When Breaking Bad began, the question was: How does a mild-mannered chemistry teacher turn into a drug dealer? (Pardon me: methamphetamine manufacturer—there's a difference.) That question was rapidly answered, in a high-octane sequence of episodes that creator Vince Gilligan has never quite recaptured: Walter White (Bryan Cranston) learns he has lung cancer and, with nothing to lose, decides to provide for his family regardless of the cost. Each season, that cost grows steeper. What started as weepy self-defense (like choking a man to death with a bicycle lock) later turned to stoic self-preservation (allowing a potential liability to choke on her own drug-induced vomit), leading to the season-two climax in which two planes collided in midair, the domino result of Walt's actions and inactions.
Walt can no longer ignore the bodies literally piled on his driveway, though he attempts to do so at a school assembly: "There have been 52 worse crashes," he desperately rationalizes. Later, pulled over for not repairing his debris-cracked windshield, he masochistically provokes the cop into pepper-spraying him, looking for a valid excuse to cry. And he needs one: Though his cancer is in remission and he's got a duffle bag filled with cash, he's lost his justification for earning it in the first place—his family. After learning of his criminal deeds, his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), has kicked him out and filed for divorce. The question this season is: How can a drug manufacturer with anger issues turn back into a loving family man? Perhaps, more pressingly: Can Walt survive the creeping consequences of his past long enough to find out?
After all, season three begins with two creepily silent and chrome-domed cartel hitmen hunting down White's alter ego, "Heisenberg," and by the second episode, they're waiting—with an axe—for their unsuspecting target to finish with his shower. Though he's temporarily protected by Gus Frings (Giancarlo Esposito), the all-business kingpin of Albuquerque to whom White's been selling, these are the same men who severed a man's head, attached it to a tortoise, and then detonated that tortoise in the midst of a pack of DEA agents.
Of course, the worse things get for our heroes, the better things tend to get for us. The shakeup in dynamics has reinvigorated the show, but, based on its second season, it's not like the series needed to be. The chemistry of every television show should have as rapid a half-life as Breaking Bad, transforming into something new while building off the critical elements of the past. Walt is still a man with nothing to lose, except that now it's his wife who he threatens. "I got your restraining order right here," he bellows to an answering machine, his drunken rage balanced by the fact that he's wearing sad tighty whiteys. (Only a true dark comedy could make us laugh at the thought of domestic violence.) Though she threatens to expose him, he breaks back into his own home—as headstrong as ever—and stares her down, knowing that unless she mentions the drugs, she's got no legal right to throw him out. "This family is everything to me," he explains. "Without it, I have nothing to lose."
Another man with nothing to lose is Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), Walt's partner-in-crime. He's 45 days sober for pretty much the first time in his adult life, and rich enough to buy his disdainful parent's house right out from under them. But he has also lost his way: The love of his life is dead (because of Walt's inaction, though Jesse doesn't know this) and now even her voicemail, which he'd been calling every five minutes, has been disconnected. He has reversed roles with Walt, and now he's the one who is all business—and the one in control: "I know who I am now," he tells Walt. "I'm the bad guy."
While the domestic stuff literally brings it all home, Gilligan is now also starting to reap dividends from his narcocorridor subplot: Walt's DEA-agent brother-in-law, Hank (Dean Norris), gives us a further glimpse into the repercussions of Walt's "innocent" actions. Perhaps because Hank is such a brutishly simple guy, it's not quite up to the sophistication of The Wire, but the threads are starting to come together. This meshes well with the directorial choices of each episode too: Long-distance shots of landscapes, characters stepping in and out of focus, and recurring images like the accusatory eye of a teddy bear are staples of the show, lending it an air of mystery that is far more earned than that of, say, Damages.
After only three episodes, it's impossible to tell where this season is going. Characters change constantly, like Walt's son (RJ Mitte), who wants to be called Walter Jr. again, though that's as much to piss off his icy mom as it is to honor his seemingly saintly father. Walt changes tactics at least once an episode—often in the middle of a scene, as when, after Skyler rebuffs his attempts to mend fences with a party pizza, he hulks out and throws it onto the roof. (We'll see that pizza three more times, in worse-and-worse shape—a metaphor in action.) And best of all is Gunn's newfound strength (and weakness) in her portrayal of Skyler: The third episode ends with her turning the tables on Walt's honesty. "I fucked [my boss]," she says as she calmly takes the salad bowl from Walt's hands, proceeding to walk out of frame with a "Dinner's ready, boys" as the camera lingers on the barely perceptible quiver bristling across Cranston's goatee. And you thought the silent Mexican hitmen were scary.