Just because it’s a season premiere does not mean we’re back to square one, and that certainly was not the case with the beginning of “Breaking Bad” season three.
Every character is still emotionally recovering from the fallout of season two when a local tragedy, indirectly caused by series protagonist Walter White (Bryan Cranston), claimed the lives of 167.
Dealing with the tragedy — a plane collision in the middle of a city — does not come easy for Walter, a high school chemistry teacher. He not only has to deal with the enormous weight of the guilt but also has to sit there and squirm during a hilariously awkward school assembly in the premiere, where a number of overdramatic teenagers talk about their feelings.
In the moment that stole the scene — and the entire episode — one student, who Walter had held back in the season prior, talked at the assembly about “this thing” they do in college where if your roommate dies, you get an automatic A in your classes. He extolled the virtues of this while the administration cut him off, and the resulting few seconds of silence punctuated the hilarity.
Shortly afterwards, Walter flails in vain to put an end to the moping of the assembly by comparing it to plane collisions with higher death tolls. Everyone looks visually uncomfortable at this line of argument, and a high school administrator slowly takes the microphone away from him mid-sentence.
This assembly scene underlines for viewers who might have forgotten in the past year that “Breaking Bad” has an uncanny knack for melding humor with deathly serious and even painful moments. Cranston, in particular, excels at this.
But it would be shortsighted to say this tragedy is all Walter has to deal with this season. Looming much larger on his character’s radar is an increasingly frustrated Skyler, Walter’s wife, who suddenly wants out of her marriage. This smacks of excruciatingly painful irony, as series regulars will recall his family is the entire reason Walter, a mild-mannered teacher, decided to start “breaking bad” in the first place, manufacturing methamphetamine.
What’s all the more jarring is that, after two seasons of Skyler nosing around and getting closer and closer to the truth, she just comes right out with it in the season three premiere: “You’re a drug dealer,” she says. For once, Walter cannot weasel his way out of it, and his marriage has never looked more fragile than it does now.
Anna Gunn brings the moment home as Skyler, teary-eyed throughout. She cannot even stay through Walter’s attempts at explanation and looks away frequently in shock and pain at the confirmation.
And just like that, all of a sudden, the world of “Breaking Bad” looks like a jigsaw puzzle, crudely disassembled by a toddler with the pieces strewn everywhere. Relationships are ripped apart or further complicated. Nothing is neat and orderly.
Even Walter’s partner-in-crime Jesse (Aaron Paul) is no longer the simple, in-it-for-money-and-sex rabble-rouser that he used to be. Rehab has allowed him to reach a morbid self-realization: “I’m the bad guy,” he says.
In a true reversal for the series, Jesse brings this sage philosophical wisdom, and Walter is the one who must digest this food for thought. It causes him to reassess his future in drug dealing. “I don’t want to be the bad guy,” he winces, declining a deal that would have garnered $3 million in profits.
As a result, the viewer is left with nothing but intriguing questions, the mark of a truly successful season premiere. And all the conflicts set up look impossible to reconnect to the naked eye. How could the oft-neglected Skyler, who has suffered personal betrayal after personal betrayal over the course of this series, ever get back together with her husband? And how can Walter compromise his morality once again, knowing that it’s this recent lack of innocence that destroyed his family, rather than preserving it for years?
As much as devoted fans might hate it, we’ll just have to tune in to find out. It’s only five more days until Sunday, after all.
“Breaking Bad” airs Sunday at 10 p.m. on AMC with repeats at 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. One can view the third season premiere online at AMC’s official Web site, http://www.amctv.com.

Five stars