Sundays, 10 p.m., AMC
A familiar sense of anxiety and dread hangs over nearly every moment of the opening episode of the fourth season of Breaking Bad. Walter White, the one-time high school chemistry teacher turned crystal-meth cook, frantically tries to talk his way out of his own impending execution. His partner, Jesse Pinkman, is still in a state of shock, having just committed an unpardonable act of violence against a rival meth chef. Walter's disappearance has his crooked lawyer panicking and his wife driven to distraction. For the climax, we get yet another startling, brutal murder, choreographed with deadly precision like a psychopathic, blood-drenched ballet.
If the first three seasons of Breaking Bad firmly established the show as one of the grimmest sagas of our time, an ambitious bid to explore an American dream gone horribly wrong, then the opening salvo of Season Four is a wrenching promise to plunge even deeper into the morass. But the puzzling marvel of Breaking Bad is that it is at once both so bleak and yet so watchable. "I'm as surprised as anyone that this show resonates at all," says creator Vince Gilligan, who earned his producing stripes working on The X-Files. "I scratch my head sometimes. How does it even exist?"