The long-awaited fourth season of “Breaking Bad” has finally begun. Earlier this week, I posted interviews with Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul and Betsy Brandt, a photographic tour of the show’s sets and my overall review of the season’s first three episodes. Now I have specific thoughts on “Box Cutter,” the season premiere, coming up just as soon as we get matching Kenny Rogers t-shirts…
“Well? Get back to work.” -Gus
When a review describes a movie or TV show as “manipulative,” it’s almost always with a negative connotation. But most fiction is manipulative in some way. It’s just a question of whether something was bad and manipulative (it made you feel emotions it hadn’t earned, or you could tell what emotions it wanted you to feel, even though you didn’t feel them) or good and manipulative.
“Breaking Bad” is constantly manipulative. Think about the reaction you had when Hank got the call that the Cousins would be approaching him within a minute, or when Walt stood and watched Jane choke to death in a manner he could have easily prevented, or when a tearful Jesse stood in Gale’s doorway at the end of last season and prepared to commit his first murder. Those are reactions that Vince Gilligan and company wanted you to have and worked very hard to make you have. But they’re also reactions the show earned through hard work, through execution, and through the patience to let us understand these characters well enough to believe what they’re doing in these moments.
“Box Cutter” is manipulative in the extreme – and magnificently so. Rarely have I been as happy to have a show expertly tug on my strings as I was watching this. The creative has built to this moment over a long time, and they’ve earned the right to linger on every last detail, even if it makes the audience hold its breath as they do so.
Just think about the many things that the episode (written by Gilligan and directed by Adam Bernstein) does to mess with our heads.
It opens with Gale alive and well and working in the Super Lab, and whether or not you read the interview I did with Vince last year in which he confirmed that Jesse shot Gale (when the camera angle he used suggested he might have changed his aim at the last minute), it would be easy to imagine that he changed his mind over the long hiatus and couldn’t bear to kill the guy (and the last shred of Jesse’s innocence). Instead, it’s another “Breaking Bad” flashback-as-short-story, as we get the origin of the Super Lab, as well as Gus’s reason for hiring Walt, with the entire scene laced with dread as Gale slowly but surely talks his way into the grave with his insistence that Gus needs to employ the man who makes the blue meth.
The rest of the story with Walt and Jesse and Gus is remarkably simple – so simple, in fact, that the episode has to take a few extended interludes with Skyler and/or Marie so it’s not just an hour of Walt and Jesse sitting around and waiting for Gus to show up and make his decision. And yet the execution of those scenes in the Super Lab is so good, and so tense, that I almost could imagine a version of the episode where we never see the women at all.
The ways in which the episode teases things out and makes us wait is fabulous. Jesse doesn’t speak at all for nearly 40 minutes of the commercial-less running time (and then only for a blackly comic callback to their botched attempt to dispose of Emilio’s body way back in the series’ second episode). Though he speaks a bit in the flashback to much happier, more peaceful times, Gus says all of five words in the present-day scenes. We spend a long time just watching Victor move confidently through the lab, showing just how well he learned to work the equipment from watching Walt, Jesse and Gale.
And in a move so ballsy and so brilliant that I actually started giggling the second time they did it, the episode devotes nearly four minutes of screen time (albeit with Walt ranting through part of it) to watching Gus Fring get dressed and undressed… TWICE (and with the care, patience and precision we’ve come to expect from the Chicken Man), with the second time coming as we’ve all been left, like Walt and Mike, slack-jawed and stunned by what Gus just did to Victor.
That sort of thing can come across as self-indulgent, or as a show understanding exactly how all its parts work and how its audience will respond to those parts. Suffice it to say, “Breaking Bad” is a show that knows what it’s doing, and is doing it brilliantly.
Think about it: we know Walt can’t die in the season premiere, that great as Aaron Paul is, the show isn’t going to suddenly reconfigure itself around Jesse. And we’re pretty damn sure that Jesse will survive, as well. In fact, the only character in that room not played by a series regular is Victor, and the rules of TV math say that if 5 people are placed in a potentially-deadly situation and only one of them is a guest star, the guest star’s gonna get it. And yet it’s still a complete shock when Gus slits Victor’s throat with the titular box cutter(*).
