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'Breaking Bad': Hell's bells

March 15, 2009 | 11:01 pm

I’ll leave it to a better writer to describe what we just saw, partly because I feel somewhat speechless at the moment. And so, Mr. Stephen King, the floor is yours. …

Episode 2 begins with a leisurely panning shot of a desert wasteland littered with discarded toys, home appliances, and spent cartridge casings. In the background, something is churning frantically. It sounds like a washing machine but turns out to be a car, shuddering in mechanical death spasms. It is the most disturbing sequence I’ve seen on film since Dean Stockwell’s “Blue Velvet” lip-synch of “In Dreams.” …

Whatever reasons American Movie Classics had for greenlighting BB, the payoff for viewers who like their suspense cocktails a little stronger than the usual “Law & Order” mojito is a big one. The second episode (''Grilled'') is a perfect case in point. No spoilers here; suffice it to say that Walt and Jesse's involvement with hellish drug kingpin Tuco (Raymond Cruz) comes to a head at a desert hideout where Tuco's stroke-afflicted uncle sits watching Mexican TV in a wheelchair with a little bell affixed to one arm: One ding means ''yes,'' no ding means ''no.'' Or is it the other way around? There's no way to be sure; the only thing we can be completely sure of is that Tuco's nuts and someone's gonna die. It's like watching “No Country for Old Men” crossbred with the malevolent spirit of the original “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”

To see who died, and for further musings from me, a guy who’ll probably jump the next time he hears the ding! of a little service bell, read onward. ...

Well, folks, it was Tuco. Finally, the man is silenced and actor Raymond Cruz can get his voice back. The killer? That was the surprise; it was Hank (Dean Norris), Walt’s brother-in-law, who thankfully had an extra cartridge and a quicker shot. He showed up and saved the day, ultimately finishing a job that Walter and Jesse simply couldn’t, despite multiple opportunities. First there was the poisonous castor bean powder that Walt mixed in with the drugs. Tuco was about to snort the stuff, but then Jesse, as he sometimes does, said two words too many. “Chili powder,” he said, was the secret ingredient within. But Tuco hates chili powder.

Then Walt tried to slip the stuff into Tuco’s food, and that’s when Tuco’s mute uncle -– played by an absolutely terrific character actor, Mark Margolis, whose appearances in TV and film date to the '70s -- chimed in with the bell, his only way of communicating, signaling to Tuco that something was wrong. The whole sequence was brilliant in a horrifying way, and it led to the big showdown outside, Tuco with the gun at the back of Jesse’s head. Walter was surely next.

“We tried to poison you,” Walter admitted at the scene’s climax, Jesse grabbing hold of a well-placed rock in the dirt. “We tried to poison you because you’re an insane, degenerate piece of filth, and you deserve to die.” Jesse turned to slap him with the rock and our two heroes gained control of the guy in a struggle, Jesse managing to shoot Tuco in the gut in the with Tuco's own gun.

The only roll-your-eye moment, at least for me, was Walt saying, “Let him bleed.” Good line, but come on: You don’t just run away from a madman like Tuco; you finish him off. And this is television, so as Walt and Jesse scampered away and Tuco was still breathing, you knew it wasn't over. 

Enter Hank, and exit Tuco.

And now we’re left with Walt and Jesse scrambling away from the scene, running through the open desert. Where will this madness go next week? Will Walter’s secret life be revealed to his family? At this point the dots are so close together that it seems inevitable that Hank will soon connect them. 

So far, it’s been an absolutely mesmerizing start to the season, two hours of television so pregnant with suspense that I feel spent but still thirsty for more of the cocktail. This show seems to have found its groove, and at just the right moment too. Last week’s season premiere drew 1.7 million viewers, more than 40 percent more than the show’s average viewership last season.

And yes, I’m still wondering about that pink teddy bear in the pool.

-- Josh Gajewski (and Stephen King)