The best show on television returns with a virtuoso premiere, this one simmering with tension and glowing with confidence. Like Walter White's (Bryan Cranston) peerless recipe for crystal methamphetamine, Breaking Bad's operating at 99% purity now the writers know precisely what works, and—more importantly—how to squeeze every last drop of juice from each hour.
"Box Cutter" opens with one of the show's occasional flashbacks, often employed to give guest-stars a chance to reprise dead characters. That proved to be the case here, too, as we found chemistry nerd Gale (David Costabile) giddily opening giant packages containing the so-called Superlab he's going to be operating for local drug kingpin Gus (Giancarlo Esposito). It was a nice reminder of how amiable and childlike Gale was, before the show truly began by continuing from the third season's climax—with Jesse (Aaron Paul) shooting nice-guy Gale in the head, in desperate to ensure Walt's indispensability to Gus as the Superlab's numero uno. From there, the episode was something of a slow period of uneasy clean up: Walter held hostage in the Superlab by jaded assassin Mike (Jonathan Banks), only alive because he managed to make himself irreplaceable in the nick of time; Jesse found and taken back to the Superlab by Gus's minion Victor (Jeremiah Bitsui); and all four awaiting the return of Gus himself to see how Gale's murder will effect their working relationships.
A brief scene also revealed the status of Walt's brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris), who's now bedridden and undergoing physiotherapy to regain his mobility—having been paralyzed last season when the Mexican drug cartel's twin enforcers tried to kill him. Hank's story is continuing down the path of eroding his masculinity, in contrast to how weedy Walt's story is turning him into an alpha male. Norris is wonderful in this role, and seeing macho Hank reduced to spending his days bidding for rocks and minerals online, and having to be helped onto a bedpan by his dedicated wife, was heartrending stuff. I just hope the show finds a way to get Hank back on his feet soon, because while making him an invalid delivers emotional drama (and something for Betsy Brandt to play), I prefer it when Hank's proactive and looking for the mysterious "Heisenberg" and his renowned blue-meth.
The confidence of this episode came from very simple things like the measured pacing and, at times, almost total lack of dialogue. Simple sequences like Skyler returning Walt's car are shown in unusually long takes for TV, often with just the thrumming soundtrack for company. It's far from tedious or pretentious, just oddly mesmeric. You're suddenly giving the tiniest of scenes a great deal of thought and feeling of importance, as they appear to be trying to show you something deeper than what's obviously happening. In this episode, there was a feeling that everyone apart from the core characters were out of town, or—in lawyer Saul's (Bob Odenkirk) case—closed for business. Even Walt Jr was holed up in his bedroom playing music for most of the episode, as Albuquerque became a strange little ghost town for the hour. A place constantly under the microscope of that impressive sky.
But as Walt says to Jesse in a diner afterwards (once they melted Victor's corpse into a plastic barrel with Hydrofluoric acid), their actions killing Gale has merely bought them time. Gus will be looking to replace the troublesome, unruly Walt, and when he finds someone equal to Gale, their lives will under threat once again. Walt knows they have to start planning their move before death comes a-knocking, but a shell-shocked Jesse's just clutching to a naive belief the worst is over and it'll take Gus years to find a replacement he can trust implicitly.
Overall, "Box Cutter" was a great episode of an even greater series. This hour was chiefly concerned with resolving the issues left dangling from season 3, so it doesn't feel like season 4 even began until the diner scene. The denouement suggests the cops investigating Gale's murder will find his "Lab Notes" journal, which will undoubtedly have clues about the whereabouts of the Superlab, how it's run, and who owns it. But if the net's closing on Gus, can Walt find a way to escape this associated danger, while perhaps ousting his callous employer?
Fascinated to see how this season develops.
- Loved the match-cut from a pool of blood being cleaned with a mop to someone at a diner swirling a splodge of ketchup with a french fry. Darkly amusing.
- Nice callback to season 1's "Cat's In The Bag...", when Walt and Jesse disposed of their first body using Hydrofluoric acid in a bathtub.