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'Breaking Bad': Life, death and carbon

April 12, 2009 | 11:01 pm

Breaking-bad It could have also been the double-shot of espresso, but this episode had my heart pounding. Jesse, in that house, with those two freaks, with that tragic little kid. And then Walt, with the wife, with Gretchen, with The Lie. …

“Carbon is at the center of it all,” Walt (Bryan Cranston) explained to his chemistry class as he returned to work. “There is no life without carbon.” His students could not have been more bored. If only they could have seen the rest of the episode, another dandy.

Ratcheting up the intensity again after last week's episode had Walt shuffling between his two lives and unable to control either until he gave Jesse (Aaron Paul) a gun and told him to “take care of it,” the floor was now Jesse’s.

He showed up to the freakshow home of the couple that had robbed Skinny Pete, and I’m sorry, but the world of meth is just disgusting. Especially when the faces of it are “Spooge” and “Spooge’s Woman,” as they’re credited on IMDB. No offense to actors David Ury and Dale Dickey, of course – I applaud them for agreeing to look and act so horribly on television, and those character names must look pretty funny on the resume – but man were they gross.

Jesse managed to get overtaken by the pair – having a gun held to his head for the umpteenth time – but saved the day in the end, sweetly saving the couple’s little boy from seeing the atrocity of Spooge’s crushed head beneath an ATM machine. (For those who didn’t see the episode, I won’t even explain, for imagining the depth of your current horror and/or confusion is an evil delight.)

The scenes with Jesse and the kid dripped with symbolism, of course – Jesse probably seeing a reflection of his younger self, and in the end, you could feel his intense hope that the little guy wouldn’t grow up to be like him. “Look, just don’t go back inside,” Jesse told him after wrapping him up in a blanket on the porch. He didn’t want to leave him, but he had to. “You have a good rest of your life, kid,” he told him.

Meanwhile, we learned a lot more about Walt’s past. His ex-flame Gretchen (Jessica Hecht) was back, and the intense undercurrent of emotion that we always felt between the two in prior episodes finally came to light: Walt, it turns out, abruptly left Gretchen long ago. She in turn built a million-dollar empire of a pharmaceutical company based on the work and research of Walt and his old pal Elliott. Oh, and she also married Elliott and the two of them cut Walt out of their company’s eventual profits. In the words of the great Austin Powers, “Ouch, baby. Very ouch.”

And so when the two of them sat in that pleasant little restaurant with that pleasant little piano playing in the background, the mood was anything but. More was said with their eyes than with their words – and those words cut deeply. “What happened to you?” she asked, and his eyes and lips narrowed to slits, the rage bubbling inside. For Walt, Gretchen represents a different life, What Could Have Been. And so when she said “I feel so sorry for you, Walt,” enough was enough. “____ you,” he told her, and you can fill in the blank.

To Gretchen’s credit, she left Walt with just enough thread by not telling Skyler the truth. “We can’t pay for Walt’s treatment anymore,” was about all she apparently said, instead of telling Skyler that she and Elliott hadn’t in fact paid for any of it. When Skyler asked plainly, “Walt, what do you know that I don’t?” you could see the wheels turning again in that bald head of his – what could he tell her this time? What could he spin?

Then came the story of the trip up to Santa Fe and the ruined economy robbing Gretchen and Elliott of their fortune, and with just about any other character you might not buy Walt’s being able to get away with these tales. But he’s such an academic that you actually buy the way in which his mind always manages to free him from of the tight spots, whether it’s with his wife or with a madman like Tuco.

When he realized that Skyler was just gullible enough to buy his latest tale, and especially when she pointed to the audacity of Gretchen still driving around in the Bentley, the mere look on Walt’s face, along with his “Keeping up appearances? I don’t know …” line was pure gold.

I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it again: Cranston’s face has an elastic quality to it, and whether for comedic or dramatic effect, he seems to have an uncanny ability to always hit the perfect note even more so with his face than his words. Aspiring actors would be wise to watch this episode with the volume muted; the emotion that emanates from his face still screams from the TV.

-- Josh Gajewski

(Photo courtesy AMC)