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'Breaking Bad': Getting it right

February 10, 2008 | 11:00 pm

In the end, two little words defined last night’s episode and simultaneously lifted this series into the land of great television: “I’m sorry.”

But before I launch into more praise of this show, please allow for the following reality check: Though the first two episodes were generally well received by critics and viewers alike, a lot of what we saw we’d seen before. Likable characters doing bad things? It’s pretty much the hallmark of good TV, especially on cable. And while series creator Vince Gilligan certainly got our attention at the outset with a nearly naked Bryan Cranston at the wheel of a speeding RV, then hooked us by making the whole how-did-he-get-there scenario both believable and compelling, some of that intrigue was lost in Episode 2’s mere extension of the pilot –- that second hour of the story proved to be less about moving forward than it was about cleaning up an old mess, and we all know that the making of a mess is all the fun.

In that second episode, there was more Cranston nakedness, more odd-couple humor between Cranston’s Walter White and his dopey young sidekick, Jesse. Some of it was hilarious. Some of it felt forced. And by the end of that second hour, when Walter and Jesse stood there looking at Jesse’s handiwork –- the remnants of a corpse dripping through the ceiling (this because Jesse, naturally, didn’t properly follow Walt’s instructions) –- the series seemed to reach an early teetering point. Was this show more dark comedy or drama? And moreover, was it going to lean toward guns, gimmicks and gore or the quieter moments that had shined much brighter, like Walt’s conflicted reaction to Skyler’s sonogram; he would soon have a baby girl, then remembered that he wouldn’t get to see her grow. It was a moment that dazzled.

And so we then came to this, last night’s continuation. Yes, it still felt like an extension of the pilot, but the question of what to do with a live body proved far better television than the mere disposing of a corpse. What we ultimately got, quite simply, was a perfect balancing of the seesaw.

The show opened with more gore, Walt and Jesse cleaning up the dissolved guts of Drug Dealer A in a scene that was -– forgive me here –- gut wrenching. But the interwoven flashback to Walt’s younger days, when in a classroom he discussed the human body’s scientific makeup (63% hydrogen, 9% carbon … ) with what seemed to be a starry-eyed lover, added a much-needed layer of thought and perspective to the blood and the bones.

Body A taken care of, the rest of the episode focused on what to do with Krazy 8, the still-breathing one, fastened to a pole in Jesse’s basement by a motorcycle lock fit neatly around his neck. “This,” Krazy 8 said to Walt, referring to the lock, “I wouldn’t do this to my worst enemy.” And so began an ongoing dialogue between the two, one that actually made us feel for the guy who at one point tried to kill our hero. Walt felt for the guy, too -– to the point of offering him a beer and cutting the crusts off of his sandwich.

Mixed between their heartfelt conversation, comedy and drama came from Walt’s world on the outside. His son, Walter Jr., was taken on a sort of “don’t do drugs” field trip by his DEA agent uncle, and when they arrived in the parking lot of a shady hotel known for its junkie tenants, what was supposed to be a hard lesson instead proved more of a laugh to the youngster. He giggled and said it was “cool.” Then there was the phone call between Walt and Skyler, the missus catching him in a lie and then telling him not to come home.

And then our golden moment arrived, the kill scene. We’ve seen murder played out on the small screen again and again. But something about this felt so, so different. Maybe it was the tear that rolled down Walt’s cheek once he realized he had no other choice, or maybe it was his clothes (you just don’t see a lot of men in Dockers and ugly button-ups offing people these days), or maybe, probably, it was the whisper that left his lips once the job was done. Collapsing to the ground along with his strangled victim, Walt repeatedly uttered those two words, “I’m sorry,” and then cried. This wasn’t a "Sopranos" “whaddayagonna do” moment. For Walt, this was monumental, a step into a darkness from which he could not return.

It was a jaw-dropping end to what we now have to look at as more of a three-episode pilot. And yet, so many questions still dangle before us. The show’s cliffhanger ending led us to believe that Walt’s about to come clean to his wife, but about what? The cancer? The meth? The murders? All of it? And exactly how long will it take the DEA agent brother-in-law to trace his current case back to Walt (we have to believe this is where we’re going)? And in a show about a dying man, will Sunday’s flashback element lend itself throughout the series, acquainting us with a younger, more vibrant Walter White?

In a conversation with Gilligan, who by the way turned 41 on Sunday, the former “X-Files” scribe was unwilling to answer these questions but did offer this tantalizing nugget: “I can give you the quick pitch that I gave in some of my first meetings around town" when shopping the series, he said. “I said, ‘This is a story of a Mr. Chips who transforms himself into Scarface.’ That’s about all I really know about the character. This character will –- knock on wood, if this [show] keeps going –- undergo a complete transformation and turn into someone else completely.”

And what we know after these first three episodes is this: While the seesaw will sometimes teeter too far to one side or the other, in some cases –- as with Sunday night’s episode –- the balance will be perfect, and the results will be grand.

-- Josh Gajewski