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'Breaking Bad': When I heard the learn'd astronomer

April 26, 2010 |  7:54 am

Episode-6-Hank-Post-760 Too often I hear the phrase "gripping television," but folks, this was gripping television. It grabbed, held, squeezed. And those commercial breaks? Excruciating. 

Welcome again to "Breaking Bad." Sunday night's episode, easily the new best of this third season, had us laughing for a good while before it got serious. Very serious. And possibly deadly serious. "The agent's name is Hank Schrader. May his death satisfy you." This was Gustavo's dark blessing, given to the bloodthirsty "cousins" at sunset. That's how it ended. 

Conversely, it began with one of the cousins hacking up a police officer with an ax. And so, just as Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) begins to get very interesting as a character, we may be losing the big lug. But of course, this is "Breaking Bad," a show that's quite good at the head fake and at finding those little escape routes out of the impossible; Sunday's pulsating RV scene is yet another example. 

On that note, let's carve up the delicious episode: 

-- "I'll take it," says Walter White (Bryan Cranston), standing in what he hopes will be his new apartment. Problem is, it's only a model. Not up for rent. The furnishings and the painting of the New Mexico desert are for show, not for him. "Name one thing in this world that is not negotiable," Walt says to the leasing agent and what a great line to effectively kick things off. ... 

-- No matter how many times we see him do it, Walt cutting the crusts off of his peanut butter and jelly sandwiches somehow never gets any less precious. Here, he scanned the cut closely. Then he folded a napkin into fourths. Then he put both the sandwich and the napkin neatly into a brown paper sack, marking it with a black marker: "Walt." At first it's just a funny scene in and of itself, a TV show taking the time to show a grown man being so meticulous about a sack lunch. But the comedic payoff came later, when Walt emerged from the Aztec holding the sack lunch at the site of his new, state-of-the-art meth lab; not at school. ... 

-- As for the lab, two things: First, I may be reading too much into this, but I really loved the possible symbolism of Walt, a dying man, descending into this secret underground. Do you notice the red lighting, both at the top of the stairs and at the red lab door? And how about the red spiral case that leads down to red floor? Something tells me that this color choice is no accident. ... Second, is that Mel's husband from "Flight of the Conchords" down there? It is! David Costabile is the actor who plays Gale, Walter's new lab assistant. And although he's made several appearances on "The Wire" and "Damages," among others, he will always be Doug in my "Conchords"-loving heart. But I'm beginning to think that the "Breaking Bad" folks were big fans of "The Wire," as Giancarlo Esposito, who plays Gus, also hails from that show. ... 

-- "I love the lab, because it's all still magic, you know?" So goes the awfully bromantic chat between Walt and Gale at the end of their first day on the job together. There was wine, a Walt Whitman poem and so much chemistry -- these two could have gone on forever talking about their mutual love of it. "Yes, I am a nerd," Gale says, and they laugh, soul mates. It was hilarious. ... 

-- Speaking of hilarity, how about Saul Goodman's exercise machine, jiggling his body back and forth? I don't know the name of it, I don't want to know the name of it, and I don't even know if it's actually an exercise machine, but I absolutely cracked up. It just somehow ... fit. ... 

-- If your heart didn't pound just a little harder as Hank tested the windows and the door of the RV, Walt and Jesse standing quietly inside of it, I don't know what's wrong with you. Maybe you need one of those jiggly things that Saul was using. ... And how the writers also managed to squeeze in a good laugh within this wrenching scene was remarkable. Walt stood there, whispering to Jesse (Aaron Paul) what to say through the door. "This is my own private domicile, and I will not be harassed," Walt tells Jesse to say. And he says it, but of course adds an expletive at the end. Walt just shakes his head at the moron. Also hilarious was the deadpan delivery of the junkyard owner (Larry Hankin) once Jesse had piped up: "Huh. There's somebody in there." ... 

-- Better call Saul. Walt does, asking for an absolutely despicable favor. Naturally, Saul (Bob Odenkirk) obliges. "I'm sorry to inform you that your wife has been in an automobile accident," Saul's assistant says to Hank by phone, before soon hanging up and telling Saul, "You're going to have to start paying me more." The look on Saul's face is priceless. ... 

-- Praising music supervisor Thomas Golubic is beginning to sound like a broken record, but again it must be done. The playful piano that played during the Hank-Gale meth-making montage was so fun, and then the Spanish-language ballad that played over the funeral-like RV demolition footage somehow translated the emotion of the moment even if we didn't understand the words. ... 

-- The bulk of Sunday night's praise, though, must be saved for John Shiban. A writer-producer of the show who, like Vince Gilligan, is an "X-Files" alum, he's the one who penned and directed this episode. I briefly met Shiban when I visited the "Breaking Bad" writers room one day last summer, and I still remember how he was the one person in the room who stood and paced throughout as the rest of the creative team sat at a conference table discussing the various "what-ifs" for season 3. As he paced, he constantly twirled and occasionally fired a tiny plastic toy gun. And here, he hit every target. The writing, the acting, the camera shots -- everything seemed spot-on. And Shiban certainly knows the art of the payoff; in addition to the sack-lunch moment mentioned above, one of my other favorite payoffs was Marie's ringtone on Hank's phone. Early in the episode, the ring plays on Hank's phone as he's in surveillance and he's visibly as annoyed as we are at the tone, not wanting to talk to her. Then later, in the chaos of Hank at the hospital, him frantically searching for his wife, it's that same ringtone that fades in over the silence, and suddenly it isn't such a bad sound. "Marie?" "I'm just checking in," she said to him. "I'd love to have some idea of whether I should cook dinner or not ..."

-- And finally, a couple of reporter's notes. At the beginning of this season, AMC sent out press kits to writers such as myself, introductory packets about the show along with the season's first three episodes. The kit included a figurine of Heisenberg in the spirit of a Santa Muerte figurine -- the head beneath Heisenberg's cap was more of a skull. The curious thing about my particular Heisenberg figurine, though, was that one of his arms was cut off near the shoulder. The part of the arm that had come off was still in the box, though, so I figured at the time that the figurine had just been damaged during shipment. However, now that these cousins are walking around from episode to episode with that ax, I'm beginning to wonder.  ... And speaking of those cousins, brothers Luis and Daniel Moncada were kind enough to sit with me recently for an article in Saturday's Los Angeles Times. What didn't make it into the story was this very interesting fact: the two brothers, as you can see, are largely inked by tattoos. Daniel occasionally does the tattoos himself. Well, the very last tattoo that Luis got was one on his shin, and Daniel was the one who put it on him. The tattoo? Santa Muerte. The irony? It was about three months later when Luis and Daniel were called in to audition for "Breaking Bad." A short time later, they were filming their first scene, crawling toward the statue of Santa Muerte. "Crazy, right?" Luis said of the coincidence, and here I have to agree. 

-- Josh Gajewski

Photo: Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) closes in on the elusive RV during Sunday night's "Breaking Bad." Credit: AMC 

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