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Breaking Bad: "Crazy Handful of Nothin'"

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The seven-episode first season is drawing to a close, and we've got a humdinger going here. Just when you thought the chemistry angle was totally played, "Crazy Handful of Nothin'" brings it from all sides. Walt submits to chemistry (in the form of the chemotherapy pouring into his circulatory system every week), asserts that chemistry is his territory (in the renewal of his partnership with Jesse), and exploits the violence of sudden chemical reactions (in a conclusion that's as good as anything this show's produced so far).

And that conclusion is teased for us in an arresting opening where Walt's big speech with Jesse about being "just the chemist" alternates with an apocalyptic vision of shaved-head Walt carrying a bloodstained bag out of a dangerous neighborhood. But Walt isn't looking so powerful as the show opens. Indeed, the humiliation factor hasn't been as high since he was scrubbing rims the first week. He lies to Skylar about getting a check from Elliott — it went "right into my credit union account," he assures her — and then has to beg the medical receptionist not to deposit his check until after the weekend. He's reduced to adopting support-group "feelings" lingo to shield himself from Skylar's public questions about where he spends those missing afternoons and evenings. (Long walks, he claims; "I do enjoy the nature.")

Worst of all, he's wasting away. Dropping weight (Cranston now looks drawn and increasingly bony), puking in the school lavatory, and losing his hair in clumps. Yet when Jesse busts his hump selling the crystal all over town — to dopers and housewives alike — Walt's share is only $1300, not enough to cover his chemotherapy bill for one week. At first Walt claims Jesse suffers from "a lack of motivation," but for once we're privy to a view of Jesse's character that Walt isn't. He's hustling. And he's got something at stake in this operation, too; when he fans a nauseous Walt with his magazine out in the desert, it seems like a partnership of equally committed associates for the first time.

Jesse has to school Walt in the business end of the meth trade; the only way to move a lot of product and therefore make the big chunks of change is in wholesale — distribution. Unfortunately they killed the previous distributor as well as Jesse's contact with same. The new guy in town, Tuco, has an intimidating organization and isn't interested in cutting deals with Jesse, as shown by the severe beating he administers to the Cap'n with, among other things, a bag of money.

And that's when Walt the Vigilante shows up. "Badass," says Walt Jr. admiringly when Walt shows up at the breakfast table with a shaved head, and turns out Dad is impressive enough to get past Tuco's security with another bag of crystal and a demand: $50,000 for the pound Jesse brought combined with his pain and suffering. And that's when chemistry goes to work. Walt flings a crystal to the group and BLAMMO — you thought that stuff about mercury fulminate in Walt's classroom wouldn't pay off? When he leaves the building, Walt's got the money and a promise to pay for two pounds of product up front next week. And in the preview for next week's episode, Walt ups it to four pounds. He picked up the business side pretty quickly, all things considered.

Every week we see a slightly different mix of desperation, humiliation, and fearlessness. And every tweak to the formula, if you'll pardon the expression, produces a new reaction. What will they cook up next week for the season capper?

Grade: A

Stray observations:

- The other plotline is DEA agent Hank getting closer to Walt, tracing the gas mask in the desert to his high school, finding missing inventory in the lab, and then arresting the custodian (who had the bad judgment to smoke a little pot, past and present). Walt really miscalculated by failing to doctor the supply room inventory. The one thing he never seems to have imagined is that he might get caught.

- One of the prototypical signs of a chemical reaction is something changing color — heck, Walt does it with a gas flame in the first episode. So when Walt's urine changes color to bright orange, it's not just a medical detail. The scientist has become the reagent.

- Walt gives his name to Tuco as "Heisenberg," as in the Uncertainty Principle. Note to self: Do not mess with people who claim they are named Heisenberg. There's no telling what they'll do.

- Marie grabs Walt's and Hank's hole cards out of the muck? That's seriously uncool, sister.