It's been more than a year since the nail-biting season three finale of "Breaking Bad" aired on AMC, but fans quickly will find themselves completed sucked back into the dark world of Walter White as the series returns, artistic guns blazing, on Sunday, July 17.
To recap briefly, last season ended with Walt (triple Emmy winner Bryan Cranston), a high-school chemistry teacher who started making crystal meth to provide for his family, in the most desperate situation of his life. His ruthless drug lord boss, Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), was seething because Walt had taken a dire step to rescue his partner and protege, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), so Gus ordered his fixer, Mike (Jonathan Banks), to take Walt out and, well, take him out.
Moments away from what seemed like certain death, Walt phoned Jesse and, using coded language, dispatched him to murder Gale Boetticher (David Costabile), the mild-mannered chemist Gus had hired to take over the operation after Walt's death. The episode ended with Gale opening his front door to find Jesse pointing a gun at him and then firing.
What happens in the moments leading up to and immediately following that confrontation are fully revealed in the opening of season four, moments that mark a radical turning point in Jesse's life, says Paul, who won an Emmy as best supporting actor for his work in season three.
"Jesse is very emotional right now, to say the least," the actor says. "Last season built to the moment when Jesse made up his mind he was going to go up to Gale's door -- possibly the nicest guy on 'Breaking Bad' -- and pull the trigger, which would make him a full-blown murderer. The desperate choice he makes just causes him to shut down completely, emotionally, and he turns to any distraction to try to get his mind elsewhere other than inside his own head. So he turns to self-destruction and chaos. He's terrified to be alone, because he knows that the second he is alone with his inner demons, that's all he is going to be able to think about."
"I don't want to spoil what you find out that happened (after last season ended), but you could say that Jesse is suffering from some sort of post-traumatic stress disorder, and PTSD takes on a multitude of forms and can affect its sufferers in a multitude of fashions," says series creator and executive producer Vince Gilligan. "That's what has happened to Jesse, because he just isn't cut out for what happened at the end of last season, and it has affected him deeply but in ways that are not what you may expect."
The cornerstone of the season premiere -- which is titled "Box Cutter," and if you know anything about "Breaking Bad," you realize that means things are going to end very badly for someone -- is an unbearably suspenseful scene in which Gus arrives at the meth lab where Walt and Jesse are being held captive. Gus never says a word, just silently and methodically goes through a ritual of changing clothes, apparently preparing to murder Jesse and Walt himself. Meanwhile, Walt, his control slipping, babbles away trying to deflect Gus from his lethal mission.
"Filming that scene was nerve-racking," Cranston says. "But you get into the head of that, the sensibility of what is happening here. The person with the power, the person in control, doesn't have to speak. The person who has no control is tap-dancing -- and Walt is tap-dancing as fast as he can. It was fun for me to play and just a delight to work with those actors. Giancarlo is a terrific actor, such a different person from his character on the show. He's a loving, spiritual, embracing kind of man, but when he plays Gus and has to turn it on, his eyes go dead, and he just gets frightening. It's really fun to watch."
Yet if Walt seems scarcely able to keep it together in the face of his apparently imminent demise, the character continues his transformation this season, part of Gilligan's perverse artistic vision of taking Mr. Chips and turning him into Scarface.
"At the beginning of this season, Walt is fully aware that he is living on borrowed time," Cranston explains. "Last season was really about him educating himself about how to be a criminal in order to stay alive. He has come to embrace the new reality of who he is, which is really more Heisenberg (the name Walt gives to his criminal alter ego) than Walter White. Perhaps Walter White is nearly dead to him by now, any recognition of the teacher, the man who was depressed and living in boredom.
"There definitely is no boredom in Walter White's life now. Abject terror, yes, but no boredom. I wonder in some ways if he isn't excited about this new life of his. He knows he's alive now, no longer just putting one foot in front of the other and getting through life. Even though he has to be anonymous in his actions here, he's not invisible, and that's an important part of a person's life. They want and need recognition. I get that. It's a highly important aspect of who he is."
And Walt's relationship with Jesse will turn out to be the major theme of season four, Gilligan hints.
"Off the top of my head, I would have to say that perhaps season four is about the student becoming the teacher," he says. "I want to be a little coy here, because I don't want to get too deep into it and give away too much fun stuff we have coming up. But Jesse's relationship with Mr. White, his mentor, will be tested in a way this season that it never has been tested before. Jesse always has kind of been the son to Walt's father figure and this season that dynamic will be tested -- and it may potentially change."
AMC's 'Breaking Bad' comes blazing back after extended hiatus
Bryan Cranston (left) and Aaron Paul star in "Breaking Bad," returning for its fourth season Sunday on AMC.