With 16 episodes left before the series finale, no one could blame "Breaking Bad" if it just coasted.
And even if it didn't just ride the rails, "Bad" faces the challenge to match or top its own history.
Picking up from last season and flittering between then and now, Walter (Bryan Cranston) can't rest easy, though Gus and his henchmen are dead. An explosion leaves little evidence behind. For anyone else, this is a time for a clean break.
Instead, Walter and Jesse (Aaron Paul) seize it as an opportunity to be at the top of the drug cartel. At home, Skyler (Anna Gunn) finds her scheme to cook the books for her former lover is still haunting her.
While in previous seasons the show's moral compass keeps moving, this time around it seems to be a bit without direction. More so than ever, "Bad" wraps itself in an-every-man-for-himself demeanor.
The new season (premiering 10 p.m. Sunday, AMC) — while imperfect — remains primetime's most daring effort, an hour so precisely executed that it's simply matchless. In just two episodes presented for review, "Bad" waivers from overly talkative to jaw-dropping stunners.
There are moments that betray the integrity. A flight of fancy involving a giant magnetic field and a storeroom full of laptops is just too over the top for the gritty standards "Bad" has brought to bear.
What separates "Bad" from the rest of the pack, even on-par AMC dramas such as "Mad Men" and "The Walking Dead," is its willingness to live on the edge and take the sort of leaps no other hour is willing to take.
In every moment those risks are worth taking and progresses the story into richer territory.
Now more than ever, "Bad" won't abandon that.
Rating (five possible): 4