It would be pretty hard to catch up on the first  three seasons of Breaking Bad before season four premieres Sunday on AMC. We tried, actually, but there's just something about knowing there were 33 episodes to get through that made the whole thing feel like the start of a long, hard basic cable slog. But don't let that deter you: the show's plenty accessible once you brush up on the basics. Here's the guide we've put together for you and, frankly, for us as well.

The basics

The basic premise of Breaking Bad: a high school chemistry teacher, dying of cancer, starts up a meth ring with one of his old students. Bryan Cranston (the dad from Malcolm in the Middle) plays Walter, the teacher, and Aaron Paul plays Jesse, the dropout. We know this because we loudly and angrily exclaimed "Who is Aaron Paul?" when he won best supporting actor in a Drama at last year's Emmy awards. Here are the other things you should know, courtesy of the Internet:

  • It is set in Albuquerque.
  • Walt is married and the couple has two young children, one of whom is disabled, which is one of the reasons he goes into the meth trade after being diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer.
  • Walt contributed to Nobel Prize winning research as a graduate student at Cal Tech. He also founded--and then abandoned, for reasons that are still unclear--a pharmaceuticals firm with his ex-girlfriend and college lab partner, who subsequently got married and made boatloads of money off Walter's research.
  • Walter's brother-in-law Hank is a DEA agent. He's leading the investigation a new meth kingpin known as "Heisenberg," who is actually Walter.
  • AMC cut together a montage of Walt and Aaron's "best moments," the majority of which involve some combination of yelling, cooking drugs, and hanging around the house. It's a perfect way to get familiar with the show's rhythm and pacing.



A brief history

Vulture, AMC, and Hit Fix have exhaustively detailed episode recaps if you want to go through the first three years of the show on a plot point-by-plot point basis. In the meantime, Hit Fix's Alan Sepinwall offered a helpful macro view of the show's evolution in his preview of the fourth season. Writes Sepinwall:

"[The show] took its time. Took its time and steadily improved. Started as a strange but fascinating little show carried largely by a career-redefining performance from former "Malcolm in the Middle" dad Bryan Cranston as a cancer-afflicted chemistry teacher turned aspiring meth lord. Got better as its truncated first season went along, then began to truly find itself in its second season."

Then came the third season, and the level of confidence the creative team (led by writer Vince Gilligan) had developed in that second year turned into full-blown, marvelous audacity. Anything they wanted to do, it seems, they did, and did brilliantly."

About that third season...

The first few episodes of season one were underwhelming enough for one Atlantic Wire staffer to give up on the show completely. That's understandable, writes Chuck Klosterman at Grantland. "It seemed like this was going to be the story of a man...forced to become a criminal because he was dying of cancer. That's the elevator pitch. But that's completely unrelated to what the show has become." Klosterman continues, "The central question on Breaking Bad is this: What makes a man 'bad'--his actions, his motives, or his conscious decision to be a bad person?"

Those questions--and their discomforting answers--dominated the third season. Walt's wife wanted to divorce him when she found out the full scope of the operation. He refused and forcibly remained in the house. Even a routine telephone scene reflected the widening gap between them.



Season three also will be remembered for the sheer mad dog horror of The Cousins, a pair of hitmen enlisted by the Juarez drug cartel to break up Walt and Jesse's operation. Somehow, even though we've read about how they decapitate their enemies and send bombs shaped like turtles, the full extent of their menace only emerges in this spooky No Country For Old Men-esque roadside sequence.


 

Writing in Rolling Stone, Andrew Leonard said the show outpaced even The Godfather in its "mixture of the mundane and monstrous." That was on display in the gut-wrenching final six minutes from last year's season finale, where Walt orders Jesse to kill Gale, because he's the only one who knows how to cook their special blend of meth. It's like the baptism massacre that ended The Godfather, except the quarters are closer, everyone's doing their own dirty work, and it ends with a cliffhanger. Where did that shot come from?