*Warning – contains spoilers*
Breaking Bad's second season leaps so far above the bar it set for itself with the first seven episodes to such an extent that television audiences did not even have to wait a full year to watch a show in the same league as The Wire after David Simon's masterpiece went off the air. Clearly the series struck a nerve, as the opening moments of the season premiere, itself actually a flashback of the final moments of the previous finale, looks crisper despite being recycled footage. AMC rolled out the high quality film stock for its critical smash, and the visual upgrade serves as an immediate symbol of the extreme boost in the quality of the show's writing, placing the series into the pantheon of great shows with only 20 total episodes to its name.
The first season ended with Walt and Jesse having solved their distribution problems by hitching their wagon -- or RV -- to drug dealer Tuco. The partnership immediately created a new issue, however, in that Tuco's insanity made them expendable at a moment's notice, likely for no reason at all. Indeed, the final act of the last season, and the first part of this one, showed Tuco beating one of his crew to death with his bare hands simply for talking tough to the amateur meth producers on his boss' behalf. After the ordeal with Krazy 8, Jesse and Walt were understandably wary of getting in over their heads, but they clearly entered a whole other realm of danger with Tuco.
Sure enough, the crazed dealer rounds up his new suppliers by the end of the first episode, convinced that the increased DEA pressure on him is less a result of his horrific, hyperviolent management of his territory and instead the product of someone in his crew being an informant. Walt, increasingly withdrawn from the family he's attempting to care for with his new trade, botches several opportunities to reconnect with his pregnant wife due to his paranoia, only for his fears to be founded when Tuco shows up to kidnap him just as Skyler nearly sets an ultimatum for Walt to spend more time with the family.
That increasing strain between Walt and Skyler forms one half of the larger arc of the character development. By this point, Walt has told too many lies to keep track of, and he must continue to spin fabrications as he dedicates himself even further to meth production to cover the costs of a surgery that will run his family nearly $200,000 and to satisfy the demands of his "customers." Where he could once get away with a few lines about "needing to get away," now Walt has to explain his days-long absence by stripping naked in a store and pretending that he blacked out for several days. Even worse, he uses the excuse of visiting his mother in a rest home to tell her about his disease in order to spend the weekend cooking up a massive amount of crystal meth.
This marks a shift in Walt's personality from a man uncomfortable with deceiving his family even as he did what he did to help them to someone who can lie with ease and base his mendacity in horrible personal areas that will cause unbearable pain if and when someone finally pulls a thread and unravels his falsehoods. Reflecting this change in his personal life, Walt's attitude toward the drug trade takes a much darker turn. His chemical ingenuity saved his and Jesse's lives more than once in the first season, but these were last-resort methods of self-preservation. But when Walt stands over a gut-shot Tuco after he and Jesse manage to overpower the dealer and escape his desert hideaway, we can see that this is not the same man who reluctantly killed Krazy 8 despite knowing that the first distributor was going to kill him. That Walt even apologized to his attacker as he choked the life out of the dealer, but this bald, hardened man looks down on Tuco and decides to let him bleed to death in agony rather than put a bullet in his head for instant gratification.
Over the course of the season, Walt increasingly identifies with his alter-ego "Heisenberg," the sobriquet he chose for his business dealings that becomes a hushed whisper among the drug community. Hoping to avoid yet another incident with a dealer, Walt finally decides to distribute his stuff himself, using several of Jesse's friends as street-level dealers. He speaks knowledgeably about infrastructure and the need for foot soldiers and enforcers as if he'd been in the game all his life, and even forces Jesse to handle two thieves who rob one of their dealers lest word get out that Heisenberg's crew are easy marks. By the end of the season, he's viciously warning wannabes to "stay out of [his] territory" and going to incredible lengths to stop a blackmailer from pushing him around. He even hires a lawyer, Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk, who gives maybe the greatest performance of a sleazy attorney ever seen), to take care of busted dealers and find a way to launder his cash.
