The fourth season of Breaking Bad plays out the unimaginable consequences following the cliffhanger that closed the third season, upon which the writers (led by creator Vince Gilligan) pivoted a handful of irrevocable changes and character revelations. The immediate aftermath of the third season's falling dominos created a calculus of logical consequences that posed a few serious challenges for the writers, such as, what's to be done with Jesse Pinkman, since catatonic guilt isn't exactly a dramatic barn-burner? Or, more fundamentally, how in the world will Gus let these two mugs live, and if that is, in fact, what he decides to do, what's next for them? More than almost any other hit show, Breaking Bad's season finales push you to wonder whether all narrative and creative avenues have been torched, and that there's nowhere else to go.
With great dexterity, Gilligan and company quickly disabuse viewers of that notion, albeit in ways (specifically in the premiere, "Box Cutter") that don't seem quite correct—that seem a little too typical of "kicking off the season with a big jolt" conventions to mesh with what came before it, or what happens after. Before long, however, the web of betrayal and deadly machinations begins to work its way under and around White's already paranoid sense of security, and he finds he's up against a villain who's just as capable as he ever was of building a trap to serve his sense of self-preservation. In fact, the larger arc of the fourth season is a continuation of the third's—i.e., demonstrating that "final boss" Gus Fring is a man just as deeply invested in staying alive, and more than willing to destroy anything that stands in the way of his continued dominance of the U.S. Southwest/Mexico drug trade. What follows is a highly persuasive matching of wits, to a point that one opponent's victory over the other will be a miracle.
As has been the case for the preceding seasons, the chess pieces are arranged with great care and deliberation, accommodating the tempo of each individual facet of each character's home and work life to play out, dependent on—or, at times, independent of—the pressures of the others. A more expansive show that feels so relentlessly claustrophobic is hard to imagine, but Gilligan and his writers allow some flywheels to spin free, such as Marie's inexplicable klepto tendencies, Hank's resentment and hostility toward her, or the fact that the terminator-like goon Mike is withdrawn from the game (presumably only temporarily) well before the 11th hour. For a show that feels like it's bearing down on you, much of it is shot in vast, open-sky spaces of New Mexico's barren tracts.
After you finish watching Breaking Bad's fourth season, you'll wonder why the artwork doesn't resemble, at least remotely, the famous poster image from the fifth season of The Sopranos, which has the show's principals, decked in funereal garb, standing tall in a boat, while (presumably dead) bodies are strewn about the blasted wasteland beneath them. Wayward chemistry teacher and cancer survivor Walter White's quest to provide for his family in the (once certain) event of his death, which gradually became a simple effort to keep the narcotics powers that be from destroying everything around him, has certainly mirrored this image, as dozens of men, women, and children have perished as a direct or indirect consequence of his good intentions.
Since the turn of the aughts, television bloggers and critics have been on the prowl for the Greatest Show Ever, and Breaking Bad, alongside Mad Men, but just short of The Wire, seems to be the series title that is most frequently bestowed the honor. I don't know if this kind of talk is anything more than a lot of hyperventilating and knee-bouncing, but it's tough to deny that Breaking Bad, to paraphrase a line from an earlier season, has made a lot of hay from what initially seemed like a short-fuse premise. As it turns out, the balancing act at the center of it all—Walter's willingness to do whatever it takes (up to and including homicide) to protect his family, offset by his character deficiencies and extraordinary ordinariness—is the story gift that keeps giving, and powers most of the episodes, up to and including the fourth-season finale.
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If you watched the series on a high-definition broadcast, or via some on-demand service like iTunes, the extra compression on Sony's DVD set will disappoint. For a series widely praised for its cinematography, DVD shortens the tonal range significantly, reduces depth, and, of course, the resolution isn't quite up to snuff. Nevertheless, it's clean and free of significant problems (spreading it across four discs was smart), though Netflix Instant, which streams the first three seasons in 720p HD, will likely add the fourth before too long.
A full kit: the standard cast and crew commentaries for each episode, and more featurettes than you can shake a box cutter at, all done with professionalism and care. In particular, I enjoyed the set-building featurette, but dyed-in-wool fans will be lost for days, even weeks, wandering through the supplements. I couldn't think of anything I would add to this set, and it's all above-average in terms of production quality.
Get ready to dig your fingernails into your palms all over again, as Sony releases its not-set-in-the-1960s flagship on four discs chockablock with behind-the-scenes supplements.