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'Breaking Bad': As Gut-Wrenching as Ever

As the show begins its final run, Walter White discovers being a drug kingpin is as addictive as the meth he cooks

Aaron Paul as Jesse Pinkman and Bryan Cranston as Walter White in 'Breaking Bad'
Frank Ockenfels/AMC
July 20, 2012 3:40 PM ET

This story is from the August 2nd, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.

"I am not in danger, Skyler," Walter White told his wife last year. "I am the danger." So here's what the danger looks like now, at the start of the new Breaking Bad season: The danger is eating bacon and eggs at Denny's, alone, waiting to meet a stranger in the men's room for a gun deal. Walt looks even more banged-around than usual, in a shabby jacket and some scruffy version of Spock's beard. He breaks up his bacon strips so they spell out "52" – his age – and tells the waitress it's his birthday. She gives him breakfast for free, but he leaves her a Benjamin under the plate. Damn, it feels good to be a gangsta.

Breaking Bad has gotten more gut-wrenching every season, and it's clearly not slowing down now. The most agonizingly vivid drama on TV is heading into its fifth and final season, split up into two mini- runs of eight episodes each. (The last eight won't air until summer 2013.) It's a long goodbye for an outlaw who deserves one. Walt White (Bryan Cranston) has become a lethal killer and drug lord, yet he remains the most terrifyingly ordinary of American crooks – all the menace of Scarface in the body of Louis C.K.

Breaking Bad began with Walt's 50th birthday, and it's a shock how little time has passed on the calendar. This guy started out as a mild-mannered high school chemistry teacher who starts cooking crystal meth to provide for his family after he gets a lung-cancer diagnosis. But he didn't waste any time making the fast-track transition to hardened criminal mastermind.

Last season ended with a blast, as Walt took out his murderous boss, Gus Fring, with a wheelchair bomb in a nursing home. On the phone to his wife, Walt said simply, "It's over. We're safe. I won." That's three lies in six words. But when he says it, he really believes it, which makes him feel unconquerable and more dangerous than ever. Because it's not over, nobody's safe, and he's lost.

The drive of Breaking Bad is the American husband and his quest for competence – after years of being a mediocre employee in a very important profession, Walt switches to being a uniquely effective and competent operator in an anti­social, immoral and illegal profession. It's no surprise which gig he likes better. Competence is an even more addictive drug than crystal meth. He'll kill his enemies, poison children, anything to hold on to that feeling of being able to do something right for once. He loves his work, and though he can still kid himself that he does it for the sake of his family, we don't buy it, and neither does his wife.

It's safe to say that success has gone to his head. When one of his henchmen has doubts about Walt's scheme – "I'm supposed to take it on faith? How do I know?" – Walt replies, "Because I say so." That's no scientist talking – that's a god, or at least somebody who thinks he is one. In a sense, maybe Walt's most profound corruption of all isn't that he's sold out his moral principles, but that he's sold out his scientific principles.

Part of what makes Walt so devastatingly effective as a criminal, and as a character, is that he looks just like any other loser at any other Denny's. You feel guilty witnessing his schemes, because you're noticing the evil in him that others can't see. After all, his criminal alter ego is Heisenberg, after the physicist who proposed the uncertainty principle. The Heisenberg theory is that by observing data, you influence it by your observation. In a very real way, watching Walt makes you feel complicit.

If you're getting your hopes up for a late-in-the-game redemption story, you're probably smoking some of that Blue Sky yourself. Theoretically, blowing up Gus Fring means Walt could walk away clean. But he can't let go of his hustle, because he can't resist the opportunity to say "I won." It's just that demon life that's got him in its sway.

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