Bryan Cranston more than earned his Emmy for his work in the first season, capturing the stress of Walt's condition and forcing the audience to consider what might drive anyone -- not just an innocent (and white) high school teacher -- to get into the drug trade. What he proves in the second season, however, is that a show doesn't need a likable protagonist to be captivating. Walt may not be a psychotic on Tuco's level, nor a calculating killer like Krazy 8, but the game is changing him, making him more ruthless. Consider how he reacts to the incredible news of the chemotherapy's success, driving him to flashes of anger and a need to repair the whole house to vent his frustrations with normalcy. Even Skyler, so desperate to help her husband through his ordeal despite being in the advanced stage of her pregnancy, begins to pull apart from him in disgust. Cranston handles this shift without breaking a sweat: where neurotic bemusement and outright fear creased his face, now his shaved head furrows in choked rage: rage at Jesse for his constant screw-ups, at rivals for infringing on his profit, even at his family, who continue to ask questions of his behavior that he grows tired of excusing. Only rarely does he betray humanity, such as seeing his son make a web site about his dad's struggle that praises Walt to the entire world, or arriving to see his newborn daughter after missing the birth due to a drug exchange.
At all times, Cranston and the rest of the cast are backed by the writing. "Down," the single best episode of the show's first two seasons, plunges both Walt and Jesse into personal crises. Jesse's parents, aware of the DEA breathing down his neck after the Tuco incident, finally crack down on their son, and the cardboard painting of a future that Jesse made for himself gets torn apart when he suddenly finds himself homeless. Meanwhile, Walt has the chance to at least partially explain himself to Skyler and ultimately chooses, perhaps permanently, to place his new occupation above his own family. It is one of the most heartbreaking episodes of television I have ever seen.
Elsewhere, however, the same comedy that made so much of the first season a riot comes back into play, particularly the scenario in which Jesse accidentally drains the battery of the RV out in the middle of nowhere and subsequently puts out a minor gas fire in the backup generator by pouring his and Walt's entire water supply onto the machine, shorting it out. Even Walt's slow breakdown into a monster contains elements of dark comedy, seen most visibly in the celebratory party Skyler throws when they get a favorable diagnosis, a party Walt ruins by making his son drink until he pukes and starting a fight with Hank. And who can forget the mad image of a cartel snitch (Danny Trejo!) named Tortuga -- Spanish for "turtle" -- beheaded and placed onto a tortoise with the words "Hola DEA" painted on its shell?
That mix of comedy and horror is but one small facet of Breaking Bad's vise grip on emotion. Even when the show moves quickly, it takes its time to subtly build and break down characters: when Jesse pulls some of his affairs together and gets an apartment, he befriends the young landlady, Jane (Krysten Ritter), a tattoo artist who runs the apartment for her dad. They enter into a relationship, and Jane's status as a recovering addict, combined with Jesse's wake-up call, creates the hope that the young man might finally straighten himself out. When the Mexican cartels begin to push on "Heisenberg," however, the pressure leads Jesse to old comforts, and he and Jane enter into a frightening spiral that hooks Jesse on even more dangerous poison. If Walt is slowly being undone by Skyler's growing distrust of him, Jesse suffers even more by finding someone to care for; it seems as if no one can win in their line of work.
Even the direction adjusts to this nightmarish turn of events. With Jesse and Walt involving themselves more personally in the business, the various directors take us into a dark underworld only briefly glimpsed in the first seven episodes. When Walt dispatches Jesse to deal with those meth thieves, the partner stumbles into a cracked-funhouse-mirror vision of a home, littered with various pilfered goods and uncleaned food remnants, with a malnourished child who barely has the strength to turn on a television as his parents, covered in festering sores, spend their days robbing and shooting up. Jesse inadvertently walks away from the situation with some credibility, but he looks as shaken by the end result of his addictions as we are, and the world of Breaking Bad slowly comes to resemble the hell that Walt makes for himself across the season's 13 episodes.
The most crystalline moment of this downward trajectory, however, involves the random intersection of two characters who don't understand how close they really are. Jane's father, aware that she is using again, happens to sit across a bar from Walt, and the two strike up a conversation. As both can only think of the addicts close to them, each speaks vaguely of the frustrations of watching young ones destroy themselves for nothing, and they share a moment of understanding despite not knowing who the other really is. Afterward, Walt commits his most heinous act yet -- without even lifting a finger -- and Jane's father will himself be responsible for an action that could be marked as a jumping the shark moment if it wasn't hauntingly teased all season and ultimately such a perfect metaphor for the cataclysmic place in which Walt has found himself by the end. I came away from the second season not knowing if he could possibly redeem himself, yet the true beauty of the series is that such a big question is among the least of my worries for these characters as they move forward into an apocalyptic situation.