For those onboard since the beginning, "Breaking Bad's" final batch of episodes seems destined to produce nothing less than a frenzy, a testament, in part, to how bracingly unpredictable Vince Gilligan's creation has been. And while the first of these remaining hours does little to suggest whether the wrap-up will ultimately prove worthy of the journey, it's breathtaking stuff, providing tour-de-force moments for the key characters. Continuing to tease the outcome with out-of-context glimpses of future events, there's no telling where "Bad" will wind up. But if this first hit is any indication, the audience is in very good hands.

Without giving anything away (other than SPOILERS if you're not caught up on all the previous episodes), teacher-turned-meth-cooker Walter White (Bryan Cranston, who also directed the latest episode) has a new problem: His DEA agent brother-in-law, Hank (Dean Norris), experienced an epiphany regarding Walt and his nefarious alter ego, the mysterious Heisenberg.

As for Jesse (Aaron Paul), he's still dealing with emotional fallout from some of the collateral damage their endeavors have produced, exhibiting far deeper pangs of conscience than Walt, his literal partner in crime.

Indeed, to the show's credit, the Jesse arc might be every bit as fascinating as Walt's is -- or, for that matter, Hank's appears destined to be. And while Gilligan and company have occasionally taken their time to meander on oddities, betraying the showrunner's quirky sensibilities, this tautly paced episode suggests it's going to be more of a sprint toward the finish line, with barely an ounce of fat on it.

"Breaking Bad" has been showered with praise from critics -- including a detailed essay from New York Times film critic A.O. Scott, taking a break from summer blockbusters -- and individual Emmys for Cranston and Paul. But until the prospect of an ending put the program in focus, a larger appreciation of what the show represents might have been clouded, in part, by AMC's ostentatious success with "Mad Men," including that show's four consecutive Emmy wins.

So it's worth repeating that this series has set a seldom-rivaled standard for serialized storytelling -- specifically, writing itself into what seem like inescapable corners, only to find ingenious resolutions; and by charting the slow-motion descent of its protagonist, gradually crossing one moral threshold after another.

In my initial review back in 2008, I expressed admiration for the manner in which the show "consistently keeps the audience off balance, oscillating between life-or-death scenarios and dark comedy," but added this disclaimer: "As polished as 'Breaking Bad' is, in terms of long-term potential (or however long Walt has), it's the sort of front-loaded affair that invites skepticism as to whether the idiosyncratic tone can be maintained."

Five years later, those misgivings have been eradicated, and Gilligan has made good on the conceit he described, in cinematic terms as, "You take Mr. Chips and turn him into Scarface."

Both of those characters died, of course -- one in bed, the other in a hail of bullets. But wherever and however Walt ultimately meets his maker, it's going to be awfully hard to say goodbye to our little friend.


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