By Ken Tucker
May 18, 2009 at 05:16 PM EDT

Last night it was possible to watch two extraordinary performances about people with cancer that left you feeling exhilarated.

First, in week six of HBO’s In Treatment, Gabriel Byrne’s patient April, played with exquisitely modulated emotions by Alison Pill, is becoming more angry and yet more resourceful as her illness progresses. Now April feels betrayed by Byrne’s Dr. Paul Weston for calling her mother (for whom she has mixed feelings: rage and contempt) when April was admitted to a hospital. April’s keeping her illness a secret from her mother as much as possible, but in the process, she’s turned Paul’s therapy-session office into her only haven. Her heartbreaking words to him at the end of this session, as she gathered her chemo-weakened limbs on his sofa? “Can you help me up?”

After that, on AMC’s Breaking Bad, Bryan Cranston continues to collaborate with show creator Vince Gilligan in creating a portrait of the cancer victim as a metaphor for severe middle-age crisis. Having been told recently that his cancer is in remission, Cranston’s Walt found the news leaves him suddenly without purpose: He’d gotten used to getting-ready-to-die as his reason to live. This week, the news that his doctors want to try an expensive surgery to shrink a tumor sent him into a frenzied attempt to sell the 38 pounds of meth.  He’s neglecting his family again, which only makes things worse for his marriage. And Bad has been amazingly good this season about filling in the emotional life of Walt’s wife Skyler, with Anna Gunn fine-crafting every worry, doubt, and guilty feeling of betrayal her character is experiencing. (And how about Skyler’s subplot at the office? Between her Marilyn Monroe birthday-party impersonation, and calling her boss on possible embezzlement, this role has become a rich one indeed for Gunn.)

Plus, another terrific appearance by Bob Odenkirk as shady Saul the lawyer.

A grim night of television? No: a great one.

Did you watch either of these shows? Both? What do you think?