It's been a full year since we saw a bald Walter White carrying a bloody bag of money out of a decaying building, in the scene that signaled his transformation from "just the chemist" to a full-fledged drug dealer. That episode, "Crazy Handful of Nothin'," was one of our favorite episodes of the year. And even though it overshadowed the season finale, you might remember that the season ended with Walter and Jesse meeting insane meth kingpin Tuco in a junkyard and promising him plenty of blue crystal on a regular basis. Followed by Tuco beating one of his henchmen to a bloody pulp, making our heroes wonder whether they can keep this strictly business. "Next week!" Tuco reminds them as he roars off in his Escalade.
That's where we start Season 2 — if you don't count a spooky black-and-white flash-forward featuring a half-burned stuffed animal with one detached eyeball floating into the trap in the White's swimming pool. (How many episodes will it take us to get there, do you think?) Turns out the junkyard scene wasn't over, though. Back in the car, Walter does some quick figuring to determine how many more weeks they have to deliver the goods to put Skylar, Walt Jr., and the baby in a secure financial position. Eleven weeks, he decides, and Walt Jr.'s college is paid for, the 401K is up to snuff, the home equity line is paid off, the mortgage is retired. Nothing to it, right?
Except the Escalade comes back. Tuco's henchman is dead, and Gonzo, the other henchman, reluctantly shoves him under a junked car. ("It's not very Christian," he objects to an unrepentent Tuco.) Still think you can do that eleven weeks and get out, Walter? Jesse sure doesn't. He spends the rest of the episode in a paranoid panic, knowing that Tuco will be coming for them as witnesses to the murder. And he gets Walter spooked as well — for good reason, as it turns out. But first, Walter comes home in a new state of madness — one that has him first standing in front of the TV clicking numbly through the channels, then assaulting his wife in the kitchen. (What must Walt Jr. think of the smear of facial goop that she leaves on the refrigerator?) This is a weird and uncomfortable scene, partially redeemed, I think, by his sleepless night at the window with a kitchen knife in his hand.
So what's the plan? The plan is kill Tuco before he kills you. Jesse buys a gun in a twitchy anonymous transaction at a fast-food joint, and he wants to get Walter one, too, because if both of them are packing heat, "don't we like, double our chances? I mean, mathematically?" But Walter has a better idea: Combine science with old-school spycraft. Cook up some ricin from castor beans and get it into Tuco to poison him. It's unlikely they can poke it into his leg with an umbrella, so Walter suggests that they say it's a new meth formula, one that "gets the user insanely high." (Quite the pharmaceutical ad man, our Walter.)
Meanwhile Skylar, just as much on the edge of sanity as Walter, in her way, gets a visit from brother-in-law Hank, the DEA agent, who begs her to return her sister's calls. You'll remember that Skylar was humiliated by being detained in the jewelry store when she tried to return the tiara that Marie shoplifted for her baby shower. When she reveals to Hank that his wife is a kleptomaniac, she is humiliated anew when it turns out Hank is fully aware of this fact but has neglected to let anyone else know. "We gotta support the shit out of her," he explains apologetically. Skylar breaks down after screaming at him about her much bigger troubles, sobbing on his shoulder while Hank awkwardly comforts her. It's a funny, painful scene, one that bodes well for both characters this season.
Skylar's always been strong, but Hank is truly coming into his own as a comic force. And he's a menace to Walter, too, in his goofy way. This week he finds out about the meth ingredients that Walter and Jesse stole from the warehouse, thanks to a security camera that caught their little heist. And he freezes Walter's blood by sending him a cell-phone picture of Gonzo, the second thug, dead in the junkyard. Convinced that Tuco is eliminating everyone who knows about thug #1 under the car, Walter cleans out the vent in the baby's room where he's hidden the money, stuffing it into a box of diapers. But in a masterful bit of cross-cutting, we discover that Gonzo wasn't killed — he went back to move the body and got trapped when the piles of junkers shifting on him, bleeding to death from a crushed arm. Just as Walter is about to spill the beans to an icy, hostile Skylar, Jesse drives up with Tuco holding a gun on him from the back seat. Could the game be up this quick? Does Walter have the ricin in his pocket? And will he find out that the situation is not as dire as he and Jesse think before or after he tries to use it?
- One of the stellar dynamics of this very dynamic show is the sliding scale of cool between Walter and Jesse. Walter has to put on the iceman facade to get his deals done, but it takes just about everything he's got and leaves him shaking, half-mad. Jesse's got minimal cool reserves, and it strains his relationship with Walt that the latter is always trying to keep the former from flipping out.
- Case in point: Jesse's plan to shoot Tuco while he's sampling the product at the next buy. "How many shots?" "Three shots, or, I don't know, two?" Jesse blathers. When Walter tries to tell him that killing's not so simple, he retorts that it must be easy because "you did it" — taking us back to that basement. Creepsville.
- Marie only has six more sessions of therapy with "Dave." Think she's cured?
- There's only one way to feel about a black Escalade parked on your block in the middle of the night. Very, very bad.
- Two realistic details that I love about this episode: (1) How unglamorous Skylar looks when very pregnant, and (2) the noise when Walter opens the door of Jesse's squeaky-ass old Grand Marquis.
- How long until Skylar finds the money in that diaper box?
- This episode was directed by Bryan Cranston, and it's got some superb timing. Is there nothing the man can't do?
- Homemade ricin, huh? Absolutely super-cool. (Unless you're on the other end of that umbrella.)