In the opening seconds of the "Breaking Bad" fifth-season opener (10 p.m. Sunday on AMC), viewers will stare straight down into a plate of eggs. Sunny-side up. Two sallow disapproving eyes looking right up into the camera, and into the blighted soul of the blighted man who is about to eat them.
Walter White (Bryan Cranston) grabs a mound of crispy bacon, and places each piece in such a way on the plate so that the bacon spells out the numbers 5 and 2.
It is Walter's joyless 52nd birthday, and as true-blue "Bad" fans will recall, this is almost a flashback to the opening seconds of the series four years ago, when his beloved wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), placed a plate of eggs before him on his 50th birthday, with the bacon spelling out 50.
Much has changed over those 24 months in the life of the former high-school chemistry teacher. The fleeting pathos of next week's opening scene is that Walter knows this, too: He has gone from loving family man to undisputed meth king of the Southwest, after dispatching rival Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) in a wildly violent explosion that blew off half of Fring's face at the end of last season.
Yet the metamorphosis of Walter White is still very much ongoing. There are 16 episodes to go in the final season, leaving viewers to wonder how much worse can Walter get.
"There's a new sheriff in town, is one way to put it," said show creator and executive producer Vince Gilligan in a recent interview. "And in the absence of one drug king controlling the Southwest, and in the absence of one main meth dealer, Walt may want to fill that power vacuum. We've seen what it takes to win that."
By critical if still not quite popular consent (about 3 million viewers on average have watched this series since its launch), "Breaking Bad" is one of the three or four finest U.S. television dramas of the past dozen years, standing shoulder to shoulder with "The Sopranos," "Mad Men," "The Wire" and -- on their really good days -- "Lost," "The Shield," "The Good Wife" and "The West Wing."
Cranston's evil Walter Mitty portrayal is one of the most celebrated in TV history: Three straight Emmy wins for best actor in a drama, a feat matched only by Bill Cosby back in the mid-'60s for "I Spy."
What makes "Bad" so good (besides writing, acting, editing and cinematography, to cite four superlative production elements here)? One answer lies in that plate of eggs. Eggs are all about becoming -- either becoming someone's breakfast or becoming a chicken. They are about transformation. Walter White and "Breaking Bad" are all about transformation, too.
Great series can hatch from modest starting points. What if the core character was a good family man who murdered people on the side ("The Sopranos")? What if the cops were far worse than the criminals they were after ("The Shield")? What if your wildest dreams came true and they made you miserable ("Mad Men")?
Or, what if the series' protagonist evolves into an antagonist, from very good guy to very bad guy?
There are comic as well as cosmic touches here, in a "the gods must be laughing" kind of way. But Gilligan always had a tragedy in mind, and a puzzle he didn't have a solution to: Was Walter born bad or did he become bad through the choices he made?
Gilligan and his stable of writers knew from there it was just a short hop to one of the enduring puzzles of the nature of evil. Do people "break" bad -- or are they born bad?
"I can't ultimately tell you what the point of it all is," says Gilligan. "But we do strive to keep him recognizable despite how dark he is."
Does even Walter White's creator know how he will meet his end? Gilligan won't -- or can't -- say.