Breaking Bad: Season 4, Episode 1
Pretty much since its premiere, I have generally considered Breaking Bad to be one of the best shows on television. Ever since its stunning pilot, it has shown itself to be beautifully shot, almost perfectly executed, and incredibly intelligent television. The only reason we have never previously covered the show on this site is because during seasons one and two I was always a bit behind and playing catch up, and during season three I was just too busy to add another show to my schedule, what with real life constantly getting in my way. For its first two seasons, Breaking Bad lived (in my mind at least) in the shadow of Mad Men and I generally considered it to be the second greatest drama on television. Season three changed that. Last year, Breaking Bad was the best show on television, overtaking Mad Men and turning out one of the strongest seasons of television I have ever seen. I was very upset, therefore, when AMC delayed the season four premiere from March to July; I was, of course, extremely excited for tonight's premiere. And I am happy to report that, for the most part, it didn't disappoint.
There are a few examples I want to point out before delving into the episode as a whole, that indicate to me the level that this show is operating at (and it's quite high). The first is the fact that the titular box cutter appears twice: originally as Gale uses it to open the packaging on the equipment for the shiny new meth lab, and later when that lab is sullied as Gus murders his right hand man in an effort to intimidate Walt and Jesse (and, also, because he was too obvious at the scene of Gale's death). The second is the Large sticker on Walt's new shirt toward the end of the episode: after disposing of a body, Walt is, in spite of his increasing slip into immorality, shocked enough that he forgets to remove it, in contrast to his sharp attention to detail. Skyler notices, though, and tears it off, commenting on the shirt ("Kenny Rogers, huh?") but not bothering to ask a question she doesn't want to know the answer to. She is changing, and quickly at that.
The first three seasons of Breaking Bad opened with a shocking, almost surreal opening sequences. Season one gave us two dead guys in a Winnebago and a half naked Walt preparing to commit suicide before getting caught. Season two gave us a burned, eyeless Teddy bear floating in a swimming pool. Season three gave us two unknown men joining a mass of people crawling towards a shrine to murder. This year, the show changed things up a bit, giving us a flashback to Gale as he prepares to take charge of the new lab. At this point in our journey, the show doesn't need to open a season with a bang; we know the shocks are coming, and those of us who are caught up know exactly how tragic it is to see the optimistic Gale ("I doff my proverbial cap to you sir") just months before his tragic death. And just like the opening of every other season, we are given a brief view into the consequences of Walt's actions. This may be the most subtle yet, but each opening has given us a clear view of how Walt's degradation affects those around him. In the first season, we saw murders that were directly his fault, but committed out of desperation. In season two we got a glimpse of the effects of Walt's actions, which lead to the plane crash that resulted in that bear landing in his pool. In season three, we saw that the death of Tuco would not be forgotten that easily. And this year, we see that Walt's moral degradation has cost an inherently kind and gentle man his life.
Not a lot happens in "Box Cutter," but then not a lot has to. We know the score going into this episode, and the show lays it out pretty much perfectly. Walt and Jesse are about an inch from being murdered, as Gus knows he needs them now, but clearly won't be satisfied with the current arrangement for long (and his near-wordless scene in the lab, in which he silently enters, disrobes, murders his right hand man, dresses himself again and exits with only a single line of dialogue, is phenomenal and an excellent display of the show's always superb cinematography and sense of pacing). Saul knows he can't trust Mike and fears for his own life enough to have hired a bodyguard (and when it looks like Walt's plan might have failed, Saul cynically turns to the bodyguard and asks, "You got a passport, right?") and searched his office for bugs. Skyler is knee deep in Walt's business, both because Hank's medical bills are rising and because she seems more and more invested in his livelihood. Hank is still angry and depressed, though he is able to walk at least 16 feet given twenty minutes. Marie is still optimistic and trying to pep Hank up. And Gus is still smart enough to know when he's been out played, but still prideful enough that he is not willing to easily admit defeat.
"Box Cutter" sets up a lot of the conflicts in this season and does it so fluidly, and with so much style that it is often a marvel to watch. We inherently understand that a game of cat and mouse between Gus and Walt is prepped to ensue. We see many times how characters can seal their own fates (Gale suggests the hiring of Walt, Gus' right hand man enters the apartment out of his own shock and anger, Skyler moves Walt's car indicating her own complicity in his crimes). We understand the importance of these characters actions, and how the way they act will always trump what they say (Gus' civility hides his monstrous evil, Walt's attempts, as per usual, to talk himself out of a situation are silenced by Gus' murder). We see the fear that these characters live in (Saul's paranoia, Skyler moving the car, Walt's desperation to stay alive). And, perhaps most significantly, we watch Walter White become encased in a new prison. When he "broke bad" in season one, his decision to start cooking meth was really about freedom, whether he claimed it was a necessity or not. Walt started cooking to escape his shitty job (s, if you count his evening work at the car wash), his claustrophobic family life and his generally unsatisfying existence. Yet now he finds himself imprisoned by Gus, forced to work in the lab that once was his ticket to wealth and total freedom. I imagine the bulk of this season will focus on Walt's attempts to get his freedom back, and the huge moral costs that freedom will come by. "Box Cutter" is not the best episode of Breaking Bad I've ever seen, and it's certainly a step below the show's full potential, but it does a lot of heavy lifting, both thematically and in terms of plot. It re-acclimates us to the lives of these characters and hints at the struggles that will likely form the center of this season. And that means that while it may not be an instant classic, it is a damn fine season premiere.
-"I don't consider him a professional." "If he's not, I don't know what that makes me."
-"He carpools? He carpools to work at a meth lab."
-"If you and he and everyone in America took a vote and changed the meaning of the entire English language, yeah, I guess I broke new ground."
-"You make it Gale vs. me or Gale vs. Jesse, Gale loses every time."
-"What did you expect me to do, just simply roll over and let you murder us?"
-"Well? Get back to work." Gus is such a fucking bad ass.
"We're all on the same page." "And what page is that?" "The one that says, 'If I can't kill you, you'll sure as shit wish you were dead." Sounds like a mission statement for the season, if you ask me. And if that's the case, I couldn't be more excited.
Tags: Breaking Bad