Has any season of television seemed to go by quite as fast as this run of “Breaking Bad” did?

You hear critics throw around phrases like “the best show on television” so often that it barely seems to mean anything anymore, so in addition to making that particular declaration of “Breaking Bad,” I feel like I should offer a bit more, in order to give it some extra heft. Now, obviously, I’m a TV critic, so I watch television day in and day out. Indeed, to borrow a phrase from one of my peers, TV feeds my family. (Hi, Bill!) But while that’s a far cry from being a hardship when you love the small screen as much as I do, I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve watched so much television that it takes a hell of a lot to lead me from saying “I like this show” to “I fucking love this show.” “Breaking Bad,” however, has done that, by taking the time to intricately build the characterizations of its major players, developing plots which never seem to stop unfolding, and – perhaps most impressively – zigging when I think they’re going to zag and unabashedly defying me whenever I say, “Oh, no, they wouldn’t dare do that!”

Man, I haven’t even finished writing about the Season 3 finale, and already I’m longing for Season 4…

We start tonight’s episode with…an empty house? That’s right: it’s a flashback to when Walt and Skyler were first buying their house. Okay, to be honest, this wasn’t a surprise for Jamey or I, since we were there when they were filming the season finale. In fact, there’s a portion of this scene that we’ve seen and you haven’t yet, with Walt and Skyler wrapping up their walk-through of the place and stepping outside, then hopping into their convertible and driving away into what they perceive to be a perfect future. Presumably, this will turn up on the Season 3 DVD, but what we all got to see was more than enough to show that, once upon a time, the Whites were not only happy but in a position to see the world as their oyster. (“Why be cautious? We’ve got nowhere to go but up!”) Hell, back then, they were even talking about having a third kid, something that probably isn’t going to happen anytime soon, based on the current state of their marriage.

Cut to the present, with the disconcerting sight of the windshield and front bumper of Walt’s car showing the residual effects of the previous night’s events. There’s no sign of Jesse as Walt looks across the horizon, watching the headlights of a car roll ever closer, but if he’s suffering from any nervousness, the return of the Heisenberg hat seems to be displacing it. Mike gets in several great lines, including his version of “assurances” and a momentary musing on how words can be “so open to interpretation” (I love the way you can hear the smirk in Jonathan Banks’ delivery), but Walt scores a point when Mike suggests that he get his car fixed: “Let’s see how this goes first.”

Gus is not a happy man…and, really, who can blame him? This scene was, as has become par for the course with any scene featuring Giancarlo Esposito, thoroughly gripping, but it was as much so because of the lack of certainty surrounding the actions of both characters. We thought we knew Walt pretty well, but after that move last week, when he mowed down and shot down the dealers, it’s clear that we’re dealing with Heisenberg now, which means that anything can happen. Like the scene last week with Walt and Skyler, this is a back and forth full of constant oneupsmanship.

Walt: I’m quite well.
Gus: Clearly, you are not.

Gus: Are you asking me if I ordered the murder of a child?
Walt: I would never ask you that.

I find it fascinating that Walt’s life has taken this turn where, after years of suffering through the public school system, he’s had to start making meth to find himself back in a career where he’s on something approximating even intellectual footing with his co-workers.

Since the meeting has as well as could’ve been hoped, Walt has gotten his car fixed and gone back to work…but the locks have changed. Clearly, his “really?” was one borne simply out of frustration, because it makes complete sense. Hey, everybody, Gale’s back! After Jesse’s departure, it was only inevitable, but he doesn’t exactly look thrilled to be there…or maybe that’s just his default emotional setting. It’s kind of hard to tell with that guy.

Jamey and I were also around for the filming of the scene where Mike dropped off his granddaughter and kept an excess of balloons in his backseat. I don’t mind telling you that I’ve been wondering since January just why the hell he kept the balloons, just as I’m willing to admit that none of my theories came anywhere close to being right. At first, I was a little mystified about what I was witnessing during the office sequence, but that didn’t stop me from digging on Mike’s awesome through-the-wall shot. The laughs during the scene…the woman’s lengthy answer which was simply translated as “yes,” the Camry joke…were surprising, but they helped offset the tension a bit. “I strong suggest that you return our calls next time.” Yeah, that’s not a bad plan.