(*) Isn’t it amazing to see how differently an object can be perceived depending on who’s holding it? In Gale’s hand, the box cutter is another wonderful part of the giant toy store that is the Super Lab for him. The second Gus picks it up, though…
It helps, of course, to be working with a bunch of world-class actors in this scenario – to have Cranston and Paul and Giancarlo Esposito and Jonathan Banks be able to say so much when they’re not saying anything at all. Everyone’s reaction to Victor’s murder is just perfect: Gus wants to be damn sure that his audience doesn’t miss a moment of this, nor the look of cold, remorseless power in his eyes. Seen-it-all Mike is horrified and shaken that his boss would throw away a trusted employee like Victor just to send a message to these two screw-ups (and also worried if Gus might on day be pulling a box cutter on him). Walt (who has already seen his world reshape itself every five minutes for the last few hours, with the balance of power constantly shifting from his side to Gus’s) becomes so small and terrified, once again reminded of just how much he underestimates the ruthlessness of others in the drug world.
And Jesse? Jesse finally wakes the hell up from the guilt-ridden stupor he’s been in since shooting Gale in the face. Gus wanted him to pay attention, and Jesse’s finally doing exactly that.
I talked last season about how the writers seemed to be putting more and more of the dialogue and monologues into Paul’s capable hands, while leaning on Cranston’s ability to convey Walt’s emotions through silence. For this hour, at least, they switched. Jesse doesn’t talk at all until after Victor’s dead and Gus is gone, and it’s left to Walt to do virtually all the talking as he tries – unnecessarily, as it turns out – to talk his way out of this. Usually, Walt under stress turns into Heisenberg – becomes colder and tougher and more ruthless – but here he’s stuck as plain ol’ Walter White: bitter and full of false bravado that’s fooling no one, least of all Walt himself.(**) Even though we want Walt to survive this mess, and we understand that he’s fighting for his life here, it’s remarkable how the show is still able to paint him as a petty clown in those moments.
(**) Loved Victor remembering the aluminum and shutting down Walt’s little color commentary. If only a baseball player had the ability to do that to Joe Morgan or Tim McCarver.
What a fantastic hour. Everything is settled and yet nothing is. Walt is convinced Gus will try to kill them again at the first opportunity, while Jesse believes it would be too hard for Gus to find another chemist. Jesse seems remarkably steady as he consumes a large Denny’s meal, yet we saw him sitting in his car, borderline-catatonic, after the shooting; going from one extreme to the other is not healthy.
One thing we do know: after the third season ended on such an incredible high note, it would have been easy for this episode to disappoint. But even though it’s been more than a year, the incredible momentum continues, and thank “Breaking Bad”ness for that.
Some other thoughts:
• Loved the use of Alexander Ebert’s “Truth,” with its very Spaghetti Western-style intro, to cover Walt’s long, awkward walk back to his car at the end of the episode.
• In addition to Gale being alive and well in the opening flashback, that glimpse of the bullet hole in the tea kettle in his apartment also briefly made me wonder if Vince had changed his mind. Instead, the bullet went straight out the back of poor Gale’s head and through one of his beloved kitchen gadgets. And brought the cops in to find his incriminating lab notebook. Uh-oh.
• Skyler’s trip to
Hank’s Walt’s condo didn’t turn up anything, because it’s a cold, empty place devoid of any personal effects (other than the judgmental doll’s eye, currentyl rolling around a kitchen drawer), but it did show Skyler continuing to slowly break bad herself, here using little Holly as a prop to help guilt the locksmith into breaking into the place for her.
• Meanwhile, you can absolutely understand why Marie had to brace herself before going back into the house, because Casa Schrader is a very unpleasant place, and Hank a very unhappy patient (and suddenly a collector of rocks/”minerals”).
• Nor are things much happier at Saul Goodman’s office, where our trusty lawyer has gone into full paranoid melt-down at realizing where Mike’s true loyalties lie, and how much danger he could be in because of Walt and Jesse.
• Re: the matching apparel the guys were in for the final scenes, it would have ruined that wonderful cut from the blood being mopped up to some ketchup being swirled at Denny’s, but I almost wish we could have seen Mike buying the guys their new non-bloody clothes just to see the look on his face as he settled on the Kenny Rogers shirts.
What did everybody else think?