After a strike-shortened first season, Breaking Bad's return approximates the mental state of its central character: The show appears chaotic, confused, in danger of careering out of control. Yet there's a guiding plan here, and a sense of uncertainty -- created by the hook of a protagonist with terminal cancer -- that keeps the series utterly compelling, since it's impossible to anticipate how the show intends to get from point A to the inevitability of point B. Season two is both grim and gritty, with the jarring feel of a Tarantino film -- and I inhaled the first three episodes like a junkie.
For those who missed the first batch, the series focuses on Walt White (Emmy winner Bryan Cranston, who also directs the premiere), a low-key high-school chemistry teacher who discovers he has lung cancer. With a special-needs teenage son (RJ Mitte) and an unexpectedly pregnant wife (Anna Gunn), he reconnects with a former student, Jesse (Aaron Paul), and begins cooking crystal meth, determined to sock away a nest egg before kicking the bucket.
Walt's act of desperation is fraught with consequences, beginning with the human detritus with which he's forced to interact. As such, he's faced with one moral dilemma after another -- the latest being his uneasy alliance with drug kingpin Tuco (Raymond Cruz), a wild, meth-snorting thug whose fits of rage can be directed at anyone unfortunate enough to be near him. Cruz isn't likely to win any Imagen Awards for the character, but he's crazy scary -- somewhere between Dennis Hopper in "Blue Velvet" and Hannibal Lecter.
Walt and Jesse's adventures with Tuco dominate these initial episodes, making the series less about Walt's midlife (or really, mid-death) crisis than a tense, brutal look at this foreign world through his eyes. It's almost like he's falling downstairs, morally speaking, with a camera perched over his shoulder.
Cranston continues to astound in the pivotal role, with Walt having calculated that he must raise north of $700,000 from his illicit enterprise to provide for his family. In the third hour, that inward tumult erupts into a sobering explanation about his current predicament -- reflecting a life filled with regrets and longing -- that has made this portrait of suburban masculinity an oddly appropriate companion to the earlier milieu that AMC explores in "Mad Men."
The supporting performances are also uniformly strong, including Dean Norris as Walt's brother-in-law, a gung-ho DEA agent who always seems to be thisclose to inadvertently stumbling onto Walt's second career.
And who knows, he very well might. "Breaking Bad" would seem to be hard-pressed to enjoy a lengthy run, but series creator Vince Gilligan and his crew have done a remarkable job in compressing events, so much so that you begin to lose track of how long Walt has left.
Until then, there's a message here that resonates dramatically as well as more pragmatically for an audience with plenty of options: Time is precious, so live for today -- or at least, today's episode. It's a mildly unsettling mentality, to be sure, but thus far "Bad's" mercurial formula adds up to one really good trip.