One of the things that sets Breaking Bad apart from most other drama series at its level of quality is its scale. Unlike the sci-fi epics Battlestar Galactica and Lost, unlike the sprawling Big Love, unlike even the attempt-to-define-a-generation Mad Men, Breaking Bad is deliberately small-scale. It’s not AS small-scale as something like In Treatment (which is just two people talking in a room, most of the time), but it’s very specifically about the journey of one man and the people around him, and the storylines usually don’t venture too much beyond his neighborhood. The show also thinks nothing of keeping the pace leisurely and confining the action of any given episode to one location. To wit, the series’s third episode mostly dealt with Walter White (Bryan Cranston) trying to deal with the drug dealer he had locked up in the basement of a hideout home, and this episode, “Grilled,” written by George Mastras and directed by Charles Haid, spent about two-thirds of its running time confined to a tiny house in the middle of a uniquely American wasteland, as Walter and Jesse (Aaron Paul) tried to figure out a way to slip from the grasp of the violently murderous Tuco (Raymond Cruz), who threatened them with death and also considered absconding with them to Mexico.
“Grilled” wasn’t quite as good as Breaking Bad’s second season premiere, “Seven Thirty-Seven,” but it made up for that in intensity. Cruz’s livewire portrayal of Tuco skirts the edge of cliché (an unpredictable drug dealer with a sadistic streak? You don’t say!), but he’s certainly not the kind of guy a deliberate man like Walt would want to be trapped in a single room with, to say nothing of Tuco’s more-with-it-than-he-lets-on uncle, confined to a wheelchair and unable to speak but able to communicate well enough with a simple bell. It’s hard to do a compelling bottle show anymore on TV (a bottle show being an episode shot largely on one set to conserve costs), but Breaking Bad makes about as good a run at the title as anything has in recent years.
The whole episode hinges on that incredibly twisty and darkly funny third act, where Jesse and Walt make one last-ditch attempt to poison Tuco with the ricin Walt derived from the beans last week. Earlier, Tuco had refused to take the ricin-laced meth because Jesse stupidly told him it boasted chili powder as a secret ingredient. (“I hate chili powder,” Tuco sniffed.) While Tuco was tending to his uncle and facing away from the two, Walt hurriedly dumped the poison into Tuco’s tasty-looking burrito, but the uncle, Tio, saw him do it. Since Tio had seemed to be barely lucid through the rest of the episode, this might have seemed OK, but just as Tuco was about to bite into the sloppily-reassembled burrito, Tio dinged the little bell attached to his wheelchair, and from there, the act raced into one of the most nauseatingly tense scenes of the series, as Tuco tried to surmise just why his uncle suspected Walt and Jesse, Walt and Jesse tried to dissuade him of the notion that there was anything wrong beyond Tio just having an unfounded suspicion, and Tio kept ringing that damn bell. It concluded, as these things do, in gunplay, but that scene of four men, all suspicious of each other but not wanting to actually have things descend to the level of murder, was a terrific little gem.
That all of this ended with two reversals (Jesse managed to outsmart Tuco instead of Walt getting a clear shot, and the car driving up to the house wasn’t Tuco’s cousins, come to take the boys to Mexico, but, rather, Hank (Dean Norris), having tracked Jesse to the weird desert hideout while looking for Walt) felt a bit too clean. Tuco might have made a better bogeyman to constantly be nipping at Walt and Jesse’s heels, but it also might have eventually grown unbelievable that he wouldn’t just kill the two already. That might have also too quickly dragged Walt’s family, particularly Hank, into matters, which could have been a struggle to keep from undermining the show (since it’s already going to be quite a trick to keep Hank from guessing what Jesse and Walt have been up to given what he knows now). So having Hank dispatch of Tuco will probably end up being the best way to deal with that plot thread, but it also consigns Walt back to the square one he was at at the beginning of the series.
There’s also the matter of the desert locale the small house was set in. The way Breaking Bad uses its Albuquerque locations is always refreshing—finally, a series that doesn’t look like it’s set in a generic New York stand-in!—but the wasteland of discarded trash, barbed wire on its edge, keeping the desert at bay, was the sort of setting you don’t see on TV a lot. The opening images, of Jesse’s car bouncing up and down, shattered glass and spent casings falling to the ground, trash littering the landscape, were weirdly haunting, to the point that when the episode returned to that point late in the hour (during Tuco and Hank’s shoot-out), it almost felt a little disappointing, since it wasn’t as hyper-stylized and the color wasn’t as oversaturated as in that opening scene. But that desert wasteland hung with me. Breaking Bad often takes its scenes and tosses them into places we just don’t normally see on television, the sorts of places that scruffy indie comedies and Coen brothers movies might hang out, and that’s something worth applauding about the show.
The stuff back in the city proper, with Skyler (Anna Gunn) and Walter Jr. (RJ Mitte) hunting for Walt, who hadn’t been gone all THAT long, felt a little forced, though at least the show made a point of showing that the police officers Skyler brought in to help out with the case were working strictly freelance. Skyler, obviously, is someone who likes having everything a certain way, and Walt’s frequent disappearances are weighing more and more heavily on her, but it was a smidge implausible that she would get this worked up this quickly and that Hank would just as quickly jump to help her out (though he may still be smarting from the verbal beatdown she gave his wife in the previous episode). The scenes of the characters papering the area with flyers featuring Walt’s face (“Have you seen this man?”) as though he were a lost dog or something were more effective at showing her desperation than watching her slowly try not to break down in front of her sister and brother-in-law, ultimately. Breaking Bad is still doing a better job of making Skyler slightly more human than she was last season, but it needs to temper her just a bit, lest she become some nagging wife archetype (not that she doesn’t have anything to nag about).
