Breaking Bad, Aaron Paul, ...
Credit: Ben Leuner/AMC

These days, TV characters seem ?to break down into two categories: You’ve got your supercompetent types, both serious (all the CSI? franchise folks) and smart-alecky (The Mentalist; spy Michael Westen on Burn Notice); and you’ve got your damaged-goods types, from House‘s pill-popping narcissist-genius to the wild-child woman on Saving Grace to the meth-making, go-for-broke cancer-afflicted hero — um, make that ”hero” — of Breaking Bad.

I’m not saying one group is better entertainment than the other — I do like some Mentalist after a hard day’s work, and remain devoted to the crispy original CSI. But as far as the effed-up people go, Bryan Cranston’s Walt White is my man of the moment, and Breaking Bad‘s new second season is a doozy of dysfunction. Walt, you may recall, is a high school chemistry teacher using his powers for moral relativism: Yes, making crank and selling it is bad, but at least he’s using the profits to leave behind a nest egg for the family when he dies. ?And that’s good, in a twisted sort of way.

The twistedness, however, just keeps on coming. Having established in the first season that Walt, with his dumb-thug former student Jesse (the excellently stupefied Aaron Paul), will do anything, even kill, to make the money he needs for his family, the second season doesn’t bother with soul-searching or recapping. Series creator Vince Gilligan (The X-Files) starts off where season 1 ended, with Walt and Jesse cutting deals with the hopped-up, violent Tuco (Raymond Cruz, never over-the-top).

Meanwhile, Walt’s pregnant wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), is torn between sympathy for her husband and frustration over his erratic, secretive behavior. She’s also had it with her self-centered, kleptomaniac sister (Betsy Brandt). Gunn’s performance is artfully delicate, defined by all the clichés she avoids: never a shrew, never a doormat. And despite the ?series’ one corny coincidence — Walt’s brother-in-law just happens to be a DEA agent — Dean Norris’ Hank is much less of a macho joke this season, and more of a man under his ?own weighty pressures of work and family.

Ultimately, Bad is a superlatively fresh metaphor for a middle-age crisis: It took cancer and lawbreaking to jolt Walt out of his suburban stupor, to experience life again?to take chances, risk danger, do things he didn’t think himself capable of doing. None of this would work, of course, without Emmy winner Cranston’s ferocious, funny selflessness as an actor. For all its bleakness and darkness, there’s ?a glowing exhilaration about this series: It’s a feel-good show about feeling really bad. A

Episode Recaps

Breaking Bad

Walter White descends into the criminal underworld.

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