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AMC's Breaking Bad makes another brilliant strike

Breaking Bad kingpins Aaron Paul and Bryan Cranston. AMC photo

Taut, chilling and measuredly paced for maximum impact, AMC's Breaking Bad very much returns to the living after the stirring Season 4-ending death of drug capo Gustavo "Gus" Fring.

He still had half a face left before picturesquely falling to his final horizontal position. And the Sunday, July 15th Season 5 season premiere (9 p.m. central) finds Gus's killer feeling his oats as Albuquerque's new lord of all he surveys.

New vistas in darkness beckon cancer-ridden, chemistry teacher turned meth cooker Walter White (Bryan Cranston). It looks as though he'll be enjoying the ride while wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) grapples with the demon he's becoming.

"It's over. We're safe," he has told her. So why does she still look so vexed?

"I am relieved, Walt," she tells him. "And scared."

"Scared of what?"


And there's the crux at the outset of a two-pronged final season that will run for eight episodes this summer and eight more the next.

Cranston and co-star Aaron Paul, who plays his shaky protege, Jesse Pinkman, have both deservedly won acting Emmys for making Breaking Bad a gritty, violent polar opposite of AMC's Mad Men. Both would now surely agree that veteran character actor Jonathan Banks, as Gus's former lieutenant, Mike Ehrmantraut, is more than ready for Emmy gold -- or whatever they're made of these days.

AMC sent the new season's first two episodes for review, and Banks flat-out commands the second one. He's never had a role of this caliber, and at last is emerging as Breaking Bad's unsung hero. Will he throw in with Walt and Jesse in their plans to build a new drug empire? Of what is he capable in the act of self-preservation?

Sample exchange: "You are a time bomb, tick tick ticking," Mike tells Walter. "And I have no intention of being around for the boom."

"Well, sleep on it," says his undeterred recruiter. "Maybe you'll reconsider."

Whatever awaits him, Mike is in full bloom this season. And creator/executive producer/writer/director Vince Gilligan deserves full credit for putting Banks in harness and letting him run for the roses. This guy can act.

First there's some other unfinished business. Episode 1 of Season 5 focuses on removing any remaining incriminating evidence after Gus's death and the destruction of the camouflaged drug lab where Walter and Jesse worked under duress as brewmeisters. A bizarre but ingenious mop-up plan is aimed at disarming Gus's impounded and heavily protected computer. Once again, Breaking Bad soars to the challenge of coming up with story ideas that elude mere mortals.

It's not at all easy to keep improving on a series that's been daringly different since Episode 1 of Season 1. But Gilligan and company keep on pushing Breaking Bad to new highs.

"There's no denying the popularity of our product," Walter says with the assurance of an increasingly bad ass junk dealer with a market to satisfy. As Season 5 unfolds, hitting new lows is now just the cost of doing business.