The first image that really catches our eye is that of some poor bastard hauling his dirty, grimy self across the ground. He looks, in a word, pitiful…and as we’ve just seen a truck driving along the dusty road and another man wandering about with seeming calm, we have to presume that the aforementioned gentleman on the ground has but a short amount of time left on this earth.

But, then, we start to get mixed signals when a second man is seen crawling in the dirt, then a third.

By the time the shot cuts to reveal a veritable legion of dirt crawlers, with the ominous score only serving to underline the palpable nervousness of the bystanders in the village (i.e. the ones sitting or standing rather than crawling), we have to ask: “What the hell’s going on here?”

A car pulls up. A man with silver skulls on the toes of his boots steps out. Make that two men. Are they twins?

Oh, but it’s too late to consider the genetic origins of these guys, because now they’ve started crawling. This is getting downright creepy…and that’s even before the group begins to rise to their feet and enter a highly disturbing candle-lit shrine, to which they add a sheet of paper.

It’s a Santa Muerte shrine. On the paper is a pencil sketch of Heisenberg. In short, these guys are praying that Walter White will be dead soon.

Season 3 is officially off to an awesome start. Welcome back, “Breaking Bad.”

Given the end of Season 2, it’s no surprise that the first thing tackled post-credits is the inevitable repercussions of the airplane crash. You probably spotted the guest appearance by Ashleigh Banfield, but the other newscasters are actually from Albuquerque’s NBC affiliate, KOB. It’s an easy segue back into where we left off last season, offering a look into how it’s affected the residents of the city…including, of course, one W. White, who’s busy burning money on his barbecue grill. If there’s any sight more horrifying than watching cash go up in smoke, it’s got to be Walt having second thoughts and, in the process, setting his robe on fire. It was a must-do, though: right about now, the money is really the only thing in Walt’s life that he can stop from going up smoke.

Certainly, his marriage is shot to hell, a fact underlined by Skyler’s inaugural appearance in Season 3, which takes place as she’s attempting to kickstart the divorce proceedings between herself and Walt. It’s a meeting borne of emotion rather than intellect, however, with Skyler desperately trying to ignore the attorney’s comments and suggestions until the cumulative effect of her protestations finally begin the process of collapsing her resolve. The tension between her and Walt, Jr., doesn’t help the situation any, and once her sister starts to get on her case, Skyler can’t deny it any more: she’s got to ask Walt outright what the hell he’s got going on in his world that he’s been too afraid to reveal to her.

Walt, meanwhile, continues to struggle with this new and unwanted place in which he’s found himself. My God, how many more sandwiches must be dissected before the man can determine his new path in life? Even the formerly safe bastion of boredom that his day job had become has now turned into a series of reminiscences by the students about the plane crash and how it affected them.

That whole sequence, by the way, was a masterwork of dark humor. You had the first student casually hinting that maybe there might be some way to adjust the grade point averages in order to help them deal with the emotional trauma, and he’s followed by a legitimately upset young lady – played, FYI, by Bryan Cranston’s real-life daughter – who, in the midst of her attempts to vent her emotions, is asked, “Can we keep it secular, honey?” When Walt’s hauled up to say a few words, you know his nervous talking thing is going to get the best of him, but, wow, that was bad even for him. And, yet, there’s probably some kid in the gymnasium who’s thinking, “Really? It was only tied for the 50th worst crash? Wow, I actually do feel better knowing that!”

After school, Walt takes his son home, and we’re once again reminded that, for as much of a bad ass as we know Walt can be, he’s still prone to falling back into his old ways when he’s within Skyler’s gravitational (and emotional) pull. Later, though, we realize that he can slip into his new persona around her: it may have been typical Walt to act legitimately blindsided by the idea that Skyler would pursue divorce proceedings, but it was definitely a Heisenberg move to get pissed about the fact that she hadn’t yet listened to his side of the story.

At last, Skyler knows what Walt has been doing to pull in the kind of money he’s managed in recent weeks, though he clearly hastened the confirmation of her suspicions during his reaction to her drug-dealer accusation by letting slip with a “How…?” It was a classic bit of backpedaling on his part, though, to try and calm her fears by explaining, “I’m a manufacturer, not a dealer, per se.” It doesn’t help: she demands a divorce as payment for her silence. What I suspect, however, is that she’s going to find herself intrigued by this side of her husband. The problem’s going to be if she romanticizes it too much, because there’s clearly nothing romantic about the guys he’s been dealing with.

But what of Walt’s partner in crime? Jesse’s in rehab and, whether he went into it for this reason or not, he’s now on a path to learn self-acceptance, courtesy of Counselor Jere Burns…who, obviously, knows quite a bit about the field, what with all those episodes of “Dear John” he was on. That was certainly a harsh story he had to tell (and I couldn’t believe it took place in Portsmouth, VA, which is only about 10 minutes from where I’m writing this blog), but for some reason, given this series, I just have this feeling that we’ll later find out that it wasn’t actually true. That’s totally just a blind suspicion on my part, and I could absolutely be wrong, but imagine what effect that would have on Jesse if he were to find out that were the case. Here he is accepting himself as “the bad guy.” If he found that his new philosophy was based on a lie, talk about the impetus for a serious backslide. All I’m saying is that it’s just the sort of thing that could happen on “Breaking Bad.” By the way, Aaron Paul really is a revelation on this series. With Jesse cleaned up, he’s getting a chance to play an almost completely new character, and he’s making the most of it.

We’re in the home stretch now, so let’s talk about the return of Gus, who came bearing an indecent proposal of sorts. Walt says, “I am not a criminal, this is not me.” Gus says, “I’ll give you 3 million dollars for 3 months of your time.” The look in Walt’s eyes belies his response – “I have money, I have more money than I know how to spend, what I don’t have is my family” – and you can tell that, although his answer is still “no,” it won’t be for long…and judging from his smile, Gus knows it.

Random bits I dug tonight:

* Walt’s risk in telling Hank the truth about the bag holding half a million dollars in cash. Honesty’s the best policy if you don’t think people are going to believe you’re telling the truth, but that struck me as a classic case of Walt just throwing caution to the wind for a cheap adrenaline rush.

* Walt, Jr.’s decision to put his father’s rambling answering machine message out of its misery by picking up the phone.

* Jesse’s casual observation upon getting into Walt’s car: “Your windshield’s broken.”

* Walt’s attempt to make Jesse feel better by laying blame for the air disaster on the government.

* The teddy bear’s eyeball. First it gets stuck in the pool vent, now it’s under the bed. Where oh where will it turn up next?

And so, we close with the bad-ass twins traveling from Mexico to Texas with a chatty gentleman nicknamed Olive Oil. You just knew, however, that he was talking way too much to survive the trip. Shame about the driver, though. Shooting up the truck, setting fire to it, and having it explode behind them as they walk away without looking back was a bit of overkill, perhaps, but damned if didn’t make for a good episode-closing shot.

Next week: the return of Sal Goodman!

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