Change is good, the saying goes, but for the characters in "Breaking Bad," change has been anything but good.
Over its 4 1/2 seasons, the Emmy-winning AMC drama has examined, among other things, the way two men can take the same route to very different places. Timid, cancer-stricken chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) transformed himself into a drug kingpin and cold-blooded killer. His partner and former student, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), was a cocky addict with a "bitch" catchphrase. Now, conscience-stricken, he tortures himself over the murder of a 12-year-old on a dirt bike and others.
"The past is the past. Nothing can change what we've done," Walter tells Jesse in the first of the final eight episodes. "But now that's over."
Or is it?
"Blood Money" (8 p.m. CT Aug. 11, AMC; 4 stars out of 4) opens by revisiting the split-season cliffhanger. DEA Agent Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) has found some interesting bathroom reading at the Whites' house. When he saw the inscription in Walter's copy of Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass," Hank froze in realization that the man he's been obsessively hunting—the ruthless meth manufacturer Heisenberg—is none other than his brother-in-law Walter.
The episode is as marvelous, deranged and unsettling as anything series creator/executive producer Vince Gilligan and his team have done. Directed by Cranston, the episode's thoughtful, deliberate pacing constantly builds suspense and dread.
The Hank revelation will fuel these final episodes, but the first will have heads swimming with questions: What will Hank do? How will Walter react? Will Jesse be able to forgive himself? Can Walt's wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), escape the evil that has devoured him?
While Gilligan doesn't reveal exactly where the show is going, he does hint at a scorching finale with powerful scenes involving several of his actors. Emmy winners Cranston and Paul continue to astonish. Norris and Gunn match them every step of the way. (The rest of the cast, including RJ Mitte, Betsy Brandt, Bob Odenkirk and Laura Fraser, also are top-notch.)
It's hard to say if Walter, who has become an expert liar on his road to moral ruin, actually believes what he tells Jesse: That after peddling addiction and destroying lives and killing, they can be good men again. One thing is certain, however: Someone will pay for what they have done.
There's another thing we can count on: If this episode is any indication, Gilligan won't let fans down no matter how "Breaking Bad" ends.
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