Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Review: BREAKING BAD, 4.1 - "Box Cutter"

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

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.

Elsewhere, we caught up with Skyler (Anna Gunn) as she drove Walt's car from her house to his condo, fearing their son (RJ Mitte) will take it as a sign his parents are getting back together; a conclusion her sister Marie (Betsy Brandt) has already jumped to while visiting. Skyler's often a character just skirting events, but there are increasing signs she's going to become a more dynamic and vital part of the show now. It helps that she now knows Walt's cooking meth to make a fortune before cancer kills him, and there was a great sequence in this episode where Skyler's own skill as a liar came in handy—as she managed to convince a locksmith she lives in Walt's condo so she could get inside to look for her missing husband. To me, it feels that Skyler's headed towards becoming accepting of her husband's vocation (perhaps even enjoying some of the lifestyle it brings), at least until her eyes are opened about just how dangerous this life really is.

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.

Of course, the best example of the show's self-belief was in the moment when Gus finally made his entrance in the Superlab. A taciturn man at the best of times, he had everyone quaking in their boots as he calmly slipped into protective overalls and floated around Jesse and Walt with the blade of a box cutter knife in one hand. Poor Walt could only talk in an effort to make Gus see sense, while fearing for his life, trying to appeal to Gus's common sense over any feeling of vengeance. The tension was drum tight, almost as if the air had been sucked out of the room, and the release came in one of the most horrendous scenes the show's done: Gus slicing open the neck of stooge Victor, arm clutching his head and choking him out, as arterial blood spattering Walt's jeans. Gus is a man of few words, but indelibly memorable actions.

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.
written by Vince Gilligan / directed by Adam Bernstein / 17 July 2011 / AMC