Breaking Bad is one TV series that has steadily upped its game in subsequent seasons. This includes season 3, in which we saw former high school chemistry teacher-turned-drug-manufacturer Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and his recovering addict "partner" Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) learn all about the perils that go with making it big in the drug game.
Breaking Bad season 4 arrives with the added burden of having to keep up the frantic momentum of last season's nail-biting cliffhanger, and the premiere episode, "Box Cutter", not only did that - it kicked things up to a whole new level of tension and darkness. The premiere also gave us one particular scene that is likely to go down in the pantheon of nightmare-inducing TV moments.
"Box Cutter" opened right where the season 3 finale left off: with Jesse and Walt facing all-but-certain death at the hands of their former employer, mild-mannered drug kingpin, Gus (Giancarlo Esposito). In a last-ditch effort to save their lives, Walt dispatched Jesse to eliminate their competition, Gale (David Costabile), a geeky chemist who was able to replicate Walt's formula for pure crystal meth. We left Jesse standing on Gale's doorstep with a gun pointed at the unfortunate geek's face, and in the first moments of the season 4 premiere we learn that Jesse indeed splatters the brain behind that face all over Gale's apartment floor.
Walt's desperate gambit pays off: with Gale out of the picture, Gus' henchmen Mike (Jonathan Banks) and Victor (Jeremiah Bitsui) have to put their kill order on pause, since Walt and Jesse are now the only ones who can make the coveted meth. Mike, Victor, Jesse and Walt all wait in the lab to see what Gus will decide to do with his two rogue employees, until Victor reveals a troubling fact: in his time watching Walt work, he has memorized the steps to making the meth himself, seemingly rendering the need for Walt and Jesse obsolete.
Meanwhile, Walt's (wife? ex-wife?) Skyler (Anna Gunn) finds Walt's car in her driveway (Walt was on his way in the house when Gus' goons snatched him). She immediately senses that something is wrong, but wants to protect her children from any panic, so she craftily moves Walt's car a few blocks away. Never one to ignore an issue, Skyler then sets out to find Walt herself, further tarnishing her once-spotless moral code by lying and manipulating to get what she wants.
The third plotline of the season 4 premiere found Skyler's sister Marie (Betsy Brandt) still attempting to rehabilitate her injured husband, DEA agent Hank Schrader (Dean Norris). Marie is trying to stay positive (to the point of near-mania, in my opinion), while Hank is more (realistic? Pessimistic?) about the fact that he can barely walk, barely control his own bowels, or function as the strong man he is so used to being.
In the end, Gus arrived at the lab and made a very calm, calculated, and horrifying demonstration to Walt and Jesse, letting them know where things stand. While he spared the two upstarts, and re-employed them to manufacture the purified meth, Walt still feels the Sword of Damocles dangling overhead; Jesse, on the other hand, is resigned to the fact that there has been a mutual understanding established about the terrible capacity for evil possessed by all involved in this unholy business arrangement.
Review (WARNING: SPOILERS)
Holy moly, will this show ever lose its edge? Most of "Box Cutter" had me on the edge of my seat (which isn't at all unusual for Breaking Bad), but I was later amazed by the fact that it achieved so much tension almost exclusively through static moments. The characters spent this episode pretty much waiting around for things to happen, or trying to learn patience for the pace at which things weren't happening (the Hank, Marie and Skyler plotlines) - and yet, the waiting was so engrossing and fascinating that I couldn't tear my eyes off the screen.
Sure, those secondary plotlines sort of detracted from the epic tension of waiting to see what Walt and Jesse's fate would be, but even the tangental threads contained seeds that could bear some pretty juicy fruit over the course of the season. Skyler started out as somewhat of an annoyingly sanctimonious character, but after seeing her use her own infant as a tool by which to manipulate a locksmith into breaking and entering for her, one has to begin to wonder: What isn't she capable of, given the proper motivation? It was that same question that made Walter such an intriguing character at the show's start, and it's nice to see Skyler coming over to that same page.
Hank and Marie have often been my least favorite characters (Marie in particular) - but again, this season 4 premiere has dropped interesting little foreshadows about who they might become as individuals, and what might happen to their marriage. Marie has always lived in a "gray" area as far as morals are concerned (her little shoplifting problem) and now that she too has been benefitting from Walt's ill-gotten gains, it'll be interesting to see her reaction, should she ever learn the truth about how and why Sky and Walt are aiding her.
Hank is the biggest X-factor in the sordid Breaking Bad web. He started out as a kind of one-note character (the machismo cop), but his evolution has been almost as great as Jesse and Walt's. Hank was at his most vulnerable point - both physically and emotionally - in season 3, and is facing an uphill battle in season 4. Should he ever discover the truth about Walt, Hank's pain and rage will make him the most dangerous thing that Walt has ever had to contend with - a potential loose thread that finally unravels this web of corruption. I certainly hope the showrunners take things there.
Last but not least: what to say about the ending of "Box Cutter"? We've known for a long time that Gus is a smart and ruthless drug lord, but this was the first time we've ever seen him really get his hands dirty. The pre-credits flashback to he and Gale first putting the lab together gave a small but important kernel of knowledge about how Gus' mind works; that flashback put things into perspective when Gus ultimately slashes Victor's throat (his most trusted and loyal henchman) with a box cutter, and then held the wound open while Victor died in a flash of blood and betrayal.
Gus is all about the larger picture of success and perfection, and Victor - having been sloppy about protecting Gale, and not qualified enough to cook meth on his own - no longer fit that picture. The brutal slaying reinforced that Gus is a man committed to his own twisted ideals, and won't let paltry things like emotion get in the way. However, at the same time, the instant that Walt and/or Jesse step out of frame of Gus' designs, there is no uncertainty about what awaits them. After all, Gus liked Victor, and look what happened to him...
Well kids, strap yourselves in because it looks like Breaking Bad season 4 is going to be the most thrilling roller-coaster-ride-through-hell yet. Aside from the Gus-Walter-Jesse triangle (and all the tensions therein), there is still the small matter of that folder sitting in Gale's apartment - the one with all his lab notes for cooking pure meth. No matter where that folder ends up it's going to be a bombshell, and the ripples will likely make life even more hellish for our beloved anti-heroes.
Breaking Bad airs at 10pm Sundays on AMC