As "Breaking Bad" returns for the first half of its fifth and final season, you might think -- at least initially -- that it would allow viewers to exhale and experience some sense of relief.

After all, last summer's shocking season finale ended with Walter White (Bryan Cranston) blowing ruthless drug lord Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) to bits, torching the super lab where he cooked his crystal meth and quietly uttering the words "I won."

Game over? Hardly.

No TV drama, save perhaps "The Walking Dead," is more adept at maintaining a constant sense of dreadful tension. And it's not about to ease up just yet. That said, expect your skin to prickle with anxiety from the get-go.

Sunday night's chilling opener does nothing to spare our feelings. It only intensifies them. Yes, Walt might have "won" by ending the war with his nemesis in explosive style, but at what cost?

The mild-mannered chemistry teacher and dutiful husband we first met when this masterful saga began has plunged deeper into the dark side than we ever could have imagined.

And there's no turning back.

Now a certifiable criminal capable of truly horrifying deeds, Walt seems to be lost in a ghost of a person that no one can recognize -- not even his wife.

"I am relieved and scared," Skyler (Anna Gunn) tells Walt upon realizing he is responsible for Gus' explosive demise.

"Scared? Scared of what?" he replies.

"You."


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And for good reason. No longer under Gus' thumb, Walt is feeling his oats. His triumph has fueled his intellectual arrogance. He clearly thinks he's the smartest guy in the room and that he's pretty much untouchable -- which makes him all the more dangerous.

Instead of lying low or trying to escape to a new life, he's poised to create his own drug-dealing empire.

Along for the ride is his faithful, if naive, partner Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), who still has no clue that Walt secretly poisoned his girlfriend's child.

But first, they need to make sure there aren't any loose ends amid all the post-Gus chaos -- no pieces of evidence that would send Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) and his fellow DEA agents their way.

As assurance, Walt concocts a wildly audacious scheme that demonstrates just how unhinged he has become.

Thus, the course is set for this final season, which will be divided in two parts -- eight episodes will air over the coming weeks, and another eight are due next summer. We apparently will spend them discovering to what lengths Walt is willing to go in his quest to become a kingpin.

Potential obstacles loom: Creepy hit man Mike (Jonathan Banks) apparently has his own ideas on how to run the business, and there are hints that an international entity could attempt to muscle in on the criminal activity going down in New Mexico. Moreover, you have to wonder if those closest to Walt -- Skyler and/or Jesse -- will remain loyal, or ultimately prove to be his undoing.

It's never easy to say goodbye to a drama as mind-blowingly magnificent as "Breaking Bad," but savvy creator Vince Gilligan has picked the right time to put his end game into motion. It's the kind of show, after all, that inherently needs to keep raising the stakes and amplifying the danger for its main characters. There are limits to such shenanigans.

That's where we now stand with Walt, who seems to be spiraling toward his doom (or not). Arrogant, remorseless, repulsive and beyond redemption, he is no longer someone we can, with any justification, root for.

And yet, we just can't take our eyes off him.

Contact Chuck Barney at cbarney@bayareanewsgroup.com. Read his TV blog at http://blogs.mercurynews.com/aei/category/tv, and follow him at Twitter.com/chuckbarney.

'breaking bad'

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When: 10 p.m. Sunday
Where: AMC

online extra

Who said there's nothing good on TV during the summer? The networks are mostly flooding the airwaves with reruns, rejects and reality, but cable is flexing its muscles with quality scripted programming. The best of the bunch is "Breaking Bad," but it's not the only summer series worth our attention. Scan this code to read about five others. Or, go to www.mercurynews.com/entertainment.