Black-and-white shots of a seemingly deserted backyard open the second season of AMC’s Breaking Bad in immediate unease as sirens can be heard faintly in the distance. The camera focuses on a plastic eye floating in a pool before it becomes submerged and reveals the eye’s source: A bright-pink teddy bear charred partially black. This burnt plush is returned to throughout the second season, as it is recovered from the pool, bagged and tagged, and thrown in an OMI van. It is yet another in a varied catalogue of abstract symbols and metaphors that Breaking Bad uses to refract its rogue’s gallery of hustlers, junkies, and hopelessly adrift suburbanites involved in the New Mexico drug scene.
The series, created by X-Files producer and Hancock co-scripter Vince Gilligan, concluded its first season with an unstable stalemate between volatile meth-dealer Tuco (Raymond Cruz) and the steely cooker nicknamed Heisenberg and it is here that the second season begins. Sporting black shades and a porkpie hat, Heisenberg feigns menace, but below the brutal demeanor, he is, like the series, in a constant state of desperation. When not slinging a high-grade form of meth called Blue Sky, Heisenberg is Walter White (Bryan Cranston), the cancer-ridden chemistry teacher who “broke bad” to leave his pregnant wife, Skyler (the brilliant Anna Gunn), and disabled son, Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte), without debts, mounting costs, or worries.
Chemistry, as most sciences are, is dependent on absolute control and, by extension, Walter is obsessed with order; a fact that puts him at odds with Tuco and nearly every raging, prideful dealer and user he encounters. His partner Jesse (Aaron Paul, terrific and understated in an odd way) is no exception: Many of the show’s most exhilarating moments entail Jesse’s struggles with self-control and Walter’s frightful, morally disjointed solutions. But whereas the first season focused primarily on the falters of these relative first-timers, the second focuses more on how Walt’s relationship’s, new and old, suffer under the success of his new venture. Edited and shot with masterful precision, the aesthetic mirrors the minute calms and torrid upheavals that come with being a brain in a business of pistols.
Skyler juggles the grave possibilities of Walt’s fickle temperament and blithe deceit while her DEA agent brother-in-law, Hank (Dean Norris), is tasked with hunting down Heisenberg. But many of the relationships that make the show’s second season a landmark of television drama are christened after Tuco and Heisenberg have parted ways for good. The most potent additions—Jesse’s tattoo-artist girlfriend, Jane (Krysten Ritter), and gleefully depraved lawyer, Saul Goodman (a perfectly cast Bob Odenkirk)—reveal new inlets of tension for the show and lend further dimension to Cranston and Paul’s characters. We witness Walter evolve, with all the mistakes that come with him becoming a serious criminal (he blindly orders the murders of two grotesque junkies). In this transformation’s stunning realism, the caliber of writing and behavioral nuance that is being shown cannot be overstated.
Moving ever closer to the origin of that flame-treated plush, not to mention the birth of Walt’s daughter and a chance to become supplier for a major dealer (Giancarlo Esposito), Breaking Bad thematically mines similar concepts of manhood and family as AMC’s other triumph, Mad Men. But whereas that show feels purposefully confined and controlled, this show’s moral codes are constantly snapped, beaten and torched, only to be reassessed when things feel like they might be settling. The narrative’s subsequent urgency and unpredictability would seem hectic and uneven if not for Mr. Cranston, who landed the role of Walter thanks to a chilling turn in an X-Files episode Gilligan worked on. Physically attuned to Walt’s fractured humanity, Cranston balances the horrendous acts Walt perpetrates to keep up both the appearance and ideals with a sincere love for his family and for his art.
At one point, a step toward recovery causes Walter to second-guess his days of cooking. Wandering the aisles of a hardware warehouse, he comes upon a cart full of meth supplies being pushed by an addled junkie and begins to criticize his ingredient choices. In the parking lot outside, he faces off with the muscle-bound bruiser the junkie works for and growls, “Stay out of my territory!” A similar warning should be issued to any television program attempting to enter the black abyss that Breaking Bad lingers in, unafraid.
The smudgy and ill-defined transfer on the season one Blu-ray has been drastically improved, though the show's intended gritty and dim look continues to cause problems in the more shadowy scenes. The menus are sleek and well constructed; the extras are grainy and poorly transferred. The visuals are more than serviceable but short of a show-off-the-system level of transfer. And the series, which has a very distinct and expressive sound design, is given a regal treatment by the DTS-HD MA 5.1 soundtrack. Shootouts, explosions, and brawls are perfectly impactful but the real points are made in episodes like "Breakage," where the tinkering of the RV drug-lab and the echoing oblivion of the New Mexico desert are beautifully, evenly level.
The abundant bonus material provided lands more in the filler column than the killer. Eleven behind-the-scenes featurettes are offered with very little insight into the production. It's nice to hear Vince Gilligan shed some light on the show's influences in "What's in a Name?," even if he wrongly identifies a reference to To Have and Have Not as being from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. There are some worthy moments in the gag reel but the only essential extras are the three-minute "Inside Breaking Bad" segments that accompany each episode. The cast and Gilligan give fascinating takes on the trajectory of both the season and the characters, even going as far to talk about the preparation and motivation in single scenes. The six webisodes, which take place between season one and two, add little heat to Walt and Jesse's season in hell.
The extras are largely superfluous, but this tale of moral decay and conflicted identity, amply supplied in visual transfer and soundtrack, charters an immersive and harrowing journey into utter darkness that stands among the great feats of television drama.