(Note: This column contains mild spoilers for the upcoming season of "Breaking Bad." If you don't want to know anything at all, don't read.)
Through four seasons of "Breaking Bad," Walter White has been many things: Teacher. Husband. Father. Cancer patient. Meth cook. Aspiring drug lord. Frustrated employee. Mentor. Killer.
Most of all, though, he's been an escape artist.
Time and time again, Vince Gilligan and the rest of the "Breaking Bad" writers have placed Walt in one trap after another where the only apparent outcomes have been death or prison. And time and time again, Walt has found a way out of the trap — sometimes through his skills as a world-class chemist, sometimes just through sheer force of will.
These threats to Walt's life and freedom have been relentless, and they've only increased over time, peaking last season as he engaged in a battle of wits with his ruthless, calculating boss Gus Fring. That season concluded as it had to — and yet more memorably than anyone could have expected — with Walt figuring out how to kill Gus with a bomb in a nursing home.
When Walt's wife Skyler — whose horror towards her husband has only grown the more she's learned about his second life as the drug dealer known as Heisenberg — asked him what had happened with Gus, Walt's answer was simple, and chilling:
So we enter the series' fifth and final season (eight episodes will begin airing Sunday at 10 p.m. on AMC, and the remaining eight will air next summer) with Walt in an unusual circumstance: for the first time since he began cooking meth, no one is angling to kill him. And all of the major players in the local meth trade are now dead at either Walt's hand or Gus's. His cancer is in remission, he has no enemies that he's aware of, and as he looks out at the wide-open drug market, he says, "There is gold in the streets, just waiting for someone to come and scoop it up."
This is Walt flush with victory, and even more arrogant than ever. There are still hiccups, still problems to be solved and straightjackets to be escaped, but he no longer acts like a cornered animal. Instead, he sees himself as the undisputed master of all he surveys, whose victories will now seem inevitable rather than improbable.
When a colleague asks Walt why he should believe a plan of theirs has succeeded, Walt replies smugly, "Because I say so?"
This is fascinating new terrain for "Breaking Bad" and its Emmy-winning star Bryan Cranston to explore. The series has carefully, brilliantly chronicled Walt's descent from unassuming teacher to the murderous Heisenberg. And though Walt's behavior has crossed one moral line after another over the years — last season, part of his plot to kill Gus involved poisoning a little boy (non-fatally, but just barely) to regain the loyalty of his partner Jesse — there's always been someone in his path who was even worse, relatively speaking.
I don't expect Walt to stay unopposed for the remaining 16 hours of the series. Sooner or later, he'll run into trouble with Jesse, or with Gus's former henchman Mike, or Walt's DEA agent brother-in-law Hank. In the early going, though, there is no one to match the great and terrible Heisenberg.
In the battle of the little monster versus the big monster, you tend to root for the little monster. But what happens when there's only one monster left, and he's the guy you've been rooting for all this time?
Cranston embraces the opportunity to play a Walt seemingly without limits, and the rest of the cast continues to rise to match him. As Jesse, fellow Emmy winner Aaron Paul also gets to play multiple roles — at various points, he's been Walt's student, partner, surrogate son and enemy — but ultimately, he's Mr. White's emotional victim, and Paul finds new depths of pain to put on display as Jesse ponders all that he's been through and done, always feeling things more deeply than Walt can. Skyler is more knowing of what Walt's become than Jesse, and Anna Gunn does some of her best work in the role to date in the season's early episodes.
And just as Gus only turned into the role of a lifetime for Giancarlo Esposito after plot logic forced Gilligan to bump off season 3's original villains ahead of schedule, Jonathan Banks gets added responsibility, and reward, as Mike has to adjust to a world where his omnipotent boss got half his face blown off by Walter freaking White. Banks' performance is so weary and lived-in that it barely even matters that Mike so often seems superhumanly competent.
Even with Walt's apparent victory over all who would seek to deny him, his genius and his strength, "Breaking Bad" is still a perfect model of filmed suspense. There are still moments where you may forget to breathe, like a "Sopranos"-esque scene in a diner where a character is very concerned about who's coming through the front door. And it's still a series that trusts its beautiful visuals to tell the story, like a trip to a foreign country where the subtitles are almost besides the point.
That international trip eventually leads us to the season's first major new character, Lydia, played by Scottish actress Laura Fraser. Without revealing too much about who she is and why she matters, I'll just say that she's the kind of character we haven't seen before on this show: a high-strung professional who's no doubt supremely confident in her own world, but whose nerves make her seem wildly unsuited to be anywhere near this business.
Walter White, on the other hand? He was born for this business, even if we couldn't see that when "Breaking Bad" began. Like many niche cable dramas, the show's reputation has only grown over time, which means new viewers initially sample it well after the fact. I've gotten to witness many friends and relatives catch up on episodes I first saw years ago. Inevitably there's a moment in their marathon viewing where each of them will email me to express dismay that this guy they empathized with so much at the start has turned out to be such a horrible human being, but that moment varies from person to person.
By the time this fifth season begins, though, there's no doubt we're watching a show about the bad guy, and one who's been absolutely corrupted by the absolute power that's close enough to taste.
The only questions that are left are about how long he'll be able to hold onto that power, how many people around him will suffer in the process, and how many of them will figure out what we've come to know about The One Who Knocks.