On the other hand, watching Hank conduct his own investigation into Walt’s disappearance made the character seem like less of a bumbler than he could seem like last season. By necessity, Hank needs to be both an antagonist and a friend to Walt, a nice guy to him within the family but also unknowingly tracking down this suddenly powerful new player on the local drug scene, intent on bringing him in. Seeing Hank at work, rallying up his troops in a hokey fashion that seemed perfectly in character made him seem tenacious enough to get the job done, and his slow recreation of Walt’s breadcrumb trail did a better job of dropping us into his investigative headspace than anything the series has done so far. Hank’s already done enough to unravel the careful web of lies Walt has built up around himself that it will be interesting to see how Walt can reconstruct it in the episodes to come (as we assume he must). Still, having his brother-in-law know about his second cellphone (and then having Skyler find out via Marie, played by Betsy Brandt) and his connection to Jesse, whose car was, obviously, at the scene of the shootout between Tuco and Hank, is going to make it hard to build a second web. Creating new lies is always harder than coming up with those first, easy lies, and lying is still not something that comes as easily to Walt as it might (not that he’s not learning). Still, Walt’s a stubborn man, which is a good thing when it’s keeping Jesse alive but a bad thing when he doesn’t give up the meth game when he could, perhaps, get health care help from an old friend whom he still bears a grudge against, so he’ll almost certainly come up with new alibis.
The shootout between Hank and Tuco was the sort of thing that might be easy to overdo, since most shows would want to top an episode like this with an action-packed climax, but it was nice to see Breaking Bad not betray itself with a big action beat. The shootout, instead, was the sort of quick and sloppy business a real-life shootout might devolve into (not having been in one, I wouldn’t know, but it felt truer to life, and sometimes, that’s all that matters), even ending not with both parties getting off one last shot and Hank’s shot ringing true, but with Hank just being quicker and better than Tuco, dropping him to the ground. Sure, it technically WAS an action-packed climax, but it worked in spite of itself, especially with Walt playing an unseen observer, realizing that his brother-in-law now at least knows Jesse knew Tuco and realizing how quickly things were spiraling out of control even more than they were a few moments ago. Plus, hearing Tio’s bell ringing again over the episode’s closing moments, Hank looking up to see where the sound was coming from, was a great final gag to end the thing on.
But it was all of those scenes inside the house that really made the episode sing, showing that tension on TV needn’t always come from overwrought theatrics or big action sequences. Tension on TV almost always works best when characters we care about are stuck in intimate situations where anything could go wrong at any moment. Mastras and Haid managed to get across the claustrophobia of being trapped in that small room with a psychopath, and Haid’s smart use of the camera to always let us know where Walt, Jesse, Tuco and Tio were in relation to each other at any given moment ramped up the tension even more. Even if the rest of the episode didn’t quite match those middle passages, they were strong enough to prop up everything else around them, making you think you’d watched something truly great all the same.
Some other thoughts:
• I finally have a screener, so next week’s piece should go up shortly after the episode finishes airing on the East Coast. Hurrah!
• Hank insists that everyone has a secret they don’t want anyone to find out about. That’s certainly true of most of the characters on this show, but Hank and Skyler sure seem to be keeping theirs carefully hidden from us. All the same, maybe Skyler and Walter Jr. would start to catch on if Walter Jr. would just look down while he’s printing out those flyers and notice the giant wad of cash sticking out of the diaper box just sitting there at his feet.
• Here’s a random programming note for you: NBC’s Kings, which debuted Sunday night, is one of the wildest and weirdest things I’ve ever seen on TV. It’s essentially Falcon Crest crossed with FX’s defunct Over There crossed with the Bible crossed with what I imagine Sci-Fi’s (sorry, SyFy’s) upcoming Battlestar Galactica prequel Caprica will be like. It’s a show I’m still not sure I like, but it’s definitely a show that has my interest, and any series that concludes its big, opening two-hour pilot movie with the go-for-broke looniness of a man being anointed by God with a crown of butterflies (no, really!) is something worth keeping an eye on.
• Walter Jr.’s been largely sitting out this season so far. I understand it can be hard to work him organically into the action, but Mitte’s a fine, understated actor, and I hope he and Cranston get some big scenes together in the weeks to come.
• The escalating exchange about how Tio was mad at Walter because Walt had changed the channel on the TV and Tio just needed to see some sexy ladies to get through his day, punctuated frequently with Tio’s damned bell was just terrifically funny, particularly Jesse’s attempts to corroborate Walt’s story and his coining of the term telenovels.
• Hank shows himself to be a pretty sharp investigator throughout (his hunch about the sorts of equipment Jesse would install in his car leads to him finding Tuco’s hideout), but he still thinks that Tuco’s probably responsible for the disappearance of Krazy 8, the dealer Walt dispatched way back in episode three. Not a bad conclusion to jump to, but still a sign of how far he has to catch up.
• I really missed the chemistry lesson of the week. Granted, there was really no way that Walt was going to catch us up on the compositional qualities of Boron or something, but I’ve come to enjoy the little science lessons the show drops into the middle of episodes.
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