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Monday, July 18, 2011

The Televangelist: 'Breaking Bad,' Season 4 Episode 1

To paraphrase Chekhov, if you introduce a box cutter in the first act, someone's going to get their throat slit in the third.

But first thing's first: for anyone who doubted that Jesse did in fact shoot (and kill) Gale in the Season Three finale, it turns out Gale and his Italian pitter-patter records are indeed lost to us forever. Show creator Vince Gilligan was surprised in an AV Club interview last year to learn that anyone found that final sudden camera swipe to be ambiguous, but he should know better than to think viewers can or should ever take anything for granted in the "Breaking Bad" universe.

Welcome to Survivor Club
  • The Silent Quartet a.k.a. The Survivor's Club

The premiere episode began in that familiar "Lost" way the series has gotten into the habit of, with a scene from the past (and a momentary shock for those still holding out hope that somehow, Gale had survived). These backstory clips provide two kinds of illuminating information: deeper character profiles and a more complete history of that action that has lead up to the current episode, as well as a dose of foreshadowing and tonal prologue to the coming storm. So it was with "Box Cutter's" opening scene, in which a fresh and chipper (and incredibly nerdy "a doth my cap to you sir … hehe!") Gale uses that proverbial knife to unwrap the new lab equipment Gus has so painstakingly provided for him. More importantly, we see Gale write his own death warrant when he stands in awe (with an unusually pressing manner toward Gus) of Walt's meth product, calling it "99% perfect … perhaps a touch more," while Gale himself claims to only feel confident producing a measly "96% pure product." Gus seemingly dismisses this quibble over percentages, but the businessman inside (along with some hubris, no doubt), goads him on - if he can't beat Walt's product, he'd better bring him in. But with the typical Gus twist: bring him in long enough for Gale to learn his secrets, then dispose of him. The backstory scene also confirms Walt's suspicions on which he hinged his and Jesse's lives at the end of Season Three - that with Gale out of the picture, Gus would have no choice but to keep Walt alive.

Aside from the few cuts to Skyler, Hank and Marie, "Box Cutters" felt a great deal like Season Three's "Fly," another episode that took place almost exclusively within the confines of that hellish-colored lab, and included the same shades of madness, desperation and confusion. The Bald Bastard Duo of Mike and Walt began with a (badass) silent stare-down, and were soon joined by Victor hauling in a sullen and silent Jesse. As the quartet sits uneasily, waiting for judgement from Gus, the clock ticks (as Walt literally reminds them) and they need to start cooking. Victor, a figure who has lurked in almost every episode since Gus came on the scene, proves that all that standing around was hardly for naught - he wasn't daydreaming up there while he watched the cooks, he was learning. Walt, out of fear for the consequences of Victor also knowing his recipe, is silenced temporarily by Victor remembering "even the aluminum," but then goes into the full arrogant blowhard mode to shame him with chemical minutia he could not possibly know in front of Gus, to prove that he (Walt) still has value. But would it be enough? Gus's frightening silent changing from his business suit into a hazmat suit produced a lot of confusion; note the look on Mike's face - he doesn't say a word and is that even a touch of fear? Did he think perhaps everyone in that room would die that night? It also lead to a long-winded and irritating speech from Walt (who we forget is still a man pleading for his life - after all, first act box cutters or no, it's unlikely Walt would ever be slain in a premiere episode), and most interestingly, an understanding look from Jesse to Walt. Jesse committed murder in order to save Walt and, by extension, himself. But Walt knows he owes Jesse his life, and stresses to Gus that they are a pair. I couldn't tell with a single viewing whether his intonation of "and Jesse too" sounded more like an afterthought or his only thought, but either way Jesse seemed surprised even then that Walt would still be on his side.

There were other painful scenes in "Box Cutters" that took place outside of the lab - for one, Marie's tireless caregiving. I particularly liked the moment we see Marie in the car gathering her strength, summoning her courage to be sunny when facing a slowly rehabilitating Hank, whose black mood seems to only be lifted momentarily through buying minerals online, before he himself is lifted onto a chamber pot by his wife who must then clean him and clean up. It's an excruciatingly emotional scene to watch, but I am above all proud of the writers for "going there." As someone who has witnessed the difficulties of family members in need of that kind of constant care, there is never enough detailed praise given to those who act as caregivers.

Back in the lab, I'm reminded of George R. R. Martin's fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire, whose title seems to fit the color scheme perfectly. Gus, Mike and Victor are all bathed in red, just like the lab itself, while Walt and Jesse sit flooded in blue (despite Jesse's red shirt - and what doth that portend?). After Gus slays Victor, he shoves the corpse forward towards Walt and Jesse, where the blue-lit body begins leaking out purplish blood. I've never pretended to know exactly what some of the colors in the show (such as the "Marie always wears purple" rule) are meant to suggest, but the effect in this episode was striking. And in the end, Walt and Jesse live to see another day (in matching Kenny Rodger's shirts - more on that in the list below), but as Jesse points out to Walt … with Gus and his high cost of doing business, what then is the price of living?

Next Week: In the wake of Gale's murder, Jesse starts to unravel. Walt channels his inner Heisenberg in (perhaps?) a proactive strike against Gus, while Hank remains despondent, a constant reminder of one of the prices of Walt's actions.

Musings and Miscellany:

- No, I did not forget about Skyler, who is showing a vast amount of resourcefulness already this season. Her ploy to use the baby to get the locksmith to let her into Walt's apartment was worthy of an Academy Award. Notice too how nonchalant she is when Walt returns, pointing out that his car is down the street. She doesn't ask him where he's been, only looks bemused at his choice of clothing and the tag still stuck to it. I like this New Skyler.

- The matching Kenny Rogers shirts (with the tag still on!) are one way we know the show still cares about us as viewers. After being suffocated in pain and uncertainty through most of the episode, the writers threw us a few sight gags, including time spent with Saul, to keep us from getting depressed enough to bid on minerals online all day.

- What is Hank going to do with all of those minerals?

- I might have given the "scene stealing" award to Saul Goodman this week, but is that even fair? Perhaps we should just give him a lifetime achievement award. Every thing he and his associates did had me in stitches.

- Speaking of which, composed an Ode to Saul well worth watching.

- With everything else happening this week, I nearly forgot about the Acid Tub #2. "Trust us," Jesse says as he and Walt disintegrate Victor's body into a bloody cocoon. It is, of course, something Jesse already has experience in. And then the jump cut to the swirling ketchup? Just cruel, editors. Just cruel. Anybody hungry for fries?

- What do you all make of the "Lab Notes" notebook in plain sight in Gale's apartment? Red herring or red alert?

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