Turns out that Gale is absolutely and totally sucking up to Walt, which seems weird, and given the way Gus’s right hand man was closely listening to him, I feel like there’s a reason for that, but perhaps it was simply a case of being cautious. Life at Gale’s place is about as nerdy as I would’ve expected, watering plants while singing along to standards from the Spanish theater. The second Gus turned up at Gale’s pad, I knew something was fishy, and although it stands to reason that Gus would want to keep his only other meth maker happy, I didn’t entirely expect these words to come out of Gus’s mouth: “If push came to shove, I was wondering how soon you might be able to take over the lab yourself.” D’oh! Gus is clearly trying to paint Walt’s health problems as the reason why his co-worker might vanish abruptly, so as to keep Gale from getting nervous about the situation, and it works like a charm: he’s tentatively prepared to make the leap to first chair and is excited about the possibilities, even if he’s nervous about the situation.

Saul’s scenes this week served to spotlight every side of the surprisingly complex character that Bob Odenkirk has developed. First, in the scenes with Mike, where he started with his usual flippant ‘tude, shifted into straightforward attorney mode, and, after playing the attorney-client privilege card didn’t work on Mike (“Don’t make me beat you ’til your legs don’t work”), he shifted into sniveling weasel mode by doing the old “who’s to say that I didn’t write it down somewhere?” route and leaving the room to make himself a Nescafe. I laughed when A) Jesse was supposed to be in Virginia (not only is it my home turn, but it’s also Vince Gilligan’s), and B) when it turned out that it was a misdirect. Saul got a few more great lines whilst in the Lazer Tag operations, most notably the “Magnum, P.I.” reference, but I was mostly left thinking, “Man, I knew Saul was ballsy, but, man, I can’t believe he’s ballsy enough to unabashedly lie about Jesse’s whereabouts, given the possible repercussions for crossing Gus.” Mind you, I also can’t believe that Jesse actually stayed in Albuquerque. Doesn’t everyone know the old pretend-to-be-elsewhere-while-actually-hiding-in-plain-sight trick by now? For Jesse’s sake, let’s hope not.

Okay, now we hit the part of the episode which left me feeling a little sketchy. I loved Walt’s line about how the only thing saving him is Gale’s fastidiousness, but when Jesse asked what they were going to do and Walt replied, “You know what we do,” um, am I the only one who didn’t anticipate that the plan was to kill Gale? Similarly, am I the only one who was left wondering if that was really their only option? I mean, granted, it’s not like they could take out Gus (although I briefly considered that that might be their plan), because, really, what purpose would it serve? It’s not like Walt could step into Gus’s shoes and take over the operation. And, as Walt himself said, turning Gus into the DEA isn’t a viable option, since Gus clearly wouldn’t hesitate to serve Walt up on a silver platter. I just feel like Jesse really could’ve left town, never come back, and started a new life for himself…y’know, at least until the beginning of Season 4, at which point someone from Gus’s gang would’ve finally found him. But, no, Walt’s rationalization of the situation is, “Production cannot stop, and if I’m the only chemist that he’s got, then I’ve got leverage, and leverage keeps me alive, and it keeps you alive, too.” I guess it’s true that good chemists are hard to come by, but, still, I’m with Jesse: there’s got to be some other way.

A chemical leak in the lab? Sure, dude, I believe that. “They tell me to bring you, I bring you.” For a moment, I actually wondered, “God, what if there really is a chemical leak?” That thought only lasted up to the point when I saw Mike. Even as I was watching, I was thinking, “Okay, there’s no way Walt’s going to be killed, but it strikes me that there’s very little chance that he’s going to give up Jesse, either. What the hell is going to happen here?”

Well, what’s going to happen is that we’re going to go to Gale’s apartment, where he proves to be so anal that he has to check the precise temperature of the water that he’s boiling for his tea. Unfortunately, the sound of the tea kettle drowns out his warning phone call. The next thing you know, Jesse’s holding Gale at gun point. “You don’t have to do this,” whines Gale, and then there’s a gunshot.

So did he?

Unfortunately, we won’t know for sure ’til Season 4 kicks off…and, alas, we’ve got a long time ’til then, since I am assured by Anna Gunn that the show won’t go back into production ’til January 2011.

Gang, it’s been a lot of fun putting together this blog for the past 13 episodes, and I can’t say that about every blog I’ve written. It’s been great to find so much chatter about the episodes, and I look forward to seeing you all again for Season 4.

In the meantime, though, be sure to check out the interview that I did with Ms. Gunn last week about the way the character of Skyler progressed this season, and then be sure to read the results of my participation in a roundtable with Messrs. Gilligan, Cranston, and Paul, where Aaron talks about the challenges of playing the different sides of Jesse and Bryan and Vince tackle the transformation of Walt from Mr. Chips into Scarface. I hope to be able to speak with some of the “Breaking Bad” crew again next month, since I can’t conceive that they won’t bring home an award or two at the annual Television Critics Association Awards on July 31st. If I get anything good out of ’em, you know where you can read it first: right here on Premium Hollywood.

See you next year, everybody!