Please pardon Judge Patrick Bromley while he shaves his head.
Our reviews of Breaking Bad: The Complete First Season (published February 16th, 2009), Breaking Bad: The Complete First Season (Blu-Ray) (published March 17th, 2010), Breaking Bad: The Complete Second Season (published March 24th, 2010), Breaking Bad: The Complete Second Season (Blu-Ray) (published March 8th, 2010), and Breaking Bad: The Complete Third Season (published June 7th, 2011) are also available.
The end justifies the extreme.
One of the best TV shows the medium has ever produced has what might just be its best season yet.
Facts of the Case
Possible spoilers for the first three seasons of Breaking Bad ahead:
As Season Four begins, chemistry teacher-turned-meth kingpin Walter White (Bryan Cranston, Larry Crowne) and his assistant, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul, The Last House on the Left) are being held hostage for a murder they committed as leverage against Gus (Giancarlo Esposito, Do the Right Thing), the chicken restaurant owner and drug lord who is forcing Walt and Jesse to cook for him. It's not the last tight spot Walt and Jesse will find themselves in this season. This is the season Walter and Gus go to war. The season that Walter's wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn, Deadwood), gets in deeper with Walter's business and finds herself running into IRS trouble thanks to her boss, Ted. The season in which Jesse finds a new mentor in Gus's hatchet man Mike (Jonathan Banks, Beverly Hills Cop). The season in which Walter's brother-in-law, the now paraplegic Hank (Dean Norris, Lethal Weapon 2), begins to find his way back to police work.
This is the season of "Face Off," an episode of television unlike any you've ever seen.
Breaking Bad: The Complete Fourth Season (Blu-ray) gives us all 13 episodes on three discs…
• "Box Cutter"
By now, you've probably heard that AMC's Breaking Bad is one of the best shows on television. It is. Some might say it's one of the best shows ever to appear on TV. It might be. Still others would argue it's the definitive best series in television history, even besting out HBO's The Wire for the top spot. I might not go that far, but I will say Breaking Bad is truly outstanding television—a show any serious fan of the medium should be watching.
Season Four may be the best Breaking Bad has produced, though it may not seem that way at first. Showrunner Vince Gilligan, taking a page from The Sopranos, has constructed this season as a real slow burn—viewers who get antsy and complain about "nothing happening" in the first six or seven episodes will be richly rewarded in the back half. All of the groundwork has been laid, the tension mounts (by the time we get to "Crawl Space," one of the best episodes the show has ever produced, it's almost unbearable), and things start to pay off in ways no one could have imagined.
And yet there's a dark but inescapable logic to the universe of Breaking Bad that makes us re-examine all of the show's many surprises. When you think about them, they're not really surprises after all. Things unfold exactly as they must, according to the nature of these characters. That makes the show unpredictable, but always playing fair. We should be able to predict all of its hard left turns, and yet we cannot. Perhaps that's because our minds don't work the way these characters' minds work. If they did, we would all be Walter White (yes, I'm aware all of the episodes are written by writers who are not Walter White, but let's overlook that fact so the point can stand). Not only does Season Four unfold in shocking and sometimes horrible ways, but there is an inevitability to the events that hits like a punch in the stomach. A character like Walter's wife Skyler can make small compromises that lead to large ones, without ever realizing the path she's on. Before she knows it, she's right down in the muck with everyone else.
Breaking Bad has always been about the decay of the soul, and Season Four takes several of its characters to darker places than ever before. Bryan Cranston's Walter White, in particular, remains the single best antihero since Tony Soprano; in many ways, Walter is an even darker character than Tony. At least Tony Soprano had a kind of morality to him. Sure, he engaged in murder, crime, and terrible acts of violence, but for the most part he behaved according to a code. Walter, on the other hand, is willing to do just about anything to anyone. And while he once was able to justify his actions by rationalizing that he was simply looking to take care of his family's future, those justifications have slowly eroded away. A decent man can only do so many bad things before he's just a bad guy, and Walter White has long since crossed that line. In his war with Gus—which somehow manages to reinvigorate a show that hadn't even gone stale—it becomes obvious Walter isn't interested in preparing for his family's future. He just wants to control things. He wants to WIN.
Not only is Breaking Bad a truly great show, but Sony has seen fit to give it a truly great HD release. All 13 episodes are presented in full 1.78:1/1080p high definition, and though it looks very good, the transfer is not without some issues. Detail, for one, is uneven throughout, with a kind of smeary softness that creeps in from time to time. It also suffers from some obvious banding and edge enhancement. The series looked flawless when it aired on AMC, so why the image has been tampered with for its Blu-ray release remains a mystery. Much better is the lossless DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track, which expertly recreates the dialogue and provides incredible surround dimensionality in all channels. This is a highly cinematic show, and the audio presentation reflects that, even if the video doesn't consistently do the same.
Where Breaking Bad: The Complete Fourth Season (Blu-ray) really shines is in the special features department. Every one of these 13 episodes gets a commentary track from a rotating lineup of cast and crew, including everyone from series creator Vince Gilligan to stars Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, and Betsy Brandt; guest director David Slade (Hard Candy); writers, producers, composers, cinematographers, and more. So many aspects of the show are discussed, from the general to the incredibly specific, that fans will come away with a good idea of just what goes into making the show and why it works as well as it does. A number of deleted scenes are offered, as are some extended and alternate versions of scenes that managed to make the final cut. Each disc in the set also contains featurettes, several of which cover similar territory discussed in the commentaries. So if you don't have time to work your way through 13 hours of commentary tracks, the featurettes offer a more manageable alternative. There are three "Inside Breaking Bad" collections, each of which are made up of interviews, behind-the-scenes pieces and episode recaps. On the third disc are the more in-depth featurettes: "The Sets of Breaking Bad," "The Real Family of Breaking Bad," "The White House," "Great Chemistry," "The Science of a Hit Show," "Inside the Explosive Finale," "Color Me Bad," "The Invisible Driver" and "Superlab Tour." We also get a gag reel, the "Better Call Saul" commercials starring Bob Odenkirk, and 13 video podcasts, one for each episode. The podcasts are exclusive to the Blu-ray set, but most of their content is covered elsewhere in the special features.
I have a hard time definitively declaring Breaking Bad to be the best show on TV, as that title could just as easily belong to Mad Men or Game of Thrones, depending on what kind of season each show is having. But it doesn't even matter. The fact that this series is part of that conversation proves it's pretty spectacular—one of the best acted, best written, best directed series of the last 30 years. Season Four's addition of a truly worthy adversary for Walter White gives Breaking Bad some of the best material it's ever had.
Brilliant. A great season. A great Blu-ray. A great show.
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Scales of Justice
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