Even though it’s only been thirteen months since AMC’s Breaking Bad went off the air, having wrapped up its remarkable third season, the withdrawal period has felt like an eternity. The television landscape just isn’t the same without those crystal-meth-cooking antiheroes Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and his wigger-turned-badass partner Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), and all of the cadavers they leave behind.
Now that the fourth season has officially begun, Complex will analyze each of the season’s sure-to-be wicked 13 episodes, though in three primary stages: “The Particularly Cold Open”, where we’ll evaluate the episode’s pre-credits scene (one of Breaking Bad’s stamps of consistent excellence); “The Mid-High Point”, where the episode’s best storytelling moment gets dissected; and “The Even Colder Close”, reflecting upon the episode’s final minutes, which creator Vince Gilligan and company never waste.
First up, Season 4: Episode 1… “Box Cutter.”
The Particularly Cold Open: Gale’s Happy Days
For a second there last night, at the kick-off of Breaking Bad’s Season 4 premiere, “Box Cutter,” AMC’s uncompromisingly dark monster of a show seemed almost, dare we say, pleasant. A far cry from the last season’s final moments, in which Jesse pointed a pistol directly at Gale Boetticher’s (David Costabile) face, ready to flat-line the competition for his mentor/meth-baking partner Walt. As Season 3 ended, Jesse’s finger squeezed the trigger, and, presumably, Gale caught a slug to the mug.
The first thing we see at the beginning of Season 4’s premiere, however, after a green box cutter (more on that later), is an exceptionally jovial Gale seeming more than happy to be inside drug overseer/kingpin Gus’ (Giancarlo Esposito) about-to-open laboratory. So, wait…. Gale’s alive? Jesse’s aim is ridiculously awful? Not quite; in typical Breaking Bad fashion, Gilligan, the episode’s writer, subverts audience expectation’s without any exhaustive, artificially tense buildup.
Gale, uncovering his new drug-cooking equipment with extreme glee, informs Gus, who also has a smile on his face (though icy Gus’ grin is, unsurprisingly, more of a half-smirk), that he should have the operation up and running in about a month’s time; Gus’ right-hand-man-of-few-words Victor (Jeremiah Bitsui), however, coldly chimes in with, “Two weeks,” to which Gale reluctantly—and without a doubt nervously—agrees. Gale also points out that a sample of “blue stuff” he’s evaluated for Gus is 99-percent pure; the best that Gale can produce, as he points out himself, is a 96-percent pure dose. Gus sees no issue with the 3-percent difference, telling Gale that the blue sample’s cook is an unprofessional yet well trained chemist (our dude Walt, of course). Gale seems assuaged. Their work environment is upbeat.
It’s the start of what should be a fruitful partnership. But, as Jesse’s gun previously confirmed, it won’t be. At all.
Opening with this clever flashback, “Box Cutter” does three important things right from jump: It shows just how much Gus prided Gale and the happy-go-lucky chemist’s skills, it plants the seed of dread in viewers’ heads (this time, through the episode’s titular box cutter and director Adam Bernstein’s close zooms onto the green push-up blade), and it establishes how Gus has never been in awe of Walt and Jesse’s meth-creating gifts, 99-percent pure or not. They’re just as dispensable as, say, Victor, whose lack of immunity in Gus’ eyes provides “Box Cutter” with its finest moment.
Besides, as Gus puts it, “How pure can pure be?”
The Mid-High Point: Victor’s Last Stand
Just to reaffirm what Aaron Paul already told us, Jesse did in fact kill Gale, and, immediately after Breaking Bad’s brief opening credits sequence, we see the poor sap’s lifeless body with a bullet-hole through his left eye.
The New Mexico meth game is in for some shit, now. By the looks of it, Season 4 is going to be high noon for the Walt/Gus feud, which slowly simmered all throughout Season 3; as “Box Cutter” informally announces, it’s really cooking. The core of “Box Cutter” revolved around the aftermath of Gale’s execution, with Walt and Jesse held under meth-lab arrest by Gus’ enforcer, the steely and ever-fascinating Mike (Jonathan Banks), and Victor. The latter, looking to debunk Walt’s thoughts that a deal Gale means an irreplaceable Walt/Jesse team, defiantly whips up some meth of his own, though his recipe isn’t spic-and-span. In a darkly comedic moment, Walt provides the commentary to a catatonic Jesse (killing an innocent man must take a lot out of a person) as Victor briefly overlooks the aluminum component, though once Vic remembers the ingredient, Walt has a priceless “Oh, shit” look on his already stressed face.
And then in steps Gus, who says nothing, methodically removes his suit, puts on an orange biohazard get-up, and walks toward Walt and Jesse. Walt, clearly panicking, continues to plead for his and Jesse’s significance and reclaim some inner peace in light of Gale’s murder: “This is on you, Gus. Not me, not Jesse. Gale’s death is on you! What did you expect? Just simply roll over and allow you to murder us? That I wouldn’t take measures, extreme measures to defend myself? Wrong. Think again. Whatever it is you’re planning there, whatever point you’re trying to make here, let me suggest that you keep one thing in mind: Without us, without Jesse and myself, you have no one to make your product. Certainly not him [nodding at Victor]. This person doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing.”
