get towards the end of the season, I suggest not watching the second to last episode ('End Times') until you can watch it back-to-back with the brilliant finale ('Face Off'). The ending of 'End Times' is one of those rare 'Breaking Bad' moments where the ending of one episode is exactly where the beginning of the next one takes off. Even the musical cues match perfectly. These two episodes make up one highly intense finale. If you recall in my review of the third season where I describe a moment as the best thing to ever be shown on television (the shootout with Hank and "the cousins"), know that what happens in the finale of 'Season Four' is even better than that. Mark it up as another shocking moment in 'Breaking Bad' – so much so that it's a miracle that it cleared the censors.
I adore 'Breaking Bad.' If the Coen Brothers wrote a television series, it would be 'Breaking Bad.' It's comical, dark, witty and intelligent – the most brilliant program on television.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
Sony has once again done a superb job in placing 'Breaking Bad' on Blu-ray. Just like the previous two season's sets, the season four set is comprised of three BD-50s in a slightly-thicker-than usual keepcase. The swinging arm that holds two discs in the middle of the case is made of sturdy plastic and actually locks into the main case on the righthand side (over Disc 3) to prevent it from dangling loose and swinging around. A promotional cast photo is printed on the back of the cover art that can be seen clearly through the keepcase. Included is a four-page episode guide. Aside from a skippable Sony vanity reel, not a single things plays before the main menu. Five episodes (402, 404, 405, 409 and 411) are presented in their original uncensored form and the explosive finale (413) is extended by a few minutes from the version that aired on television.
The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer of season four is just as fantastic as the previous two seasons. Shot on film, there's still a nice little dusting of film grain. Once again, the color palette frequently changes, causing differing levels of vibrancy, saturation and fleshtones – but each time is an intentional directorial decision that adds to the tone and feel of the series. For example, Jesse's wild in-house drug raves warrant wildly oversaturated neon colors. When Gus and Co. venture into Mexican cartel territory, colors are washed out by an over-exposing sepia effect. But no matter the decision, the images always fit the tone and mood of the content. Although the colors and saturation may vary, black levels do not. Considering how dark this season gets, if anything, blacks are more powerful and looming than ever.
The high amount of sharp detail is still extremely strong. These details add to intensity of the show and the powerful performances given by the actors. For example, in the opening of 'Face Off,' Mr. White perfectly conveys to Jesse the dire nature of the situation that they are in. An extreme close-up of Aaron Paul's face reveals his acting range as Jesse comes to this realization. Seeing the intricate details of his face adds another layer of emotion to his performance. The same goes for Anna Gunn's finale scene in this same finale when Walt finally calls Skylar.
The compression flaws that find their way onto the disc are, once again, very minor. A few instances of faint aliasing and small traces of digital noise are present. Sadly, a couple transitional bands make their way into the series, but artifacts are still absent. DNR and edge enhancement aren't applied. Even with these small compression flaws, 'Breaking Bad' is still an exemplary Blu-ray set.
Only one audio option is presented – a 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track. Last season's Blu-rays upped the ante for the sounds of 'Breaking Bad' and this season keeps it right up there in quality.
Once again, there's always something to be heard – be it ambiance, environmental sounds or background chatter. Tension is built throughout 'Season Four' via uncertainty, presumptions and paranoia and the sounds reflects that. Many times, silence is applied in a fashion that's even more intense than a loud and noisy mix – but that's not to say that noise doesn't play a major player. Just wait until you hear what's done in 'Face Off.' Season three put effects to good use and there are even more instances that allows for them here.
The blend of music and vocals is again fantastic. No lines are buried beneath overwhelming musical cues. The dialog makes great use of peaks and low spots. I'm telling you, the audio is a major source of this season's tangible tension.
Here we go again, folks. Let's run through another set of extensive special features. Again, each disc has a sub-menu titled "Bonus Features," but when you click on the individual episode list, you'll see that each episode has at least one special feature of its own. Once again, I'll break it down by disc and episode. Try to keep up.
I've said it before and I'll say it again: if you haven't watched 'Breaking Bad,' now is the time to get into it. Despite each season being perfect, they progressively get better and better. 'Season 4' takes it to all new heights. Even if the upcoming fifth (and final) season only matches the height of the previous seasons, then it will still be brilliant. The turmoil between Walt, Jesse, and Gus has never been more intense than it is here. 'Season Four' is a cat and mouse mind-game of kill or be killed that boils down to one of the most intense, unpredictable, and shocking finales of all time. You have to see it to believe it. Once again, the only problems with the noteworthy video quality are minor compression flaws, the audio is engagingly dynamic and there are so many special features included that if you tried getting through the 13-episode season and all of the special features in one 24-hour period, you couldn't – it's too long. Once again, 'Season Four' is another highly recommended set worthy of owning. If you're a fan of the series, it's a must-own.