Do be aware, there are a few light spoilers below regarding certain characters and their fate this season!
Season 3 of Breaking Bad felt like two story-arcs coming together to form a cohesive whole. Season 4 by comparison is all about one consistent pressure pot of tension. With the central theme of rage and anger consuming every character, Breaking Bad manages to transcend beyond excellent TV into something timelessly epic on the small screen. From the tight writing and memorable characters to the constant juxtapositions and changing fortunes for both Walt and Jesse, Season 4 is a non-stop thrill ride and the perfect pay-off for last season’s slow burn.
The story picks up right where we left off from the previous season. Gale Boetticher is dead. Walt and Jesse’s life hangs in the balance and at the centre of all this lies the ice-cold Gus Fring. The first 10 minutes produce an outstanding tour-de-force of show don’t tell and from there, the season only grows more confident and tense. Walter and Jesse’s relationship sees its biggest test yet as Walter is sidelined in favour of Jesse working with Mike and Gus more closely. This changed fortune spills over into the main conflict as both characters essentially flip 180 degrees from their original characters we saw in the first season.
With the “will he/won’t he” threat of Gus killing Walter and Jesse at any moment, a lot of the sub-plots that have been kept at room temperature hit boiling point. Skyler shows her true colours and winds up working with Walter, showing her credentials as the excellent book-keeper she is. At the same time, Hank’s given a renewed lease of life, thanks in part to Walt’s jealousy, and relentlessly hunts down whom he believes is responsible for selling the blue meth. All of these stories entwine together for some of the best episodes of the show thus far, with a beautifully written climax that leaves the door wide open for the fifth and final season.
What’s particularly interesting with season 4 is the way it uses these themes and ideas of jealousy and anger to drive the story forward. It’s not only the driving force for our characters, it’s ultimately both their undoing and their triumph. Some of this is shown quite literally, with a couple of specifically framed shots of video-game Rage sitting on a bookshelf. Other times it’s a lot more subtle and well hidden, with Gus’ true vengeance-fueled mission revealed late on in the game.
This season could have so easily descended into a good VS evil conflict but what’s intriguing here are the many shades of grey painted over these episodes. There’s a whole episode dedicated to Gus Fring, complete with flashbacks and repeated scenes from his perspective, while another late on sees Jesse head down to Mexico with his new employers where you genuinely want everyone to come out of the conflict unscathed.
This changed vision extends to everyone this season and the transformative nature of how Breaking Bad breaks down these conventional ideas and builds them up into something new is quite simply staggering. Skyler is painted in a much more empathetic light this time around and in doing so, you understand why she’s been acting the way she has. Walter’s irrational and paranoia-induced behaviour makes him much closer to how Jesse was in season 1. Jesse meanwhile becomes a lot more mature and starts to assert his own dominance on the established order of things.
All of this would be for nothing if it wasn’t for the masterful acting from all involved. Walter goes through a whole range of emotions here and his panicked, paranoia-induced outbursts are beautifully portrayed by Bryan Cranston. While Aaron Paul is given a bit more range to work with, his real forte comes from playing a man out of his depth and thankfully there are a few moments that show this. For me though, the real master here is Giancarlo Esposito, who plays the cool and calm Gus Fring. Everything from his mannerisms to the cold and unpredictable stares make him a force to be reckoned with.
Stylistically the series is every bit as pretty and well-shot as it was before with those teasing foreshadowed glimpses showing up in certain episodes while the hard-cut endings leave you desperate for more. The music this year is great too and the moments with Gus late on using the appropriate “Goodbye by Apparat” (also the main theme in Netflix’s Dark) is such a fitting use of character work. All of this is poetically brought back to that recurring visual motif of the teddy bear in season 2. The missing eye, the half-burnt face and symbology of innocence destroyed in favour of something more twisted and sinister.
The way Breaking Bad manages to tie the past with the present is ultimately what makes it such a consistent and outstanding series. While the different seasons advance the plot and add new characters to the fold, it’s the way the show constantly changes our own perception and thoughts on these characters that make it such an enjoyable watch. The season finale is one of the best episodes so far and the way everything is brought together is nothing short of mastery.
Breaking Bad is one of the best shows broadcast on the small screen for a reason. Season 4 is a rage-fueled, thematically consistent and transcendent series that subverts expectations in the best possible way. It’s a must-watch series and one that sets a very high bar for the small screen.
Verdict - 10/10