Victor, given more dialogue in this episode than he has in all of his past scenes combined, states that he’s been studying Walt and Jesse’s practices for a long time, to which Walt sons him by rattling off a series of chemistry teacher’s jargon in hopes of proving that Victor doesn’t know jack-shit about the science. Gus, at his most quietly maniacal, ignores all of the tit-for-tat and simply grabs the green box cutter, steps toward an increasingly shook Walt (and a still-numb Jesse), and then rips Victor’s throat open with the slicer—it’s a gory and insanely brutal scene that’s beyond raw even by Breaking Bad’s reckless standards. Which is to say that it’s downright amazing in its viciousness, and further evidence that Vince Gilligan and his BB team are the sickest, and most fiendishly gifted, folks working in modern-day television.
It’s all about Gus here; just in case viewers forgot about the man’s killer instinct, his unaffected slaying of Victor cements the fact that he’s cold-blooded and only focused on his business. Victor, in an earlier scene, was spotted at Gale’s apartment, standing over the guy’s corpse as Gale’s neighbors looked in—an especially sloppy move. Thus, Victor needed to be dealt with, or else the whole thing could fall on Gus’ shoulders. He’s not about to let one of his goons fuck his whole operation up. Or you can look at Victor's impromptu demise the same way that Jesse does; later in the episode, he drops this gem on Walt when dictating Gus' intended message: "If I can't kill you, you'll sure as shit wish you were dead."
Since Gale's a goner, Gus needs Walt and Jesse, and he knows it. But he can't let them think that it's all smooth sailing from here on out. After all, Gus isn’t considered TV’s best and most intelligent psychopath around these parts for no good reason.
The Even Colder Close: Gamblin’ Men
After disintegrating Victor’s body by pouring gallons of hydrofluoric acid all over his corpse in a tub, Walt and Jesse serve their custodial duties, mopping up puddles of blood. Not missing an opportunity to wink at the audience, as well as induce stomach-churning, director Adam Bernstein cuts from the mop swishing within the blood pool to a guy rubbing a French fry in a glob of ketchup (quite subtle, Mr. Gilligan). The setting shifts to a Denny’s, where Walt and Jesse are decompressing over a tall stack of pancakes. But here’s the kicker: For heaven knows why, they’ve traded in their bloodstained duds for matching Kenny Rogers T-shirts, white pants, and Chuck Taylors, looking like total squares (not to mention, corny in the same way that Vincent and Jules looked foolish in the too-small clothes they wore after disposing of the body in Pulp Fiction).
Why the Kenny Rogers gear? Our guess: It’s yet another of Breaking Bad’s slick visual metaphors, this one alluding to Walt and Jesse’s continual betting with each other’s lives; Rogers, for those who aren't up on their country music history, has long been known as “The Gambler.”
Jesse, finally waking up from his post-murder mental paralysis, shows some life, storming through his pancakes as he explains to a visibly shaken Walt that the two of them have nothing to fear, at least for the time being; in Jesse’s mind, Gus won’t be able to find anyone who can keep secrets, handle themselves in his lab, and produce meth that’s 99-percent pure—“How pure can pure be?” Wink, wink, nod, nod—shit’s about to hit fan.
What’s even worse for Walt, Jesse, and Gus is that Gale’s “Lab Notes” pad has been left out in plain sight, mere inches away from the police officers that are inspecting Gale’s apartment/crime scene. Another reason why Gus’ dispatching of Victor is ultimately justified for Gus, but also step toward the downfall of all involved.
It’s going to be a hell of a season, folks.
“Box Cutter” was all about Walt, Jesse, and Gus, so it’s easy to overlook the rest of Breaking Bad’s major players, who all got some screen time of their own. Hank (Dean Norris), still recuperating from his phenomenally intense run-in with the twin assassins in last season’s sickest episode, “Two Minutes”, is quite bitter, internally raging as he’s forced to shit into a bedpan and pass his time by ordering minerals on an eBay-like website; we know that his pissy attitude has been in place for some time through his loving wife, and Walt’s sister-in-law, Marie’s (Betsy Brandt) reluctance to step outside of her car and re-enter the house of the agitated. All’s clearly not well in their world.
Skylar (Walt’s conflicted wife, played by Anna Gunn), meanwhile, seems to have fully accepted her ousted husband’s dangerous ways. Rather than make a fuss about Walt leaving his car in her driveway (which she totally would’ve done in seasons past), Skylar calmly parks the whip away from their house so that their son, Walt Jr. (RJ Mitte), doesn’t see it and subsequently start asking questions. And when Walt returns home at episode’s end (still in that Kenny Rogers wardrobe, naturally), she asks if he’s OK. Next stop, repaired marriage?
Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), the sleazy lawyer who acts as Walt and Jesse’s under-qualified legal advisor, now has himself an obese personal security guard, who looks about as effective as comatose Secret Service Agent. No real implication here—we’re just glad to have Saul and his hilarious sarcasm back in effect.
Lastly, who else noticed that copy of Stephen King’s short story collection Everything’s Eventual in Gale’s apartment? We couldn’t think of a better alternate title for Breaking Bad, a show that’s all about one’s past mistakes coming back to haunt, and potentially kill, them. Well played, Mr. Gilligan; we can’t wait to see what kinds of genius allusions and incredible darkness you have in store.