It all began when Walter White, a nebbishy high school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque, N.M., learned he had terminal cancer, then hit on a way to make fast money to leave his family when he was gone: cook and sell crystal methamphetamine.
That was the stepping-off point for "Breaking Bad," one of TV's most unlikely drama masterpieces, which resumes its unlikely tale as its third season starts Sunday on AMC (10 p.m. EDT).
The Peabody Award-winning series stars Bryan Cranston
as Walt, whose medical condition at this point seems stabilized. He has stashed away bundles of cash from his crystal meth sales. But he has also rocked his family with his deviant behavior and put himself in the cross hairs of a drug cartel that wants him dead.
Meanwhile, Jesse Pink
man, his troublesome partner, is grieving. A former washout from Walt's chemistry class who helped him gain entry to the world of pushing drugs (while using plenty of drugs himself), Jesse is in rehab now. He is mourning the death of Jane, his first true love, from the heroin overdose he blames himself for.
He is also mourning his imagined role in a midair collision of two jetliners over Albuquerque at the end of last season.
"You either run from things or you face them, Mr. White," says Jesse, racked by guilt from the chain of events he perceives. "I accept who I am."
"And who are you?" Walt asks him warily.
"I'm the bad guy," Jesse says.
Well, nothing is that simple on "Breaking Bad," or that straightforward. Jesse starts the new season with a righteous claim that he's "done using," and, by all indications, he's done partnering with Walt.
But there's more to be done.
"This is such a show about change," says Aaron Paul
, who plays Jesse. "The characters start one way and morph into something completely different."
As evidence, you need only contrast Jesse's junkie stage with now.
Now Jesse is clean, in despair and at loose ends, reduced to phoning Jane's answering machine over and over, just to hear her saucy greeting.
How long can he fight the temptation of renewed self-destruction?
And can Walt — transformed from a nerdy schoolteacher to a self-styled drug czar known as Heisenberg — convince himself that he has the money he needs for his family and can walk away from the business?
No point trying to predict. "Breaking Bad" remains shocking, tragic and altogether unpredictable from the first images of the season opener.
It's also bitterly funny.
"You laugh at things you absolutely shouldn't be laughing at," notes Paul. Asked to name a favorite past scene, he recalls a sequence that involved a corpse in an acid bath collapsing through the bathroom floor in Jesse's parents' house to crash downstairs at the feet of Walt and Jesse.
Sickening. Hilarious. And another case of Jesse messing up big-time. (He should have listened to Walt, the chemist, who clearly said to melt the body in a plastic bin acid couldn't destroy, not the acid-susceptible bathtub.)
"He's just this kid struggling to find his way," says Paul, trying to summon some sympathy, "barely keeping his head above the water."
Maybe, maybe not. But it's a testament to Paul's portrayal that viewers do find Jesse sympathetic in his weak-willed, dangerous fashion.
The part seems to fit Paul like a glove — at least, until you catch him on "Big Love," the HBO drama series about a polygamous family where he plays the straight-arrow newlywed of Amanda Seyfried
's character. He is almost unrecognizable from one show to the other.
The 30-year-old actor grew up in Boise, Idaho, the son of a Baptist minister. Experience in school plays hooked him on acting. After graduating from high school a year early, he set off at 17 for Hollywood with his parents' blessing.
"Typical story," he says. "Pack the car full of stuff, but anytime it rained, my trunk would fill up with water. And the 3rd and 5th gears wouldn't work."
But he found work. He landed guest roles on TV series. In features, he played Jeff Bridges
' estranged son in "K-PAX" and Tom Cruise
's brother-in-law in "Mission Impossible III." Then, after "Big Love," came the lucky break called "Breaking Bad."
He remembers first reading the pilot script, which he sized up as brilliant while concluding it was so bizarre and groundbreaking, "there is no way this is going to be picked up. But I decided to just go for it anyway."
Now it transports him for months of shooting in the Albuquerque region, captured stunningly on camera.
"There are so many parts that are desolate and lonely, but beautiful in their own way," Paul marvels, "and I think that's where these characters are at. They're very lonely. But they're beautiful characters trying to work through their battles."
And "Breaking Bad," so beautifully deranged, can be counted on to keep them embattled.