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'Breaking Bad': Hell's bells

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)

Comments () | Archives (4)

Charles Haid directed last night's episode, with an appropriate touch of David Lynch. Under normal circumstances, it would have been brilliant; but Bryan Cranston's amazing season opener, is a tough act to follow.

We viewers of 'Breaking Bad' have the blessings of abundance.

Josh, you're covering this show as well? Fantastic news. Your "Californication" posts were a real treat for me last year, so to see you weighing in on my one and only "must see" drama show? Awesome. (And how funny that Mark Margolis, who is indeed great, has been on both shows now.)

There's so much to be said about this show, sometimes I don't even know where to begin. (And sometimes I barely breathe for minutes at a time while watching, which definitely describes last night's viewing experience in several places.) Vince Gilligan was, by far, I believe the most talented writer ever employed on "The X-Files," so to see him free to really stretch his wings with "Breaking Bad" has been astounding. I can't wait to see where he takes us next week.

Tuco: Are they tryin' to punk me?
Tuco's Dad: (beat-beat) DING!

Man, I fell OUT! That old man almost got them killed...with a bell! They way Tuco freaked after his Dad rang that bell was crazy. Mark Margolis should get an Emmy nod for that performance. He did all that with JUST a bell. Amazing episode.

Arye, you're right about the directing. Cranston and Haid made for a deadly combination for the first two hours (corny pun intended) of this season. Their direction has been fabulous, but perhaps even more credit is due to Michael Slovis, the show's director of photography this season. He's the guy who's on hand, looking through the lens for every episode this season, making sure everything looks right, whereas the directors are actually rotated in and out every episode. And to my knowledge, they're usually not even part of the usual 'Breaking Bad' crew. To me, the overall look of the show this season - everything from the unforgettable images of the teddy bear in the pool or Jesse's car pouncing up and down, to the wide vistas of the New Mexico desert - have been stunning. More 'cinematic' than what we usually see on television, which is the look that Vince Gilligan is really going for.

Regarding Margolis, I'll never forget his one-episode visit to "Californication" in Season 1, where he played Hank Moody's father in the episode titled, "California Son." He couldn't have embodied that character any better, and it shed so much light on how Hank became the man that he did. Was thrilled to see him appear last week, but felt almost robbed at the start when I realized he couldn't speak. But once he started hitting that bell, and giving the evil eye to Walt, I was blown away by both what he did with just his face and his finger, along with the writing - how so much tension could be put into a scene with the addition of only that little bell. Is it possible for an actor to win a guest-starring Emmy without saying a single word? Probably not, but if ever there was a chance for it, this would be the performance. The next time I'm waiting to check into a motel and the clerk isn't at the front desk, I'll probably just yell out or wait, refusing to ring the bell. Bad memories, you know.


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