“Breaking Bad” is up for a Best Drama Series Emmy for the third time this year, and its chances have never looked better. Season four was arguably its strongest yet, and its absence from 2011’s Emmy race (the season aired too late to be eligible) could also work in its favor.
This is not to say a “Breaking Bad” win is a lock: The Academy of Television Arts & Science clearly has a soft spot for “Mad Men,” awarding it the Best Drama prize for the last four consecutive years, tying the Emmy record -- and the pitch-black drama wasn’t even nominated for a Golden Globe. (Though the snub, too, could help its Emmy chances.)
Whether the Emmy goes to “Mad Men” or “Breaking Bad,” it will be a moderate upset if AMC does not take home the prize. Golden Globe-winning “Homeland,” which will likely continue for many seasons to come, is the most serious threat to AMC’s claims on Emmy history, though we shouldn’t rule out PBS’s “Downton Abbey.”
AMC has come a long way from its previous incarnation as a clearinghouse of RKO Pictures classics and Marx Brothers’ marathons. “Mad Men,” the channel’s first earnest experiment with high-quality original programming, became a near-instant hit after its 2007 debut, and the basic cable channel never looked back. Along with “Breaking Bad,” gripping hourlong dramas like “The Walking Dead” and “The Killing” have made AMC competitive with premium cable stalwarts whose formulas it openly imitates. (“Mad Men” showrunner Matthew Weiner worked for David Chase during the reign of “The Sopranos.”)
Indeed, not since Tony Soprano has an antihero been as embraced as chemistry teacher-turned-crystal meth kingpin Walter White. But unlike our favorite mob boss, by the end of season four, White is barely recognizable as the desperate family man we met in the series premiere. His astonishing, terrifying transformation has earned “Breaking Bad” a dedicated cult following -- and Bryan Cranston numerous acting accolades.
But it could also potentially muddle the voting preferences of those among whatever percentage of the 15,000 Academy members are also fans of the show. Will having seen first installment of season five, which aired this past summer, taint Emmy voters' evaluation of season four? The most recent season has been faintly criticized for letting White evolve from a bad guy you can get behind to a complete monster: While it seems more than likely that AMC will wrap up the series with some rationalization or justification for White’s increasingly indefensible moral choices, the demi-season ended on an unsettling, even off-putting note.
On the other hand, season 4’s finale, “Face Off,” is worthy of all manner of hyperbole and will likely be remembered as the epitome the very best things about “Breaking Bad” -- and not just for the stomach-churning, bone-chilling scene that inspired the episode’s ingenious title. The penultimate episode, “End Times,” also included in AMC’s six submissions, is essential to comprehending the virtuosity of White’s cunning.
Not surprisingly, the season premiere is also among the submissions: “Box Cutter” set the tone for the season, diving headlong into the high-stakes sadism at the heart of Gus Fring and White’s battle of wills: A captive White and Jesse Pinkman, bathed in blue light, await retribution for Gale Boetticher’s death while being forced to watch a hopeful successor cook the next batch of meth. White’s half-desperate, half-indignant plea for his life is perhaps the last time we see the old and new White inhabit the same body and mind in equal parts.
It’s curious, though, that AMC did not submit “Pollos.” Maybe that’s because it is more of Fring than a White episode and perhaps not as relevant to the season’s arc as, say, “Problem Dog,” which is arguably the weakest of the submissions. Indeed, the chilling “Pollos” could operate as a standalone mini feature: Gus’s artful elimination of enemy cartel members -- coolly endangering his own life along the way -- is a mass murder scene as stirring and psychologically dense as the Mexican standoff in “Reservoir Dogs,” only with a lot less blood.
Still, the overall season was strong enough that the odd omission shouldn’t hurt the show’s Emmy odds: At press time, six of the 15 television experts who contribute predictions to the awards site GoldDerby.com have chosen “Breaking Bad” as their top pick for the Best Drama Series Emmy, giving it a slight edge over “Mad Men,” which has five votes, though they are tied at 10/3 odds, with “Homeland” not far behind.
Tune in to the 65th Primetime Emmy Awards on ABC Sunday night at 7 p.m. for what promises to be the most unpredictable Emmy telecast in recent memory.