Watch This: Breaking Bad

Bryan Cranston | Image by AMC

The Emmy, the conventional wisdom went, was Jon Hamm's to lose, given the near-hysterical buzz his



Mad Men

generated in 2008. But it wasn't his name inside that envelope for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series last September, and even when the tall, cueball-bald winner took the stage, there was a lot of, "Who? Bryan Cranston? The

Malcolm in the Middle


Breaking Bad

?" At least there was where we watched the Emmys.

Yes, the goofy dad from

Malcolm in the Middle

won, and he deserved it, too, as we determined once we caught up with the first season of AMC's other burgeoning marquee series. Now in the seventh week of its second season,

has proven itself one of the best-acted and best-written shows on television right now. Perhaps a series that knows it will likely burn half as long burns twice as bright.

See, Cranston's character, Walt White, is dying of cancer, diagnosed before the pilot episode even settled in. Unlike most of the "middle-class" characters you see on TV, Walt is truly middle income, a barely breaking-even high-school chemistry teacher in Albuquerque who drives a faded Aztec and probably hasn't bought new clothes in a while; he certainly hasn't socked away enough savings to support his stay-at-home-mom wife Skyler (



's Anna Gunn), teenage son Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte), and the surprise daughter pushing-40 Skyler's been carrying for months. So he does what any sensible desperate man does: He reconnects with knucklehead former student Jesse (Aaron Paul) and starts cooking meth to fund a nest egg. As soon becomes apparent, the volatile chemistry of manufacturing meth and the volatile nature of the men who deal it (most memorably a murderous thug named Tuco, played with vein-popping intensity by Raymond Cruz) might give cancer a run for its money—if his steakhead DEA agent brother-in-law Hank (a scene-stealing Dean Norris) doesn't find him out first.

It sounds outlandish, and it is. In fact, each episode starts with some unbelievable, ominous image—milquetoast Walt bleeding and bald as he shoulders his way through a crowd of Mexican toughs, say, or a charred stuffed animal floating in a swimming pool—that series creator Vince Gilligan and his team then spend the next hour moving the story inexorably toward, never betraying the situation or the characters en route. The ongoing cable-series artistic revolution led by

The Sopranos


6 Feet Under

, et al. is defined by good writing, but that usually means vivid characters and epic novelistic story arcs, not necessarily the kind of tight plotting that drives each episode of

Breaking Bad

. The Season 1 episode in which Walt must wrestle with what to do with the vengeful meth dealer he and Jesse have trapped in the latter's basement teeters not only on Walt's moral and spinal qualms, but on the kind of mano-a-mano cat-and-mouse that would do any thriller writer proud. Season 2 already has several nerve-destroying sequences under its belt, including the recent episode in which Jesse attempts to get money and drugs back from a skuzzy tweaker couple and, once inside their Dante-esque lair, finds the tables turned.

The gimbal on which the whole thing pivots and pitches and ultimately maintains its balance is Cranston. His Walt presents a vivid portrayal of an extraordinary everyman: a brilliant mind and a decent soul just insecure and bottled up enough to settle for an undemanding job and a struggling life; practical enough and desperate enough to step outside the law big time, but moral enough that the consequences of his actions gnaw at him, especially when they quickly turn murderous. (

Breaking Bad

might be the most gruesome show on television, other than maybe


. Think about that for a minute.) As Season 2 has proceeded, Walt has found himself getting in deeper and deeper—forced to behave more and more as an active criminal, not a detached chemist, and forced to deceive and alienate himself more and more from the family he's trying to save (he and Skyler are barely speaking). And Cranston does miraculous work on screen, letting the erosion of Walt's situation, and his soul, etch itself on his face; when Skyler buys a particular falsehood, the subtle flicker of dawning triumph that flits across his stoic features is both delicious and horrifying.

To its enormous credit, the series has begun to give the other characters room to expand. Gilligan and company have begun to limn the dilemma Jesse faces in wanting to get out of his increasingly fraught criminal life but finding himself unable to do so since he's never focused on anything else (i.e., school, straight jobs for his resume, skills besides cooking meth and rapping badly). In his own way, Jesse is every bit as desperate as Walt, as he faces the end of his possibilities for a happy life even without a medical death sentence. Skyler is emerging from dupe/doormat mode as an antagonist for Walt just as formidable as Tuco. Even comic relief Hank is starting to face serious consequences and sleepless nights, only deepening the series' fateful pull.

As the second season passes its halfway point, Walt's done with chemo and faces some nominal hope that he's been saved. Don't believe it for a second. Snag the first season on DVD and, if you can, start catching up on Season 2 On Demand—this series, even among long-arc cable dramas, really rewards starting at the beginning—because part of

Breaking Bad

's irresistible lure is that there's absolutely no way this can end well.

New episodes of Breaking Bad debut Sundays at 10 p.m. on AMC with rebroadcasts during the week.